Was the pop bard simply not made for the times in 1979?
It’s a well known fact that Randy Newman has always been an eccentric artist to say the least, a musician who veers way from the norm and straight towards subjects that are clearly far afield of the mainstream. Likewise, he can be controversial as well. His tomes about short people, slavery, the scourge of the Old South, L.A., and any number of other off-kilter admonishments have made him one of the more peculiar characters occupying the singer/songwriter vernacular, his successful film scores and soundtracks notwithstanding.
Even so, his sixth album, Born Again, released in August 1979, found him pressing his luck through some unlikely extremes. Following on the heels of one of his more successful LPs, 1977‘s Little Criminals — the album that yielded one of the most massive hits of his career with “Short People,” as well as such career highlights as “Baltimore” and “Rider in the Rain” — it fared poorly with both the public and the pundits, resulting in some of the worst sales to date. Nevertheless, it was reported at the time that Newman was pleased with the record and believed that it would fare well. “I was looking forward to it coming out so much that I didn’t fly any small planes before it was released,” he supposedly said after the fact. Consequently, the poor reviews only added insult to injury.
Then again, Newman also acknowledged that the subjects of its songs might have struck listeners in an odd way. Various tracks — “Mr. Sheep,” “Ghosts” and “They Just Got Married” — appeared to disparage the plight of the average working man. His ode to the worship of wealth, “It’s Money That I Love,” as plied with his trademark sarcasm and cynicism, struck some as mere self gratification. The same could be said of “The Girls In My Life (Part I),” a love song on the one hand, but somewhat smug statement on the other. His tale about a transvestite, “Half A Man,” might have proved somewhat baffling at the time (and even more cringey now), while “Pants” (“Gonna take off my pants… and the police can’t stop me”) is wholly inappropriate, especially by today’s standards. “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band,” sung from the perspective of an ELO fan, is also narrowly cast, albeit in a different sort of way.
Apparently Jeff Lynne didn’t take any offense however. He later loaned his production prowess to Newman’s underrated 1988 LP, Land of Dreams.
Of course, the album cover, picturing Newman as a corporate executive working at his desk made up like a member of Kiss, likely put off many would-be listeners straight from the get-go. That is, of course, unless you were in on Randy’s joke, then it was pure genius.
Ultimately, it’s unfortunate Born Again didn’t do better. Granted, it was obtuse in many ways, but the majority of the songs themselves were effusive in typical Newman manner. The jaunty “Mr. Sheep,” the sweep of “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band” and the jangly “Pants” are, despite the subject matter, as melodious and mischievous as any offerings in Newman’s curious career. Likewise, with a cast of supporting musicians that included guitarists Waddy Wachtel and Buzz Feiten, Victor Feldman on keys, Andy Newmark on drums, Lenny Castro playing percussion, Tom Scott and Chuck Findley on horns, and backing vocalists Stephen Bishop and Valerie Carter, he had an adept instrumental arsenal at his command as well.
In retrospect, Born Again isn’t nearly the failure that critics judged it to be at the time. Perhaps it deserves reexamination and even opportunity for it to remain true to its title.
AUDIO: Born Again (full album)