Saturday, October 15, 2011

Adventures in Liner Notes: Dino, Desi and Billy’s 'I’m a Fool'

I don’t relish bad music quite the way I do bad movies. A bad movie can be an exhilarating, uplifting experience for me. A bad album is usually just depressing. Every now and then, though, I manage to unearth a record that fascinates me for all the wrong reasons. Case in point: Dino, Desi and Billy’s I’m a Fool, probably the worst album I’ve ever listened to a dozen times in a week.

I’m a Fool is what happens when you hand a bunch of rich kids with famous dads (Dean Martin, Desi Arnaz and their realtor – OK, so Billy’s dad was only fame adjacent) a wad of cash and a recording contract. From the dorkescent cover photo to the name-dropping moniker to the soulless blanditude of the songs within, this is musical equivalent of a cut-rate, early ‘60s greaser flick. But don’t take my word for it –I’m a Fool’s gloriously purple liner notes speak for themselves.

Be Turned on By
Hollywood’s Hip Hit Teens Sing
And Other Large Songs
That’s the indifferently capitalized headline topping the back cover. I’m intrigued by the wording of this little blurb. It’s clearly an attempt at teenspeak, but it doesn’t sound especially authentic to me. I wasn’t around in 1965. For all I know, kids of that era tossed around slang like “Hip Hit Teens” and “Large Songs” all the time. But I wouldn’t wager on it.
It’s easy to be born. It’s after that that it gets tougher. Giving birth, for instance, to a hit single… ‘taint simple.
I would suggest that being born is no picnic, but even beyond that this opener baffles me. The only possible excuse for employing this strained birthing metaphor is to remind us right up top that these kids are the scions of American royalty (and American royalty’s realtor). If that’s your hook, fine. Own your blatant nepotism. Just don’t go backpedaling in the very next sentence.
Dino, Desi and Billy were born into show business, but then, so were a lot of young people. A lot of illustrious Jrs. have tried to follow their forefathers’ star footsteps, and bombed out. Dino, Desi and Billy have removed themselves forever from the $600 deduction class. They’re now in a class by themselves.

That’s some pretty decent spinning designed to convince us that these kids are more than coattail-riders. I did have to look up that “$600 deduction class” business – apparently it’s a slangy way of saying the boys are no longer dependents in the strictest sense of the word. That seems like a bit much pressure to saddle a 14-year-old with, but whatever. When this album came out, it looked like it might be the truth.
“I’m a Fool” is the first step into this new class. “Not the Lovin’ Kind” is a second. And this album wraps them both up.
The two songs called out by name, “I’m a Fool” and “Not the Lovin’ Kind,” are indeed standouts. Each made a minor splash on the Billboard charts, peaking at #17 and #25 respectively. They’re both pretty generic ‘60s pop tunes, but they have decent hooks and inoffensive presences.

What the liner notes don’t mention is that more than half the songs on the album are covers, and poorly chosen covers at that. If you absolutely must hand off a few Bob Dylan tunes to the blandest bunch of privileged pubescents in town, I suppose “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” are reasonable picks. The boys’ rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone,” on the other hand, is worthwhile only as a illustration of what’s left of an icon when all that is iconic about it has been stripped away. At least the DDB version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is good for a laugh, what with its references to driving, smoking, womanizing and other pursuits generally reserved for the above-14 crowd. (For what it’s worth, my personal favorite track on the album is the grungy “The Rebel Kind.” That one is actually pretty rocking, despite the laughable notion of anyone being threatened by the rebellious nature of Desi Arnaz, Jr.)

Dino, Desi and Billy had one of the best introductions to the entertainment world that any neophyte trio could hope for. Two of the three members come from highly successful show business backgrounds. Dino’s the son of Dean Martin. Desi’s the son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Billy Hinsche’s father became rich selling real estate to the other two lads’ fathers.
I don’t mean to rip on Billy too badly. For all I know, Billy might be a cool guy and the most talented member of the band. But damn if that last line doesn’t smack of “Hey, what can we say about this other kid? His dad’s not even on TV!” You can’t help but feel a little bad for the boy.

The three boys, all in their earliest teens and students at Beverly Hills Catholic School, met on a Little League diamond. Dino was in the process of pitching a no-hitter against Desi’s team. The three ball players soon discovered mutual musical interest too. They formed a trio.
See? These aren’t just a bunch of spoiled rich kids who nepotised their way into a record deal. They’re all-American, baseball-loving Catholic schoolboys who just happen to rock. They could easily be the boys next door, provided your door is in one of the more exclusive corners of Beverly Hills. Also note that the author clearly reinforces the hierarchy established in the band’s name: Dino is the alpha male tossing the no-hitter, Desi is the beta on the losing end, and Billy is also present.
Frank Sinatra heard the three rehearsing in an upstairs bedroom during a visit to Dean Martin’s house, and brought them to the attention of Reprise.
I have my doubts that this ever happened.

Producer Lee Hazlewood took over from there, working with the trio and some of the best background musicians in Hollywood, including Al Casey, Billy Strange, James Burton, Jim Gordon, Jim Troxcel, Dr. Jim Simmons, Jimmy Grey, Donald L. Owens and others. The results: this album. And the results have added a new generation of music to Hollywood and to America.
Notice that those last couple of sentences are suspiciously lacking in qualitative assessments. The first sentence, though, speaks to the true strength of the album, such as it is. I’m a Fool isn’t a good record by any means, but it’s much more listenable than it ought to be. I’m going to give credit to the background genius of songwriter Lee Hazlewood and that cast of ringers he brought on board.

‘60s music buffs will recognize most of those names – along with the album's co-arranger Jack Nitzsche – as members of The Wrecking Crew, the uncredited session men who did the legwork on a staggering number of hits released by superstars from Nat King Cole to The Beach Boys to the Partridge Family. These guys were renowned in the industry for cranking out incredibly tight, indelible arrangements at the drop of a hat. Reading up on them can prove seriously disillusioning to fans of '60s pop (Seriously, check out that link above), but for a bright-eyed boy band they were just the ticket. They couldn’t quite work their magic for Dino, Desi and Billy, but they made a game go of crafting some genuinely Large Songs for this trio of Hip Hit Teens.

Postscript: I don’t want to come off too harsh on the actual Dino, Desi and Billy. From what I’ve seen online, they seem to be decent chaps with some genuine talent and a love for music. Heck, they even got the band back together in the ‘90s and toured as Ricci, Desi and Billy until a few years ago. (Dino, a Captain in the California Air National Guard, died in a jet crash in 1987. His younger brother Ricci joined the group in his place.) I have nothing but fond wishes for Dino, Desi and Billy as people. As a concept, though, I find the band deeply fascinating and highly amusing.