By Lara Shelton
When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? I also believed that I could be a circus veterinarian who doubled as an acrobat when the regular acrobats occasionally broke their legs. Oh, and a singer/songwriter, selling out packed houses and doing the Mike Douglas show in my spare time. I sang about my cat, my dog, my bedspread, how much I loved pancakes. Somehow my songs, though carefully recorded on a Fisher Price cassette tape recorder, never made it onto the radio.
If you haven’t ever heard of MSR there’s a good reason. The acronym comes from one of the biggest labels dealing in “song-poems”, a loose, semi-professional recording scheme popular in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, whereby patent amateurs would submit their song lyrics to a company, along with a fee, and a few weeks later be presented with a recording made by “professional” “studio” “musicians.” I hope the liberal use of quotation marks will not be overlooked.
Some of the musicians working in the shadow industry of song-poems had skill, even talent. Rodd Keith is revered in certain circles. Teri Summers stands out as a vocalist who could imbue even the most hackneyed sliver of a lyric with an air of gravitas. But where the real frisson occurs in these songs, what gives them their unique savor, is usually the collision between the relative amateurishness of the lyrics and the relative slickness of the musical productions. Listen to Snowbows, below. (It’s mistakenly titled Snowballs, I know. But such a mistake is entirely in keeping with the spirit of MSR.
The rhythm track is scattershot, at best, the electric piano solo meandering. But Stan Beard could have given Pat Boone a run for his money, and the melody is as lovely as anything the Carpenters ever put out.
When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? it’s a ridiculous concept by any stretch of the imagination. Or is it? Now that I’m an adult I still believe in concepts like Democracy. I believe in World Peace. I still believe in True Love, despite the evidence to the contrary.
What I mean to say is nothing that hasn’t been said before: we are dead without a dream. And what better dream than the one that a couple of lines, scratched out on the back of a cocktail napkin and recorded by “professional” “studio” “musicians,” can rocket you to immortality?
By nearly all metrics, Snowbows is a terrible, terrible song. And yet when I listen to it, I begin to dream. I dream of the lyricist, who may very well still be alive, keeping the 45 rpm vinyl in a special place in a heavy oaken sideboard of early ’70s manufacture, and getting it out once a year to listen to it in solitude. And listening to it unironically, as I do. And the snow begins to fall, and there is the sound of hooves on the rooftop, and for a moment everything works the way we always wanted it to. Then the record ends, and we put it away for another year.
Everything you ever wanted to know about song-poems on Wikipedia.