I have unconditional love for Mary Poppins, and I’m not sure I can articulate why. I grew up loving it, even the boring parts near the end when Dick Van Dyke puts on old man makeup for some plotline about financial solvency. In fact, the thing has other flaws—Van Dyke’s accent, for one—but it’s also a beautiful piece of art. And that is largely because of its music.
A movie about the Mary Poppins songwriters, brother Richard and Robert Sherman, is about to be released. It’s a Disney movie, so it’s not exactly coming from an unbiased source (which apparently keeps the good movie from being great). But I want to see it, because the two guys really struggled to get their music heard, largely because of Poppins author P.L. Travers, who questioned every decision they (and Disney) made. That they wrote such incredible songs while under such duress is very impressive.
My favorite song from Mary Poppins, “Feed the Birds,” doesn’t have much to do with the plot or the characters. You could even argue that it has no business being there. But amid the clatter of “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” it’s such a nice little respite, a moment that lets the film catch its breath before the next show-stopper. I like the contrast between the minor chords of the verses and the major chords of the chorus, a tension-and-release relationship that makes the chorus sound like sudden rays of sunshine breaking through thick London fog.
Wikipedia says the song was meant to represent a charity-themed contrast to Mr. Banks’s focus on profit and greed, which makes some sense. I like to think of it more as something of an intermission, itself a bit of release after the building tension of faster, more bombastic songs. No matter the intention, it’s just plain beautiful.
My dad used to say that “Downtown” was the most perfect song ever, and it’s hard to argue with that opinion. Okay, so maybe the lyrics are corny and trite. But listen to that melody, which seems engineered to get stuck in your head. It’s well-crafted, but it’s as if someone just went up and down the major scale until they struck gold.
That someone was Tony Hatch, who came up with this song while wandering around New York. As you can guess by his lyrics’ general use of the term “downtown,” Hatch was not, in fact, in downtown New York City when he was inspired; he was in Times Square and Broadway. “I loved the whole atmosphere there,” he said, “and the music came to me very quickly.”
“Downtown,” with its bright lights, dancing, and movie shows, may be the most romantic view of urban life ever committed to record. New York wasn’t exactly worry-free in 1964, and this song must have seemed like a sort of escapism from the encroaching madness of the late sixties (though the World’s Fair did provide some spectacle). This song perfectly captures what we want New York to be: that place where everything happens, where dreams come true, where people fall in love, where you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. In other words, the New York City of “Downtown” is pop music.
One of the joys of listening to so much music is realizing what songs you revisit the most. Like any self-respecting music snob, I adore the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, that absurdly great record that proved that Brian Wilson was (and remains) some sort of hypercreative genius. It’s incredible, and with confections like “Sloop John B.” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” not inaccessible.
Yet the song I always go back to is “Don’t Worry Baby,” a three-minute, (mostly) three-chord song that, compared to the Pet Sounds and Smile songs, could not be more simple. Wilson originally conceived it as an answer song to the Ronettes’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” Wilson’s favorite song. Listening to the two songs back-to-back is a fun exercise, because you can identify the parts that Wilson wanted to replicate: that thump-ka-thump intro, the overall tempo, and, of course, that command of a refrain. Even reading the song names together is something like an intimate conversation.
One thing I love about “Don’t Worry Baby” is the guitar solo, which, admittedly, is barely a solo at al, but I think it’s perfect: like the girl in the song, it’s providing simplicity and consistently. The Beach Boys’s music became beloved for its complexity, but at any given moment, I find reassurance more appealing.