MacArthur Park

 Some songs are instant classics and you know why. Others have something different about them, something that must have sounded distinctly odd when they were first aired. Yet one way or another they have become standards and `MacArthur Park` is one of those. On first listen it sounds like some surreal fantasy, perhaps evolving due to excessive access to certain substances- it was after all penned in the late Sixties. Of course it’s not and when you take a look it’s a song that makes perfect sense, cake, rain and all.


The song was written by Jimmy Webb whose other well-known works include the distinctive likes of `By the Time I Get to Phoenix`., `Wichita Lineman` and `Up, Up and Away`, each of them conjuring a mood. `MacArthur Park` originated when a producer called Dayton Howe was working with the group The Association and asked Webb, already an established songwriter, to come up with something different that involved unusual time signatures and including elements from both classical and rock music “It was like putting red meat in front of a mountain lion”, Webb later said reflecting his unique way with words.

However, when he presented a lengthy piece that included what became `Mac Arthur Park` Howe ultimacy elected not to use it. Instead, it went to the actor Richard Harris who was making an album at the time. Perhaps it suited both men’s sense of drama because it seems an odd fit yet when Harris’ version was released it became a massive hit launching a parallel singing career the actor would pursue for some time even if his opinion of it varied over the years after he and Webb fell out. The song suits his huge personality and Webb said, “he liked to play kings and dictators so the song was big enough for him.” Some people are not keen on Harris’ version, but he brings all the character you would expect from an actor which suits the nature of the ambitious song.

 As for those lyrics the song was inspired by Webb’s own relationship with a woman called Susie Horton and the fact that they used to meet in MacArthur Park though presumably not to bake a cake! While the lyrics may seem odd, they relate to different things Webb had observed in the park at various times during their courtship including the notoriously soggy cake that someone had for some reason left in the rain. It is a metaphor for the end of a relationship and even though the imagery is odd it does work because you spend quite a while baking a cake and the idea of it melting in the rain provides a defining if sad result for all that effort. 

When the line says “I’ll never have that recipe again” it reflects how each relationship we have is unique. I‘m sure we’ve all had our share of watching rain-soaked cakes, metaphorically speaking of course. Once you realise this the song’s lyric takes on a much more powerful intent.  Over the decades Webb has been asked about the cake so many times he has taken to pointing out how other songs of the day used equally unusual imagery notably something like `A White Shade of Pale or `Strawberry Fields``. Perhaps you had to be there in the late Sixties!

Before we even get to the cake though, the song opens with a bold instrumental passage which fills out the full running time of seven minutes twenty seconds. Harris’ voice sounds dramatic and he’s a great singer actually and reaching the high notes sounds vulnerable. His diction is as clear as you’d expect from an actor. The full length version veers off with soaring violins and the lyric culminates with looking ahead to other relationships - “there will be another dream for me, someone will bring it” conceding all the same that “After all the loves of my life, you’ll still be the one. ” There is even a funky instrumental bit that probably inspired the later Donna Summer version and it brings the various themes together in a symphonic manner. The it comes back to the climax which is gloriously rendered.

MacArthur Park (the cake is hidden just behind the tree)

 There was even what we would now call a promo video though back then it was described as a filmed insert which lasts the full length of the song. It opens with a very Sixties girl and presumably her younger self  with Richard Harris wearing what can only be described as a tea cosy and Arab style robes. Its hard to tell where he is except that is is not MacArthur Park. Is he in North Africa or a clay pit in Essex? Oddly though he does not mime the song, he moves as if he is miming it which takes away some of the song’s drama. Next, he’s in an old greenhouse. Then we are looking around a graveyard. Running away from an old factory. At the end the girls run away leaving Richard standing on his own. Given the vivid words the song has this film is somewhat odd but a period curio nonetheless.

 The song was a hit again in the 1977 for Donna Summer whose disco version is terrific in a totally different way as if she is celebrating rather than mourning the end of the relationship. Though the lyrics don’t suggest it she turns it into an upbeat optimistic anthem of liberation and Webb’s chords suit the updated arrangement. She reaches some fantastic notes as the song climaxes. There’s a great 1978 performance on You Tube.

 One last thing, whoever sings the song- and there are other versions- everyone seems undecided as to whether the title should be plural or not. Richard Harris and Donna Summer’s original versions call it `MacArthur’s Park` but the name of the song is `MacArthur Park` in the singular. The actual place was originally called Westlake Park but renamed after General Douglas MacArthur. As far as we know he did not bake. 




No comments:

Post a Comment