Label / Cat. No: Polydor Super 2371 054 First Released: No earlier than 1969
What The Album Blurb Says...
Even if it sounds like a contradiction in terms, it's got to be said that James Last is first. First in providing orchestral "happy" music that splinters the so-called generation gap in popular musical taste.
Last is first when it comes to producing albums that sell. And sell and sell. Whatever the style of material - be it classical, discotheque, dance instrumental - the Last sound is first all over the world. The formula is deceptively simple. Select familiar themes, treat the melodic lines with respect, dress them up in arrangements where the emphasis is on bass and brass.
Many a bandleader has tried to do the same. But the Last "touch" is unique. Maybe that is the one-word summing-up of his amazing multi-million disc sales... he's unique. It's an overworked word in popular music, but James Last remains unique even when reproducing his disc sounds on stage.
A man's music reflects the man himself, so they say. James Last is well-dressed, neat, dynamic, energetic - the last shows through in his love of ski-ing and tennis. His music, too, is well-dressed, neat, dynamic, energetic. The man himself likes parties, so it's only right that his music has made a few million parties swing that little bit more.
Of course, communication is a lot to do with it. Even though James Last speaks German, he somehow communicates with English-speaking audiences. Or any other audiences, come to that.
Yet it was very much a matter of chance that drew James Last into the popular music field. As a kid he showed promise on piano so his parents encouraged him in a musical career. At the Conservatoire of Music In Bueckeburg, from the age of fourteen, he studied composition, double bass and piano. It looked very much as though he'd stick with the classics.
But after World War II, his schooldays behind him, he "discovered" American dance music. He formed his own band, playing double bass. His skill in arranging was evident and he joined the Northwest German Radio station in Hamburg, working with top artist like Caterina Valente and Helmut Zacharias.
His reputation grew. But he had so much to say musically that it was obviously better for him to say it himself. His first album "Non-Stop Dancing,'65" was a massive seller. It's been non-stop recording ever since. Each idea such as "Trumpet-A-Go-Go", produced a whole series of albums. That's why James Last really needs a disc catalogue all of his own.
Nowadays he spreads his wings all over the world. Canada, South Africa, Australia - most of the world knows now that Last is first. Bass and brass... happy music... distinctive sounds.
Distinctive sounds abound in this "Best of James Last" collection. There's "Happy Heart" and "Happy Music" to stress that Last orchestrations are built both to last and to give lasting pleasure. Or try "Games That Lovers Play" and hear for ourself that much-recorded numbers don't have to have that well-worn feel to them.
Perhaps there are some people who don't succumb to the charms of a James Last album. But it's odds- on that they are in some mysterious form of coma.
What I Say
Oh, so "A man's music reflects the man himself" is what they say is it? Well, I looked and it seems that nobody is saying that. I don't wish to call Peter Jones a liar, but I think he's overstating the case somewhat. I mean, I can accept that music may be described as "neat, dynamic, energetic," but 'well-dressed'? Can I expect to one of his 'Happy Tunes' to turn up at my place wearing a cravat and plus fours? I think not.
And look, the man's not even called 'James Last'. All these years his grinning, bearded face has been staring out at me from Charity Shop records, and I found out today that his real name is Hans. It's as if I never knew the man at all.
However, I am prepared to forgive him, for I can understand that in post-war Britain and America, a musical act called Hans might not go down too well. But note, these sleeve notes seem to suggest that Herr Last's schooldays ended roughly at the same time as the end of World War II. Just to remind you, they say, "But after World War II, his schooldays behind him, he "discovered" American dance music." It might be slightly fairer to say he was exposed to American dance music thanks to the overwhelming presence of American armed forces in his country after the war.
Anyway, if this is the best of James Last, then I'm not sure what constitutes 'the rest'. I'd liken this album to musical mashed potato - plain, unchallenging, reassuringly familiar and yet unrelentingly boring. Just a tip James / Hans, but not every tune can be spiced up with racy strings, driving snare drum rhythms and European backing singers adding textured washes over the top. Rather than bring out the beauty of the tunes, Herr Last's skill is to homogenize them, until a song from a 60s musical sounds that same as a piece from Bizet or a traditional dance tune.
I can't fault the music as such - it's kept Mr Last very well in royalties, and there simply must be an audience for it, seeing as he manages to shift so many records. I think he suffers from the British disdain for anything popular in Europe. There's something so cheesy about it, but there's also a naivete, a lack of that cynical post-modern 'knowingness' that the English do so well.
Sadly, I can't say that I'm unaffected by that, and still see Mr Last's offerings as some kind of continental European speciality. Like crisp-bread, processed smoked cheese and window shutters instead of curtains, it's something 'enjoyed by foreigners' which doesn't quite translate.
However, easy listening comes no easier than this. Clearly a man at the top of his game. Just a game you have to ask whether it's worth playing.
Games That Lovers Play
The "In" Crowd
I Left My Heart In San Francisco
The Last Waltz
6.5 out of 10