Thursday, June 20, 2024

Ken Nordine – The Voice of God & The Devil

Whilst no one would ever describe him as a singer or actor, Ken Nordine undoubtedly had one of the most incredible voices of the 20th Century. It was a voice of such depth, sonority and gravitas that it kept him in gainful employment over the course of eight decades and allowed him the anonymity many of his contemporary performers would have given their eyeteeth for. Nordine’s voice was a musical instrument; a weapon; a lure and an element almost in its own right. The time is right to rediscover – or explore for the first time – the glory of Ken Nordine.

Born to Swedish parents in the city of Cherokee, Iowa in 1920, Ken Nordine’s family moved to Chicago, its developing arts scene inspiring him not only to gravitate towards performance but to subvert the conventional approach of those who had already begun to make their mark. It would seem that Ken, as Leonard Cohen once sang, was born with the gift of a golden voice. He was featured on Chicago radio as an announcer for local gigs, before syndication saw him in demand for a steady stream of commercial opportunities. This didn’t satiate Nordine’s desire to create and he found himself drawn to the clubs and coffee shops where the beatniks and proto-hippies gathered.

Chicago in the 1950s was very much the kind of place you could turn up at a nightclub and receive a round of applause for reciting poems by T.S. Eliot accompanied by jazz musicians. When he noticed recurring faces in the audience, he began to adlib, adding extra lines and changing the cadence to give each performance unique qualities. Nordine didn’t edge into Lord Buckley territory, hamming it up and adopting eccentric traits, but he was more than aware that his voice could affect people in ways others had not previously considered. His love of jazz music proved key, encouraging him to experiment, and his co-performers gave him the space to not so much find his voice as to see how far he could use it to scramble people’s minds.

In 1955 (1956 in the UK), Nordine appeared as narrator on Billy Vaughn and Orchestra’s, ‘Shifting, Whispering Sands’, a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Still only in his mid-30s, Nordine still sounds as old as Methuselah. Dot Records was intrigued and asked if he had recorded any more material. He had. In 1957, Nordine released the first of many albums described as ‘word jazz’, an oddity at the time and an oddity now. Though ‘Word Jazz’ showcases his sense of humour, across the releases, his streams of consciousness are far removed from the beatnik ramblings of the time and delve into the darkness, plucking themes from Man’s innate desire to bring ruin wherever he goes and to look quizzically at how people live their lives.

Los Angeles called – Nordine had a look and didn’t like it. The fakery and flakery were not for him and he remained in Chicago for most of his life. Away from his album releases, Nordine remained in huge demand for his voice, whether it be for commercials, narration or experimental performance. One ad in particular stands the test of time as one of the most remarkable, sinister and intriguing ads ever made.

Nordine worked alongside animator Maurice Sendak on two segments featured in ‘Sesame Street’. One, a two-minute piece, sees a child’s mother ruining his dream birthday party, attended by nine pigs, by threatening to turn them into ham. The other was even more alarming. One can only assume millions of children didn’t sleep well that week.

When William Friedkin needed to give the possessed Regan a voice in ‘The Exorcist’ in 1973, Nordine was the first person he thought of to help:

“So in Bill Blatty’s [William Peter Blatty] novel, he talks about this little 12-year-old girl is now speaking in the voice of the devil. What is that? She’s a 12-year-old girl. She’s been possessed. The film was based on one of three cases in the 20th Century that the Catholic Church authenticated as actual demonic possession. And so, but how does the devil sound? You know, what is that supposed to be coming out of a 12-year-old girl? There was this guy in Chicago who I know named Ken Nordine, and Ken Nordine was a brilliant guy who used sound for commercial and advertising purposes. He did the Levis commercials where he’d multi-track his own voice, and he did a series of wonderful 33-1/3 long-playing record albums called “Word Jazz,” “Word Jazz 1, 2 and 3.” They were done using the principles of old radio, sound effects and stuff, and his voice, which he was able to technically distort from time to time, and he had a beautiful voice. So I went to him and I said, “Ken, it’s all yours, you know. Do the…give me some examples of how to do the demon voice.” And he recorded a bunch of stuff, and everything he did sounded like a man’s voice, a man’s voice coming out of this little girl. And I listened to it, and some of it was brilliant, but it was a man’s voice.”

It wasn’t until the end of the decade that Nordine successfully won his case for compensation for his work.

In later life, Nordine worked with Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, and drew reverential praise from the likes of Tom Waits (who described Nordine’s voice as a cross between “the guy with the pitchfork in your head saying go ahead and jump, and the ambulance driver who tells you you’re going to pull through”) and David Bowie, but continued to record at home embracing modern technology to add even more texture and strangeness to his voice but ridding the work from the curse of hiss and surface noise which plagued his earlier recordings. Nordine never stopped working, dying at the grand old age of 98 – his voice lives on, ageless, terrifying and staggering – surely the voice of God.

Recommended Listening.

Ken Nordine and the Fred Katz Group – ‘Word Jazz’. Dot Records, 1957.

Katz was an interesting character in his own right. Noted as the first jazz cellist, the New Yorker backed Nordine on several releases, alongside an uncredited Chico Hamilton, the hugely influential drummer. For a period in the late 50s and early 60s, he was one of the go-to composers favoured by Roger Corman, scoring ‘A Bucket of Blood’ (1959); ‘The Wasp Woman’ (1959); ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’ (1960) and ‘The Creature from the Haunted Sea’ (1961).  So busy was Corman during this period that he failed to notice that Katz was often merely resubmitting the same music each time. An admittedly patchy record, the stand-out is ‘My Baby’ a hip and happenin’ track danced along to by Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase on TV, the audience neither prepared for the oddness nor the song’s twist ending.

Ken Nordine with Dick Marx and Orchestra – ‘Next!’. Dot Records, 1960

Dick Marx is Richard Marx‘s dad. As in that Richard Marx. On ‘Next!’, Nordine is more experimental, with his voice swinging from speaker to speaker, whispering, double-tracking and floating on ‘Mr Big’ whilst ‘Smerd’ sees him voicing an imaginary politician, whose sonorous message, full of supposed import, ends up being nothing more profound than asking them to remember his name, Smerd. As his voice is drowned out by an oncoming train, you begin to realise that Nordine was a step ahead of most.

Ken Nordine – ‘Colors – A Sensuous Listening Experience’. Philips, 1966 

Recorded with multi-instrumentalist Dick Campbell, is one of the greatest albums released in the 1960s and is still an astonishing listen today. Over 34 tracks, Nordine enthuses, bemoans, celebrates and criticises different colours, from ‘easy’ targets such as blue, yellow and green through to dictionary-calling shades like ‘nutria’. They’re funny (“Olive Trees? What a quaint notion”); languorous (“Oh, what’s the use…says puce”); absurd – fat-shaming burgundy (“Come, come, burgundy, how much do you weigh?”) and even sinister (“staring, neutral, amber, deaf to a million biased angry horns”). Allegedly written and recorded in 24 hours. Every home should have a copy.

Ken Nordine Does Robert Shure – ‘Twink’. Philips, 1967

Retitled ‘Wink’ in the years since the word ‘twink’ has come to have overtly gay connotations, Nordine’s reading of Shure’s work sees him talking to himself, even more literally than usual, with an echoing voice responding to his lines. Shure’s work has the feel of Burroughs’ cut-up form of writing, existing engagingly in self-contained capsules but losing its meaning and structure quickly as an entire entity. As such, this is a brilliant album to dip into, with such exquisite lines as “My shoehorn has freckles – it was probably born that way”.

Ken Nordine – ‘Stare With Your Ears’ – Snail Records, 1979

More poppy and immediate than his more jazzy offerings, ‘Stare with your Ears’ sees Nordine teaming up with Pat Ferrari, a seasoned jazz and studio guitarist and several Chicago musicians. Ken bursts into song on ‘Angel’s Lament’, transfers his ‘Colors’ methodology to letters on the funky ‘Alphabet’ and goes darkly prog on ‘Seven Ways of the Meek’. A tremendous album.

Ken Nordine – ‘Triple Talk’ – Snail Records, 1984

Only released on cassette on Ken’s own record label, ‘Triple Talk’ is typical of his self-produced work, employing clever tape techniques and post-production effects. Well worth tracking down, if only for the extraordinary ‘Tick Tock Fugue’, a terrifying and disorienting journey through an alarm clock. Forget ‘The Exorcist’, this really will keep you awake at night.

Ken Nordine – ‘Transparent Mask’ – Asphodel, 2001

“This is as good a time as any – the one we’re in now”. Ken is still nowhere near as old as his voice, but still manages to surprise and intrigue on one of his final releases. Sharp as a tack, his conversations with shadows are inspired and, perhaps inevitably, often chilling. The atmospheric synths and metallic percussion create an almost stifling atmosphere filled with reflection and judgement.

Daz Lawrence

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