Nancy and Lee Week No 1: Ladybird
Responding to requests for another "week", we now go from the sublime to the sublime, Creedence to Nancy and Lee, contrasting music styles if ever you heard them.
How did I get into Nancy and Lee? I’ve no idea. I was 13 and there was a record store in downtown Fahaheel, Kuwait where my parents lived at the time, which had a limited selection, including (bizarrely) a strange hotchpotch of the very latest American albums. Maybe it was the orange cover, or, to a newly pubescent young male, the ash blonde hair of Nancy herself. But I’d never heard any of their tracks before I bought “Nancy and Lee”.
Alternating between some relatively crass cover numbers were a series of five magical songs, penned by Hazlewood, in which Nancy and Lee take turns to tell a story, each from the point of view of one of the romantic protagonists of that story. The lush orchestration, Nancy’s extraordinarily sexy and golden voice coupled with Lee’s deep, taciturn vocal redolent of the “lonely drifter” style hero of westerns, all combined to give the songs a panoramic and epic feel even though they really are cameos of relationships. Hazlewood’s words crown the overall effect, creating an atmosphere of dreams, mystical romance, fairy tales and tantalising loss of love.
The first song to really hook me was "Ladybird":
Seldom has a track set the tone for the whole piece right from the first notes in the way this does: the Ladybird motif is announced by the trumpets in the first five notes like the first sight of the sun rising over the horizon, then immediately there are the following swirling misty strings as the three note "Ladybird" phrase is echoed by a one-fingered phrase on the piano, and we go straight into the mellow vocals of Ms Sinatra.
The words are redolent of love and romance just out of reach, but soon to be recovered in a wildwood faery kingdom.
I always misheard the second line, reading "auburn" as "olden" and still hear it like this, as it's better that way, giving a sense that their love is as old as time itself:
I've been where the eagle flies
rode his wings cross olden skies
kissed the sun, touched the moon
but he left me much to soon,
and then Lee plaintively responds with the chorus, like a dog looking up at a tree where his princess sits just out of reach, trying to persuade her to descend
Ladybird come on down
I'm here waiting on the ground
Ladybird I'll treat you good
with his voice dropping lower and lower, smouldering with sensual yearning as he sings
Aaaah ladybird I wish you would
The orchestral break with the strings sweeping across our wild woodland carrying along graceful little piano bursts is magical, leading to the triumphant last verse:
winter lives in my heart
in the times when we're apart
summer sings a song or two
we he says I love you true
Nancy’s singing (and Lee's but Nancy's especially) is so unhurried, she gives the song a feeling of careful passion, balanced with a sense of playful tenderness.
I have always loved this song: when I was away from my parents at school it had a rich warmth that dispelled my feelings of loneliness. This feeling has increased over the years as "Ladybird" has become a family favourite, and lately, one of the highlights of daughter Imogen's live set.