Decor at US drive-in Sonic is reminiscent of the retro-futurist style of The Jetsons. Photo: Getty
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Come to “America’s Drive-In”, y’all – for tater tots and Jetsons decor

At Sonic, the shtick is meant to be that the food arrives “at the speed of sound”; and the novelty in the late 1950s was that punters ordered their burgers and via speakers they could drive right up to.

De gustibus non est disputandum, so I don’t want any wise-ass backchat from you lot when I tell you that the meal I had at the Sonic drive-in on the Murfreesboro Pike on the outskirts of Nashville was probably the best one I’ve ever eaten. I don’t, by this, mean that the food was the best I have ever eaten – far from it – nor that the ambience was particularly good (I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my rented Chevy SUV), but the sky overhead was beautiful, the company highly amusing and most importantly: I was on holiday . . . sort of.

We’d driven in to Nashville from Atlanta the previous evening, checked in to our motel – the Fiddler’s Inn – and, taking the receptionist’s recommendation, adjourned to the Caney Fork River Valley Grille, which was right across the parking lot. In fact, every building on Music Valley Drive seemed to be across the car park, because in this place of dead roads the asphalt stretched clear to the horizon. The Grille was a faux-clapboard hutch from the outside but the inside walls were clad in corrugated iron. Weird. Weirder still were the stuffed animal heads mounted on those walls and weirdest of all was the life-size manikin that bore a disturbing resemblance to Stinky Pete in Toy Story 2. We ate deep-fried catfish and deep-fried alligator washed down with deep-fried Coca-Cola but, interesting as the meal was, unfortunately the Grille was a one-off so it didn’t qualify for this column.

Sonic, on the other hand, as of 2011 had 3,561 outlets trading in 43 states and glories in the sobriquet “America’s Drive-In”. In common with all the other US mega-chains that lash our guts to our garters, Sonic began life as a lemonade stall, or possibly a hot dog stand – at any rate, somewhere down-home in Hicksville – but has biggered and biggered ever since. The shtick is meant to be that the food arrives “at the speed of sound” (hence “Sonic”); and the novelty in the late 1950s was that punters ordered their burgers and tater tots via speakers they could drive right up to. Roller-skating carhops then scooted the trays over. Nowadays the World Spirit of junk food has skated somewhere else and with their stylised signs, extended porte cochères and “carnival food” menus, Sonic drive-ins have an air at once cartoonish and dated that made me think of the 1960s “space age” TV show The Jetsons.

Still, what did that matter? On a summer’s evening in Tennessee, with hardly anyone else about, my youngest son and I were free to indulge our fantasy of driving the Chevy forward to the past. True, it was difficult to make myself understood through the intercom and my credit card didn’t work in the stanchion-mounted reader, so eventually the poor girl had to come out and take our order in person; but although she wasn’t roller-skating she made up for it by being friendly and saying “y’all” a lot. Saying “y’all” is pretty integral to Southern identity – even the signs on the freeway read, “Buckle up y’all.” We basked in these inclusive y’alls, while also noting that the clientele at this super-cheap, corn-syrup-pumping drive-in was largely African American.

And if you think I’m taking a cheap shot at Sonic, just consider the phenomenon of slushes with Nerds®. Yes, you heard me: virulently coloured slushy sweet drinks topped off with liberal scatterings of candy. Sonic is the home of the Blue Raspberry Slush with Nerds® and isn’t afraid to shout about it. Nor does it mind broadcasting that it sells the Reese’s Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups® Sonic Blast. If there’s one thing I can assert with certainty, it’s that after consuming a Reese’s Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups® Sonic Blast, you’d better buckle up, y’all, because that’s one heck of a lot of go-go juice, even for a Jetson.

We didn’t go anywhere near these things – at least on foot. We sat in our Chevy and I sipped my coffee-style drink and judiciously chewed my cheeseburger. The youngest chomped his hot dog; other customers came and went but they didn’t linger under the porte cochère listening to the dedications being broadcast on Sonic Live Radio. I asked the boy how his dog was and he said: “It’s like, meh, but good,” which struck me as the sort of thing a pubescent God might say when contemplating the world he’s just created. I eased down in my seat, feeling slightly nauseous when I contemplated the “Summer of Shakes” that the wall menu informed me was imminent. The jalapeño chocolate shake struck me as an especially cruel and unusual punishment.

The drive-in has great symbolic weight in the American psyche. It’s of a piece with the automobile, forming a material assemblage that implies perpetual, purposive, expansive movement – even munching tater tots at a Sonic can be an expression of manifest destiny. But as I sat there on the Murfreesboro Pike, shifting uneasily and flatulently in my car seat, it occurred to me that my real affinity wasn’t with the restless psychic pioneers who stream along America’s freeways but with Stinky Pete: like him, I was smelly, stuck in a box and ready to become a museum piece, but then de gustibus non est disputandum and all that jazz. 

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser