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Michael Sigman

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The Wonderful World of Irony

Posted: 09/06/11 10:30 PM ET

It's not without irony that the biggest hit song about irony, Alanis Morisette's "Ironic," isn't. Sure, it's a drag when it rains on your wedding day or you hit heavy traffic en route to a meeting. But true irony would involve, say, getting hit by a Dodge truck, as noted in a parody of the Morisette record. If you failed to dodge the Dodge on your wedding day in a rainy traffic jam, that would qualify as an ironic drag.

Irony has often provided a tonic to the plethora of sentimental "moon-spoon-June" songs and interpretations that tend to dominate pop music. Randy Newman doesn't hate "Short People," John Waite is "Missing You," Sid Vicious didn't exactly do it his way and Cole Porter most certainly did not "Hate Men."

Turning a perfectly sincere song on its head can provide a potent and multi-media ironic punch. Case in point: "What a Wonderful World," written in 1960 by jazz icon Bob Thiele and lyricist George "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" Weiss. The simple, memorable tune married to images of green trees, red roses, rainbows and "clouds of white" conjures an optimistic world of peace, love and understanding. (As opposed, say, to Elvis Costello's ironic take on Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding.")

The gold standard version of "Wonderful World," of course, is Louis Armstrong's soulful reading circa 1968. But the standard has taken on a mega after-life, via dark interpretations by the likes of Nick Cave/Shane MacGowan and Joey Ramone and, especially, its use as a contrast with ugly or violent content in a slew TV shows and movies, including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Good Morning Vietnam and Bowling for Columbine.

Enter Thiele's son, Bob, the successful musician/composer/producer and music supervisor for FX's popular series, Sons of Anarchy. The biker saga's powerful fourth season opener, which airs September 6, features a tender rendering of "What A Wonderful World" sung by Alison Mosshart of The Kills. It's not giving too much away to say that a beautiful (rain-free!) wedding and more than a little mayhem -- foreshadowed when Sons stalwart Chib grabs a firearm and marvels, "That's what I call a gun" -- are involved.

Sons creator Kurt Sutter --who derived inspiration from his key role in the pulse-pounding FX series The Shield -- got acquainted with Thiele's talents in 2004, when Thiele produced music for Sutter's wife Katey Sagal, who also happens to be the Golden Globe-winning co-star of Sons.

For Sutter, choosing Thiele in 2008 to handle the music for his new show was a no-brainer. "I always envisioned Sons weaved together with music," he says. "It's part of the subcultural Northern Cali folk-rock thing. I wanted more than just 'needle drops,' I wanted a composer with great taste and an off-beat sensibility, who could run with the dark themes of the show. Bob was the only guy on my list."

Thiele's role on Sons of Anarchy is more A&R man -- a disappearing breed as record companies continue their march to oblivion -- than broker. He eschews the traditional path of licensing familiar tracks -- with a tight budget, you can't always get "You Can't Always Get What You Want " -- preferring a mix of original material and custom-made covers, with Thiele and his band The Forest Rangers accompanying up-and-coming indie musicians. He also co-wrote (with Velvet Revolver's Dave Kushner ) and produced Sons' Emmy-nominated theme, which has garnered upwards of 200K iTunes downloads and millions of YouTube viewings.

I asked Thiele why he chose now, for the first time, to take on his dad's song. "I didn't choose it!" he said. "Kurt wrote it into the script knowing full well that it would be a big challenge for me. I thought, 'Great, just what the world needs, another cover of the Louis Armstrong classic.' So I decided to find as strong a musical contrast to the version we all know without losing the intimacy of the original."

The 50-year journey of "What a Wonderful World" shows the versatility of pop songs that encourage interpretations far afield from whatever the writers might have had in mind, if indeed they had anything particular in mind. Think "Summertime" (Gershwin/Heyward), "Blowin' In The Wind" (Bob Dylan) or "Imagine" (John Lennon).

Full disclosure requires a bit of Brill Building lore. My mom met George David Weiss in the late '40s, when he was writing songs for her employer, venerable Brill-based pubbery Santly-Joy. Mom left Santly soon thereafter, moving across the fifth floor of the Brill to the digs of the incomparable Louis Prima, where she served as his "Gal Friday" (and, not incidentally, met my dad, who was writing songs for Louis.) There she also met a young singer named Jane Harvey, whom she recalls "was just gorgeous." Harvey later married Bob Thiele Sr., and they produced not only beautiful music together but also a talented son, one Bob Thiele Jr. That's not ironic -- just further evidence of a wonderful world.

 

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