Last week I kicked off my Streisand guide for the uninitiated by summarising her fabulous achievements in the 1960s. The goal was to show the fun side of Barbra, a side that younger gays could relate to. While I love the early years of Babsi's career, I don't think it's a great starting point for new fans. If (like me) old standards, musical theatre and showtunes float your boat - you'll be in 7th heaven. I'd advise everyone else, however, to start with 70s Streisand. This is the decade in which the great diva started to pursue a more contemporary sound. I originally intended to wrap up the whole decade in one post but that wouldn't do any justice to the most fruitful and fabulous period of Streisand's career. So today I'm just going to focus on the early 70s when Babs got her hippy on, delivered three of her best albums, starred in one of the greatest love stories ever told and made what could well be the most heinously awful television special of all time.
Barbra had already tried to experiment with a more contemporary sound on her last (non soundtrack) album of the 60s, the underrated "What About Today?" That endeavour turned out to be something of a disaster, becoming her first studio album to peak outside the US top 30. Happily, Babs wasn't deterred from trying again. In 1970 Clive Davis (yes, he really has been around since the dawn of time) suggested she hook up with Richard Perry to have another crack at modernising her sound. The result was "Stoney End" - a sleepy little guitar pop gem with tinges of folk and alt country. In other words, it was a complete reinvention and an unexpected success. There's a lot to love about "Stoney End". I think the gorgeous title track (penned by the great Laura Nyro) is one of the best singles of Barbra's career and definitely one of her most atypical. Other highlights include her cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" (which Amber, Ultra Nate and Jocelyn Enriquez later record as the Stars on 54) and the sweet gospel of "No Easy Way Down". A lot of amazing people wrote songs for this album including Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Randy Newman and their influence is felt throughout.
While "Stoney End" is a justifiable favourite among fans, I actually prefer the slightly less successful follow up. In many ways 1971's "Barbra Joan Streisand" could be considered a sequel of sorts. Richard Perry was called back for production duties, a lot of the same songwriters re-appear and the album even features tracks that were originally recorded for "Stoney End". However, instead of simply covering familiar ground, "Barbra Joan Streisand" actually improves on its predecessor. It's more consistent, involving and experimental. In fact, there's not a single dud on this gem. If I had to choose a favourite it would probably be the 70s-tastic "Space Captain", which has more than a touch of David Bowie about it. Other highlights are the two John Lennon covers ("Love" and "Mother"), Carole King's gorgeous "Where You Lead", the Burt Bacharach/Hal David medley and the uplifting "I Mean To Shine". Everything about "Barbra Joan Streisand" is understated and beautiful, from the artwork to the song choices. This would definitely feature in my top 10 Streisand albums.
The experimental spirit of Barbra's music eventually crossed over into her film career. The early 70s produced the irresistibly cute screwball comedy "What's Up Doc?" and the surreal "Up The Sandbox". The former was a hit and even produced a camp duet with Barbra's co-star Ryan O'Neal (a fun cover of Cole Porter's "You're The Top"). The latter, however, crashed at the box office and really has to be seen to be believed. This is proof, if nothing else, that Barbra can laugh at herself. I love "Up The Sandbox" and consider it a trash classic but I don't think I've ever seen a more bizarre mainstream movie. Basically, Babs plays a bored stay at home mum who loses the plot when she discovers she's up the duff again. Her character escapes into an imaginary world where she hooks up with Fidel Castro and tries to blow up the Statue of Liberty. They sure don't make 'em like this anymore!
While "What's Up Doc?" and "Up The Sandbox" have their fans, Barbra will always be best remembered for 1973's glorious "The Way We Were". I think everyone over the age of 20 has seen this film at least once. It used to be repeated on television a couple of times a year when I was growing up and I'm sure I watched Katie and Hubbell's ill fated romance each and every time. This has to be one of the greatest weepies in movie history. The final scene with Barbra and Robert Redford gets me every single time. I hate to think how many chocolate biscuits and tissues I've gone through watching this tearfest! Despite the film's lofty place in pop culture, I was surprised to read that the original reviews were pretty brutal. It just goes to show that critics don't know shit. The famous theme song was a #1 hit and won an Academy Award. Strangely, it's never really been a favourite of mine.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, I guess I should say something about "Barbra Streisand And Other Musical Instruments". Don't be deceived by the fabulous title, this television special is seriously dire. I have a pretty high tolerance for Barbra's artistic indulgences (including recording duets with herself and the general fiasco that is "Classical Barbra") but I draw the line at this hideous world music extravaganza. The Turkish-Armenian version of "People" is a glimpse into the depths of hell, while the flamenco interpretation of "Second Hand Rose" should be a crime against humanity. The soundtrack to the special is the only Streisand album I consider to be completely without merit and that includes the cure for insomnia otherwise known as "Higher Ground".
I can't end this post on such a dud note, so I'm going to include "The Way We Were" despite the fact that it was released in the early days of 1974. This album should not be mistaken for the film soundtrack. In fact, "The Way We Were" was originally released with the rather clunky title "Barbra Streisand featuring The Way We Were and All In Love Is Fair" after legal proceedings were initiated by the film's producers. While the album takes a step back from the more contemporary sound of "Stoney End" and "Barbra Joan Streisand", this is still an absolute classic. I've always thought of "The Way We Were" as a concept album of sorts. Each song deals with relationships from a different angle, from breaking up to making up. This is an incredibly consistent effort but one track stands out for me. "The Best Thing You've Ever Done" is my favourite Streisand ballad. This is the ultimate break up anthem with its passive aggressive lyrics and astonishing vocal performance. I get goose bumps every time I hear it. Other highlights include the breezy cover of Paul Simon's "Something So Right", Barbra's classy version of Stevie Wonder's "All In Love Is Fair" and the drag queen anthem "I've Never Been A Woman Before".
Stay tuned for the mid-70s write up next week!