Ben Vaughn Combo’s Beautiful Thing album reissued
If it’s true that one’s musical tastes are set in college, and the artists one latches onto then are the ones that resonate throughout one’s life, then Ben Vaughn is a major musical touchstone for me. Now that his best album has just been reissued, perhaps some other clueless collegiate type will discover Vaughn’s magical mixture of hipster cool and retro rock ‘n’ roll schooling for themselves.
Vaughn is known more these days for television soundtrack work and some work as a rock historian, especially for National Public Radio. In the 1980s, however, he was fronting a wicked little rock band, the Ben Vaughn Combo, that never recorded an album that truly reflected their wigged-out, unpredictable live shows.
Beautiful Thing was the second Combo album and the most subdued, musically. Paradoxical as it was to the band’s live show, the songs are among Vaughn’s best and most memorable. The title track,”Beautiful Thing,” is a restrained performance of a song that sounds like it could take off in concert, while “Shingaling With Me,” is Vaughn’s best take on the kind of coastal soul that those of us in South Carolina would immediately tag as beach music.
“Jerry Lewis In France,” was the song that got the most attention at the time of the album’s release, with a video appearing on MTV’s “120 Minutes” program (see above for the full video). It’s one of those lyrical metaphors that Vaughn is so adept at–see another Vaughn classic, “I’m Sorry (But so is Brenda Lee),” expressing how lucky the narrator feels to be with a particular girl. He trots out a lineup of comparisons from American popular culture history, from the titular actor’s inexplicable popularity in a foreign country to “JFK in ’62,” and more. The joy expressed is palpable in Vaughn’s vocals, even as deadpan as they start out, when he concludes the song in an extended, shouted riff and harmonica outro, rendering what could have been a bookish cliche instead as a sentimental love song.
The closest Vaughn comes here to his live shows of the same era is on the retro-rocking, “She’s A Real Scream,” with the unforgettable line, “Her end justifies the means, she’s a real scream,” and the random screaming from the Combo. Even the album version is hard not to bounce around the room to, and the one time I was lucky enough to see these Philadelphians play live on a tour through South Carolina supporting this very album, it was a highlight of the set.
Vaughn lives in Venice, California these days, and he has been busy with revisiting his back catalog on albums such as Vaugh Sings Vaughn, vol. 1 & 2. You can check out more history and credits on his Myspace page, with new music and another video clip or two. After years in television work, it seems like Vaughn is getting back to the basics of making his back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s definitely a beautiful thing.