The namesake son of a New York impresario from the 1950's, Elliott Murphy was one of countless singer-songwriters who were hyped in the 1970's as "the new Dylan", a tag that was used so often that it eventually became a common curse for artists who couldn't live up to that expectation. It seemed that Murphy would be an exception to this rule when his impressive debut album Aquashow was released in 1973. But while Murphy's friend Bruce Springsteen (who began his recording career at the same time) was able to overcome the jinx of the "new Dylan" title, Murphy was never able to achieve mainstream recognition. However, Murphy has never given up on his music career. He has now released over 30 albums, and has a larger audience in Europe. He is also a writer of books and magazine articles, and currently resides in France.
Murphy's 1973 debut album Aquashow was named after his father's outdoor theatrical show from the 1950's. Murphy's brother Matthew (who appears with Elliott in the front cover photo) played bass. Most of the drums were played by Gene Parsons, from the latter-day Byrds. Like his musical hero Lou Reed, Murphy sought to wed literature to music. His literary hero is F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Murphy's lyrics often contain noticeable references to Fitzgerald and his works. For example, one of the songs on Aquashow is properly titled "Like a Great Gatsby", although in some countries the title was listed as "Like a Crystal Microphone" on the outside cover to avoid copyright infringement. Also, the song "Hangin' Out" (which examines the emptiness of nightlife) refers to "those books from 1920". Musical and cultural references have always been a frequent element of Murphy's songwriting, but he has never attained his own place in the pantheon of icons from whom he draws inspiration. Murphy's major-label career ended before the '70's were over. Since then, he has released a steady stream of indie recordings in Europe, and has remained true to his art.
A picture from the senior Elliott Murphy's water-themed Aquashow ballet held at New York's Flushing Meadow Park in the 1950's. This image appears on the back cover of the junior Elliott Murphy's album of the same name.
Aquashow is a prime example of Dylanesque folk rock from its time, yet it also manages to be timeless. The lead-off track "Last of the Rock Stars" encapsulates the perceived state of rock music in the early '70's, from the point of view of an aspiring young player who asks the perpetually pertinent question: "Rock and roll is here to stay, but who will be left to play?". Recorded a few years before the death of Elvis and while progressive rock was rock's dominant sub-genre, the song finds Murphy singing, with free-flowing eloquence: "I dreamed I saw the king in a '53 Chevy...but I couldn't see his face 'cause of the purple haze inside". The lyrics in many of the other songs suggest that while Murphy may love rock and roll, movies, and literature, he does not view those things through rose-tinted glasses. Almost every time he conjures a lyrical image of a musician, he inserts an image of a prostitute in a nearby verse. The most vivid and most unabashed expression of this cultural ambivalence is the ballad "Marilyn", in which Murphy declares that Marilyn Monroe "died for our sins" -- not because he sees the film icon as a deity, but as a tragic victim of her sex symbol image. Somber songs such as "How's The Family" and "Hometown" convey a similarly unromanticized view of middle class family life, and the more uptempo "White Middle Class Blues" expresses further antipathy for Murphy's upper middle class upbringing. Murphy's worldview may sometimes come across as being pompous, but it was strikingly unique in the space of this album, avoiding the triteness that many of his peers fell prey to. Aquashow is a must for connoisseurs of Dylanesque singer-songwriter works.
Aquashow has been out of print for most of the last four decades, although it was briefly available on CD in 1990 (Polydor 835 587-2). It now appears to be available digitally on iTunes.
Four decades after the fact, Murphy re-recorded the album's ten songs for the European CD Aquashow Deconstructed in 2015. This new version of the album sounds less like a deconstruction than like a reinterpretation by a different musician -- which, in a way, might be an accurate description. It was produced and arranged by Murphy's son Gaspard Murphy, who also played some of the instruments. The instrumentation on Aquashow Deconstructed is sparser and more acoustic in nature than on the original album, and the general ambience is European more than New York. The elder Murphy now sings the songs with a deeper, wiser, and more self-assured voice, making few lyrical changes but clearly conveying the material from the perspective of an artist in his mid-60's, as opposed to his mid-20's. The tempos of some -- though not all -- of the songs have been slowed down, the clearest example being the opening song "Last Of The Rock Stars", recast as a slow, moody dirge suggesting that Murphy now believes his prediction about the death of rock and roll has come true. The "deconstructed" Aquashow is no substitute for the more rocking version of the album that Murphy recorded as a new young artist in '73, but it is interesting to hear the artist revisit and rethink his long-lost debut album so many years later.
Track Listing (for both versions):
1. Last of the Rock Stars
2. How's The Family
3. Hangin' Out
5. Graveyard Scrapbook
6. Poise 'N Pen
8. White Middle Class Blues
9. Like A Great Gatsby (a.k.a. Like A Crystal Microphone)
10. Don't Go Away
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