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Our Crack Tongue & Groove

cowboysweden.jpg The best album of the 1970s?

Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Cowboy in Sweden’ was released in 1970, which, by my calculations, means that it’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Born in Oklahoma in 1929 Lee Hazelwood would go on to serve the US military during the Korean War. Following his discharge he worked as disc jockey before forming a fruitful partnership with the pioneering guitarist Duane Eddy, co-writing and producing a string of hit instrumental singles including ‘Rebel-Rouser’ and ‘Peter Gunn’.

It’s for his work with Nancy Sinatra, however, that he is probably best remembered. He wrote her signature hit ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’ and in 1968 the pair recorded ‘Nancy & Lee’, an album that fused country, pop and psychedelia (it featured the classic ‘Some Velvet Morning’, which still gets a regular airing on Radio Six Music.)

In 1970, at the height of his fame and influence, he upped sticks for Sweden. One unsubstantiated account had it that Frank Sinatra had put the mob on to him, believing that he had grown rather too close to Nancy. Others said that he had gone mad, or become a monk. As it turns out, he was building a career in television and working with the Swedish director Torbjörn Akelmann. The first fruits of this collaboration was the TV special ‘Cowboy in Sweden’. This featured Hazelwood originals alongside often incongruous visuals (‘Pray Them Bars Away’ – a prison ballad – plays out over a group of polar bears frolicking in the Scandinavian sun). The film has largely been forgotten (it has only two user reviews on imdb.com) but the reputation of the album it spawned continues to rack up critical plaudits. It features duets with Nina Lizell, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the ‘Nancy & Lee’ album; a psych folk take on his orchestral country sound (the aforementioned ‘Pray Them Bars Away’); the Scott Walker-like ‘The Night Before’ (a romantic melodrama that sees a regret-filled lover surrounded by “empty wine bottles, standing accusing on the floor”); and ‘Vem Kan Segla’, which sounds like a Swedish chanson as performed by Leonard Cohen. The whole thing is giving extra heft through judicious deployment of harpsichords, horns, and Hazelwood’s louche, hipster on a horse, baritone.

His record sales fell off a cliff somewhat in the 1970s, but when he made a comeback in 1995, and toured with Nancy Sinatra, he realised that a new generation of artists, from Tindersticks to Primal Scream, were singing his praises. He died in 2007, but his legacy continues to grow, a legacy that includes ‘Cowboy in Sweden’, perhaps the finest 1970s album of them all.

Note: The actual best album of the 1970s is Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’, AND David Bowie’s ‘Low’, AND the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.