GOODBYE, TOM JONES -- Peter Allen sings a new kind of sex appeal

Peter Allen describes himself as "fabulous" and "sensitive" (the sarcastic quotation marks are his). He's aware that those words have become show-biz cliches, but when he likens himself to the "fabulous" (read "tacky") Wayne Newton and the "sensitive" (read "saccharine") John Denver, he's only half-kidding. Las Vegas celebrity and million-selling records are not beneath his dignity -- nor beyond his grasp.

For Peter Allen is a fabulous showman. He strides onstage Cagney-tough in a smart white suit and flaming red socks, shoes, and Hawaiian shirt, sweeps the crowd with an imperious glare, twirls his sequined scarf with lip-licking lewdness, and then plunges at the piano to pummel the keys like a mad, manic leprechaun. Straddling the bench to play face-front, he's a dazzling daredevil in perpetual motion, but when he wants to settle down for  ballad, you can hear a pin drop. He speaks with an endearingly strange Australian-American accent. He sings and plays keyboards with nonchalant expertise. And his astonishingly uninhibited, pansexual gyrations provide a revolutionary alternative to the traditional macho stance of male pop singers By the end of his set at the Paradise several weeks ago, he had stripped down to a tiny T-shirt and red lame pants, giving "I Go to Rio" all he had, waving maracas, pineapples and every movable part of his body with unabashed abandon.

Allen is also a superb songwriter. His understated songs of love and urban life (many co-written with Carole Bayer Sager) have instantly infectious melodies and lyrics which balance extreme cynicism with extreme sentimentality. Whether playing the world-weary roue ("Just Ask Me I've Been There," "Taught by Experts"), carrying on a love/hate affair with New York City ("6:30 Sunday Morning," "This Sideshow's Leaving Town"), or nursing romantic wounds ("Harbour," "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love"), Allen is always concerned with innocence -- and its loss. Like most cynics, he does not completely trust his own cynicism: beneath the matter-of-fact constraint and cool irony is an implicit regret for his own lack of feeling. In "Don't Cry Out Loud" he both boasts and mourns that "we keep it inside, we've learned how to hide our feelings." Even in his most maudlin song, "I Honestly Love You," he needs to reaffirm the validity of his emotions ("This is coming from my heart and not my head"). And when his laconic lyrics focus fully on himself, the effect can be devastating. In the three short verse of "Tenterfield Saddler," for examples, he traces the connection between his late grandfather, Australian saddlemaker George Woolnough ("He lived without sin/They're building a library for him"), his father (an alcoholic and apparent suicide), and himself. He has broken away from the safety and the desperation of his ancestors only to confront emptiness in his own life.

The grandson of George has been all 'round the world
Lives no special place
He changed his last name and he married a girl
With an interesting face
He's almost forgotten them both
For in this life that he leads
There's nowhere for George and his library,
His son with his gun, to belong
Except in this song.

The ease with which Allen plays the antic crowd-pleaser and the thoughtful composer belies the many years he struggled to develop that dual role. As a teenager, he began playing pubs in Australia, alone at first and later with his partner Chris Bell. Their act, called the Allen Brothers, toured the supper-club circuits throughout Australia and the Far East. While playing at the Hong Kong Hilton, they were discovered by Judy Garland, who engaged them as her opening act, brought them to American and introduced Allen to her daughter Liza (the "girl with an interesting face"), whom he married in 1967. Except for a string of Tonight Show appearances, he spent the next few years partying, as he puts it, with "semi-celebrities-to-be" until, in 1970, he left his partner and his wife, started writing songs and playing coffeehouses and recorded two albums (Peter Allen and Tenterfield Saddler) on the now-defunct Metromedia label. When they went nowhere, he gave up and went West.

His songs, however, had begun to circulate among performers on the burgeoning cabaret circuit in New York. Before long, he was lured back East for a hugely successful gig at Reno Sweeney's and finally launched his career. "When I started in cabarets," Allen says, "I sat down very quietly at the piano and sang like Laura Nyro. But people kept coming back again and again, so I constantly had to think of new things to do. Eventually, I developed the person I am now -- half serious and half 'up.' I wanted to see how far I could go with that persona I'd created onstage. If I can be that way-out and wild and then turn around and bring it down to something very serious -- those are the things I set out to do. It used to be a much more dangerous show. I'd walk out and people would go, 'He's a bit weird,' and I'd follow that weirdness out all the way. But it's hard to be that dramatic all the time, to slink and slouch on and try to hypnotize your audience into submission every night. It gets a little affected. I used to love it like that, but I could only do it if the audience was fascinated. They're not now -- they know they'll have a fabulous time and see a fabulous show."

Allen even wrote a tribute to his devoted fans called "Audience" ("If I can't see who I'm singing to/How will you know I'm singing 'em all for you?"). But when he gets to the line, "I don't wanna be famous, don't wanna work in big halls," he rolls his eyes and his nose grows two inches, because nothing could be further from the truth. Although Olivia Newton-John made "I Honestly Love You" an MOR classic and his "I Go to Rio" hit number one in Brazil and Australia, he has yet to crack the American charts. His two A&M LPs, Continental American and Taught by Experts are excellent showcases for his songs, but they pale compared to his live performance. And though he has progressed from cabarets to larger clubs like the Bottom Line and the Roxy in LA, his following is still a cult. And cult fame is obviously not what Allen wants. In fact, he has "taken steps" by signing on with manager Dee Anthony, who engineered J. Geils's and Peter Frampton's ascendancy to stardom and by recording a live double-album hopefully entitled It Is Time for Peter Allen.

Unfortunately, the record is a disappointment. The flaws -- lackluster accompaniment, inferior arrangements of older songs, paucity of new ones -- wouldn't matter so much if it weren't for one huge conceptual failing. The album, plainly patterned after Frampton Comes Alive, consists almost exclusively of music and audience and cannot convey the physicality of his performance. That approach works fine for Frampton: his singing, his playing and his pretty face on the cover tell you everything you need to know about him. But like Bette Midler (whose Live at Last should have been the model for this project) Allen uses props, costume changes, dishy ad libs, choice anecdotes and outrageous body language to unify the broad range of his material. Whereas Midler's live album compensates for what's lost by including the comic raps and a handy photo layout, Allen's supplies nothing -- you have no idea what he's doing to earn the tumultuous response. The outbursts during "Love Crazy," for instance, sounds like clacquish hysteria unless you happen to know that Allen has just leapt to his feet for a swift, sexy shimmy-shake. The most exciting numbers in concert are invariably the record's worst. On his rave-ups, Allen is likely to slur words, disregard lyrics, even drop crucial verses; but onstage he makes up for it with maniacal mugging or delirious dance routines; on the record, it simply sounds like shitty singing followed by dead space.

Perhaps I'm being a little too hard on the album. As live recordings go, It is Time... could be far worse. It's certainly listenable, what you can hear of Allen's performance is energetic, and with the exception of "Interesting Changes" the otherwise unavailable cuts ("Don't Cry Out Loud," "Tenterfield Saddler," "Audience" and the oldie "As Times Goes By") are truly exquisite. But, damn it, Peter Allen deserves to make it big and this record won't help. Maybe a live album couldn't work under any circumstances. Maybe the answer is constant touring and steady studio releases. Or maybe Peter Allen is the best argument yet for a mass-market Video-Disc.

Boston Phoenix, December 6, 1977