British reissue label Edsel Records' combination of the Anthony Newley albums Pure Imagination and Ain't It Funny on a single CD brings back into print two key recordings in Newley's catalog (and, incidentally, gives them their first-ever release in the U.K.) Both albums were recorded for MGM Records, with Pure Imagination appearing on MGM in 1971 and Ain't It Funny following on the MGM subsidiary Verve in 1972. Newley, in his early forties at the time, had not made a solo album of new musical recordings in four years when MGM signed him in the wake of his work as songwriter with partner Leslie Bricusse on the children's movie musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (Although described as "a Newley expert," annotator Tony Rounce errs when he writes, "It was [Sammy Davis, Jr.'s] version of "'The Candy Man'" [from Willy Wonka] that led to Newley's signing to MGM...." In fact, Davis' version of "The Candy Man" did not become a hit until the spring of 1972, nearly a year after the release of the film, and long after Newley began recording for MGM.) Not surprisingly, Pure Imagination presented his versions of four songs from the Willy Wonka soundtrack as well as a Bricusse/Newley song called "Best of All Worlds" that sounds like it was intended for the score. On those selections, and on his reading of "I'll Begin Again," from Bricusse's score for the 1970 film Scrooge, Newley sounds engaged, but he seems bored filling up the rest of the album with new readings of songs he recorded earlier in his career, such as his novelty version of "Pop Goes the Weasel."
In a sense, Ain't It Funny is also an album anchored by songs from a theatrical project, in this case Bricusse and Newley's 1972 musical The Good Old Bad Old Days, from which five of the ten songs are drawn. (Oddly enough, the album was released only in the U.S., prior to the opening of the show, which played only in the U.K.) But in fact, Ain't It Funny is Newley's answer to the singer/songwriter movement of the early '70s. He begins by addressing his crisis of relevance in the serious world of rock music in "Overchewer," acknowledging that, despite being middle-aged, he still wants to have a young audience listening to him. On the rest of the album, he tries different musical styles, from country to Burt Bacharach-style pop to show music while taking a more mature look at life and love, culminating in the dramatic "I Do Not Love You," which demonstrates the opposite of the title. The songs from The Good Old Bad Old Days provide somewhat sunnier, up-tempo relief from the introspection, making this one of Newley's most ambitious and accomplished collections. As such, having it available again after more than 30 years is all the more welcome.