Saturday, December 26, 2009

"My Ding-a-Ling" by Chuck Berry (1972)

I'm not really sure, within the scope of this ongoing list, how quite to deal with 'novelty songs'. See, novelty songs gain a kind of immunity from the hostility they should otherwise engender merely by the fact of their being 'novelty songs'. The thing is that you can't decry a song as annoying when it doesn't aspire to be anything more than annoying - though for the life of me I can't understand why anyone would voluntarily listen to it. Thus, you'll not find a song like "Witch Doctor" or "Eensy Weensy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini" on this list, deserving though those two example undoubtedly are. It seems like flogging a dead horse to describe those songs as 'terrible'. It seems to be the point.

And I'm certainly not opposed to humour belonging in music (as Frank Zappa might have put it). I like songs that make me laugh. It's just that so-called 'novelty songs' rarely do make me laugh, and those that might upon first hearing get old lightning fast as soon as the novelty, so to speak, wears off.

So what of this song? Well, it's the incredibly lecherous Chuck Berry, who apparently created rock and roll before becoming known for breaking the Mann Act with a 14-year-old and for installing video recorders in the ladies' toilets at a restaurant he owned. In between those acts, he decided to prove his class by recording the puerile song under current discussion. Apparently, it's excerpted from what must be an excruciatingly-long eleven minute version recorded live in Coventry on the geographically-challenged The London Chuck Berry Sessions album. Essentially, two bells on a string can be considered a toy called a 'ding-a-ling'. Fine, but the whole track is a one-joke effort built entirely around the following conceit: 'Ding-a-ling' sounds like it could be a code-word for male genitalia, so you can constantly seem to make nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to masturbation while discussing playing with the toy in question. Yay. Funny-ha-ha.

The song has a stubborn inability to go anywhere musically, being a kind of half-hearted knees-up with a childish melody. Berry constantly circumvents whatever momentum the song might accidentally build by trying to get the audience to participate. Which they do - they seem to be having a good time. I guess you had to be there.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

"No One is Innocent" by Ronnie Biggs and the Sex Pistols (1978)

I think punk, as a music genre and as an ideological or lifestyle 'movement', is largely an uneasy alliance of two remarkably different types: one group of people who see it as a rallying call, a form of protest, and one group who see it as an agenda-free release of energy or tension. There are 'revolutionaries', but in just as large measure there are mere empty nihilists as well. People who hate the system for the way it holds people down and seek to destroy it in order to replace it with something better, or people who hate the system merely because it's there and seek to destroy it with no thought whatsoever for what comes next.

The band that is remembered as the founder, the architect and the 'leader' of (British) punk music, the Sex Pistols, contains both in equal measure. Notably, Johnny Rotten, the primary lyricist, was resposible for the words of those epochal early singles that are both undeniably exciting and filled with a sense of self-importance: this was inarguably a band with something to say (much of the band's destroy-passersby sheer nihilism, it must be added, comes from him too). Equally notably, though, is Sid Vicious, the poster boy for vacuous violence and wanton, pointless thuggery. Sid Vicious made real all of the things that 'adult society' were saying about punk. His glorification also spelt the end of punk as potentially a force for real change. The band the Sex Pistols became, certainly after Johnny Rotten's departure but even before it, represented everything base about punk. This was a band that had abandoned incisive social criticism for purposeless button-pushing, a band that had, like lexicographers before and after, confused anarchy with mere chaos. The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle album and its attendant singles are very difficult listening indeed – no improvement whatsoever on the fatuous music they had allegedly set out to destroy.

Among many competitors, the song that stands out as being most tellingly horrible is “No One is Innocent”, sung (if you can call it that) by Ronnie Biggs, an escaped convict living in Brazil. His 'outlaw' status, I supposed, tickled the fancy of the remaining Sex Pistols, so they cheerily went ahead and let a boorish old man bellow tunelessly over punk-by-numbers. His bleating vocals are enough to merit inclusion here, but the self-serving lyrics are so childishly and stupidly baiting and offensive to make the case all by themselves. Glorifying child-killers and Nazis (not to mention glorifying himself, an escaped convict), Biggs associates the Sex Pistols with all kinds of unsavoury connections, sullying their genuinely revolutionary early years and calling into doubt their entire legacy.

It's no accident that punk split on one hand into a more explicitly political camp (including so-called 'hardcore' bands) and on the other hand into trash that was merely boorish at the best or explicitly hateful at the worst, cheered on by the skinheads and ultimately spawning neo-fascist bands like, for example, Skrewdriver. Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious may have worn swastikas as a bait to the older generation's conventions regarding morality, but the repeated baiting, with no observable sense of irony, did nothing to obscure a genuine contempt for the sufferings of others. Putting a swastika on the cover of one of your singles, calling a song “Belsen Was a Gas”, recording Biggs saying Nazis weren't wicked, “that was their idea of fun”... with time such 'taunts' start to sound like convictions, and the Sex Pistols' flirtation with Nazi symbolism starts to look like sympathising. And that's the sour taste their legacy leaves in my mouth. That's the reason that they, in the end, changed nothing, and all their revolutionary zeal was just so much hot air.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Hip to be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News (1986)

Huey Lewis is a special kind of awful. Cheery music for Sunday barbecues is all well and good - music doesn't always have to be about misery or angst or whatever. Music doesn't always have to be personal. Music doesn't always have to be progressive. Empty good-timey 'party' stuff has its place, I suppose. But it's amazing just how devoid of meaning and emotion Huey Lewis truly is. He feels at times like a song-composing computer: the result seems convincing on first glance, but if you look a little deeper it fails the Turing test conclusively.

This is stuff that only the 1980s could have produced. My problem with the 1980s was the sheer veneer of commercialism that was draped over it by people who had nothing to do with me or my life. There were a lot of great things in the 1980s, the decade of my childhood, but there was also a lot of very 'professional', slick product too. Insincerity became a legitimate option on the 1980s. Well, I guess it always was one, but it seemed that you could really run with it then. I don't know what this song has to do with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but it seems to fit with the naked greed and ambition of the era.

Lyrically, this is a very depressing tale of a person who 'used to be a renegade' who now has cut his hair and likes bands in business suits, bizarrely (ska still okay, then). It attempts to call untrendiness trendy, using words from the 1960s that were quaint relics even when this song was released. It takes its yay-for-selling-out tale over a typically Huey Lewis organ-based 'groove' that ultimately descends into a never-ending chant ("Here, there and everywhere"). Then, the whole mess is featured in a video comprised entirely of Huey Lewis and the band members gawking into a kind of fish-eye lens that makes it impossible to look at the screen for more than a minute. It's probably the video, as much as the main sell-out conceit, that gives this song the edge for me over similarly risible Huey Lewis songs "I Want a New Drug" and "The Heart of Rock & Roll".

Seeing that Hall & Oates have, on some level, enjoyed a renaissance recently makes me worry that this dead-and-buried group might enjoy some kind of twisted rebirth as 'kitsch'. But this is not 'kitsch'; this is empty bar-band nonsense written by people with no ambition for greatness for people with no ambition for greatness. It celebrates its emptiness, its vapidity. This makes me very sad.

Though I highly doubt that Huey Lewis was ever a 'renegade' in any way, shape or form, it's shocking to recall that this is the band that provided the musical backing for Elvis Costello's sublime debut album, My Aim is True. How sad to think that such a spiritually empty band once created music with vitality.

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

"Tears are Not Enough" by Northern Lights (1985)

It's funny how the music industry works, really. The singer of a moderately-popular Irish band, the Boomtown Rats, sees a report on TV about famine in Africa and is inspired to 'do something' about it. Somehow, his initial impulse spirals into a super-huge phenomenon that, while certainly noble and practical in value, does cause a deluge of rather bad music circa the mid-eighties.

Not that it started out so bad: Bob Geldof's own “Do They Know It's Christmas?”, recorded with such luminaries of the British and Irish pop music industry as Status Quo, Big Country and Ultravox, is actually quite decent, if you can get over the cringe-worthy moment when Bono grunts “thank God it's them instead of you” and the entire ethnocentricity behind the song's hook in a nation that's 34% Muslim and 44% Eastern Orthodox (celebrating Christmas in January). Michael Jackson came to the aid of Ethiopia with the more insipid yet still tolerable “We are the World”.

And then... then we have Bryan Adams. The man responsible for an endless stream of bland MOR-“hard rock” anthems all of which sound identical. Being Canadian (and what's more anglophone Canadian), Bryan Adams decided to help the people of Ethiopia by rounding up some of those globe-straddling heroes of Canadian music as Salome Bey, Carroll Baker, Liberty Silver and Alfie Zappacosta...

The result is, in the grand tradition of all-star charity tributes, horrible but imbued with a sense of seriousness that makes you feel bad for admitting it's horrible. How bad is it? Well, most of its terribleness can be summed up in about 15 consecutive seconds of the song, starting from the moment Corey “Sunglasses at Night” Hart takes the mic. A man afflicted with the same disease as Mick Jagger and forced to sing all of his lyrics through pouted lips, Hart gamely grunts out the line “it's time to send our message everywhere” (since until this time Canadian musicians were operating in silence on the topic of African famine) before adding a faux-Michael Jackson “cha-know” that ups the ridiculousness one point, before heading into...

Two lines in French, stuck in by three performers crowded around one mic, to represent the one-third of Canada that speaks French, in an otherwise entirely English-language song. Forced bilingualism is nothing new to Canadians, but the crassness of this particular example of tokenism is worse than normal. Rightfully sickened, Quebecois artists decided to go it alone, recording the unknown-outside-of-Quebec “Les yeux de la faim” instead. With no token English lines.

As if that weren't bad enough, the thrown-in French is followed by what is by far the most heinous moment of the song, the ludicrous jingoism of the line “let's show them Canada still cares” (sung by the generally politically-sound Bruce Cockburn) in order to reassure any starving Ethiopians who had been heard to say, “you know, it seems like Canada's just not as caring as they used to be”. Neither Britain, nor the USA, nor even Quebec felt the need to stick such a line in. It's immediately followed by Geddy Lee, one of the silliest vocalists in recorded history, “taking flight” on the line “oh, you kno-ooow that we'll be there” (hand-delivering food aid, presumably).

True understanding of this song can be achieved only in watching the video, where all of the principals hunker in turn around a mic in what might be a Sears Portrait Studio, invariably clenching their fists in front of them as if to signal to a passing eighteen-wheeler to pull its air horn. The song builds to its inevitable crecendo of group-sing-along of the chorus (this is a feature of every all-star charity song ever) over which certain principals, overcome presumably with emotion, break rank to 'improvise' key phrases from the song, such as “bridge the disawwwwnce, yeah” in a very orderly fashion. In the video, the chorus of Canada's best-and-brightest suddenly transforms to a rink full of hockey players. Yes, swaying and singing the song. I kid you not. Canada's turn at the all-star charity single game features Wayne Gretzky and whoever else gamely singing along. Which is, to be fair, not that much more ridiculous than the studio chorus including a handful of comedians such as Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara.

Because, you know, the whole thing wasn't already enough of a joke.

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Helter Skelter" by the Beatles (1968)

Ah, the White Album... that testament to the awe-inspiring power of the human ego. You know, George Martin apparently begged them to make it into a single album. Well, duh... With judicious editing, you can break the White Album into two different albums: one would be perhaps the greatest album they've ever made, and one would be perhaps the single worst slab of vinyl ever.

It'd be an interesting exercise to see how most people would accomplish that feat. While it's certain that everyone would deservedly put "Bungalow Bill" on the garbage disc, and most people of taste would put "Ob-la-di, ob-la-da" there too, I imagine a lot of people would put "Revolution 9" there, which personally I enjoy quite a bit. And most people would give "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" pole position on the good-disc, whereas I can't stand that song's overblown grandiosity.

There's a lot I could have chosen from this album. The atrocious "Birthday" and "Piggies" come to mind. Yet I've included the truly horrendous "Helter Skelter" because while it's every bit as cynical and smug as half the other songs I've mentioned (plus "Honey Pie" and "Savoy Truffle"), it is actually convinced of its own worth, being as pathetic an attempt at 'rocking out' as anything I've heard. Talented musicians pretending they can't play, misquidedly confusing weedy screeching with 'passion', the Betales here don't sound like they're just throwing crap out there to fill up a disc; they sound like people who are trying and just falling spectacularly far from the mark. As ridiculous as this song, with its fake fade-out and "I've got blisters on me fingers" bluster, there apparently exists a 15-minute outtake of it. Can you imagine if this song, interminably long at four minutes, actually did go on that long? Blisters on my ears. And blisters on my respect for the Beatles' craftmanship.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Coconut" by Harry Nilsson (1971)

I had thought of a few things to say about Jimmy Buffet before getting into this song, but it turns out it's not by him at all but by Harry Nilsson instead – which is strange, because it just seems so Jimmy Buffet-esque and not so Harry Nilsson-esque. Well, not that I know much about either performer, except that Nilsson was buddy-buddy with John Lennon. I do know this song, largely due to Quentin Tarantino, who usually has a touch for soundtracking so deft that twenty year old songs instantly and irredeemably 'belong' to the movies he includes them in. “Reservoir Dogs” does this perfectly both with the 'opening song' “Little Green Bag” and with the ear-cutting special “Stuck in the Middle With You” - two songs that, through revisionist history, are now 'from' a movie released decades after the songs themselves were.

And then there's this. Wikipedia reveals that the song was written with only one chord: which makes sense, as everything about is screams monotonous and dull. It is, of course, variations on the sentence 'put the lime in the coconut' plus varying shrieks of 'doctor!' all sung in crap accents and 'voices'. I think it's trying to be clever and 'breezy'. It is, however, at any length, painfully dull garbage that outweighs its welcome before you ever get to the 'now let me get this straight' line.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Illegal Alien" by Genesis (1984)

We’ve got a bit of a double-feature this week, looking at the same artist at his very best and at his very worst.

Phil Collins has nothing to say. I’m sure he’ll tell you that himself. I don’t believe at all that artists must be tortured to make great art, but it’s very difficult to make your art have meaning if you’re a happy-go-lucky guy. Ask Paul McCartney. Or Mike Love. At least they had ‘darker’ partners who could balance their essentially meaningless cheeriness. After Peter Gabriel, who was going to provide that valuable service for Phil? The guy from Mike and the Mechanics?

Phil is not talentless. On this very album, the dark and moody “Mama” is a minor masterpiece of storytelling. The problem is that he gives too little consideration to taste.

Case in point, this: one of the most insulting and offensive songs ever written. Genesis claims that it’s meant to be an ironic parody, but I can’t see that at all.

What I see is a bunch of wealthy white English men taking the real and tragic plight of immigrants and turning it into a clown-show worse than Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales”.

Phil Collins sings the whole song in a stereotypical ‘Mexican’ accent. The lyrics make your toes curl, filled with all nature of innuendo about immigrants in general and Mexicans in particular. The song’s middle-eight suddenly transforms into a mock-‘ethnic’ jangle, like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” only, if this were possible, worse.

The video features Phil and the other two looking as ‘greasy’ as possible engaged in the escapades depicted in the lyrics, a performance that makes Peter Sellers’s Indian characters the very model of respectful depiction.

And, on top of all of this racist, xenophobic garbage, the song itself is crap too: built on a cheesy keyboard riff and with the least natural verse-to-chorus transitions. The chorus reduces a complex international political issue to the sentence “it’s no fun being an illegal alien” chanted over and over again.

“Fun” and “alien” don’t rhyme, you say? Ah, but you miss the power of Phil’s crap Speedy Gonzales accent. The song features a ‘breakdown’ near the end with dozens of people singing and clapping this line while Phil does ridiculous soul-boy-cum-minstrel show ‘vocalisations’. Then that damned synth line comes in. And an entire nation hangs its head in shame.

Not only is it a shame that Genesis saw fit to record this and release it, but their record company even decided to release it as a single. Why? Did they not care who they might be insulted by this? Was their desire to make a racist joke so strong that they felt they needed to do it at all costs?

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

"Dreadlock Holiday" by 10cc (1978)

Just in case you think there's nothing I like out there – I don't dislike 10cc. I don't know much about them, but I can tell you “I'm Not in Love” is one of the most beautiful, most atmospheric songs from the 1970s that I know. It's not that 10cc is crap – just that this, one of their most well-known songs, is.

It appears that this is the tale of an English man on holiday in Jamaica, who is assaulted by some Jamaicans and decides to respond by claiming to love things Jamaicans stereotypically like: namely, in turn, cricket and reggae. In the end, he is seduced by a Jamaican woman, and decides (as far as I can tell – the lyrics are banal beyond belief) that he loves Jamaica (or alternately, loves the seducer but hates Jamaica). Whatever. What is is is embarrassing cod-reggae by people with no specific appreciation for the genre or the culture it's rooted in. It's crass and, what's more, it's annoying. How many times have you been in a mall or an office somewhere and heard “I don't like reggae; I love it” quietly in the background and, like a code word that triggers a trained Doberman, suddenly and inexplicably filled you with rage and an urge to kill? That's what this song (and its horrible accompanying video) can do. This was a number one in England. Shame, England, shame.

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Hollaback Girl" by Gwen Stefani (2005)

I want to like Gwen Stefani. I really really do. I think it's leftover affection from "No Speak", an undeniably excellent song. I do like ska music a lot, but I never really took to No Doubt's overly exuberant take on it. And towards the end of their career as they devolved into claptrap like "Hey Baby" (or decided to cover Talk Talk's "It's My Life" in a version that sounds exactly like the original), I actually thought that the idea of her 'going pop' (like, what was No Doubt exactly?) was a good one. I figured she'd fit the top-40 mould quite well.

But let's make no mistake about it: this is a deeply, deeply annoying song. I don't really even want to call it a song exactly, since it's just a chant, but there's some interesting instrumentation scattered throughout the track. An accident, I'm sure, or at least no fault of Gwen's, who is about as annoying as she's ever been here. The song is based primarily on her shouting "I ain't no hollaback girl" (perhaps hoping we'll care about what that might mean), singing 'it's my shit' or repeatedly spelling the word 'bananas'. I kid you not. This is what Gwen Stefani considered single-worthy (and in fact she was right, as the song was a massive success: must resist urge for misanthropy...).

Apparently this song is, in part, a response to Courtney Love's labelling of Gwen Stefani as a 'cheerleader' (which she very obviously is, as an archetype). I'll certainly not defend Courtney Love, but if someone disses you, and you respond by giving them ample material for the diss... well, either you're a glutton for punishment or you just want to fill swimming pools with money, Unca Scrooge-style.

Well... I guess I can't fault Gwen Stefani that. But when she coos "ooh, it's my shit, it's my shit" over and over again, she's about as honest and observant as she's ever been.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Iko Iko" by the Dixie Cups (1965)

Apparently, the song "Iko Iko" is rooted deep in New Orleans folklore, coming from Creole and Amerindian heritages - things that ought to make the song worthy of an exhibit at the Smithsonian, and things that, I believe, have allowed this song a certain amount of prestige, despite the fact that it is indesputably crap.

The lyrics consist of verses that rhyme 'fire' with 'fire', talk about warring grandmothers and flag boys, and feature a chorus of gibberish.

But here's the thing: that's the best part of it. I know other people have recorded this song, but the only other version I'm familiar with is the one from Rain Man, which at least has nice bass. This version, by far the most famous one, is perfomed on a Coke bottle. That's correct. The cynicism of the music industry in the nineteen sixties was such that a group of teenage girls with painfully flat singing voices could bang on a Coke bottle, sing a half-remembered song from their grandparents' and publicly release it and make a hit from it. Remember that this is the decade that so many people, in a bleary-eyed fashion, describe as the 'golden age of pop'. 1965 is the year that, among other things, the Beatles released Revolver, John Coltrane released A Love Supreme, Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited, and both the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd played their first concerts... yet we were still in a world where Coke bottle music could become commercially successful and, what's more, iconic.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin (1988)

Okay, a bit obvious, I realise. there is, today at least, pretty much no one on the planet that will deny the fact that this song is about as enjoyable as getting a root canal and an enema simultaneously. What amazes me, though, about it is simply just how wrong-headed it is.

I will come out and say this right now: Bobby McFerrin is awesome. Type his name into YouTube, click on any video not featuring Robin Williams, and what ensues will be awesomeness. His schtick, making clucking and singing noises while thumping his chest, doesn't seem very promising, but he really can make beautiful music.

I guess there's something to be said for 'selling out', if you realise you want your career to be in music and if your chosen format (a capella free improvisation) doesn't always inspire the millions. I don't blame Bobby McFerrin for making a cheery pop song in order to line his wallet. But this song is just so fatuous, so glib, so smug and so ear-bleedingly annoying that it had, ultimately, a detrimental effect on his career, I imagine. It's the "I Just Called to Say I Love You" effect writ large, but at least Stevie Wonder had almost 20 years of popular genious behind him at the time. This song could do nothing more than make McFerrin a permanent one-hit-wonder, and even worse, a Crazy Frog style one-hit-wonder.

What's so god-awful about it? Well, the cod-reggae is unpleasant as a capella, but it's tolerable compared to the cheesy Jamaican accents in the song. (Jamaica in the 80s built an entire marketing campaign around the phrase "No Worries": this, I guess, is the rationale for the Jamaican overtones.) The dumbing-down of serious problems into an insulting "forget-about-it" philosophy. The whistling. The spoken-word interjections. The whole nauseating mess. As Chuck D pointed out in "Fight the Power", this garbage went to number one. Atrocious.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Johnny Get Angry" by Joanie Sommers (1962)

Ah, nostalgia. Some people get misty-eyed and weepy over any old thing, inevitably claiming, whatever the topic, that things were better ‘in the old days’.


Some things were most definitely not better back then, and a woman’s lot in life was definitely one of them. As a kid, I could never really understand the time scale of sexual liberation in the United States. 1955 is always seen as ‘year zero’ for youth culture, and you’d almost get the impression for the way things are reported that in that single year the USA went from total repression to complete liberation. Yet “Leave It to Beaver”, a great visual example of conservatism and sexual repression if ever one existed, actually débuted in 1957 and lasted until 1963, the year of Kennedy’s assassination and of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. All of the ‘sock hops’ and ‘daddy-o’ and now embarrassing ‘youth culture’ of the era happened when women still aspired to be June Cleaver, and aspired to have a Ward Cleaver tell them what to do.

Or did they? The present horrendous song was indeed sung, breathily, by a woman. Yet my research shows that it was written by Hal David, shocking since he was also responsible for many gorgeous songs including “Say a Little Prayer” and “Walk On By”. Yet Mr. David also presumably had a penis, and thus was putting these words into a woman’s mouth either because he presumed this is how women thought or because, on behalf of a male hegemony, he wanted women to think this way.

The story is sickening. Testing her boyfriend’s commitment, she feigns breaking up with him and she dances with another boy, hoping to bring out his rage. Johnny, by ‘hanging his head’ disappoints the woman. Her expectation was that he would get angry and shout at her. She hoped that he would become a ‘caveman’ and, in so doing ‘show me that you care, really care, for me’.

You heard that correct. She’s asking her boyfriend to abuse her as a sign of love.

I really can’t comprehend the thinking that goes into a song like this. Regardless of era, regardless of the gender holding the pen, this is sick. It’s not an excessive outbreak of political correctness but mere common sense to say that songs like this cheapen and exploit the trauma battered women undergo and not only make domestic abuse socially acceptable but even imply that it’s what women want. There is no acceptable “it’s only a song” argument to be made here. If popular culture has repercussions, then being “only a song” is no mitigation whatsoever.

Musically, the song is similarly dreadful, at one point taking ludicrous to a whole new level by introducing an ensemble of kazoos. Yet the musical background here is significant only to the extent that it sugar-coats the words sung over top of it.

k.d. lang brilliantly subverted this song more than a full generation later. Her over-the-top shrieks and pathos turn the song into a clever piece of performance art with very obvious political repercussions. Yet that was all those years, all those struggles, later. And the fact is that, wonderful as k.d. lang’s effort to reclaim the song was, the original still lay hidden in our collective subconscious, entirely without irony and even more dangerously buried below layers of false nostalgia and wrong-headed chronological relativism, ready to quietly pass its message onto a whole new generation of abusive men.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

"Barbie Girl" by Aqua (1997)

Okay, as you may have noticed so far, kitsch and novelty don’t grate me as much as they grate some people. A song that can laugh at itself will generally not bother me as much as some masturbatory piece of wank that takes itself dead serious. Pop can get pretty light and still please me. The thing is that some people seem convinced that music is always art and should be challenging. Yes, I love challenging art, but music is more than one thing. It can also be entertainment that aspires to nothing more than being uplifting.

In this case, though, I’m not really sure what it is that I’m hearing. To a certain extent, this song seems calculated to annoy. I man, if it’s just a song for kids, fine. Some kids’ music is pretty good, actually, but where it isn’t (Sharon, Lois and Bram) I just say, “well, I’m not a kid, so this music is not for me.” Sticking a Raffi song on this list just for the purpose of saying, “Pffft! Doesn’t this suck!” is not only Grinch-like but also entirely pointless.

But this song appears to be juvenilia for adults. The Japanese can do this, but the Europeans don’t seem to have much of a knack for it. The lead vocalist’s singing is pitch-shifted to the point that it crosses a pain threshold, while the group’s Fred Schneider seems to actually aspire to evoking anger in listeners.

By being hateful-cute, this song does a great disservice to enjoyable-cute stuff everywhere. And the fact is that the juvenilia aspect of it is really quite upsetting. It seems to evoke blow-up sex toys and innocent child playtime in equal measure, and it does so with a smirk on its face that is frankly the most unsettling part of it. I suppose there are little girls who bop around the room happily when they hear this song, but all I can imagine are greasy-haired middle-aged men guffawing as the song comes on the radio.

This is one of very few songs that appear both on this list and on the countless other lists of ‘worst songs ever!’ out there, because frankly my sense of what makes a bad song is different from most other people’s. That hatred of this song is so nearly universal almost makes me wonder if that was the point of the song: a kind of Crazy Frog before its time.

But if this song was deliberately annoying, all of those people (adults) who rushed out and bought it, in volumes high enough to, according to Wikipedia, send it to #1 on the charts in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Italy, the UK, France, Ireland, Belgium (for two months, no less), Germany, Australia and Switzerland: what the hell was wrong with them?

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Walk of Life" by Dire Straits (1985)

I may well get crucified for this one: I know this is a well-loved song. The thing is that I can’t stand it. As a general rule, I hate all baseball music, and I’m not even sure if this is a baseball song. I don’t think it is, in fact: Mark Knopfler is British, and the song’s lyrics seem to say something about songs or music or something. Perhaps the ‘walk of life’ is a dance. Don’t know. Don’t care.

It’s the organ, you see. That’s what makes it ‘baseball music’. The rinky-dinky rink organ that just calls out ‘me and the boys having a good time with beer and barbecue’. Kind of like “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen, equally cringe-worthy. The whole thing reeks of a kind of fake enthusiasm and ‘gusto’ that is about as catchy as a lead pipe. I recently spoke about “Lay Down Sally” by Eric Clapton, and this song has pretty much the same qualities. I love happiness and breeziness and meaningless good-time party vibes in music. But if there’s some sincerity to it. This sounds like what a robot programmed to come up with ‘fun music’ might produce.

And as far as headbands go, none was more evil than Mark Knopfler’s. The ‘CD test’ album this came from, “Brothers in Arms” had a gorgeous title-track but also “Money for Nothing”, whose repugnant lyrics (ah, but it’s tongue-in-cheek, not really homophobic and demeaning at all) might make it even a worse song than this one if it weren’t for the fourteen-second solo guitar part that comes in about half a minute into the song and is the best fourteen-second solo guitar part on any guitar-wank technophilic CD to be released in the mid-eighties. So that’s why “Money for Nothing” isn’t here and this is.

Oh, plus the fact that I want to squeeze my head in a vice to stop the pain every time I hear this song.

Oh, plus the headband. This song deserves inclusion for the headband alone, if nothing else.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Lay Down Sally" by Eric Clapton (1977)

Apparently, when I was, like, four, I amazed my father and several of his friends by being correctly able to identify the song “Layla” by its opening guitar riff. I have no comment on how I was able to do that (especially since it would have been a years-old mouldy oldie at that time), but I can confirm that I like that song quite a bit.

Which makes it perhaps the only Eric Clapton song I’ve liked in his 40-some-odd years as a professional musician.

Yes, yes. Eric Clapton is God. I know, I know. Thing is, I don’t believe in God, either.

For me, the moment of truth was finding Time Pieces: The Best of Eric Clapton in a cutout bin. I knew I liked “Layla” (and that rubbishy acoustic version had yet to come out) and seemed to recall having heard a song or two of his that I didn’t mind. Plus, the universe was filled with people all too willing to tell me how great Eric Clapton is. So I saw it there looking me in the face for, like, $3 or something, and gave it a go.

Time Pieces: The Best of Eric Clapton is perhaps the worst greatest hits album ever, beating out even Shaquille O’Neal’s. I know, it sounds like iconoclasm for its own sake, but it’s a simple fact. A more inept album I could not imagine. Except for the great “Layla” and the acceptable “After Midnight”, it’s laziness from start to finish. For a man allegedly so connected to the blues, Clapton seems to have no soul, no passion or feeling whatsoever. He is a piece of cardboard. He can play guitar well enough, but so can Yngwie Malmsteen, and that doesn’t mean anyone ever wants to listen to him either.

I’ve chosen the excruciating “Lay Down Sally.” But equally legitimately it could have been “Cocaine” or “Willie and the Hand Jive” or his embarrassing take on “I Shot the Sherriff”. It could also have been “Tales of Brave Ulysses” or any of the every-now-and-then interchangeable singles he’s released over the past fifteen years that have a vague soft-rock feel but are produced by R&B svengalis like Babyface. All deserve to be here, frankly.

“Lay Down Sally” is the most depressing because it attempts to be ‘jolly’. Because we know you have to have a heart to have one broken, we can immediately recognize soulless robo-emoting on supposed ‘sad songs’ as the pretense it is. Because this preposterous little ‘down-home shuffle’ sets its sights so low, though, we may not immediately realize how it is affected by Mr. Clapton’s critical lack of a soul.

But affected it is. The wholly unconvincing ‘good-timey’ vibe (with female b-vox appearing in time for the chorus) actually accentuates its total lack of personality. ‘Good-timey’ only works if it’s charming, and I can’t imagine anything as charmless as this.

And the guitar’s no great shakes either.

God, pshaw.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer (1985)

It’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, I know. And in this particular case, his premature, unnatural death is genuinely tragic. Very sad.

Yet this does nothing to change the fact that the decades-long career of Robert Palmer was, pretty much without exception, horrible. After spending the seventies as a dilettante, making facile covers in a variety of genres spiritually alien to him (and the casual cheesiness and sexism of merely the album covers from this decade pretty much tell you everything there is to know), Palmer settled into the 80s as one of the best faces for the naked greed and ambition people ‘his age’ had developed by then.

It’s difficult not to have a love/hate relationship with the 80s. On the one hand, there was so much great music made – primarily music made for the consumption of kids, music that was scorned by the post-hippie ‘style makers’ of the time. Then there was this: ‘beer commercial’ music made by people wearing suits (not that there’s anything wrong with suits, mind you) and intended for mass consumption by people for whom music is a background – something for the ghetto blaster to play while playing catch in the backyard, for example. Not only is it music without a soul, it’s music that fetishises its lack of a soul.

Theoretically, I could have chosen any Robert Palmer song for inclusion here, and certainly it was a toss-up between this, its clone “Simply Irresistable”, “Some Like it Hot” (all the more reprehensible because Duran Duran and Chic, the ‘main bands’ of this side-project’s other members, were otherwise making decent music) and Palmer’s 1970s intro to corporate-rock, “Bad Case of Loving You”. All are equally terrible, all are interchangeable. Ultimately, it has to be this one, though. For several reasons:
  • That video. As so often happened in the 80s, confusing ‘sexist’ with ‘sexy’, it’s a leering, drooling, sneering video, present ‘women as musicians’ as a comical concept. All surface, no depth, ‘cool’ in intention but ultimately icky, it fit its soundtrack perfectly.
  • Clichés in lieu of meaning in the lyrics. Lyrics don’t have to have meaning, but they shouldn’t be just a long litany of cheesy wannabe-aphorisms like “The lights are on, but no-one’s home” either.
  • The line “your teeth guh-rind”. This teeth-cuh-lenchingly annoying line is ultimately the reason I chose this airbrushed muscle-man ode to naked ambition over any of its creator’s other, um, masterpieces. I can wake up in the night in a cold terror thinking about that annoying two-syllable ‘grind’. Truly, truly dastardly.
That this, shockingly enough, was designed as a duet with the truly magnificent Chaka Khan goes to show both how misguided the mid-eighties’ sense of ‘soul’ was and how lucky this English-Bahamanian was to have been born in the era where his sleazy soul-boy dribblings could, for reasons I’ll never understand, be interpreted as in some way ‘authentic’.

Alternately, I suppose Chaka just needed the money.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

"Young Girl" by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (1968)

Great songs can have terrible lyrics. Sometimes terrible songs can have great lyrics. You can't judge a song by its lyrics.

Um, well...

There have to be a few exceptions. This absolutely vile testament to, well, the joys of young love is one example. I won't include lyrics here, but I'll include a link to them. Notice how the song is not merely about lecherous drooling regarding a 'baby in disguise' who should 'hurry home to (her) mama', but it even has the cheek to blame the child in question for her 'come-on look'.

Gary Puckett's oddly-titled backup group the Union Gap features horns blaring in a minutely-Latin manner. They don't sound all that bad, despite the hackneyed half-time lead in. But Mr. Puckett's 'throaty' vocalisations ruin even the chance of enjoying this song by ignoring the lyrics. His bravura would be sickening if he were, for example, comparing his (adult) love to the moon or some rubbish. However using his brassy, charmless tenor to shout accusingly at the child he's sexually attracted to merely compounds the problem.

When this song was released, it was a #1 hit in the UK and #2 in the USA. Somehow, people actually enjoyed this repugnant song and went out and purchased it, or else requested it on the radio. Perhaps some were young girls, and could maybe be excused. Yet how this playground-stalkers' anthem could ever be played in clean conscience by adults, I have no idea.

Truly hideous.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow" by Parliament (1970)

This is perhaps the most tragic inclusion on this list. By all rights, this should be a drop-dead kick-ass song. Why? Well, let me count the ways.

Firstly, it's by George Clinton and Funkadelic, purveyor of much of the 1970s' best music. Secondly, it's got that name. George Clinton was a master at funky song titles, but never again after this did he come with a title both funky and iconic. It's the kind of Zen koan that ought to be inscribed on a tombstone somewhere.

Thirdly, En Vogue were, many years later, able to filch that song title and make a great piece of music out of it. Fourthly, the album for which this is the title track has one of the greatest, most clever and sexiest gatefold covers ever to grace and album. Lastly, critics rate it highly.

Well, scratch that last one; critics rate pretty much everything P. Funk did highly. It's neither here nor there.

I'm not baiting anyone. I really, really love George Clinton, and I went into this song with a world of high expectations.

What did I find? Um, feedback, other noises, religious gibberish... for ten long painful minutes. Normally, a long P. Funk song is cause for celebration (hello "Knee Deep"). But in the case of this particular bad trip, length is just another dimension of hell (kind of like the movie "Titanic"). Ten minutes is even more painful because it allows you to suffer through two, three, four, five minutes of the song figuring it's a kind of whacked-out 'introduction'... Nope. That's the song itself. It never does get better; the funk never does kick in. Just more religious hoo-hah.

So eternally disappointing.

Still, it's a hell of a great name.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys (1965)

By all rights, the entire music industry should have packed it in and went home in 1966. These days, we look back to this era as a kind of halcyon ‘golden era’. And with good reason too. By 1967 (the so-called ‘Summer of Love’), rock of the ‘heavy, dude’ persuasion had really taken over and destroyed much of what was wonderful in 1966, the year of “Revolver”, of “Fifth Dimension”, of “Blonde on Blonde”, of “Pet Sounds”...

Ah yes, “Pet Sounds”. It truly is as wonderful as everyone says it is. “Caroline, No” melts your heart into a tiny puddle. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” confirms to you that music can bring eternal youth. Even “Sloop John B”, strangely maligned, is in my opinion great.

But how “Pet Sounds” ever got made I don’t know. How it took until 1967 for Brian Wilson to eat his hat and fry his brain, I don’t know. If I were him, I would have crawled into that sandbox the moment this present atrocity was released as a single.

How humiliating it must have been for him. He had put his heart and soul into “California Girls”. Okay, let’s admit it, the lyrics are twaddle. But that melody, and that instrumentation. It was the great leap forward for the Beach Boys, from conservative surf-and-cars nonsense to greatness. Pushing himself as much as he could, Wilson retired from live performance to craft similar ‘teenage symphonies’.

The next one up, “The Little Girl I Once Knew” is, well, just all right. To hear people say it, the fact that there are seconds of silence in this song pretty much condemned it to failure (clearly an era before InXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart”). To be honest, the song isn’t a great leap forward on the scale of “California Girls” before it or Pet Sounds after it. But it wasn’t an embarrassment either.

When it stiffed, the record company put out this.

This, if you can stand to hear it from start to finish, is an insult to Brian Wilson, an insult to Beach Boys fans, and an insult to all lovers of good music. It came from a knock-off album meant to simulate a ‘Beach Boys Party’. All acoustic instruments, homey campfire-vibe, whatever. This is two minutes (three on the even more excruciating album cut) of off-key and off-tempo warbling, bummed notes, fluffed lines, knock-off crap. It would be the weak point of a bootleg record of ‘studio outtakes’. It’s already a terrible song, and they do a bad job of a terrible song.

More diabolically, they pronounce it “bobberann”. Incessantly.

Fans should have revolted. Brian Wilson should have quit in disgust. Radio should have refused to play any Capitol singles until they withdrew the single and apologized for the whole fiasco.

Instead what happened? Meatheads bought the pile of rubbish and drove the single to #2 on the charts, higher than “California Girls”.

When the record industry realized that finely crafted indelible compositions would sell less than knocked-off, cynical product – and here in 1966, the ‘golden year’ of music, they should have cried uncle and packed it up and went home.

Instead, a full generation later, we got “Kokomo”. For our sins.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

"China Girl" by David Bowie (1983)

More than one significant voice in online punditdom has declared Starship’s “We Built This City” the single worst song in the history of recorded sound. I have to admit that that song’s vacuity is tough to beat.

For me, though, I’m nominating “China Girl” as the worst song in the history of the universe. My particular hatred of this song has largely to do with the fact that it was created by the same human who had, just in the previous few years, created music as divinely transcendent as “‘Heroes’” and “Under Pressure”. Undoubtedly following Bowie through the years will always be a difficult task, not because of his stylistic jumps but because of his not-too-occasional lapses into toe-curling banality. It’s an ongoing thing. I mean, how to reconcile that the very album that contains the great “Rebel Rebel” and “1984” could actually be titled after the completely horrible “Diamond Dogs”?

Oh, and there was Tin Machine. In fact, there was the entire 1980s…

Bowie pissed all over the 1970s. His 1970s discography is such an embarrassment of riches that, by the time Scary Monsters came out, the fact that the album wasn’t up to much didn’t stop it from being a triumphant coronation. So much so that Bowie was able to hop from Elvis’s record company to EMI, the label the Sex Pistols had so recently decried. Eager to suck that corporate teat, Bowie suddenly put on a suit and bleached his soul of anything approaching ‘edge’, ‘passion’, ‘integrity’ or ‘enjoyable music’. He came out with an album called Let’s Dance. As Reagan and Thatcher celebrated recent victories, this new plastic-Bowie sold by the boatloads.

The album is, from start to finish, garbage. It’s all bathed in echo, with Bowie’s basso ridiculoso crooning/groaning over top, cheesy background vocals, cheesy guitar, and… shudder… 80s saxophone.

Is there anything more terrible than the sound of a saxophone honking on a song made in the 1980s? I have no real qualm with that particular instrument, and I love 80s music, but the two just do not go together. From 1980 to 1989, the saxophone almost consistently lowered the quality of songs it was on.

Oh, sorry, was I talking about “China Girl”? “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love”, the other two singles from this album, may well feature in the top ten of worst songs ever recorded. However, they don’t quite make my skin crawl as much as this song. Apparently, it’s a ‘cover’ of a song he co-wrote with Iggy Pop before his creative bankruptcy. I must admit having never heard the song. Iggy Pop acolytes claim it’s ‘subversive’. Maybe. Maybe the garbage lyrics are in some way a ‘statement’ on east-west relations when handled by Mr. Pop. However, in Bowie’s mouth, they are nauseatingly ridiculous, as he sings, completely without irony, that he feels ‘tragic like Marlon Brando’, that he ‘stumbles into town just like a sacred cow’ and that when he gets excited, his ‘little China girl says “obey me, just you shut your mouth”’. All with a little ‘Oriental’ guitar riff on top.

And it comes in service of a video featuring him pulling the sides of his eyes ‘Chinese-style” and, later, rolling around bare-assed on the beach with said ‘Chinese girl’. Whether all of this is meant to be sexy or merely repulsive is never made clear.

For Bowie, it scarcely got any better than this for a good ten years. If a sadder tragedy has ever been seen in the annals of modern music, I know it not.

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