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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