Malcolm McLaren has always been seen as something of either an impresario with a delicate sense of the pulse of youth culture or a shameless huckster willing to hitch himself to the ride of (m)any highly instinctive and talented performers. He’d been the latter when he aligned with the New York Dolls just as their short fuse was about to fully combust, just as he was perfectly exhibiting the former as a fashion designer within his Chelsea boutique called SEX sometime in the mid- 1970s. As manager/organizer of the Sex Pistols, McLaren was always spoken of by John Lydon in the harshest of tones, as if McLaren was little more than snake oil salesman meets two-bit crook. He might have been right, but perhaps the argument was always in the semantics of it; for the Sex Pistols were Lydon’s life, to which he saw an old friend used up and dead (Sid Vicious) by the end, while McLaren always saw the medium as a swindle, a glorious one to be sure, one that can change the world forever, but still a lark. I’d argue it’s from each of their different perspectives: McLaren, I think, eventually came to Lydon’s side of the argument when he realized that sitting atop it all as organizer is a bit of a cheat. How can anyone in the fray argue anything when they’ve placed nothing on the table, nothing of themselves on the line?
Malcolm McLaren eventually got around (not after he tried creating another Sex Pistols in the form of Bow Wow Wow) to entering the fray, when he recorded Duck Rock in 1983. Full of cutting edge music of the time (as McLaren saw it), Duck Rock is a smorgasbord of the then burgeoning hip-hop, world music, and dance movements. One track in particular, ‘Double Dutch’, McLaren seemed to be in roundabout discussion with himself about his past and what he perceived as his future place in the discussion. Continue reading
The idea of the novelty song is one from the earliest days of Pop’s birth. As soon as the form was birthed, perhaps because a good many thought it a quickly passing fad, artists (and really in this sub-genre it’s often more apt to describe them as ‘entertainers’ more than artists) sought to make cheeky party numbers about contemporary minutia or characters, often the stranger the better. Catching the immediate zeitgeist and quickly catching in was the name of the game in the genre, with the songs often reaping the profits on flimsy production costs. Nervous Norvus, the performing name of Jimmy Drake is, to me, the template for this aesthetic, his songs often little more than home produced demos, done by the dozens, exhibiting remarkable bang for the buck. He was over 40 when he struck gold with two hit singles in 1956, the most famous of which is ‘Transfusion’, a track about the pitfalls of a teenager Rock n’ Rollers fixation with burgeoning hot rod cultures night drag racing. The song, though full of whimsical, sardonic humor is also a cutting edge collage of sounds and other bric-a-brac; surgery jargon delivered alongside in the hippest jive slang of the day. The car crashes are heard (from a royalty free sound effect collection), as is Nervous Norvus’ unabashed eccentric yelps. It’s arty enough to warrant him mention in any discussion on the topic, but later in the year his ‘Ape Call’ broke even more ground. It cuts more to Pop’s tender heart, and, for my ears still sounds highly melodic and fresh (that he was over 40 when he wrote such whimsy makes me think he was something of a proto-Jonathan Richman). It’s a sweet hymn to the primitive call of love, complete with plenty of Norvus’ unique phrasings and stylized production.
But it was perhaps the Coasters who took the idea of the novelty track to an altogether different plane; yes ‘Yakety Yak’ (#1, 1958) and ‘Charlie Brown’ (#2, 1959) are the most well known, but ‘Along Came Jones’ (#9, 1959) and specifically ’Riot in Cell Block #9’ (when the band went under the the Robins moniker) the band showed the universal nature of an otherwise quick, cheap rush. All these tracks remain timeless and fun, whereas a novelty track like Brian Hyland’s ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini’ does not, and something a lot like the Coasters sound (Jimmy Soul’s remarkable ‘If You Wanna Be Happy’) remains so as well*. Somewhere it’s about the art of it, the joyous exuberance amidst something close to irreverence. It’s then all the more telling that another human trait—menace—trades ‘exuberance’ for the main thrust of perhaps my favorite novelty song, Rolf Harris’ 1965 ‘War Canoe’. Continue reading