SONGS I LOVE: ‘WAR CANOE’

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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’. 

‘War Canoe’ is something of a real oddity then, especially in the novelty song sub-genre, as it doesn’t seem that fun, instead it’s all steady repetition, as frightening as it is interesting. The whole structure built around a sound that would have terrified settlers 125 years prior; the unison with which a group of Indians paddle their canoe on a raid. The entire song seems something like a chorus, “all together” repeated both within and outside the traditional hook, producing both a darkly (when the song is clearly about working together to “creep along” to become “near” their enemy. The heavy breathing becoming a panting of murder, with “come and kill the enemy!” offering the song its one exclamation akin to ‘joy’) and optimistic (when the reference points more towards the Indian point-of-view and just wanting for them to return home “safe and warm”) hypnotic effect. It’s a wonder to behold, and like a lot of novelty songs, makes a telling point about just how odd a hit could be within the Pop landscape.

Nearly 20 years later the song would continue to show its brilliance; not only had Adam Ant and Marco Pirroni fashioned their aesthetic on the war dress of the Native American complete with face paint, but ‘War Canoe’ was lifted from for their number 1 hit of 1981, ‘Prince Charming’. The influence isn’t coincidental, nor cheap apparently, as Rolf Harris would claim years later† that an out-of-court settlement had been reached with a large sum of the royalties being finally paid out. To me, the forgery is fine, I don’t think there is a better song for Adam Ant to rip. Maybe only a certain Paul Revere and the Raiders 1971 track seems moreso, but then Adam has more taste than ‘Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)’ affords!

*another Coasters novelty song, 1962’s ‘Little Egypt (Ying-Yang)’ shouldn’t be missed either

†it’s a sad, disgusting fact to also note that whenever you talk about Rolf Harris and ‘years later’ you have to cover his indecent assault charges. In 2014, at the age of 84, Harris was jailed when he was found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault on 4 female victims, aged 8-19 occurring between 1968 and 1986

7 thoughts on “SONGS I LOVE: ‘WAR CANOE’

  1. God, what a terrible late life legal horror for Rolf. Yes the repetition and the beat make this stand out, and it is wholly infectious. It is enveloping in the same way that Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ is, and hold together refrain is quite effective. Yes, The Coasters were among the forerunners of this type of song, which later was embraced by the likes of Johnny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue”) and Napoleon XIV. The latter offered up “They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha Ha,” which is my own favorite novelty song. As you note it is rather astounding that these kind of songs were able to climb the charts. Your scholarly examination of this song makes for a marvelous read.

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