I don’t care who you are, that’s funny: on some confusions in comedy

So, I was thinking about comedy lately. I was thinking in particular about comedians who specialise in saying stuff that they know that their audiences are likely to find offensive, but who say it in such a way that they can get their audiences to laugh at it. (The crucial thing here is the plural: ‘audiences’. Not all comedians have the same audience. We’ll get back to this.)

Now, one of the basic axioms of our understanding of modern comedy is that its fundamental function is to make you laugh. You can find it articulated here, in this archive review from 2007, on the website of my current employers, of a show by Australian comedian Jim Jeffries: ‘Through all of this, Jeffries’ humour borders on the visceral, but you can’t write him off as simply a shock merchant; anyone can be gratuitously offensive but Jeffries never forgets that his prime task is to make us laugh.’ I think that this is something that most comedians, and most lovers of comedy, and most comedy critics, would agree about: the ultimate function of comedy is to make you laugh.

Now, here is where I depart from the consensus. I think that most comedians, and most comedy lovers, and most comedy critics, are mistaking the medium of comedy (or, perhaps, ‘genre’, but let’s go with ‘medium’ for now) for the functions of individual comedians.

I think that, to claim that the ‘prime task’ of any comedian is to make us laugh, is like saying that the prime task of any novelist is to assemble words into sentences that compose an extended narrative sequence, or that the prime task of any painter is to produce canvases with paint on them. Saying that comedians are supposed to make people laugh, only describes how it is that comedians do what they actually do.

Making the audience laugh is not the prime task of the comedian. Making people laugh is just what distinguishes comedians from non-comedians. Making people laugh is what Michael McIntyre has in common with Stewart Lee, and what Jim Jeffries has in common with…okay, well, any comedian you can think of who is exceptionally family-friendly. The prime task of the comedian varies, depending on whatever it is that that particular comedian is using the medium of comedy to do.

The medium of comedy is that you go up on stage and make people laugh. But the reason why comedy is still in so many ways such a confused, immature and thoughtless art form, is that too many comedians still think that all they really have to do is make people laugh, By Any Means Necessary. This is why comedy reviews are usually so fucking boring. The reviewer sits there and reports on whether or not a show was, In The Reviewer’s Opinion, funny, without usually taking the effort to describe what the comedian was doing; what the comedian’s stance was with respect to the audience; whether the jokes were intended to bring the audience in or drive them off; whether the jokes were jokes on the comedian or jokes that enlisted the audience with the comedian, at the expense of some third party, etc. And the reason why most comedy reviews don’t talk about stuff like that, is that most comedians haven’t thought about it either.

Of course, there are some comedians who have thought about it. Stewart Lee is probably the most glaring example, but really, any great comedian has confronted these questions on a visceral level, and with any great comedian’s act, I would submit that their solutions to these problems become very complex. Lenny Bruce, at his best, offered himself up as a kind of sacrificial lion to the priests of bigotry, rhythmically deploying the N-word and other offensive phrases in a noble if doomed attempt to defuse their power. Richard Pryor made comedy out of his own almost helpless self-destructiveness. Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and other black American comedians made comedy out of their rage.

Eddie Izzard makes comedy out of his own weaknesses as a performer. I once attended a discussion on performance at which Phelim McDermott was one of the speakers. Phelim McDermott talked about classes he’d once given on improv, which a young Eddie Izzard had attended, and Eddie had been, by Phelim’s assessment, seriously bad at them, and everyone had felt bad for him and wished he’d stop coming, but Eddie kept coming and kept doing what he was doing and kept honing it, and after a while, Phelim realised that what Eddie was doing was polishing the appearance of ineptness, until finally the very fact that Eddie couldn’t do accents and couldn’t really become anyone else convincingly was what became incredibly funny: part of the whole point of Eddie Izzard’s act is that he takes the least possible effort to convince you that he is now someone else. His Darth Vader impersonation consists solely of putting his hand over his mouth and being a bit more assertive than usual. He constantly drops the thread and picks it up again, pretends to take notes on any moment that doesn’t get a laugh, etc.

But this brings me back to my original argument. Stewart Lee’s comedy keeps people’s attention by making them laugh, but his prime task is to make them think about comedy and about society. Larry the Cable Guy’s comedy keeps people’s attention by making them laugh, but his prime task is to reassure them that it’s okay to have their prejudices. Jim Davidson’s prime task is the same as Larry the Cable Guy’s. Jo Brand’s prime task, by contrast, is to bluntly confront the audience with its own prejudices. Victoria Wood’s prime task as a stand-up was to tell stories about vulnerability and failure. Michael McIntyre’s prime task is to maximize his brand potential by being no better than his audience thinks it would be if it tried its own hand at stand-up. And so on. The title of this post, ‘I don’t care who you are, that’s funny’, is one of the catchphrases of Larry the Cable Guy. If you insert the words ‘the fuck’ between ‘who’ and ‘you’, you can begin to see the anxious aggression of the comedian who is becoming uneasily aware that the audience is beginning to wonder why, exactly, it’s laughing.

If we laugh, we tend to think that the comedy has been successful, even if it goes against our better instincts about whether or not we enjoy hearing what the comedian has to say. I may or may not find Andrew Lawrence’s delivery funny; I do, however, find what he has to say toxic, bigoted, entitled, self-pitying and depressing, and my sense of humour is not so well-formed that I laugh at him anyway. I just want him to shut the fuck up and go away.

However, Andrew Lawrence, although not in the same league as the aforementioned comedians, is an interesting case, because he proves my argument. When he was younger, his relative youth and extremely dark take on comedy placed him with supposedly similar young comedians of a similarly dark disposition. But Lawrence’s early success as a comedian was based on his performance of tortured guilt about having the kind of opinions that he had. He would deliver up his gags as if he felt bad about making them. (Sample joke, actually pretty funny: ‘I admire these phone hackers. I think they have a lot of patience. I can’t even be bothered to check my own voicemails.’) But as he’s got older, he’s become less and less apologetic.

As Lawrence has entered his late 30s, he’s become more and more honest about how he’s just a right-wing bigot. This is, of course, his right as a human being. What’s surprising is that he’s so bitter that his audience has abandoned him. They liked being teased by his hints at how dark he was, as long as he was willing to look like he felt guilty about it, but let’s face it, all along, he would have been way happier telling racist jokes at Ukip fundraisers to florid middle-aged men in blazers, instead of to Fringe audiences who didn’t agree with him about the EU. But it goes to show that if the comedian’s prime task (which, in his case, has become to unapologetically vent his bigotry) is completely at right angles to the audience’s own sensibilities, then they will no longer find him funny.

So how does he prove my argument? This Independent article from last year quotes him: ‘If you present yourself as a comedian, your job is to be funny, not to educate audiences…Just make me laugh.’ If Andrew Lawrence truly believes that his job is to be funny and not to educate audiences, then you do have to wonder why his Twitter feed as of the third week of June 2016 has become nothing but a conduit for Brexit propaganda.

The only conclusion is that comedians do comedy for lots of different reasons. Some, to pull everyone together. Some, to divide people up. Some, to heal. Some, to wound. The only thing that unites them is that the medium by which they do this involves making people laugh, for one reason or another. It’s when the laughter stops that the failing comedian has to face the difficult questions. And the fact that we still talk about comedy as if it was solely there to get a laugh, is the reason why so few of them ever do.


I don’t care who you are, that’s funny: on some confusions in comedy

Mozart in the Jungle

I’ve not been exactly binge-watching this show, but certainly watching the whole two seasons in the course of about the last fortnight or so, occasionally interrupted by our 20-month-old son having a shit-fit in his cot because he can’t locate one of the three dummies he has to have positioned in there in the event of him arising from deep sleep to semi-wakefulness. But enough personal detail.

So, in case you haven’t noticed, this show is a ‘dramedy’, which is the 21st century equivalent of what used to be called a ‘gentle comedy’ (meaning a basically comic take on  a subject which doesn’t quite have the balls to be full-blown comedy) about a fictional orchestra, the New York Symphony, which in episode 1 kisses goodbye to its incumbent chief conductor Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell) and says hello to its new one, Rodrigo De Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal).

There are obvious casting gags going on here, notably in having Malcolm Mc-Bleeding-Dowell playing the supposed Old Fart character. McDowell was once one of the most terrifying actors out there, thanks to his spectacular work in A Clockwork Orange and If …, and in this show he’s definitely playing a Young Turk Grown Old. Thomas is said to have conducted his generation’s definitive performances of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which I guess identifies him with Carlos Kleiber, except that Thomas, unlike Kleiber, is gregarious, outgoing and still has this idea that he’s really a composer, which Kleiber didn’t seem to be too bothered about. Rodrigo himself is what TV Tropes would call a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of the LA Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel, except that Rodrigo is Mexican and Dudamel is Venezuelan. (Also, while most famous musician cameos in the show have seen people playing themselves, Dudamel’s cameo was in a brief scene where Rodrigo was guest conductor for the LA Philharmonic; Dudamel played the LA Philharmonic’s stage manager, joking with Rodrigo about how their usual conductor wasn’t very good.)

On the whole I think it’s a greatly enjoyable show, except for the times when it stops trying, and resorts to being broadly satirical. Most of these moments involve the character of Anna Maria, Rodrigo’s Wacky Performance Artist wife. You feel bad for poor Nora Arzeneder, the French actress given this steaming-pile-of-horse-shit of a role: Anna Maria’s schtick is that she’s a superbly gifted violinist but in her performances she always subverts her own talent by playing something beautifully and then smashing her violin as part of a ludicrous rant about the ‘bourgeoisie’, or some such. Anna Maria behaves like a 13-year-old’s idea of a romantic artist; in one episode, Rodrigo persuades her to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto in front of the NY Symphony, and she gets as far as the actual performance and plays the first couple of dozen bars beautifully, before stopping and insisting that she can’t go on and that it’s all bullshit and she can’t play for these ‘pigs’, going on to implore Rodrigo to leave this idiotic life and come away with her, etc. It was all very predictable, and I won’t spoil the rather predictable outcome. Nobody as chaotic and stupid as this would have risen in the arts to the kind of eminence that we are invited to believe Anna Maria has; in real life, she would never have agreed to play the thing in the first place, because it would have meant giving up all control as an artist about how she was presented, but they wanted to give Rodrigo a tempestuous private life, so that’s where they went.

Still, the show has great things about it. One of these is Lola Kirke’s performance in what’s actually the main role, Hailey Rutledge, a talented oboist who starts out playing in pit bands and teaching oboe to a rich kid more interested in her tits than in practising. Hailey’s dramatic arc in season 1 is about her desperately trying to find a place for herself in the orchestra, which already has a perfectly good oboist in the seriously badass Betty Cragdale, played with wonderful acidity by veteran Broadway actress Debra Monk. Lola Kirke is the sister of the better-known Jemima Kirke, star of Girls; as Hailey she nails the gloomy, obsessive quality of good classical musicians, utterly dedicated to practising because that’s the only way you get anywhere, but she also conveys Hailey’s lack of social skills and her general awkwardness by means of Hailey’s peculiar goofy laugh, a sort of feminine variation on Muttley from Wacky Races‘s ‘Huhhh-huhhh-huhhh!‘.

There are three other great women characters in the show. One is Cynthia Taylor, head of the cello section, played with immense calm and inner steel by Saffron Burrows. It’s established fairly early on that Cynthia is both a.) a good sort and b.) seriously up for it; when Hailey is trying out for the oboe section, Cynthia takes her out on the town, gives her a good time and good advice, and pairs her off with a sexy bartender who happens to be a talented dancer. Cynthia is also Thomas’s mistress, which is less interesting than you might think; her character comes into much better focus in the second season, when the orchestra runs into labour troubles and hires its own lawyer, Nina, played by Gretchen Mol. Nina-and-Cynthia becomes a story in itself, one that itself riffs off Saffron Burrows’s own visibility as a bisexual woman. But the coolest thing about Cynthia is not, in my view, her sexuality, although it’s nice to have a character who is attracted to whoever she’s attracted to and doesn’t worry about it. Cynthia’s true quality is that, unlike the nervous and would-be devious first violinist Warren Boyd, she’s the real leader of the orchestra.

The next is Gloria Windsor, head of the orchestra’s board of directors, played by Bernadette Peters. Peters’ screen career has been relatively limited — if you’re like me, you probably saw her in Steve Martin’s The Jerk and not a lot else, but that was in 1979. She has has a seriously distinguished career on Broadway, most famously in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, and a lot of that feeds into Gloria, who besides being dedicated to the orchestra is also a born performer, which serves her well in fundraiser nights with sponsors. This part of her character culminates when she turns out to have long-abandoned ambitions as a lounge singer; in a season 2 episode, Gloria shows up at an open mic night in a NYC bar, and delivers a show-stopping performance of Rosemary Clooney’s 1951 hit ‘Come On-a My House’, very much modelled on Julie London’s version rather than Clooney’s, but, in context, eclipsing both.

The third is Hailey’s roommate Lizzy, played by Hannah Dunne. In the earlier episodes, Lizzy is rather annoying, a sketch of a hipster, but to the show’s credit, they gave the character more background and Dunne’s commitment makes Lizzy into one of the show’s most appealing characters. Lizzy at her best injects energy into every scene she’s in, and when in one episode she delivers a seriously good impersonation of Billie Holiday, that too gives her character some needed depth.

So, why am I writing this? Just to give more boost to a show that’s already been given a Golden Globe, one of the less-respected awards on the circuit? Mozart in the Jungle has some genuinely sound things to say about the life of a classical musician, and the differences between being a professional musician and an amateur, and the power of music. It sometimes lurches into silly caricature, but not too often. With a bit of audience love, it could mature still further and be a genuinely great show. Right now it’s just very good.

I haven’t mentioned Gael Garcia Bernal because most of the interesting roles in this show are female, but he takes to TV like a natural, he’s a wonderful comic presence without ever losing the character’s basic dignity and intelligence, and his best scenes convince you that Rodrigo is a bit of a genius at finding ways to connect people with music. All this happens in spite of the fact that he never, ever conducts in a convincing manner. But he talks such a great game that you buy it anyway.

OK, that’s me done raving about this show. I neither expect, nor will be disappointed by the absence of, grace and favour from Amazon, whose show it is. You can read all my Amazon customer reviews here. No, I’m not bitter that I wrote all that for nothing.




Mozart in the Jungle

Simon Frith and music writing

I’ve lately, by which I mean today, taken a bunch of books by Simon Frith out of the library. I never much liked his rock writing back when he used to do it in the pages of newspapers and music papers, but I could never figure out why, and it put me off reading his books, because why read entire books by a writer whose 1,000 words in the Sunday Times you thought were ridiculous? Later on, around 1999, I read the awesome/awesomely twisted Rock and the Pop Narcotic by Joe Carducci, whose take on Frith and other English pop music writers was nothing if not, um, bracing, but in one respect Carducci’s book simply confirmed my opinion that Frith isn’t worth reading, which, as we’ve seen, was based on next to no acquaintance with Frith’s work, bar the admittedly well-chosen-because-unconsciously-revealing quotes that Carducci seized on. [Note written two days later: looking up Frith in Carducci’s index, I find that I misremember Carducci’s attitude; Frith is actually one of the writers that Carducci is almost respectful about, noting that SF and Dave Marsh ‘are pretty much alone in discussing class as an issue in pop/rock culture’, p. 193. Check your sources, boys and girls.

My beef, if I can call it that, with Frith, is not unlike Carducci’s, insofar as it’s that Frith mostly writes about music I usually neither like nor find interesting, namely mainstream pop music, and Simon Frith was a pop writer when mainstream was mainstream, bubeleh. Carducci, working his ass off to promote bands who were far better (musically more powerful, more intelligent, funnier, more interesting in every way) than the bands Frith wrote about, was driven to the verge of insanity by Frith & Co’s inability to see beyond the Top 40. Let’s face it, if Simon Frith had discovered the Minutemen back in the day, his take on 80s music would have been quite different — and if it wouldn’t have been, so much the worse for him. In Music for Pleasure, Frith says something about how he stopped listening to rock music because he couldn’t stand all that relentless 4/4 and men singing about ‘freedom’. Well, sure, if you think that Yes is a typical rock band, I suppose; but King Crimson had a considerably broader spectrum of lyrical interests, from describing Rembrandt paintings to songs about groupies and cat food. King Crimson’s greatest ever song, ‘Starless’, is an account of the end of a friendship, unless, of course, it isn’t, but either way, it’s hardly rock & roll cliché. You can’t help wondering why Simon Frith never seems to have mentioned his younger brother Fred‘s many ventures into popular music. The reason must have something to do with the fact that, other than playing lead guitar on Robert Wyatt‘s cover of I’m a Believer, Fred Frith has never been anywhere near the charts.

I’ve always had more time for the younger Frith than the elder. Having said all the above, my jazz/punk-inspired resentment of Simon Frith’s MOR taste in music has mellowed over the years, and not just because my daughter really likes ABBA: You Can Dance for the Wii. (Abba are great.) Now that I’m finally reading him, when I happen to be taking steps to get that degree that I never had, I find him much wiser, funnier and smarter than I ever gave him credit for being, even if I still deplore that he wasted his energy writing about people like the Pet Shop Boys (who, if they’re wondering why they alone in this blog post don’t get the compliment of being given a hyperlink, can fuck off.)

Also — full disclosure — Simon Frith is now Tovey Chair of Music in the University of Edinburgh, in the school of music of which I spend a certain amount of time every couple of weeks playing improvised music with Edimpro, so you’re not going to hear any more nasty words from me about him.

Simon Frith and music writing

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

The Beatles revolutionised popular music, yadda yadda yadda. People who don’t like them get tired of hearing that over and over again (and if you’re one of them, you really need to read Nitsuh Abebe’s hilarious article on how to write an effective anti-Beatle rant before you post a comment.) This blog assumes that, like me, you find the Beatles interesting. But perhaps, like me, you get a bit impatient with talk of how the Beatles ‘changed the face of’ popular music, or whatever. I was curious about whether or not it could have seemed like that at the time. On thinking about it, I realised that I didn’t know what the face of British popular music in 1962 looked like.

Everything gets revived sooner or later, or at least it seems to. Look at Richard Hawley, who’s got to where he is by conducting his entire career as though there hasn’t been any popular music since around 1963. This is the only explanation for why he would want to collaborate with Hank Marvin (on what’s admittedly a very pretty track.) But Hawley is an unusually intelligent and talented fan of pre-Beatles pop music. For most fans of the era, it’s simply a cue for nostalgia. Nostalgia being a longing for something that seems better in retrospect than it was at the time, Beatles fans who were actually around while the band was making music tend to feel nostalgia with tragic intensity. The most conspicuous example is the late Ian MacDonald, whose Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ Records and the Sixties sought to put the band in its historical and cultural context. It’s a great book but its flaws are great too, and they’re deeply bound up with MacDonald’s overall take on the Beatles, which has to do with his sense that all of cultural history since the Beatles’ breakup was a sad falling-away into empty meaninglessness. MacDonald’s great failing as a critic was one he shared with Sainte-Beuve, an inability to see the good in his contemporaries, especially if they were the coming thing, as opposed to something he’d grown up with. Hence his bizarre contempt for Bill Hicks, who he dismissed as — if memory serves, since I don’t have a copy of the review in question — ‘a speeded-up version of Lenny Bruce’, a wisecrack which registered Hicks’ idealism but missed his comic materialism, his irrepressible Goat-Boy persona.

Gah! I’ve let myself be sidetracked into writing the critique of Ian MacDonald that I wanted to do some other time. What I really want to do is something that the print-bound Ian MacDonald would surely have liked to do: offer a direct sense of the cultural context of the Beatles’ early releases, instead of just write about them. This is the first of a series of posts in which I’ll be presenting some Beatles’ recordings in the context of the UK top 20 charts, at the times that their earliest recordings were released, and also when they reached their highest position. The Beatles’ recordings didn’t get issued in the USA until later, and we’ll deal with that a bit further on.

We can do this because of the UK Singles Archive, which gathers together the singles charts as compiled by Record Retailer back in the day, and Spotify, which at this point has gathered together every nanosecond of music ever recorded — with one notable exception. The Beatles’ music isn’t on Spotify, except for Love Me Do, which is the only recording of theirs that’s in the public domain, and it might not be there for long. Still, I’m guessing that most of you will have their music available in some form or another (and even if you don’t, it’s on iTunes) so you can slot it into a playlist where necessary. If you don’t have Spotify, you can get it for free, or else you can look up all these songs on YouTube. They’re all there.

Why did the Beatles’ music take off the way it did? Against what musical backdrop did they appear? Why did people think that they were so cool? Without wanting to alienate fans of the below artists — and I enjoy some of the music in these lists, if not all of it — I think that hearing the music that was in the air when the Beatles came along helps us to understand the nature of the impact they had at the time. If you love this music, please feel free to ignore my more negative commentaries. (I’m not looking for a fight and if you attempt to pick one, I won’t rise to it; comments are moderated.)

The Beatles’ first single, Lennon & McCartney’s Love Me Do, was released in the UK on 5 October 1962. The week beginning 29 September 1962, the UK Top 20 was this:

1. Elvis Presley – She’s Not You

2. Cliff Richard and The Shadows – It’ll Be Me

3. The Tornados – Telstar

4. Frank Ifield – I Remember You

5. Ronnie Carroll – Roses Are Red (My Love)

6. Bobby Darin – Things

7. Brian Hyland – Sealed With A Kiss

8. Adam Faith – Don’t That Beat All

9. Neil Sedaka – Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

10. Tommy Roe – Sheila

11. The Shadows – Guitar Tango

12. Ray Charles – You Don’t Know Me

13. Little Eva – The Locomotion

14. Shirley Bassey – What Now My Love?

15. Pat Boone – Speedy Gonzales

16. Jet Harris – Theme from The Man With the Golden Arm

17. Duane Eddy – Ballad of Paladin

18. Lonnie Donegan – Pick A Bale of Cotton

19. Mike Sarne with Billie Davis – Will I What

20. Billy Fury – Once Upon A Dream


So this is, from the Beatles’ perspective, the competition. Elvis’ She’s Not You is the King in country-by-numbers mode. Cliff Richard was the biggest thing in UK pop music before the Beatles, but his most convincing hit, Move It, was from 1958 and by 1962 he was doing this rather bombastic cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ It’ll Be Me, not helped by the song’s ungainly structure. The way I hear it, each verse has two extra beats at the end of every third line to include the title phrase (‘If you hear somebody knocking / on your door / If you see somebody crawlin’ / cross the floor, baby, it’ll be me / and I’ll be lookin’ for you’), which makes the song seem like it’s taking too long to get to the point — not that this has stopped plenty of other people from recording it.

Frank Ifield crops up a lot in the early 60s charts, and is a good example of the kind of musician whose career was destined to be pounded underfoot by the hordes of post-Beatle guitar bands. His yodelling croon was perfectly suited to this kind of widescreen standard. The harmonica-led country-pop arrangement was obviously designed to capitalise on Ifield’s background as an Australian stockman, as close as UK pop had to an authentic cowboy, but I can’t help thinking for all that he sold a lot of records (this one sold a million copies), the melancholy of his material must have seemed a bit stuffy and grown-up, compared to the Beatles’ lusty immediacy. I Remember You, written by Victor Scherzinger and Johnny Mercer, belonged in the 1960s to the kids’ parents’ generation: Dorothy Lamour originally sang it in 1942’s The Fleet’s In. Amusing irony department: The Beatles themselves used to do this song, and it’s featured on their maddeningly elusive Live at the Star Club album from 1977.

Ronnie Carroll’s Roses Are Red is a slice of stodgy Norn Irish country, and presumably well-loved by people who like that kind of thing. Bobby Darin’s Things is entirely forgettable, falling between his earlier finger-snappin’ swing hits and later earnest protest-folk (I mean, come on, who calls a song ‘Things’? It’s like calling a song ‘Stuff’.)

Brian Hyland’s drenchingly minor-key Sealed With A Kiss came as a surprise to me, who only knew his upbeat yet squicky Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Again, Sealed With A Kiss sounds way too maudlin for teenagers; instead of lamenting separation from the object of desire, the Beatles preferred to celebrate being in the same room as her (I Saw Her Standing There).

Adam Faith’s turgid Don’t That Beat All is pushed towards the bizarre by a weird scrapy violin part, played as if by the arranger’s illiterate hick cousin. Neil Sedaka’s hit starts ‘Doo doo doo dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, kama kama dum doobie-doo dum dum, breakin’ up is hard too-oo-oo do’, a curiously casual way to talk about the death of love. I’ll admit to a slight grudge against Neil Sedaka, whose 1975 hit Laughter in the Rain will always remind me of being five years old, watching TV, seeing this song on heavy rotation and being both bored and saddened by it — bored because I couldn’t empathise with the emotion, and saddened because it was the first time I realised that music had the power to repel me. (I have to admit that the key-change into the chorus is effective, dammit.) He’s also notable for being someone who had to leave a band before it could become successful, his high school band The Tokens having a hit four years after his departure with The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Tommy Roe’s Sheila is essentially a riff on Buddy Holly‘s Peggy Sue, down to the softly pattering drum part, but it has some interestingly snarly guitar (by either Wayne Moss or the great Jerry Reed.) In March of the following year, Tommy Roe was unlucky enough to find himself headlining a package tour with Chris Montez, and the Beatles further down the bill. According to Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle, the Beatles so brutally upstaged everyone else that the organisers were forced to place them in the headliners’ slot after the first night of the tour.

The Shadows’ Guitar Tango is nimble faux-Hispanic nonsense. Ray Charles’ You Don’t Know Me, easily the greatest track here, comes from his classic album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and it may not exactly be country and western, but to paraphrase what Samuel Johnson said of Oliver Goldsmith, Ray Charles touched nothing that he did not adorn. The combination of power and vulnerability in his vocal puts most of the singers in this chart to shame, and the arrangement remains sensibly discreet; even the heavenly choir in the middle eight sounds like it’s taken a step backwards out of respect for Ray Charles’ greatness.

Little Eva does the Locomotion, and there’s just no stopping her; it’s rubbish, it’s silly, it’s naggingly catchy, it’s completely brilliant. Shirley Bassey is equally unstoppable, in her own way, but this too sounds to me like parent music. Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales is probably Pat Boone’s finest hour, which isn’t saying much, since Pat is upstaged by his own backing vocalists: session singer Jackie Ward has great fun with the self-consciously idiotic La-la-la’s and, yes, that’s Mel Blanc himself as Speedy, gleefully heaping ethnic stereotype upon ethnic stereotype.

Former Shadows bassist Jet Harris throws himself at a rather tasty surf-flavoured remake of Elmer Bernstein‘s raucous title music from The Man with the Golden Arm — I miss the blaring horns of the original, but in terms of bringing rock bottom-end to jazz sleaze, this is at least dreaming fitfully of the towering Barry Adamson version from 1988. Duane Eddy’s The Ballad of Paladin, however, is an insane (and not in a good way) mashup of knightly nobility, sax sleaze and guitar twang.

Lonnie Donegan makes picking a bale of cotton sound like something we could do right here in the barn, guys! After a minute and a half I want to say, alright, just pick the f***ing cotton, already. Mike Sarne’s Will I What makes my skin crawl, even though it’s a comedy record (with an amazingly sexist punchline). The weird thing is that although Mike Sarne, like John Lennon, was only 22 when this was recorded, he sounds terrifyingly middle-aged. Finally, Billy Fury’s record shows that the initial energy of British rock & roll was, by late 1962, pretty much spent. This isn’t ‘Billy Fury’. This is Ronald Wycherley wondering what’s happening to his career.

So, that’s how things were when Love Me Do first went on sale. Our next post will be about how things looked when it reached its highest point in the charts, no 17, just after Christmas 1962, when Beatle fandom was beginning to break out of the North. In the longer term we’ll be covering Please Please Me, their first major hit, and From Me To You, their first undisputed number 1 single. I’ll look at later singles and early albums if there’s enough enthusiasm for the project, but right now I think that a project like this is likely to be confined by its nature to the first couple of years of the band’s success; after a certain point the singles charts start to look very familiar. (Although it’s still worth checking out the charts from later in the decade: the UK top 20 from late June 1967 contains, besides Procol Harum, The Kinks, The Supremes, The Mamas and Papas and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, also Vince Hill, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Engelbert Humperdinck, the New Vaudeville Band and Topol. And yes, Topol is awesome, but If I Were A Rich Man belongs to the ages, not so much to the summer of ’67.

Hope you enjoyed this snapshot of history. The next one will be along soon. Happy listening.

The Company They Kept: The Beatles’ recordings in context #1

R.E.M. vs Interpretation

Anybody who loves REM needs to be aware of Matthew Perpetua’s remarkable labour of love, Pop Songs 07–08. It’s a commentary on every song REM ever recorded (up until 2008), and all kudos to Matthew for following it through with such dedication. He even got Michael Stipe in for a series of Q&As, which are an invaluable resource for anyone who’s followed the career of this endlessly lovable yet perplexing band. Go check it out. Now. I’m serious. Then, if you like, come back and read about my problems with it.

I am older than Matthew Perpetua, who I think is in his very early 30s, and I go back a little further than him with this band, but not all that much further. I first encountered them flukily early, in 1983-84, when I was about 13. RTE, the Irish national television network, was looking to expand its overseas coverage and it seized on the output of the then all-new MTV. For three hours every Saturday morning, RTE would broadcast a programme called MT-USA, a selection of videos then on rotation on MTV, selected by an Irish DJ named Vincent Hanley, known to listeners (or at least he liked to think he was known to listeners) as ‘Fab Vinnie’, now sadly dead. Hanley would present the show to Irish viewers, more often than not from some pavement in New York in order to give us the impression that he was where the action truly was. In practice, what we got was a lot of videos of songs we knew anyway, as well as videos by bands who had no following in Ireland at all; I can remember sitting patiently through songs by the likes of REO Speedwagon, Dennis de Young (‘Desert Moon’) and Steve Perry, hoping that something cool might come along in a minute, which is of course the state of mind that everyone watched MTV in, back in the day that we had to wait for the good stuff to happen. And once in a while, something cool did come on; MT-USA was probably the first time Irish TV audiences encountered ZZ Top, for example, in the form of their splendidly sly videos for Eliminator.

But there were also stranger and darker and odder things to be seen on MT-USA, and one of the strangest and darkest was a blurry, enigmatic video by a band calling itself REM. The song was ‘Radio Free Europe’, and the video – we know now – was the recut version that IRS insisted on, with inserted footage of the band in concert, instead of the original Arthur Pierson cut of the band ambling around Howard Finster’s place and all meeting up at the end, to see Rev. Finster release a small doll that tumbled arse-over-tip down an inclined plane.

REM and their song stayed with me, though I never found out much about them – at the time I was coming out of a phase of liking 60s rock and moving into liking Talking Heads and Television. Then, a few years later, I was watching some actual rock program some night and REM came along again. This time, it was the video for ‘The One I Love’, and I was hooked.

I went out and acquired their entire back catalogue (with some difficulty in the case of Chronic Town, which I could only get on cassette). I am, therefore, of the generation that discovered REM via Document. I was happy when they signed to Warner Bros. I looked forward to hearing Green, and I was elated when it sounded like a masterpiece. I went to see them in Dublin, on the Green tour, at the RDS Simmonscourt Pavilion in 1989, the gig which was notoriously attended by U2, at which REM, fully conscious of who was in the audience, basically staked their claim to be best band in the world, and was acclaimed as such by at least one UK newspaper (the Observer) shortly afterwards.

And so, unlike Matthew Perpetua, I got to hear Stipe sing ‘Harpers’ and ‘We Live As We Dream Alone’, and I fondly remember the cheeky final encore of ‘Afterhours’, with Stipe strolling up and down the lip of the stage and giving cheesy Vegas winks and nods to imaginary friends in the audience. (Now I think about it, he may have been giving them to U2.) I had a perfect moment to ‘Perfect Circle’. I swear to this day that Peter Buck was looking directly at me during ‘King of Birds’.

I bought the albums as they came out…and then, only a year or so later, realised to my dismay that I didn’t really like Out Of Time. Automatic For The People struck me as only slightly better. I loved Monster, and much but not all of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Then Bill Berry left, and the inexorable law kicked in that no rock band can stay creative without a permanent drummer. I have a difficulty with Up, the last REM album that I bought. I love it the way you love somebody that you had a painful breakup with.

None of this places me as a special kind of REM fan, and I don’t claim to be one. I know someone who is such a Morrissey fan that if he tours Scotland she will go to every gig, and when she first got to meet him backstage, she asked him to sign her arm, which he did, and she had his signature tattooed into her flesh. There was never a time when I would have wanted to do something like that with REM, even at the point of my maximum fandom, in 1990 or so. I happen to have a tattoo, but it’s Black Flag‘s logo, not Michael Stipe’s signature. That erotic thing that’s the mark of a certain kind of intense fandom? I did have that with Stipe, sure, but in 1989-1990, years before he had outed himself as an ‘equal opportunity lech’ and at a time when I myself was notably unsuccessful in the business of getting girls interested in me.

They played in Ireland after that, and I didn’t go and see them. Hell, they had a residency in the Olympia Theatre in 2007, which was literally five doors down the street from where I worked at the time, and I knew that they were playing there and even trying out new songs for a freaking live album, and I still didn’t go and see them.

And then they made a couple more albums and then broke up, and I would never be able to see them again – one of maybe three rock bands/pop groups that I’ve really been a passionate fan of, at one stage or other, as opposed to really loving the music. (The other two are the Beatles, whose fascination endures for me, and Talking Heads, whose music I still love but whose story no longer obsesses me the way it once did.)

That’s the story so far of my life as an REM fan, and I suspect it’s not all that untypical. Maybe I got into them a little earlier than some people, and maybe I stopped loving everything they did a little sooner than some of their later fans, but that’s just an accident of chronology; I didn’t stop liking them because they became popular. I would have loved it if my favourite band were also the world’s favourite band. (What am I talking about? That’s one of the pleasures of loving the Beatles. It’s nice to feel uncomplicatedly part of a community.) I stopped liking them because I stopped enjoying their music. Nobody could convince me that Out Of Time was as coherent and powerful an album as Green, even if ‘Losing My Religion’ was a Big Hit Single. Automatic For The People had its moments, but songs like Nightswimming and Everybody Hurts sounded banal to me. After Green, every REM album that I could bring myself to listen to would strike me as having roughly half an album’s worth of great songs, and the rest would be filler. The strange thing was that I would disagree with the consensus about what was filler and what wasn’t. And after a while, I just stopped listening. I haven’t listened to Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate or Collapse Into Now at all, bar the odd single.

So, to bring it all back to Pop Song 07–08. What Matthew Perpetua’s done here is, in my view, something immensely enjoyable; it’s really fun to dip and and out of, and his writing style is lucid, clear and sensible. In fact, that’s kind of the problem. MP, as I’ll call him (hope he doesn’t mind), is an eminently sensible commentator. But the best REM songs, and even some of the less good ones, resist this sort of treatment.

What MP does is this: he listens to the song and offers an interpretation of it, based on what he can make the lyrics out to be, and how, to his ears, the musical setting does or doesn’t support that. He seems to have checked out lyric sheets where they were available. But his method is at least grounded in a definite effort to determine what the song is ‘about’.

My problem with this is that REM, foremost among every band in the history of rock & roll, made the most undeniably successful efforts to frustrate attempts to determine what their songs are ‘about’; and yet, not only does this not diminish their appeal, it actually enhances it. Eddie Vedder put it beautifully when he inducted the band into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007:

There are a couple of things I need to address, the hardest one being Michael Stipe. How do you explain the dialogue between Michael and the listener? A dialogue that grew up, and we grew up with it. Such wisdom in the feelings of his songs that, I, I think — that they helped us find things that we knew were inside us, and I think he helped us find things that we didn’t know we had inside us, and I can say that personally, there are things that I hold and feel very deeply about inside here [pointing to heart], that Michael Stipe put in there himself. This all happens without ever being able to understand a f***ing thing he was saying.

Vedder added, as any fan would, that this of course referred to REM’s early years. It was, of course, a conscious move on the band’s part. Anyone who’s listened to bootlegs of their earliest rehearsal tapes (or the officially released ‘All The Right Friends’, a characteristic example of their early stuff) knows that REM began as a fairly meat’n’taters retro guitar band, playing jangly garage-rock songs about nasty girlfriends and permanent vacations, and then at some point early on they realised that there was much more to be gained by veiling themselves in mystery and obfuscation. The leap from the earliest tapes to ‘Radio Free Europe’ is a quantum leap. What made all the difference was that Stipe went from singing simple lyrics clearly to singing oblique and enigmatic lyrics in a voice that you couldn’t decipher.

It was this sense of mystery that made early REM so powerfully attractive. All successful bands offer a certain amount of space for you to project yourself onto, but REM offered more than most, and they framed it with an unusually crisp and pretty musical backdrop that emphasised the mystery and the promise and the sweet uncertainty, and (unlike the music of most of their peers) didn’t force you to feel one way rather than another about it. This was exactly the kind of thing about them that pissed off punk purists who wanted music that endorsed their own rage; but it’s also the reason REM meant so damn much to shy and confused teenagers like me. I was confused enough that, in my angriest moments, Black Flag meant a lot to me too; but Black Flag wasn’t the kind of listening experience I could share with anyone else, especially since they had fragmented by the time I got to listen to them. REM, however, spoke to anyone who didn’t know what to think or who to be, because you could never figure out exactly who REM were or what they thought. That’s why ‘Murmur’ was the perfect title for their first album. To murmur is to say something so quietly that whatever you said is less significant than the fact that you said it so quietly.

But you can’t conduct your whole career like that. Sure enough, as time went by, Michael Stipe decided that he wanted to be understood. On Reckoning you could hear the words, but you couldn’t make sense of them. On Fables of the Reconstruction the words ducked back into the mix again. On Lifes Rich Pageant the words, at last, rang out — and Stipe defined himself, one way or the other, out of what later seemed like a hope that we might define ourselves along with him. And we did, I suppose. At the 1989 RDS gig he spoke out about the recent Exxon Valdez disaster and how we should all boycott Esso products, and of course we all cheered. On the way home in the car, the friend of mine who’d driven me to the concert needed to fill her petrol tank and we made a Big Thing out of not filling up at an Esso station.

Some of REM’s best-loved later songs are of course blazingly simple. ‘Everybody Hurts’ would be an example, and it’s a much-loved song. MP greatly admires it: ‘[…] there is absolutely no use for ambiguity if the object of your song is to console the depressed and talk them out of suicide.’

I don’t like that song. I was 21 when I first heard it and maybe not quite as in touch with my tortured adolescence as I’d been a couple of years earlier, but I was still fairly unhappy, and yet this song (by a band I’d loved and still loved) didn’t uplift or console me in any way. Instead, it just sounded preachy and insulting, as if the most popular guy in school had briefly broken away from his group of cool friends to offer the miserable nerd a condescending shoulder squeeze and a glib ‘Hey, chin up, kid, you’ve got friends, you know’. Bah! Fuck off! It’s easy to say consoling things, but there are depths of unhappiness that ‘Everybody Hurts’ can’t touch. You can’t ‘take comfort in your friends’ if you’ve come to believe that your friends don’t like you.

No, it sounded hollow. Especially when the same album had one of Stipe’s darkest and most self-punishing songs about his own relationship with his audience, ‘Drive’. ‘Drive’ really plumbs the depths, from its D minor harmony (Buck tunes the low E string on his guitar down to a D, here) to John Paul Jones’ inspired string arrangement, which gives the song a sense of cosmic weight. MP says ‘The song poses a very serious question: Are you obsolete and irrelevant, or are you just being told that you are by people who don’t have a clue, or are seeking to marginalize anyone old enough to know better than insecure, immature teenagers, but not quite old enough to be the establishment?’

But ‘Drive’ isn’t asking a coherent question like that, nor does it give the answer to one. It dramatises a mood, a mixture of fascination, seduction and contempt. The singer plays with the listener, lumping the individual into the mass of ‘kids’, mocking them with ‘Nobody tells you where to go’ and then luring them back to the singer’s side with that crooning ‘Bay-behhhh…’, as if Stipe were reassuring us, hey, kids, don’t take it personally, I do like you really. There is something profoundly creepy (and exciting) about this, and even when the wrath of the gods breaks out on that fuzz guitar interlude, as the stormclouds boil overhead (in the video, at this point, fire hoses are turned on band members and fans alike), the singer’s unruffled, slightly insolent cool is maintained on the old playground chant ‘Ollie, ollie in come free’. The video expanded on this mood by having Stipe held aloft by a crowd as if bodysurfing at a concert; he gets tossed this way and that, his shirt riding up his torso, as the crowd battles for who gets to hold him up. (Bodysurfing has its own terrors, quite apart from the comic risk of just falling to the floor. I read an interview once with Courtney Love in which she reported diving into a crowd at a festival and, in the ensuing chaos, feeling members of the audience tear off her underwear and stick fingers inside her.)

Now, I’m not trying to imply that Stipe himself harbours creepy, sleazy thoughts about his audience. What’s undeniable is that he’s using this mood to create a good song. It’s said that most REM songs began with Berry, Buck and/or Mills coming up with music which Stipe would then write words to, and if so, this further messes with MP’s picture of REM songs being personal messages from Stipe about himself, or his own feelings and fears. Stipe’s own rhetorical strategies would seem to confound that, which is why MP ignores them, wanting to make each song an argument or a question or a sermon or a plea. Elsewhere, even when a song seems to be extremely direct, MP often misjudges the tone: he describes the lyrics of ‘Star 69’ as ‘a bit goofy and friendly’ but how does that fit with ‘you don’t have to take the bar exam to see / what you’ve done is ignoramus 103 / what’ve I got to hang my hat on / you don’t have a pot to pee in / all this just to be your friend / I was there until the end / extortion and arson, petty larceny’? (Copyright © R.E.M./Athens Ltd., btw.) Moreover, Stipe, or Scott Litt, or someone, ups the tension and anxiety by feeding Stipe’s vocal through a delay unit with the level turned up very high, so that each line Stipe sings is echoed at the same volume exactly a beat later, as if the singer wants to drown out this pest with accusations.

In general, MP is fonder of talking about what the song makes him think about, than the song itself. His three paragraphs on ‘Oddfellows Local 151’ are mostly about disillusionment with the speed of social change, and try to imply that the song is about that too, which is pretty weird because this is actually an occasion where Stipe himself talked about what the song is about. In an 80s interview he described the song as being his effort to mess up and dismiss and generally be done with the approach he took on Fables of the Reconstruction, and this does seem to be borne out by the comic and rather foolish figure cut by Peewee, who sits on the wall at Oddfellows Local 151 and offers his ‘pearls of wisdom’ to the ‘boy and girl’. Here, Stipe is having fun with imagery from Southern literature; I’m thinking especially of Flannery O’Connor‘s tortured, wayward prophets who see reality more clearly than the half-assed liberal agnostic intellectuals, a trope O’Connor sometimes elevated to brilliant literature but which becomes a bit predictable if you read too much of her stuff in one go. This is hardly a controversial take on the song: Stipe even quotes O’Connor quoting Psalm II, in the line ‘Why do the heathens rage behind the firehouse’. But Peewee is no Hazel Motes. He’s a hapless drunk who falls over and has to have the blood and rum washed off him by the boy and girl he’s trying to instruct. We never learn what ‘proof’ Peewee is teaching. He’s a figure of fun. If this song does come from somewhere personal to Stipe, it’s perhaps an uneasiness with the slogan-shouting demagoguery that makes up much of the rest of the album (including such thrilling moments as ‘Finest Worksong’, ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ and the raucous ‘Fireplace’, which I think is one of REM’s best songs.) Peewee is how the narrator of ‘Life and How to Live It’ will end up. Fables is an album full of character studies, but if ‘Oddfellows’ is a character study it’s a very Beckettian one. (A further link from ‘Oddfellows’ to Fables is Buck’s angular guitar part, more reminiscent of ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ or ‘Old Man Kensey’.)

Still, Matthew Perpetua wrote about every REM song. Well, not all of them. He had the good sense to leave off at Reveal. I admire his common sense, and I’m in awe of his stamina.

R.E.M. vs Interpretation

Arcing about Dancey-texture 1: Beck’s “Loser”

Let’s listen to a song. Beck’s ‘Loser’ could be a good place to start. It was his first and biggest hit, an iconic single of the early 1990s and a very cool track indeed.

The song begins with a six-note riff played with a slide on the bottom three strings of an acoustic guitar with the low E string tuned down a tone to D, so it’s a sliding chord of D, A, D – no nasty third to suggest major or minor, just the spectral tonic, fifth and octave. Durr dur-durr dur-durrrr, durrrrrr; durr dur-durr dur-durrrr, durrrrr… The slide is picking up the F, to give a bluesy cast to the riff, unavoidable when playing with a slide anyway, but the almost atonal downward slide (from no particular note to no particular note somewhat lower down the neck) give the basically rather ominous riff a slightly offhand, casual edge, as if the guy wants to play the blues but doesn’t really feel like he’s got the right.

The riff is repeated once, and then the fat beats kick in. It’s probably a sample of someone and they were probably from New Orleans, given that ‘Loser’ is known to be built on a sample from Dr John’s ‘I Walk On Gilded Splinters’. The beats have a relaxed, kickback feel but also have an edge provided by the second snare hit just before the third beat in each bar; the snare drum wants to get ahead, but keeps being restrained by the imperious kick drum. After a couple of bars we get a big, deep, fat bass line, proceeding from the D to the E, then back to D, then to F sharp, then back to D, then to E again, then back to D, like a man who keeps leaving the house and then has to keep going back because he’s forgotten something. (The riff doesn’t repeat exactly but proceeds to G the second time round, a little further again, before repeating itself from the top.) The peculiar marriage of stoned bluesy slide guitar, fat bass and dancefloor beats establishes itself, just long enough for us to get to know it, and then the drums drop out for a bar and the song begins.

Before we get to the singing and the words, let’s just take a moment to notice the other instrumental element that enters at this point: the bass drops out, and what sounds like a sitar (possibly an electric sitar) comes in, exactly doubling the bassline. And it sounds kind of Indian, or Indianoid. The music listener who knows 60s popular music immediately thinks – aha, drugs! Yeah, it’s getting a little trippy, but we’re way ahead of that, because the singer has started singing, or rather drawling, a song:

In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey
Butane in my veins and ‘m out to cut the junky with the
Plastic eyeball, spraypaint the vegetables
Dogfood stalls with the beefcake pantyhose,
Kill the headlights and put it in newsreel
Stock car flaming with the loser on the cruise control
Baby’s in Reno with the vitamin D
Gotta couple of couches, sleep on the love seat
Someone keeps sayin’ I’m insane to complain
About a shotgun wedding and the state of my shirt
Don’t believe everything that you breathe, you get a
Parking violation and a maggot on your sleeve, so
Shave your face with some Mace in the dark
Savin’ all your foodstamps and burnin’ down the trailer park
Cut it.

Before we’ve even got to the chorus, it’s clear that this is not a song that’s going to yield a clear meaning, or ready consolation, or cheap thrills, or anything else for certain, other than this drawled barrage of grungy images: drugs, consumer products, graffiti, dodgy food (dogfood rubbing up against ‘beefcake’, which normally means pictures of sexy men but in the context you can’t help thinking about supermarket mince), sketching a vivid image of a crapsack life where your shirt needs to be complained about and the credulous are given traffic summonses and maggots and you’re shaving in the dark with attack repellent and then your trailer park burns down. There are hints, here, of some sort of story, but we can’t piece it together. In the ‘time of chimpanzees’ the narrator was a ‘monkey’ – we don’t know if Beck knows his zoology, but humans and chimpanzees, being apes, are closer related to each other than they are to monkeys, who are a different parvorder. The implication is that the narrator, whoever he is, feels unfashionably less-than-human.

His voice – tight and raised, but also deadpan, not even trying to sell this lyric to us – sounds like he thinks he ought to be aggrieved but can’t quite get it together enough to be genuinely angry. He’s mumbling half to himself like a crazy homeless guy. But then the chorus kicks in. Does it make things any clearer?

Soy un perdador
I’m a loser, baby
So why don’tcha kill me (double-barrelled buckshot)
Soy un perdador
I’m a loser, baby
So why don’tcha kill me

And there it is, the chorus that sold this song. Helpfully, like a Sesame Street skit, it’s (at least partly) translated into Spanish as well as in English – non-Spanish speakers like me took years to realise that he was even singing in Spanish. I thought it was just a mumble so stoned that you couldn’t make it out. (Beck achieves extra stonedness here by double-tracking his own vocal.) So he’s a loser, but not so much that there isn’t someone in his life that he can’t address as ‘baby’ – he’s not as much of a loser as the eponymous creep in Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ is a creep, for example. He asks her why she doesn’t kill him, but it doesn’t sound like he really expects her to do so, his unhurried descent to the tonic on ‘so why don’tcha kill me’ making it sound more like a droll rhetorical question than a plea for escape from this life. The fact is, she hasn’t killed him. Yet. But we’re only one verse in. What’s next?

Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare
Ban all the music with a phony gas chamber
Cuz one’s got a weasel and the other’s got a flag
One’s on a pole, shove the other in a bag
With the rerun shows and the cocaine nosejob
The daytime crap of the folksinger slob
He hung himself with a guitar string
Slap the turkey neck and it’s hangin’ from a pigeon wing
You can’t write if you can’t relate
Trade the cash for the beef for the body for the hate
And my time is a piece of wax, fallin’ on a termite
‘s chokin’ on the splinters

The second verse spins the song onto a new level of panic. Suddenly we’re talking about banning music and a ‘phony gas chamber’, raising the spectre (for this listener) of Nazism and its defenders, specifically those Holocaust deniers who pick around the ruined crematoria at Auschwitz and pronounce that there’s not enough physical evidence in the brickwork that the places were actually used to slaughter people, despite the mountains of documentary evidence and testimony to the effect that they were. Then we move onto four people, or things – the forces of evil? – who respectively have a weasel (use weasel words, maybe, suggesting appalling things about the forces for good, but never coming out and openly accusing them – their special brand of evil is weaselly and never lets itself get into open confrontation), have a flag (they hide behind patriotism as an excuse), are on a pole (or poll – they could be running for office, or else they’re just standing high above the muck that the rest of us have to live in) and the other is to be shoved in a bag with the rubbish of old TV and the burned-out folksinger who hung himself. The ghost of Phil Ochs is being beckoned to the table, and as before it’s all mixed-up with the detritus of the narrator’s life – the juxtaposition of ‘turkey neck’ and ‘pigeon wing’ make this listener think of plastic-wrapped trays of supermarket chicken wings, this time round.

But then there’s something approaching a cover-breaking announcement: ‘You can’t write if you can’t relate / Trade the cash for the beef for the body for the hate’, a brilliant if gnomic couplet that brings together the financial transactions of being a musician, the need to make a living, the pained identification with predecessors, and the inevitable disillusionment as you live out the same shit that your influences went through. In the end, as the narrator spits out, his time is ‘chokin’ on the splinters’ – partly a reference to the Dr John song that’s being sampled but also a confession of his inability to articulate what all the horror he’s been talking about really amounts to.

Soy un perdador
I’m a loser, baby
So why don’tcha kill me (get crazy with the Cheese Whiz)
Soy un perdador
I’m a loser, baby
So why don’tcha kill me (Drive-by body-pierce)

In response to the narrator’s dumbfounded tongue-tied-ness, the chorus is practically revelling in the sheer lunacy of it all – get crazy with the Cheese Whiz! – and just before we go to a drum break, as if to take a rest from dwelling on the crapness that has made our hero into such a loser, we get the sublimely weird and funny image of a ‘drive-by body-pierce’, as if gangs are forcibly decorating people with bits of jewellery.

We need a break from the horror, and we’re given one. Everything drops out except the beats. During the break, the narrator mumbles ‘Yo, bring it on down’ and is answered by a chorus of stoners droning what sounds like ‘Oyyyyyyy…’ As the song reassembles itself, we get a bit of backwards singing (it’s the chorus, as if it’s going to make any more sense when sung backwards) and then more and more licks and samples are piled on top of each other – a soothing electric guitar figure played with the vibrato knob turned up, the sitar again, the bass.

Then, just as we’re almost relieved that the narrator isn’t going to overload us with another barrage of surreal horror from his life, a new voice says confidently ‘I’m a driver, I’m a winner,’ and then the music drops out, as if to expose the speaker as much as possible, while he complacently asserts ‘Things are gonna change, I can feel it.’ This listener had always assumed that this was a sample of former President George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail, doggedly trying to seem like a folksy, straightup guy. But it isn’t. It’s dialogue from the movie ‘Kill the Moonlight’ directed by Beck’s friend Steve Hanft. The lines are uttered by one character during a scene when he’s fishing with another character, who I think is his father, but not having seen the entire movie (almost nobody has seen the entire movie) I can’t be sure.

Then we return to the chorus, and the loser is still regretfully but half-defiantly declaring his loserness, even as the narrator cries in a cracking voice ‘I can’t believe it!’, or possibly ‘I can’t believe you!’ (the sources disagree, what do you want from me, he could be singing either of them). The chorus repeats as the song begins to fade, and the narrator, having recovered some of his composure, asks in a smirking, stoned voice (albeit in incorrect German) ‘Sprechen sie Deutsche, baby?’ Because you’ll to need to be able to, in the world that’s coming.

The instrumental track fades, and a new voice (sounds to me like an African-American speaker, but I may be wrong) asks tersely ‘Know what I’m sayin’?’ even as an entirely new musical element enters – cheesy block chords played on a highly distorted electric guitar.

So this is my own modest sketch of the connotational landscape of Beck’s ‘Loser’, in spite of its authors’ own words that the lyrics were basically nonsense andthat the chorus came out of Beck listening to his own attempts to rap and commenting ‘I’m such a loser’ because he didn’t sound enough like Chuck D. People who write things aren’t always the best at figuring out what they might mean, especially when what they’ve written appears to make little or no literal sense. To me, ‘Loser’ is not a song like, say, Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, or Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ – it’s not a coherent and angry song about the ways in which America can betray itself. What it is, rather, is a highly effective sound picture of what it’s like to feel that America is a nightmare. I don’t think that the song’s writers, Beck Hansen and Carl Stephenson, think that America is a nightmare; but haste and urgency made them put the song together a certain way and I’ve tried to demonstrate that it has an inner coherence of its own, no matter what the guys who made it thought of it.

Arcing about Dancey-texture 1: Beck’s “Loser”