The American Song-Poem Anthology, vol. 1, was released a few days ago, and if youre interested in off-beat, unusual, idiosyncratic music - you know, all the words that usually spell Unlistenable ear-shagging tripe - then you need to get this disc. Ive mentioned my love of the Song-Poem here from time to time, but lets revisit the basics just to prepare you for the audio clips.
The song-poem companies put little notices in magazines, offering to set your words to music. You sent them the money. They sent you back a record. The end. No song-poem ever hit the charts; no song-poem ever made it on the radio, because they were some of the most uniquely wretched things ever created, an unholy intersection of bad words and bad music. But it wasnt just the overall badness that makes this work stand out - the bargain bins are stuffed with banal crap shoveled out by the major labels. No, its something else, something quite special. The lyrics were written by people who actually thought a song about eating duck eggs daily would make a great top 40 hit. The songs were recorded by hacks whod otherwise be accompanying needle-tracked strippers in low-rent grind houses. Theyd do 20, 30, 40 songs a day.
But sometimes they tried. Sometimes they liked a song; you can tell. Sometimes they gave it all they had - but mostly they gave it what it deserved. The result is music that just does not sound right. When people hear these songs, it takes about 20 seconds to realize that this isnt just bad, its wrong. Deeply wrong. And the reason its wrong varies from song to song - sometimes the lyrics are just hideous, and sometimes the choice of song style is obviously misguided. A guy sends in a bitter John-Birch rant called No More Liberty, and they set it to an upbeat patriotic tempo. A man distills his hatred of Burma into six verses (Burmese Land is Like Monkeyland) and its performed as a Polynesian lullabye. Sometimes its obvious that everyone took five and smoked a joint the size of a rolled-up Sunday New York Times.
its just all so wrong. And sometimes its perfect. Occasionally the musicians rise to the occasion and remind you that enthusiastic mediocrity can be better than complacent professionalism. Run Spook Run, for example, should have been a hit. Its so close. Its almost there. In a parallel universe identical to ours in every way but one, Purple People Eater never charted, and Run Spook Run topped off at number 17. In a strange turn of events this tune has become my signature theme when I call Ian Punnits talk show on 107.1 FM, and thanks to an odd sequence of events the song is getting airplay 30 years after it was cut and forgotten. Not because its great, but because its just so much damn fun.
I dont mean to oversell this stuff, and I dont want to make any claims for song-poems as Outsider Art, or the Flip-Side of the Pop-Star Machinery, or any other excuse to puff it up beyond its narrow dimensions. Its just fun. And its fourteen bucks.
Theres a downsampled excerpt at my offshore site. Youll find the first minute of How Long Are You Staying, which shows how deeply Disco had infected the popular imagination. (The other song - Jimmy Carter says Yes - seems to be hosed, and its too late at night for me to fix it. Apologies.)
To get the record, come back here, click on the BUY THE BOOK excerpt below, consider whether you might just want a copy of the Gallery of Regrettable Food, then type bar/none into the search field. Click on the first link at the top of the results page, the American Song-Poem link. Thatll take you to the right page. I provide these complicated instructions because I get a small cut, and I use the quatloos to buy DVDs and Simpson figurines. I thank you in advance.
Last time I checked the CD had a sales ranking of #211 - pretty high, considering it came out this week. Lets make it a Mover and Shaker. If you need more encouragement, well, heres my Amazon review:
The best bad music youll ever hear. Song-Poems represented an unusual collaboration between the clueless and the hapless - the former were the dreamers who answered magazine ads requesting their lyrical creations; the latter were the musicians who set the songs to music. The result: a genre of songs that are deeply, truly, hilariously wrong. If youre new to the Song-Poem, this is an excellent place to start; connoisseurs will find old favorites as well as some freshly excavated horrors. A few highlights:
1. Do You Know The Difference Between Big Wood And Brush - Gary Roberts & The Satellites
Im guessing you dont, but you will by the time the song is over, which is sometime next Tuesday. The genial, lumbering beat is elastic enough to accommodate those stanzas into which the lyricist poured a surplus of syllables.
2. Rat A Tat Tat, America - Dick Kent
Youve heard of the Rockin Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu - theyre nothing compared to Bicentennial Fever, which raged through America in 1976. Its hard to tell whether the noises at the end are supposed to be gunshots, fireworks, or a woodpecker.
3. I Like Yellow Things - Bobbi Blake
Inspired perhaps by Tom T. Halls famous recitation of the banal objects that gladden his heart, this tune is perhaps the only song-poem devoted entirely to manifestations of a primary color.
4. I'm Just The Other Woman (remake) - The MSR Singers
One of the more famous song-poems, and certainly one of the most painful. Its a first-person account of the life of The Other Woman, and of course its sung by a man. To call this performance a falsetto would demean the fine traditions of doo-wop and the castrati; in fact, this song actually sounds as if the singers apparatus was being sawed off as the tune was recorded. And remember: the original was worse.
5. Human Breakdown Of Absurdity - Norm Burns & Singers
Hippie crap of the finest order: pretentious lyrics, jangly Dead Serious guitar with Very Intense Soloing, female backup singers who sound like witches from a movie so bad even Roger Corman would use Alan Smithee as a screen credit. Interminable.
7. Beat Of The Traps - Rod & The MSR Singers
A case is often made for Rodd Keith as some unheralded genius. Unfortunately, most of the evidence seems to testify for the prosecution. The Beat of the Traps is one such song, a testimonial to percussion thats the aural equivalent of chewing on a mouthful of glass. But its such tasty glass you just cant stop chewing.
8. Richard Nixon - Rod & The MSR Singers
More Mr. Keith. Here he intones a poem to Nixon, and his jokey mockery of the stupid lyrics must have been evident to the poor guy who paid for this one.
9. Jimmy Carter Says "Yes" - Gene Marshall
Why this wasnt a number one, I cant say. Its the finest soul-disco song about governmental competence ever written.
17. The Moon Men - John Muir
The party-killing song to end all party-killing song, The Moon Men has no verses as we understand the concept; its just a description of the Apollo Mission with no rhyme or meter. Setting it to music was quite the task, and Muir created something quite unique: a song that cannot be recreated. It could only be done once.
18. The Palace Roses - Todd Andrews
Note to lyricists who want a good song-poem: it helps if you send in more than eight lines. If you only send eight lines, theyll be repeated over, and over, and over again. The C & W treatment here is perfect, but you have the feeling that the author intended this as some sort of Old-King-Cole medieval song with lutes and drums. Lucky for us, we have this version, which cannot be improved upon. Wait for the end, when Mr. Andrews realizes he forgot some words, and jams them in double-time before the song ends.
19. Gretchen's New Dish - Dick Kent
There are two versions of this song, and this is the original. Mr. Kent sings in a German accent - why? Because the heroine is named Gretchen, of course. In the merry month of May / Gretchen six years old today / brings from school a little dish / and a card with happy wish / from a boy across the way / Gretchen full of doo-doo
In the remake, such by Bobbi Blake, the line is changed to Gretchen full of dosie-do - which is probably how it was originally intended.
None of which detracts from the fact that its a song about a dish.
21. Song Of The Burmese Land - Cara Stewart
So this guy spends some time in Burma, hates it intensely, pours out his bile in some lyrics about how the government requires permits for making noise after 10 PM, but the Chinese and Indians always have noisy feasts that keep him up all night, but hey, they have permits. I tells ya, its like monkeyland!
Naturally, the lyrics are set to a dreamy, romantic beat and sung like a Polynesian lullaby.
23. Listen Mister Hat - The Jerrymanders, vocal Wm. H. Arpaia
It sounds like a Little Rascals score performed by musicians in their 80s, but what really sets it apart is the cranky, drunk-at-the-end-of-the-bar vocal by William Arpaia. He doesnt have much to work with here - its mostly observations on lifes difficult nature, but each verse ends with the inexplicable command Listen, Mister Hat!
27. Run Spook Run - Rodd Keith
Best song-poem ever. Call it the Hot Rodd Lincoln of song poems - catchy beat, great vocal, nutball brass, perfect chorus hook. I think they were all mighty proud of this one, and for good reason.
28. Blind Man's Penis - Ramsey Kearney
Lets say you were on to the whole song-poem racket, and thought it would be fun to send them strange rambling incomprehensible lyrics about Stevie Wonders genitalia. Would they record them?
Why, yes. Yes they would.