Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The A-Z Of All Time Great Pop Singles: L

L is for...Louie Louie, by The Kingsmen
Because it contains my favourite moment in the entire history of recorded sound.

Whole books have been written about Louie Louie. Every garage band worth their garage have recorded a version of it. More than any other song on this list, my choice for 'L' was never in any doubt. If you want to understand what this A-Z is about, and by extension what I think all the best pop music is about, listen to this record. There's probably absolutely nothing I can add to Louie Louie-ology that has not been already said by many others a million times, but, if we are to learn anything from The Kingsmen, it is that a lack of having anything original to say, or even the talent to make a reasonably accomplished copy of something wholly unoriginal, should not dissuade you from Giving It Your Best Shot Anyway.

My Favourite Moment In The Entire History Of Recorded Sound

Throughout Louie Louie, drummer Lynn Easton has potentially sounded the most clueless and deranged of all the Kingsmen, clattering wildly, exploding crazed rolls and breaks underneath the melody apparently at random - it's unconventionally effective, but you definitely wouldn't be surprised if this was the first time he's ever heard this song, or sat at a drum kit.

At 1:58, following the middle eight guitar break, the singer, Jack Ely, comes in a line too early. Recognising the error, he panics, and cuts himself short after just one word. Up until this point, the performance has been as error-free as The Kingsmen are ever going to manage. They can't get this take again. This is THE TAKE. History has reached a crossroads. Planets stop turning. ...And then, as if suddenly possessed by the holy drumming trinity of Buddy Rich, Max Roach and Elvin Jones, Lynn Easton does something remarkable - he improvises, somehow cobbling together a stumbling, but absolutely crucial, fill, vamping out of his mind for the few crucial seconds until Ely can rejoin the song at the correct point. And They Left This Epochal Moment In Western Civilisation On The Actual Record.

Often when this moment is written about, it is from the perspective of Louie Louie being the godfather of Punk Trash Pop. By leaving the 'mistake' at 1:58 in the final recording, the band are perceived as exhibiting a lack of concern with getting the 'perfect take' - indeed, perhaps the Kingsmen were incapable of a perfect take. This establishes Louie Louie as belonging to a canon that is in opposition to the classical / jazz / prog rock canon of lifeless, schooled musicianship. And while I think that this analysis is entirely fair, it's also more than that. What's incredible about this moment is not the mistake, but the correction by Lynn Easton of it. It's about triumphing over the odds, and about people transcending their limitations, for the benefit of others. The drummer summons from nowhere the ability to do something contrary to everything else he's done throughout the song - the ability, presence of mind, and skill to do exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time. This moment isn't remarkable because it's unusual to hear such an obvious blunder in a pop record - it's remarkable because Easton, in a moment of true inspiration, snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, enabling his band mates to clatter their way successfully to the finishing line. It's the raw, exhilarating humanity of this moment that makes it special.

The Kingsmen's Louie Louie is an exquisitely charming and loveable record - it is the sound of a band struggling to achieve mastery over the world's most basic song structure, wailing and faliling, persevering, and ultimately succeeding. Succeeding not because they nail a technically perfect game, but because they make it to the end, together, and having absolutely stamped their own mark on a standard - infact, against all the odds, they have recorded the Definitive Version of that standard. It is a cinema verite recording bursting with humanity. It is Alive.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The A-Z Of All Time Great Pop Singles: K

K is for: 'King Tut', by Steve Martin & The Toot Uncommons

Or: The Novelty Disco Single, Post-Modernism's Black Hole And The Fall Of Western Civilisation

Or: Paul Thinks Way Too Hard About Something That May Not Justify The Analysis

So if The Avalanche's 'Frontier Psychiatrist' is an example of a great pop single that might be mistaken for a novelty song but definitely isn't one, Steve Martin's King Tut is an example of a great pop single that is absolutely 100% a novelty song...but it's more than that, too. Like much of Martin's best comedy work, it's both The Thing That It Is, and an off-kilter, deliberately dumb-ass, parody Of That Thing.

King Tut is without doubt, first and foremost, a quick-buck novelty single, released to make a dollar on the back of two coinciding late 70s phenomena - the King Tutankhamen exhibit which was touring the globe at the time, and the rapid escalation of Steve Martin's own immense, football-stadium-filling popularity (see video above). It's in a grand tradition of faddy pop-trend cash-in singles, from The Chipmunk Song to Rastamouse's (rather brilliant) 'Ice Popp'. It's also genuinely, laugh-out loud funny.

Precisely because King Tut is a Novelty Fad Cash-In Single, it cannot function entirely successfully as a parody of Novelty Cash-In Singles. King Tut was a commercial product, people made money from it, and its major selling point was Steve Martin's contemporary pop-culture currency. This, as far as I see it, is the gaping, soulless, black hole at the centre of post-modernism's universe - "we know this is trash, that's the joke, it's ironic, but we're going to make a definitely non-ironic profit off of it anyway, which is almost part of the joke too, right..." It's a difficult position to defend, and leaves King Tut - like much 'ironic' pop culture product -almost fatally compromised and conflicted.

While King Tut's general parody the Novelty Fad Cash-In Single sort-of-doesn't-quite-work, King Tut's specific parody of The Novelty Disco Single is hugely enjoyable, and executed in a smart and imaginative manner. The disco era was proved particularly fertile for the novelty-hit pop single; (the entire disco genre was regarded by many as a mere novelty, a, ahem, flash (dance) in the pan), and for a short period in 1978, whacking a four-to-the-floor beat behind something and sticking the word 'Disco' in front of the title was considered legitimate hit-making methodology. King Tut's best 'joke' is the typically Martin-ish non-sequitur that occurs during the middle eight, when the song shifts for absolutely no discernible reason from a loping cod-Egyptian skank to an up-tempo, generic disco strut, complete with inane "Dancin' by the nile - Disco Tut! The ladies love his style - Boss Tut!" lyrics. Echoing the outrageously cynical and musically jarring attempts by multiple established Classic Rock acts to suddenly and unconvincingly 'go disco' (see: Kiss, The Rolling Stones, even the Grateful Dead), this is a pretty good gag, and a far more effective and incisive pastiche of that unfortunate trend than a straight disco track would have achieved.

And if 'successfully quite funny parody of novelty disco' was King Tut's grandest achievement, that would be enough....but it has a far wider point to make. The central premise of the King Tut joke is that a novelty disco song about Tutankhamen is the natural end-game of a 20th Century culture in which everything, including the holy relics of ancient cultures, is fair game for the mass-production, mainstream capitalist-media-machine. I guess you could sum this up as "Nothing Is Sacred", or as Christian Slater observes in 'Pump Up The Volume' : "All the great themes have been used up, and turned into theme parks." History is dead, all that's left is novelty disco songs about history, and a wildly inaccurate version of history ("Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia!") at that. It's a bleak message.

Martin's stand-up shtick was a parody of stand-up, a commentary on it, and in this way King Tut ultimately works because releasing an awful novelty disco track is precisely the sort of thing that the type of buffoonish light entertainment personality he parodied would do. It's consistent with his act, and therefore, artistically, legitimate. On the other hand - it's still product, he still charged people for it, and there's something very difficult, impossible even, to reconcile about those positions. It's very easy to shout 'irony' in a crowded market place. Smart, but very compromised: King Tut.