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.


Dazzy Hitch said...

It really was strange how the entire music world jumped on the Disco bandwagon in the late 70's. Of course, a lot of it was cash-in dross that helped to contribute to the genre's swift demise, but some of the novelty hits & me-too stuff was great : The Dooley's "Wanted", Elton John's "Are You Ready For Love" & Andy Williams's "Love Story" spring to mind.

Your Steve Martin tribute reminds me of something that other WWJB? diehards may recall - when I was at school in the early 80's, American stand-up tapes & records were rare, treasured items, and not the sort of thing you'd loan out to schoolfriends, as they were likely to be returned battered & scratched, if they got returned at all.
So there were a couple of guys who would memorise entire sketches from Steve Martin & Richard Pryor routines and relay them back to us during lunch breaks & dull science lessons. I remember a guy named Chris doing a really good Pryor impersonation, which added to the entertainment value no end.
It sounds ridiculous in an age of instant access to pop culture, but that's what we had to do in rural Suffolk to keep up with the cool kids...

The folks said...

Dad says,"Great choice as usual for your A-Z,but i must say,it's a good job that Kula Shaker never had a single beginning with K.Ha,ha!!"

Paul 'Fuzz' Lowman said...

Great school-days memories, Dazzy!

Yeah, that shift from having to memorise Richard Pryor sketches because his albums are so scarce, to an internet age in which you can access every single piece of recorded media Richard Pryor was ever involved in at the click of a button, is a remarkable thing to have happened within our life time. I don't wanna judge, 'cos It Is What It It Is, but I cannot see how that shift could happen and it not result in a de-valuing of the product - it stands to reason that the more difficult something is to get, the greater value is has.

The late 70s / early 80s was, as you say, a golden age for US comedy. MASH, Cheers, Taxi, Police Squad, Saturday Night Live, Pryor, Martin and Andy Kaufman at the height of their powers...astonishing. I'm 31 years old, and I've written before that the Cheers theme was the national anthem of my youth. Those sit-coms mean more to me than probably any other body of pop culture work.

And bless you for referring to 'WWJB? die-hards' - I think essentially that's you, my parents and my friend Peter. But cheers anyway, man.

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