Johnny B. Goode

This song is so classic it’s like one of those primordial sea creatures that every branch of life evolved from. Only with rock’n’roll and the evolution only took a few years. People – a lot of ’em – have built entire careers out of mimicking Chuck Berry’s riffs. Then younger people mimicked those people, and then the next generation mimicked them, to the point where half of them don’t even know what they’re mimicking anymore. How many young ‘uns don’t even realize that the basic structure of a rock’n’roll song hasn’t just always existed in the ether, that it came from somewhere and that somewhere was Chuck Berry’s noggin? Meanwhile, old Chuck keeps a’rockin’ and he’s outlived a fair number of his acolytes. It’s unfortunate that apparently the legend is not a very nice guy in real life, so much so, that even his Number One Fan Keith Richards can’t pen a blurb for Rolling Stone magazine without lamenting what an asshole the dude turned out to be. Bummer. The old perv got busted for having surveillance cameras in the ladies’ room of his restaurant, for Pete’s sake! Not that being a creep in real life should discourage anyone from enjoying his music or anything, but if that makes you somewhat lose respect for Chuck Berry, I don’t blame you. For myself, in this particular instance, I honestly prefer listening to Peter Tosh’s version of Johnny B. Goode.

Big Ten-Inch Record

Going for the opposite of new, how about some good ol’ dirty blues? Courtesy of Bull Moose Jackson and his Buffalo Bearcats. (Among all the other great things about bluesmen, they sure did know how to name themselves!) In the 40’s Jackson was one of the most popular R’n’B singers and sold one of the first to sell a million records, an unusual achievement at the time. Whatever else he may have done, this is the song he’ll go down in history for, for the unfortunate reason that it was once covered by Aerosmith. While that was actually less awful than you would imagine, it would be nice for people to know the song for its own original virtue. The problem with its being known as an Aerosmith track isn’t so much Aerosmith, although they’ve never came remotely within eyesight of resembling anything like genuine R’n’B. The problem is that in 1975 it was no big deal for anyone to sing about a ten-inch anything – sexual innuendo had become the norm, and you could brag about the size of your penis right out in the open. The real delight of this song, although it is clever enough in any context, is the thought of how raunchy it was for its time. This was the fifties, an age when the word ‘pregnancy’ was too suggestive for television. Meanwhile, under the radar, dirty blues flourished and absurd euphemisms became an art form. I would imagine that the one somewhat bright side of the existence of segregated ‘race charts’ was that black artists could quietly get away with being a whole lot naughtier than white artists. Blues music has always been very sexual, and sometimes just straight up openly filthy, and got away with it because white people barely knew that it existed. Which in no way validates the argument that horrific injustice is in the slightest bit justified by the great art that springs from the experiences of the oppressed. But I guess the dirty blues records were a little “fuck you, we’re gonna have some fun in spite of you” towards white society. By this standard what sounds like silly novelty songs take on a whole new level of meaning. They become socially significant in light of the larger historical context.


“If I could be, for only an hour/If I could be for an hour every day/If I could be, for just one little hour/Cute, in a stupid-ass way”

Listening to multiple covers of Jacques Brel songs is akin to watching great actors play Hamlet. Basically, a master class in the theatrical arts. Some folks say that Brel is as close as the French have ever come to producing a rock star, but that is erroneous; Brel is as close as the Belgians have come to producing a rock star. I don’t know much about the art of French chanson, but I do know that it dates back to the narrative folks songs of the middle ages, not unlike the English folk music that was revived in the sixties and seventies by groups such as Steeleye Span. It’s interesting to note that while both sprang out of Medieval minstrelsy, the English folk tradition grew to be seen as archaic, unhip and the providence of hippies in modern times, while the French equivalent has grown more and more ineffably cool. The British folk revival was popular for a time, and a natural offshoot of hippie culture, but even at its height nobody could claim it was anything but willfully anachronistic, whilst at the exact same time the chanson seemed perfectly, coolly modern. I don’t know why this would be, except that maybe it was that the French were much better dressed. Something about the combination of sharp suits, cigarettes and existentialism?

If you’ll direct your attention to the Brel video, note how he combines dramatic intensity (so, so intense!) with ridiculous physical comedy. Watching the performance, you can easily grasp the way he combined feelings of despair with absurd humor, even without understanding a word of French. Many of Brel’s famous songs are very depressing; My Death comes to mind. But this one is quite hilarious, with a hefty underpinning of pathos. I would say that this nifty balance of funny and bleak is one of the key roots of what we know today as the tradition of camp. It’s all about a performance in which sincerity and falsity coexist and even complement one another. Today, camp has become a mainstream concept, what with millions of people watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, but it used to be a language of outsider culture, and especially of gay men, who identified with the idea of existing in a state of duality in which their ‘real life’ is less ‘real’ than their secret and self-created ‘not real’ life. I have no clue if that’s a legacy Jacques Brel ever intended or would approve of, but you can clearly see the campiness in his performance.

You can follow the evolution of that campiness through the other iterations. It’s even more clear in Scott Walker’s performance, which is very much an of-its-time goofy sixties variety show sort of thing. It’s also rather unusual in that covers of moody French songs from the fifties were not exactly record-buyer catnip in 1967. If you’re not familiar with Scott Walker, he first rose to fame as the lead singer of The Walker Brothers, who were popular for their extremely corny and sentimental orchestral pop songs. Really, if it weren’t for the virtue of Scott Walker’s magnificent voice, their schmaltz levels would’ve been unbearable. Anyway, they had some pretty big hits, and you can see that in this, Walker’s first solo single, he’s being presented as the next cute-in-a-stupidass-way big pop idol. That didn’t happen; he much preferred to go on exploring less commercial chanson-style music and became a cult figure rather than a pop star. So there’s a high degree of camp in the very juxtaposition of material vs. media platform, and of course, in the contrast of very emotional vocals and very hammy hand gestures. Again, I have no way of knowing to what degree Walker was speaking the language of camp, or if he was just being silly, but he was sending a message,  inadvertent or intentional, of outsider affiliation.

In the most recent interpretation –  Marc Almond’s –  the campiness is so overt it’s almost not even camp anymore. Almond is, of course, openly and flamboyantly gay, and celebrating gay culture has always been part of his artistic vision. He also has a lot of serious respect for his forebears, for whom leading a double life was a necessity and the creation of the ‘real identity’ was performed at great risk. Almond’s stage show is certainly designed to have a wide appeal. It has sets, props, sexy dancers of both genders, and pop culture references enough for a Broadway show. It’s entertainment for everybody, and that’s unquestionably a sign of progress. Yet, behind all that, it’s still a personal homage to the importance that camp used to have for people who had no other means of expressing their selfhood. I think that Almond is clearly and intentionally illustrating the way that the chanson tradition has influenced our entire culture, growing from its roots in medieval minstrel galleries, to popular post-war entertainment in Europe then outside of it, to becoming an important part of and an inspiration for a small and marginalized subculture and finally, as that subculture became a powerful political movement, finding its way into the DNA of mainstream pop culture. Long, strange trip.

It’s So Easy

Again, I have to stop and be amazed by the purity of Buddy Holly’s music. There are obvious reasons why his songs continue to be popular, so long after his death. They’re damn catchy and that never goes out of style. Neither does his style ever go out of style; nerdy but handsome, handsome yet nerdy. But what I really like and find striking is just the simplicity. The music is nothing more than a few guys with guitars could play in their garage, and they sound so perfect, without any production magic or superfluous fancy instruments. And the ideas are the same way; simple and meaningful. Holly wasn’t trying to be deep or fancying himself a poet; he wrote very plain lyrics, but never dumb ones. I would say they’re truthful lyrics that everyone can understand and relate to. Being able to express something basic about the human condition, and make folks dance while you’re at it, all in well under three minutes – that’s mighty fine talent, and it’s still the backbone of pop music.

It’s Now or Never

This Elvis song is either achingly romantic or rapey and coercive, depending, I guess, on your generational status and general level of enlightenment. You can imagine that he’s saying his love won’t wait because he’s about to go off to war and they may never see each other again, or that he’s just a douchebag trying to get his dick wet by any manipulative means necessary. This being the fifties, either one of those things would be perfectly acceptable. Good thing we don’t have those problems anymore now that– oh, never mind. If you think about it, there’s an awful lot of purported ‘love songs’ that sound suspiciously like there’s some serious date rape action going on. (And hey, if you think date rape is the height of romance, have I got the book series for you.) Which is probably less a function of this ‘rape culture’ crisis the internet keeps telling me about, and more a function of the way normal human interactions and decent behavior get all muddled up as soon as love and desire enter the picture. You can mull that over for a minute.

It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels

Here’s some weepy country music from the fifties. Seriously, this stuff will make you want to sniffle over your lonely afternoon beer. One of the reasons I have a very low tolerance for this kind of music is how danged depressing it always seems to be. Still, some things are too classic not be appreciated, and this is definitely one of those cases. Kitty Wells was one of the earliest popular female country singers (and to this day remains one of the most successful), and this song was the first big hit by a female country singer, in 1952. I had never heard of Kitty or her big hit until I heard Marianne Faithfull’s cover of it, which led me to seek out the original. It’s hard to top Marianne Faithfull in the game of singing sad songs, but I have to hand it to Kitty Wells – she owns this and always will.