top of page

Today’s Music Ain’t Got The Same Droll

Updated: Jun 29

Call me a relic, call me what you will

Say I’m old-fashioned, say I’m over the hill

Today’s music ain’t got the same soul

I like that old time rock’n’roll.

— Bob Seeger


Earl Fowler


One of the many lamentable conditions of human existence is the arrogant certainty of each aging generation that its own pop music was the cat’s pyjamas (I might be dating myself here) and that their kids and grandkids wouldn’t know a decent tune if it bit them in the aria, down where the glissando don’t glide.


There are exceptions, of course, and I can single out at least two members of my regular morning kaffeeklatsch at Market Mall who pretend to enjoy the stylings of Taylor Swift, though only because they think she played the plucky shopgirl in the 1927 silent film It.


One of them can’t hear her name without getting a faraway glint in his eye and exclaiming: “Ha-cha-cha!” It was super embarrassing that time those gals from the Ladies’ Auxiliary just happened to be sucking malts at the next table. Those collapsing paper straws are the worst!


Anyway, my point is that today’s pop music also sucks the big one, as all the cool kids used to say about my nerdo friends and me back at Riverdale High. And while there are many reasons for this sad state of accelerando atonality (Vanilla Ice, Michael Bolton and Kenny G., to name three), the dearth of humour in today’s lyrics is what’s really killing the vibe.


Think about it.


In our day, even setting aside musicological-scholarship parodists like P.D.Q. Bach (“the only forgotten son of the Bach family”) or intelligent and wildly funny satirists like Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg and Allan Sherman, we exulted in virtuoso levels of silliness.


Take Jerry Samuels’s (aka Napoleon XIV) 1966 novelty song “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”, for example, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop music singles chart (and No. 2 in Canada) at a time when the British Invasion was in full force and outflanked American rock bands were desperately growing their hair over their ears and learning a chord that wasn’t C, G or D.


The ditty — “song” would be too strong a word for a smidgeon of music set to a rhythmic beat tapped out on a snare drum, a tambourine and Samuels’s bare legs — is the tale of a man’s descent into madness and his admission to a “funny farm” after being dumped by a lost love. A love which turns out in a surprise twist to be a dog, not a woman at all:


I cooked your food, I cleaned your house, and this is how you pay me back

For all my kind unselfish loving deeds. Huh?

Well, you just wait, they’ll find you yet, and when they do, they’ll put you in

The ASPCA, you mangy mutt!


If you put out a song today with references to a funny farm and “nice young men in their clean white coats” and “basket weavers who sit and smile and twiddle their thumbs and toes,” let alone addressing a sentient animal as a mangy mutt, the Cancel Culture Fun Police would fit you up in a New York minute for a truly insane barrage of online invective. Ecce homo hypocrital-toxicus.


Which is precisely where the problem lies.


The generation born during the Second World War and the Boomers that followed cut our de-yellowed Pepsodent teeth on such silly stuff as The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak” (No. 1 on the charts in July 1958), Sottish skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan’s 1959 cover of 1929’s “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight?),” Sheb Wooley’s 1958 hit “The Purple People Eater,” David Seville’s twin 1958 sensations “Witch Doctor” and “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” Bryan Hyland’s 1960 chart topper “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” The Trashmen’s surf rock medley “Surfin’ Bird” of 1964 … and we better take a short breather here from this goofball tally to take out the papers and the trash or you don’t get no spendin’ cash (and don’t talk back).


Well, ah, everybody in our cohort heard about the bird, b-b-b bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word. Ditto for the one-eyed, one-horned, flying, purple people eater. The word, word, words of all these songs were burned indelibly into our b-b-b-brains. If our mothers said, “Don’t chew it,” well golly, we swallowed it in spite.


By the time we boys hit puberty and saw that itsy, bitsy, teenie, weenie, yellow, polka dot bikini that she wore for the first time today, something along the lines of oo-ee, oo-ah-ah, ting-tang, walla-walla bing-bang went off in the old “Ding-a-Ling,” the naughty 1952 Dave Bartholomew number with the sly tone that (astonishingly) became Chuck Berry’s only No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 single when he covered it in 1972. (Personally, I prefer the 1961 version by Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts – but only because of their name.)


No matter how inane or fatuous, gimmicky novelty songs that twisted and watusied their way into the teenage wasteland/adolescent Zeitgeist of the period enjoyed phenomenal success. Written and performed by the aforementioned David Seville (real name Ross Bagdasarian), who used varying tape speeds to produce the high-pitched voices of Alvin, Simon and Theodore, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” had the distinction of being the only Christmas record to reach the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart until Mariah Carey’s 1994 blockbuster “All I Want for Christmas Is You” joined it 61 years later in its 2019 renaissance.


(Oh, and lest there be any debate about the matter, the all-time tragic-comic Christmas champion is surely 1979’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” a song tunesmith Randy Brooks loosely based on his uncle, Foster Brooks, the guy who played the lovable, hiccuping drunk at all those Dean Martin roasts we watched while growing up because there were only two channels. Grandma’s fatal outing lent a touch of the exotic to that mug of eggnog.)


When we were kids, the catchy idiocy spilling from our transistor radios largely informed how we spent our allowance.


One of my favourite 45 rpm discs, for which I paid $1.05 including tax and which I still have sequestered away in the basement, opened 1967 near the pinnacle of the world record charts (behind only The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”). Recorded by the Florida-based pop group The Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” sold close to three million copies and inspired several follow-ups by the not overly imaginative band (I snapped up “Snoopy’s Christmas” when I was 12 but somehow missed “Snoopy vs Osama” in 2006 when I was well into my fifties).


“Snoopy vs. The Red Baron,” if you think about it, was not the first pop song seemingly inspired by Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip. You might recall The Coasters scoring a top-ten hit with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Charlie Brown” early in 1959.


But stop the music. Though the line we all remember — “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?” — sounds like a perennial complaint of the pessimistic round-headed kid with the zigzag shirt from the comic strip, the Charlie Brown in the song actually had nothing to do with Schulz’s strip, which was then just catching on. The lyric “Who calls the English teacher ‘Daddy-o’?” almost certainly springs from Blackboard Jungle, an edgy 1955 movie starring Glenn Ford (as teacher Richard Dadier) and the young Sidney Poitier (later to play a memorable teacher himself in To Sir, With Love) as a rebellious but musically talented student.


But we’re bogging down, poco a poco, in the trivia weeds here. The time has come for closing books and long last looks must end.


The point is that our musical icons, even the most celebrated ones, brought a sense of humour and impish mischievousness to their music. For example, the song initially released on the B-side of The Beatles’ iconic “Let It Be” single in March 1970 was “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” a Goon Show-style music hall comedy number with all kinds of funny bits and even a saxophone part (bonus trivia alert!) played by ill-starred Rolling Stone Brian Jones, who had permanently departed the stage the year before the record’s release.


Bob Dylan’s stuff is often hysterical, from those times when he was spontaneously fumbling for rhymes (think “I Want You” on 1966’s Blonde on Blonde — “because he liiied, because he took you for a riiide, uh, because time is on his siiiide”) to the Borscht Belt stand-up routine on 2001’s “Po’ Boy” on Love And Theft (“calls down to room service, says send up a room.”) Bob can’t help it if he’s lucky and, anyway, the sun’s not yellow. It’s chicken. If dogs run free, then why not we?


By the early Seventies, we had Ray Stevens knocking out one novelty number after another: “Ahab the Arab,” which you could never do today (probably just as well), “Gitarzan,” “Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” and his masterpiece, “The Streak,” which sprinted nakedly to No. 1 in 1974.


And I hollered over t’ Ethel

I said, “Don’t look, Ethel!

But it’s too late

She’d already been incensed.


Cheech and Chong enlisted the talents of George Harrison, Carole King, Klaus Voorman and Billy Preston in the parody song “Basketball Jones,” and scored again with “Earache My Eye,” a guitar riff-heavy comedy routine mocking the rock world. As if through billowing clouds, they spoke directly to all of us familiar with heavy early-morning knocking on the bedroom door and the dreaded words: “Turn that thing down and get ready for school!”


Dave? Dave’s not here.


The under-appreciated Warren Zevon scored his only top-40 hit in 1978 with a novelty song from the album Excitable Boy: “Werewolves of London.” That’s almost as much of a travesty as a genius like Berry enjoying his greatest success with a piece of fluff like “My Ding-a-Ling.” But “c’est la vie,” say we old folks, “it goes to show you never can tell.”


Equally unjust was Frank Zappa’s failure to receive the broad public acclaim he deserved for the mixture of musical virtuosity and sharp satire of American culture he delivered over a 30-some-year career. Zevon and Zappa — the Killer Zees — were simply too hip for the room. To put it in Frank’s terms, both refused to eat the yellow snow.


When we were almost grown and had got ourselves a little job, the Jimmy Castor Bunch came along with “King Kong — Part I,” begetting Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots with “Disco Duck,” begetting The Fools with “Psycho Chicken,” clearing the decks for “Weird Al” Yankovic and all the antic lunacy he has mustered in the half century since he first gained exposure on the widely syndicated Dr. Demento Radio Show in 1976 when he was 16.


Though he’ll officially be eligible for Medicare, Social Security and a free bus pass to the mall to hang out with my friends and me in less than four months, when he turns 65, the polka medley luminary straight outta Lynwood remains one of the few funny (well, funnyish) voices in the dour, angst-ridden, petty-rivalry-driven, self-deprecating, I-hate-myself landscape of the contemporary pop, rock and hip-hop scenes.


Not all of Weird Al’s stuff hits the mark, but he and Cliff Richard (rarely intentionally funny) are the only acts I can think of to have scored at least one top-40 hit in the U.S. over four consecutive decades. Al’s “Amish Paradise,” a wicked parody of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” remains (d’après moi) one of the most brilliant bits you can find on YouTube (after Gail and Dale’s oblivious rendition, it goes without saying, of that modern spiritual “One Toke Over The Line” in a 1971 episode of The Lawrence Welk Show).


Timeout for a quick modern spiritual, which strikes me as being more hilarious than anything intentionally hilarious possibly could be:



Now, it’s not like the oldest Baby Boomers or their immediate predecessors invented novelty songs one day while sitting downtown in a railway station.


Raffish music goes back to the Greeks, through the Elizabethans and Victorians, and was a Tin Pan Alley staple from the late 19th century on. Long before Roger Daltry was stuttering about our g-g-g-generation, Canadian-American composer Geoffrey O’Hara struck sheet music gold with a First World War tale of a stammering soldier lovesick over the beautiful Katy:


K-K-K-Katy, beautiful Katy

You're the only g-g-g-girl that I adore

When the M-M-M-Moon shines over the c-c-c-cowshed

I'll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door.


American singer and actress Helen Kane inspired the creation of Betty Boop with the perky boop-oop-a-doops of 1928’s “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” An immigrant shopkeeper who once exclaimed that “Yes! We Have No Bananas” is reputed to have inspired the 1923 hit eventually recorded by Billy Jones, Bill Murray (not that Bill Murray), Irving Kaufman, Benny Goodman, Spike Jones, Louis Prima and a holy host of others.


Some Vaudevillian material from the first half of the century was overtly racist (“The Sheik of Araby” and “The Yodeling Chinaman” come to mind). Some rollicked with titillating nuance, innuendo and double entendre. “Don’t Put a Tax on the Beautiful Girls” is an ode to prostitution. I can still remember some of the lyrics from my parents’ 78 recording of “The Sweater Girl” by Ruth Wallis:


Loretta, Loretta

What she does for a sweater

Loretta is the sweater girl now!


Loretta is really a wow

Loretta is in there and how …


A mountaineer who climbs just for danger and thrills

Said he’d rather do his climbing up on them thar hills.


Loretta, Loretta

What she does for a sweater

Loretta is the sweater girl now!


And like that. You’re not likely to hear “The Dinghy Song,” a highlight of the musical revue tribute to Wallis titled Boobs! The Musical, on The X Factor or The Masked Singer any time soon:


Now I have seen a hundred other dinghies,

And I’m qualified to remark,

He’s got the cutest little dinghy in the navy.

Why, I would know it even in the dark.

It isn’t very long and it isn’t very short.

It’s built for speedy action and it gets him into port,

The cutest little dinghy in the navy. Heave ho! Heave ho!


My “Ding-a-Ling” — funny how that keeps coming up — withers to insignificance alongside this paean to lusty, lowbrow high jinks. But my second point, and I use the expression without any deliberate connection to Loretta in a sweater, is that few artists dare to have fun with zesty word play like this today. To do so would be to invite the hounds of cancel culture hell to descend in a social media firestorm capable of chasing away record companies and streaming services, if not ending a performer’s career altogether.


Some of the best satirical songs (well, it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?) have sprung from humanity’s eternal quest to kill and maim one another for patriotic and religious reasons, just the way a peace-loving ruler and gentle God would want us to do. Spike Jones’s raspberry-filled “Der Fuerher’s Face” was a gleeful orgy of defiance to pernicious master race ideology. And not many verses by the Cole Porters and Leonard Cohens of the world can top the poetry that anonymous British troops marching into the Second World War attached to British Army bandmaster’s “Colonel Bogey March” from 1914:


Hitler has only got one ball,

Göring has two but very small,

Himmler is rather sim’lar,

But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.


Boop-oop-a-doop.


So what do we have today to compare with any of this? South Korean rapper Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which ridiculed the nouveau riche lifestyle of Seoul’s Gangnam region, was pretty funny. But that was back in 2012. You had to like the Lil Nas X/Billy Ray Cyrus remix of “Old Town Road” in 2019. Big Shaq’s “Man’s Not Hot,” about a man who refuses to take off his jacket, inspired a ton of memes. Oh, and somebody let the dogs out. (Who, who, who, who, who?)


For the most part, you have that Kelce handler droning on about love and loss and self-discovery and insensitive ex-boyfriends, Beyoncé mining LGBT rights, sexism, racism and female empowerment, hip-hop superstars like Drake and Kendrick Lamar in phony feuds that hype their sales while also escalating to the occasional murder. R.I.P. Biggie and Tupac.


Nothing much to raise a smile. Like Barbie, we’ve forgotten how to be happy. Something we’re made for.


As Queen Bey recently discovered with her Cowboy Carter album, most of the fun these days is in country music — not all that surprising from the genre that produced such gems as “Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life” (Bobby Bare), “I’ve been flushed from the bathroom of your heart” (Johhny Cash), “You’re the reason our kids are ugly, little darling” (Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty), “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was” (Toby Keith), and the all-timer from David Allan Coe: “Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison, and I went to pick her up in the rain. But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck, she got runned over by a darned old train.”


Double-wide trailer hilarity, with a genuine, down-home, take-yer-shoes-off propensity to laugh at oneself. One good thing about music: when it hits you feel no pain. And as the late, great Roger Miller once reminded us, “You can’t take a shower in a parakeet cage, but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.”


Today’s pop music would be happier — and a heckuva lot catchier — if it had a mind to.


And as for the puritanical, prissy, nostril-pinching, unsmiling, easily offended, sombre, grim and stony-faced Cancel Culture Fun Police, isn’t it about time someone socked it to this latter-day Harper Valley PTA by telling them to go fugue themselves?


Shave and a haircut, two bits.

114 views4 comments

4 Comments


Not Certain if this would get any Air time today:

Dr. Hook,


Night time in the city, magic in the air


The action starts at midnight, she'll be there


The queen of all the night birds, a player in the dark


She don't say nothing but, baby makes her blue jeans talk


Baby makes her blue jeans, yes she makes her blue jeans talk

Like
Replying to

Agreed. The way Dr. Hook used humour to make it to the cover of the Rolling Stone is a terrific example of the sense of fun that seems to be largely AWOL today.

Like

I was ridin' shotgun with my hair undone


In the front seat of his car


He's got a one-hand feel on the steering wheel


The other on my heart


I look around, turn the radio down


He says, "Baby, is something wrong?"


I say, "Nothing, I was just thinkin' how we don't have a song"


Now, before you bbq Ms. Swift, take note of the racy lyrics above!

This was when she was still countryish, of course; and admit it, you, along with others of your ilk, would like nothing MORE than to put YOUR hand on her…heart.

Like
Replying to

Put the lime in the coconut and drink 'em both together

Put the lime in the coconut, and you'll feel better

Put the lime in the coconut, drink 'em bot' up

Put the lime in the coconut and call me in the morning

Like
bottom of page