Another one of the records from the Epping St Vinnie's. Only, I liked this stupid cover enough to splash out and pay 50¢ for it.
In the first place, I'm not one to collect classical music on vinyl or otherwise. I own the odd disc (vinyl and CD) but it's down to the composer and/or performance ensemble. So there's quite a bit of 'modern' composer in my collection: Michael Nyman - and not just the Peter Greenaway soundtracks; Stravinsky - particularly the recordings he conducted or supervised; Webern because I felt like I should; stuff conducted by Pierre Boulez and Kent Nagano because they'd worked with Zappa so I felt I could trust their choices; Varese, of course, because of Zappa; heaps of Philip Glass, some John Cage and Gavin Bryars; even some Ades when he was the Next Big Thing in the serious literary mags towards the end of the last millennium - but mostly because he was my age and a celebrated genius while I was just some schmuck reading about him on public transport to soul-destroying day jobs… I never could get through a whole Ades disc.
What I do know about classical music, from a lifetime in music retail and my brother's own extensive collection, is that classical releases typically have artwork on the cover, or serious photos of the performers - either in performance, or in high quality portraits.
This record was different. It's cover was a photograph that was ironic and silly. It was on the 'Polyphon' label, of which I know nothing, except that, since the second part of the word is 'phon' rather than 'phone', it's probably European. (The Parlophone label, for example, was 'Parlophon' is non-English parts of Europe.) The rainbow motif above the name reminded me of a local cheapie classical label, 'Rainbow'. What does cheap classical label mean? Old recordings, probably not remastered, on thin vinyl pressings with not a lot of dynamics when it comes to volume or frequency range.
But I don't care: I'd never listen to it. I was buying it for the cover.
Which is awesome: crosseyed dude in a '70s perm, buried up to his head in walnuts, with one in his mouth. Get it? He's just vomited a mountain of walnuts. He's sick. He's nuts. He's crackers.And it's a recording of a popular ballet, Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker Suite'.
It's a 1972 recording of the Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ferdinand Leitner (of whom I'd never previously heard). It's distributed by Phonogram, which by the late-'80s, would become PolyGram, the Australian distributor of Polydor and Phonogram and associated labels. (This company would eventually become the Universal Music Group conglomerate). The sleeve notes are in English, but not particularly well-written. There's a reference to Tchaikovsky bucking the nationalistic trend of his time, "prefering to follow the German symphonic tradition", but the 'p' has been left off; so he spent his career "refering to follow…".
There's some illustration crowbarred into the top of the back cover, of a mouse attacking a toy soldier, in as much space as the poorly written sleevenotes allow.
I don't know terribly much about Tchaikovsky, although Monty Python tells me he was homosexual. Cartain parts of the sketch that traces his life (a 'special episode' of 'Farming Club') makes me cringe now, but what I can say about it is Michael Palin's particularly camp arts show host is a parody of someone who dressed as flambouyantly and had as fluffy hair (and as fluffy and flambouyant a voice) who was presenting such programming on the BBC at the time. Don't remember his name. I've just seen footage of him in old docos, and can see why he'd be a perfect character to send up. Palin's characterisation is funny without knowing the original.
Given this profile of Tchaikovsky, I can't help but want to make a comment about the dude on the cover whose got the composer's nuts in his mouth.
Meanwhile, comedy lovers may well be familiar with the idea of the cover. There was a very popular comedy album by Allan Sherman called My Son, the Nut.
I should probably point you to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite online. Here's my favourite version of it - a musical comedy version by Spike Jones that adds lyrics to tell the story (cos while you can listen to the music, you can't 'hear' the story the ballet is illustrating). Again, the dated material makes me cringe in some places, rather than laugh; that racism is not funny anymore.
To complete the post, here's Allan Sherman's complete My Son, the Nut. It's chock-full of foolish lyrics added to recognisable tunes and styles. Like the letter home from camp, to 'The Dance of Hours', that we now know better as 'Hello Muddah, Hello Fudduh!' (This album also has one of my favourite comedy tracks ever, certainly my favourite by Sherman, which I've blogged about before: 'Hail to Thee, Fat Person'.)
In honour of MasterChef: The Professionals, and following on from Soup to Nuts: BastardChef Too, here’s the latest edition of food music compiled for your listening and dining pleasure – BarstardChef III: Just Desserts. Though not consciously intended, this edition is even more of a novelty than previously, thanks to the heap of instrumentals, silly lyrics and spoken word. Enjoy.
We know how hard it is to pull off a dessert: it has be not just
delicious and indulgent, it has to complement dinner without spoiling
it. It’s a delicate balancing act. As is genuinely engaging instrumental
music. We start Bastard Chef III:Just Desserts with a Miles Davis instrumental entitled 'Chocolate Chip'. Yes, of course, we acknowledge that the chocolate chip is no dessert in and of itself. But how much charm, fun and class does it bring to more staid post-dinner offerings? Add them to everything - from fruit salad and cream, to coffee, to ice cream - to make them a little more exciting. (Although, let's face it, every chocoholic knows a handful from the stash of choc chips in the back of the pantry will tide you over in times without your favourite candy bars!)
This 'Chocolate Chip' certainly brought a little more fun and excitement to the world of jazz, along with the album that contained it: Doo-Bop. It was the last platter Miles Davis embarked upon before he passed away and although it sounds rooted in its early-90s sound now, like so many of the albums Davis released, it was brave and daring in its time.
Again, we acknowledge: despite a long and varied career that involved frequent abrupt turns that led to the development of whole new genres, Miles Davis isn't to
everybody's taste. Or is he? Work your way through his monumental
output, you'll find something that appeals. And like fusion food, that takes something familiar and creates something new by adding something exotic, Doo-Bop was the latest jazz-fusion experiment that Miles Davis cooked up before he died.
As the story goes, Davis was hangin' in his New York apartment in the summer of 1991, listening to the world outside. Inspired, he decided to create an album that captured the sound of his neighbourhood streets. He approached his buddy Russell Simmons (who, with Rick Rubin, founded the hip-hop label Def Jam) for some recommendations: Davis wanted a hip young producer to help him make this foray into jazz/hip hop fusion.
The producer was Osten Harvey, Jr, AKA Easy Mo Bee, who'd cut his teeth producing early work of Wu-Tang Clansmen GZA and RZA.
Davis and Easy Mo Bee worked on a series of sessions before Miles Davis's death in late September 1991. The album was completed by building tracks around some incomplete trumpet performances, resulting in a cohesive work that was released, some nine months later, to mixed reviews. Had Davis lived, the album would probably have been more daring; it may have been disconcerting for polite jazz circles back in 1992 - it was certainly too 'urban' to play in the Classics & Jazz music store I worked in - but it's quite straightforward now. Still, Doo-Bop took out the 1993 Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance - not a bad way to finish an amazing career.
Find it: on the album replete with sampled street sounds, vinyl crackle and spoken rap known as Doo-Bop. Or download it here.
2: Rubber Biscuit - The Chips
Ben Elton once pointed out the division that arose when airlines offered bread and butter pudding as part of the in-flight meal: the first class passengers loved it, since it reminded them of boarding school, where it was a popular dessert. The economy class passengers weren’t impressed at all: they’d paid good money for their flight - why should they put up with the cheap muck they could have at home? Nowadays, in the age of discount airfare, virtually anyone can afford to fly - though few can afford to pay extra for the most meagre and unsatisfactory of meals.
Meanwhile, we live in an age where less food is being produced than being consumed and national economies all over the world are in crisis. Knowing how to cook well at a lower cost is essential. Hence, we suppose, the MasterChef/Coles synergy.
With all of that in mind, the natural progression from the 'Chocolate Chip' is to a biscuit. But not just any biscuit: it's the well-loved nonsensical vocals of ‘Rubber Biscuit’, that encapsulated the current food predicament of today, way back in the mid-’50s.
They consist of scat singing based on co-writer and lead vocalist Charles Johnson’s parody of the marching calls imposed upon him during his earlier internment at the Warwick School For Delinquent Teenagers. Beyond them are the seemingly foolish 'recipes' that break up the verses. They speak of poverty: the 'wish sandwich', where you have two pieces of bread and "wish you had some meat"; the 'ricochet biscuit' that bounces off the wall and into your mouth… unless it fails to bounce back, in which case "you go hungry"; and the "cold water sandwich". The result is beautiful art created from hardship.
The song endures, predominantly, as a ‘novelty’ staple, frequently featuring on children’s compilations. And yet, like the posh folk who loved bread and butter pudding in boarding school, the ‘kids’ who first heard it when it was new carried it through life and still remember it fondly.
While the Blues Brothers covered it successfully on Briefcase Full of Blues, the original features in an excellent scene in Martin Scorsese’s crime flick Mean Streets, in which a party is thrown for a returned Viet Nam vet: it ends with Harvey Keitel’s character passing out. Because the camera is attached to him, as he collapses, his head remains upright while the room spins around him. ‘Rubber Biscuit’ adds to the disorientation.
Frank Zappa had, at one stage, intended to compile an album of his favourite doo-wop and early rock songs, with ‘Rubber Biscuit’ included. Although it never eventuated, another artistic freak who, like Frankie, hailed from Baltimore, Maryland with idiosyncratic facial foliage compiled an excellent album of such songs: that freak was John Waters and the album was the soundtrack to his film Cry-Baby. ‘Rubber Biscuit’ is one of the stand-outs.
Find it: on the soundtrack to John Waters’ film Cry-Baby Download it here.
3. A Taste Of Honey - Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass
If ‘Honey Pie’, a Beatles (well, let's face it, Paul McCartney) song that comes later in this compilation, is too much honey as well as too much pie, perhaps you’ prefer just a taste. ‘A Taste Of Honey’ was written by Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow as the recurring instrumental theme in the 1960 Broadway production of a 1958 British play of the same name. Bobby Scott won a Grammy Award for his recording of it. A vocal version followed, though the more popular version of it wasby the Beatles, who recorded it for their debut album Please Please Me. You gotta dig the Beatles’ version: when Macca reiterates its quality, of “tasting much sweeter than wine”, his sibilance renders the word “shweeter”, making him sound like a slurring drunk who knows full well the qualities of wine, as well as the honey.
Alpert is an interesting person in his own right. Apart from leading this instrumental combo, he was the ‘A’ in A&M Records, a label he founded with business partner Jerry Moss. (After selling it to PolyGram [now Universal], he and Moss start AlMo Sounds whose title is also derived from their surnames. Not as spectacular a label. But then, no record nowadays is as spectacular as when records were still the primary delivery vehicle for music.)
In more recent years, Alpert has taken to painting and sculpture. However, his contribution to popular music is massive, both as a label executive and as a musician.
The dessert more chefs appear to make a mess of than get right on MasterChef is ice cream - even though, when they get it wrong they can pretend it’s some other posh desserty substance like parfait. But Tom Waits ain’t talkin’ about no genteel delicacy.
Once, many years ago while visiting a cute girl who really, really tolerated me, I was engaged in an intense conversation with her incredibly sexy flatmate. We were discussing music, and she was of the opinion that “Tom Waits is just ‘sex-on-a-stick’.” Which went some way to explaining the raggedy-assed hobo of a backpacker she was seeing at the time. They more than merely tolerated each other. They’d more than merely tolerate the hell out of each other quite loudly, most of the night, I seem to remember. ‘Ice Cream Man’ is about sex-on-a-stick's sex-on-a-stick, as the lyrics clearly outline, and he’ll “sure taste good to you.”
In 1970 Waits would play every Monday night at the legendary Troubadour in LA, delivering Dylan covers and a handful of original compositions, of which ‘Ice Cream Man’ was one. Hence its inclusion on his 1973 debut Closing Time – its languid opening giving way to an up-tempo jazz rendition replete with hot guitar licks and snazzy snare shots. Personally, I prefer the demo version Waits recorded a couple of years earlier, when he first landed a management deal. It starts slightly faster, but maintains that pace throughout, with the guitar and drums sticking closer to rock than jazz. Furthermore, the initial piano motif better evokes the tinny chime of the ice cream van. The demo surfaced, against Waits’s wishes, on the first of two volumes of demos entitled The Early Years.
“As if you’d buy that – what does it even mean?” The question thrown at me one morning in 1991, in the café on the ground floor of the Manning Building at Sydney University. I’d just purchased ‘Chocolate Cake’ on CD, the lead single off the new Crowded House album Woodface. Given the success and excitement of its predecessors, the self-title Crowded House and its follow-up Temple of Low Men, album number three – with the added treat of Neil Finn’s brother Tim on board – seemed promising. Perhaps even a return to – whisper it – Split Enz.
To answer the annoying question, I assume the song’s about indulgence, consumerism and conspicuous consumption – with a chorus about Tammy Baker, wife of disgraced TV evangelist Jim and Andy Warhol laughing in his grave at ‘cheap Picasso fakes’. The recording certainly offers a rich production with the wild harmonica interlude and almost buried vocoder…
Although, in hindsight, it may well have been inspired by how to slice up the cake of royalties, responsibility and influence now that there was one more band member. It certainly seems that way now, considering the way in which the album came about and Crowded House evolved subsequently.
Turns out the brothers Finn had gotten together to start recording a new album. Before its completion, Neil had another due with Crowded House. Unfortunately, Capitol, their label, rejected it considering some of the tracks to be a little weak. So Neil asked Tim if he could use some of the material they’d written together. Tim was happy for that to happen, on condition that he joined the band. It wasn’t the ideal situation – tensions arose, Tim left before they’d completed touring behind the album. Now he says he was joking at the time. Even if the album proved to be neither flesh nor fish – not quite as good as previous Crowded House albums, not quite as good as the Finn album that followed later that decade – Neil and Tim’s harmonies are always a treat. They really are our Antipodean Everlies. The first fruit of their new collaboration was ‘Chocolate Cake’, whose chorus fittingly opens mid-decadence: “Can I have another piece of chocolate cake…?” Go on. Indulge yourself.
6. Tra La La (Banana Splits Theme) - The Banana Splits
Way back in the earlier part of the 20th Century, Aussie writer Norman Lindsay maintained that kids loved reading about food far more than they did fairies and the like – even though ‘fairy tales’, in the most literal sense, were the popular form of children’s literature. Lindsay proved his point in 1918, with the publication of The Magic Pudding, which remains in print today.
Why is this relevant? Because chocolate cake may be an indulgent pleasure for most (and wild honey pie, for a more discerning group that includes Patti Boyd), but the real treat is the banana in the presence of ice cream: the dessert known as the banana split. Which most people will remember as the name of a show they loved as kids: The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.
The show was hosted by another manufactured band aimed at the kids.
The Monkees were manufactured to be like the Beatles, but, proving hard to control, were superseded by the Archies, animated version of the same (and discussed at length in the notes for BastardChef 2). The Archies couldn't rebel like the Monkees…
The Banana Splits couldn't rebel either, but weren't pure animations. They were actors in animal costumes, based on both the Beatles and Monkees. Fleegle the Beagle played guitar, gorilla Bingo took the drum duties, Drooper the lion was on bass and Snorky the elephant played keyboards.
The show was the first produced by Hanna-Barbera to mix live action with cartoons. It employed the services of Sid and Marty Krofft to provide the costumes – serving as a precurs0r to the Krofft-produced HR Pufnstuf. Like HR Pufnstuf, The Banana Splits was a so-called kids' show that appealed to adults - at least the ones who indulged in certain chemical refreshments. Which kind of makes sense, in a drug-addled, conspiracy theorist way:
Among the various varieties of puffin' stuff was the banana skin, or 'banana spliff', that led to the 'Mellow Yellow' high that Donavan sang about. And certain controlled substances, LSD in particular, seem to lead to users reverting to the security of childhood. You see this especially in British psychedelia. When you consider that British kids born just before or during the post-war boom would, when visiting grandma's house, see the remnants of Victoriana - posters of Lord Kitchener, antique spinning tops, photos of tragic Uncle Wilfred in uniform, who was never the same after he came back from the trenches… these were the childhood memories young, hip cool people of the mid- to late-'60s.
The psychedelic sound of the ’60s - phasing, Indian instrumentation, backwards vocals and guitars - isn’t evident in 'The Banana Splits Theme' (though traces of the ‘Strawberry Fields’ mellotron flute are discernible), but it is still childishly simple. The bubblegum sound was provided by an array of fine studio musicians. Coupled with the show’s popularity, it made for durable hits, not least of all the theme song. Sing along: ‘Tra la la, la la la la…’
Not too loudly, though! While loved by many, the few who particularly despise the song sometimes have good reason. Like the neighbours of seemingly indulgent Brighton resident Amanda Millard, for example. They were driven to distraction Amanda’s endless playing of it, along with the Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’. (The chorus of the latter, some have pointed out, shares similar notes as ‘Tra La La’.) While Amanda’s 250-pound fine means she continues to enjoy banana splits rather than being subjected to the bread and water of a custodial sentence, she has to do so at a more considerate volume.
Let’s just take a moment to catch our breath after all the desserts. We will resume gorging on food songs in a moment. For now, a spoken word piece - to music accompaniment - for everyone who loves their food more than they love their physique, courtesy of portly comedian Allan Sherman.
You may profess not to know him, but you certainly know at least one of Allan’s recorded works.
Sherman’s professional calling was as a comedy writer and producer of television game shows, having devised several successful formats that proved long-lived on the small screen. His sideline was in devising parody lyrics to popular tunes. Initially a party trick, it was a very good one. His next door neighbour Harpo Marx used to invite him over to entertain party guests with his songs. One guest, comedian George Burns, made the call that led to Sherman’s first album, My Son, The Folk Singer, in 1962 – in which old folk tunes were given new lyrics based on Jewish shtick. Like his phone conversation with Sarah Jackman, to the tune of ‘Frère Jacques’: “Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman, how’s by you? How’s your sister Rita?” “A regular Lolita!”
My Son, The Folk Singer was the fastest selling album for its time, certainly aided by the fact that President Kennedy, for example, was overheard singing ‘Sarah Jackman’ to himself in a hotel foyer.
Other popular parodies include ‘A Waste of Money’, about consumer debt, to the tune of ‘A Taste of Honey’, and ‘Pop Hates The Beatles!’ to the tune of ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’. But the song you’ll know is Sherman’s ‘Hello Muddah! Hello Fuddah!’ from his third album, My Son, The Nut. And you know it in its own right, without realising it’s a parody. So much so, you’ll do the aural equivalent of a double take when you finally hear composer Amilcare Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the Hours’ (featuring, as it does, in the Disney masterpiece Fantasia, for example) and marvel at how much this piece of classical music reminds you of ‘Hello Muddah! Hello Fuddah!’
But enough of the musicology lesson.
‘Hail To Thee, Fat Person’ is Sherman’s justification of his girth: the result, he insists, of forever being told to “clean his plate”, as there were “children starving in Europe”. We fat people (Sherman, Preston, me, etc) are merely performing a community service. The social imperatives of being a fatso became a big issue recently when a TV anchor made the news for facing down a camera after receiving some feedback from a viewer, proving the timelessness of this piece of social satire.
Don’t think for an instant that the absence of the seemingly obvious choice – for this volume – of Warrant’s ‘Cherry Pie’ is an oversight. The best thing about that song has always been the image adorning both the single and album cover: pendulously-bosomed, pigeon-toed, redheaded waitress on roller skates (a ‘rollerskaitress’?) who’s accidentally dropped the dessert off her plate. Oh, but look where the slice happens to be situated in the photo, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Pete ’n’ Dud would probably marvel at all the rejected covers, in which the the slice was in the wrong place (it's a classic sketch, should you choose to persevere with the reference…)
But heavy metal riffs and fond memories of having a bit of a think about the cover late at night during an ’80s adolescence notwithstanding, the song kinda sucks. Big time. So apologies if you’re currently shaking your head in disbelief that there’s no, no cherry pie. Instead there's ‘No, No Cherry’, a 1950s doo-wop song originally recorded by The Turbans. It’s based on the same euphemism Warrant called upon for ‘Cherry Pie’. And if you're wondering where this euphemism comes from, research dates it back to at least the 15th Century, where a folk song that tells of “the cherye with-outyn ony stone” is said to be about virginity. Or lack thereof.
You'll agree, it’s fitting then that this happens to be another Frank Zappa song! His version of ‘No, No Cherry’ was performed live as a medley with his own ‘Man From Utopia’, this recording dating from the 1984 tour.
There may be 'No, No Cherry', but there is also ‘Cherry Pie’, and it's another ’50s doo-wop song. It comes replete with the “fairly redundant piano triplets” (to quote Frank Zappa’s notes on his own nostalgic tribute to the genre and period, Cruising with Ruben & The Jets. Which, incidently, has been given the deluxe reissue treatment more recently as Greasy Love Songs).
‘Cherry Pie’ was written by Joe Josea and Marvin Phillips and originally performed by Marvin & Johnny, but the version included here is by Aussie band Daddy Cool, fronted by local legend Ross Wilson.
The thing about Daddy Cool is that their embrace of vintage American rock’n’roll was authentic. Rather than mere nostalgia, even with the arched eyebrow of irony so beloved for Frank Zappa, the most novel aspect of Daddy Cool’s approach was their sincerity. Hence their securing such gigs as opening for the Everly Brothers. They really did do doo-wop (or perhaps they 'did-wop') better than most. It’s all over their debut album, Daddy Who? Daddy Cool! which features brilliant original compositions along with a wealth of '50s covers.
Daddy Who? Daddy Cool! was such a fine album that it was the first Aussie long play platter to sell over a 100,000 copies in this country – helped, no doubt, by the inclusion of such strong single cuts as ‘Eagle Rock’ and ‘Come Back Again’. The local success, coupled with their accurate reproduction of an essentially American musical idiom, meant the album got a Stateside release – albeit with a revised tracklisting that did not include ‘Cherry Pie’.
Find it: on the re-mastered, re-issued (with additional tracks!) original debut, Daddy Who? Daddy Cool!. If you’re just dabbling, grab the compilation The Essential Daddy Cool. It’s the most comprehensive ‘dabble’ you could hope for.
10: Honey Pie - The Beatles
Enough with the cherry pies already. Time to move from the cheap innuendo and old-time '50s music to virtually the same innuendo, and slightly more modern-time music of a '60s song. Except that it is itself a pastiche of a much older music hall style. It seemed to be one of Paul McCartney’s passions, from about 1967, to produce at least one sweet ballad mimicking an older musical idiom, per album: 'When I’m 64' on Sgt Pepper, 'Your Mother Should Know' on Magical Mystery Tour and 'Honey Pie'.
Although John Lennon derided Macca, dismissing his ‘granny music’ as uncool, fact is, its underpinning is as authentically 'swingin' '60s' and cool as any acid drenched masterpiece Lennon created at the time. Recall, as discussed above, the tendency for users of LSD to revert to the comfort of childhood. For Paul McCartney, childhood comfort was a time when his mother was still alive and his dad played in a big band, delivering the sort of songs that Paul would become so adept at recreating a generation later. And it's not as though the 'granny music' was without its charm. That second line, for example, with its super-imposed crackle, as if from the shellac of an old 78 (which in fact it was - a fine bit of sampling) and heavy top-end equalising, is a device still popular today in advertising: think of the amount of radio ads that alternate normal tone with distorted tone throughout the narration.
The protagonist of 'Honey Pie' is bemoaning his beloved's departure from his side to the showbiz stage across the water. It's a love letter to an absent – feared wayward – partner, most likely inspired by McCartney’s own relationship with young actress Jane Asher, whose career was leading her further away from Macca. The song doesn't tell more of a story than that because it doesn’t contain much more than a couple of verses and choruses. At the time, there probably wasn't a lot more to tell - seeing as Macca wasn't the kiss-and-tell type (some of his erstwhile conquests were, however; see Francie Schwartz's Body Count, for example).
Although the lyrics and story stop, the music continues. The syncopated Charleston rhythms speak volumes: Macca embracing the old music that takes him back to a happier place. As he maintains in the spoken line over the instrumental break, he likes that kind of music. Take that, Lennon!
Nearly 45 years later, it’s fitting to note the Jane Asher – effectively responsible for ‘Honey Pie’ in the first place, now has another string to her bow that enables her to be responsible for honey pie still. Since 1990, Asher has run a posh cake company which her website boasts as being “Britain’s foremost cake and sugarcraft supplier.” And, let's face it, also nearly 45 years later, it’s fitting to note that Jane Asher is still quite a tasty dish.
Moving on from the cherry and honey pies via Jane Asher’s “foremost supply of cake and sugarcraft” comes this evocative instrumental, ‘Wedding Cake Island’, named not for a massive wedding cake that resembles an island (for no man-and-wife is an island), but for an island allegedly resembling a wedding cake, lying off Sydney’s Coogee Beach. ‘Allegedly resembling a wedding cake’ is correct: there aren’t many accounts of how the island got its name. In fact, there are only two: once claims it looks like a wedding cake, but it clearly does not. The other suggests it’s the thick layer of predominantly white seagull guano, resembling a smooth icing, which leads to the cakular allusion.
If not a wedding cake, what does the instrumental evoke? It’s described as a ‘surf instrumental’, inspired as it is by an ocean formation. And it certainly shares a big, broad twang beloved of surf music. Consider, for example, the Atlantics’ ‘Bombora’. A bombora, or ‘bommie’ is a submerged rock, reef or other formation creating large, crashing waves over a shallower area beyond where the surf normally breaks. The surging surf music perfectly evokes those impressive, surging surf waves.
The calmer ‘Wedding Cake Island’ doesn’t seem to speak of the mighty surf that the island in question often produces, having more in common with the spaced-out sounds of recording pioneer Joe Meek (responsible for the likes of ‘Telstar’ and ‘I Hear A New World’). Bent notes courtesy of the wammy bar may sound ‘Hawaiian’, and therefore irrefutably ‘surfy’, but coupled with the high-pitched vibrato, suggests a very different seascape – almost otherworldly.
If you reckon not many cakes can transport you out of this world in everyday life – well, not legally, anyway – you don’t have a sweet enough tooth.
We started with an instrumental, we're gonna almost end with one. Almost, because it's not quite an instrumental. But it's certainly an excellent closer: phased synths, surging guitars, crashing drums… it’s almost surf music – certainly closer to the blueprint than Midnight Oil’s ‘Wedding Cake Island’. But it’s got nothing to do with the ocean. In fact, it’s almost got nothing to do with anything at all.
The reason it’s here is not for composer Paul McCartney’s grunts, but for the one vocal refrain: “I still have not had any dinner!” As everyone knows – you have to finish your dinner before you get to enjoy your dessert. Or, as that mean old school master put it in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, “how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” (“You! Yes you! Stand still, laddie…!”)
George Harrison may have invented the charity rock-on-athon with 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh, and Bob Geldof, taken it to its supreme conclusion with Band Aid in 1985. Paul McCartney’s own version was the Concerts for Kampuchea that involved the likes of The Who, Queen, The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Rockpile and The Pretenders. The finale was an all-star jam with members of the various groups, combined in one supergroup called Rockestra, delivering the classic rocker ‘Lucille’, modern-day rock’n’roll hymn ‘Let It Be’ and their very own ‘Rockestra Theme’.
McCartney had the melody that makes up the theme for years. There’s a rough work tape from about 1974 – bootlegged under the title The Piano Tape – that features Macca at the piano, banging out snatches and fragments of various works–in–progress, many of which would be finished and recorded during the subsequent decade-and-a-half. ‘Rockestra’ appears on that tape. The studio version was recorded at Abbey Road with Paul McCartney fronting not just Wings, but a megaband similar to the one captured live as the final to the Concerts for Kampuchea. It was, indeed, a ‘Rock Orchestra’. Or, if you will, a Rockestra, and it included members of The Who, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
The 'Rockestra Theme' was included on Wings’ final album, 1979’s Back to the Egg. A fitting title, given this 'BastardChef' project. But it's a little ironic that the piece of music became the signature tune for a fundraiser to aid a starving people in war-torn Cambodia, given the vocal refrain about still not having had any dinner. To say the very least, it is of questionable – ahem – taste.
There's a clip currently doing the rounds about a 'fat news anchor' who delivered a heartfelt reply to a viewer's rather rude and thoughtless - though possibly well-meaning - e-mail.
The viewer happened to stumble on a news broadcast on CBS WKBT and noticed that anchor Jennifer Livingston is full-bodied. The viewer felt it was Livingston's duty to set a better example to her 'community', especially kids - it's always for the sake of the kids! - and so should 'choose' to be thin instead of fat (as though it's a choice, and it's ever that easy).
I'm actually pleased that there's a television station somewhere in the world that has hired someone who isn't the typical pneumatic babe (relax, I'm paraphrasing Aldous Huxley - so it's at least high-class, literary sexism). As comedian Lee Camp has pointed out in a routine, the fact that there's someone on television presenting news who doesn't look like a model, can only mean that person is very good at their job. Which is Jennifer Livingston's only duty, really. The only example she has to set is of being a good news anchor.
Good on her and everything for taking the opportunity to address cyberbullied kids - choosing to define her receipt of the email as an instance of the same, rather than merely thoughtless fan mail.
I'm still fond of a certain other television anchor's response to attitudes towards his girth: comedian Allan Sherman, delivering his 'Hail to Thee, Fat Person' monologue. Comedy is going to trump piety and righteousness every time, particularly when dealing with narrow-minded people who get through life passing shallow judgements of people according to limited criteria.
I’m on ABC Local Radio Overnights tomorrow (Sunday) morning across Australia. As Rod Quinn’s guest, I’ll be bringing in a bunch of samples as we discuss comedy duos. I’m on from around 4 am EST (which I think is 2am in Western Australia and somewhere in between, when you’re somewhere in between the eastern states and WA). Since I’m doing it live, and there’ll be talkback, if you’re an insomniac do listen and phone in. Don’t make the questions too hard – I’m working off the top of my head.
My playlist will be drawn from the following:
1. ‘The Cuckoo Song’ - Laurel & Hardy (sort of)
A logical place to start: Laurel & Hardy are a – perhaps the – seminal comedy team and this ditty – which existed independent of them – became their signature tune.
2. ‘Smokers’ – Fry & Laurie
Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were Cambridge students who graduated to
Edinburgh Fringe shows as part of the Footlights (the student club that gave members of Monty Python and The Goodies there start along with so many others I shan’t get caught up listing here), like so many
university revue-educated wits before them. They first came to
prominence in episodes of Black Adder before landing their own excellent sketch show, A Bit of Fry & Laurie,
which is where this sketch originated. Nowadays Fry continues to write
books and make documentary series while serving as Twitter’s biggest celebrity user, while Laurie enjoys massive success as
the main character in the US medical drama series House.
3. ‘Pregnant Women Are Smug’ – Garfunkel & Oates
How’s this for a ‘comedy duo’? Their name itself is a joke on ‘duos’, referring to the ‘lesser sidemen’ in music duos. The point, in comedy, is that even if it looks like only one comedian in the duo is doing the work, the other one is still necessary for the comedy to work: it’s all about the dynamic. (“What was it that Dudley Moore used to do?” the question has been posed. “He made Peter Cook look funny” is the standard answer. He did much more than that – without him as a foil, Cook was more-or-less lost; his work never shone as brightly after cuddly Dudley made it in his own right in Holywood.)
Garfunkel & Oates are two young Californian actors, Riki
Lindhome and Kate Micucci – Kate’s a regular in later episodes of Scrubs.
Their sideline are these cute satirical songs. I’m hoping they become popular enough to visit some Aussie comedy festivals, in time.
4. ‘Six of the Best’ – Peter Cook & Dudley Moore
I could bang on about the genius of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore for days. Suffice to say, as a duo, what they did on stage was magic, and in many ways I see Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh as their present-day equivalent. For its time, groundbreaking social commentary, since Moore plays the elderly schoolmaster, Cook, the arrogant and disrespectful student, reversing the power structure just as the young generation appeared to be taking control – or at least becoming the dominant element in popular culture – in the ’60s. It’s funny because it was revealing the unspoken truth. Of course a lad on the threshold of manhood could intimidate an elderly schoolmaster, but respect for age, experience, intellect, class and position prevented it from taking place. It’s less funny now that the scenario being enacted is one that more-or-less takes place in schools all the time now.
5. ‘Chocolate’ – The Smothers Brothers
The Smothers Brothers – Tom and Dicky – illustrate why the comic
song works so well within the parameters of ‘comedy duo’. The ‘straight
man’/‘funny man’ dichotomy creates humour through the straight guy
trying to deliver the song as it should be performed, while the clown
continues to subvert expectations. Within this song, many of the
traditional elements of the folk song are turned on their head.
6. ‘Bob Geldof’ – Mel Smith & Grif Rhys Jones
After working on the sketch show Not The Nine O’Clock News with Pamela Stephenson and Rowan Atkinson, Smith & Jones continued to work with each other on the sketch show Alas Smith & Jones (the title’s a piss-take of the early ’70s cowboy series Alias Smith & Jones). One aspect of their work together were their ‘chats’, naturalistic dialogues derived, no doubt, from initital improvisations, not unlike the work Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in ‘Pete ’n’ Dud’ mode – two old mates talking bollocks over beer.
7. ‘Sarah Jackman’ – Allan Sherman
Allan Sherman was mostly a solo act, coming out of a Jewish television/showbiz background (the titles of many of his albums began with the words, ‘My Son…’ like My Son The Nut and My Son The Folk Singer – as though his parents were still disapproving). He was a producer of the classic Tonight Show ever so briefly – but not good enough at it. After he was sacked, he returned as a performer, doing what he did best: song parodies. Indeed, the first time you watch the Walt Disney animated masterpiece Fantasia, you may think yourself a little crazy when you realise the melody of Ponchielli’s ‘The Dance of Hours’ (ostriches doing ballet) sounds almost exactly like ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fuddah’; that’s because Sherman took ‘The Dance of Hours’ melody and wedded new lyrics to it. And he did it well – every syllable is where it should be.
For the duration of this song – a parody of the French children’s song, ‘Frère Jacques’ – Sherman’s part of a duo with Christine Nelson. The song
takes the form of a ‘catch-up’ phone call, one imagines by someone who
has grown up and left the old neighbourhood, catching up with all the
comings-and-goings. There’s a good deal of social commentary from its
time – the early ’60s – with cousin Shirley ‘married early’, brother Bentley ‘feeling better mentally’, cousin Ida a ‘freedom rider’ and – my favourite – Sonja’s daughter Rita, now a ‘regular Lolita’!
8. ‘Who’s On First’ – Abbott & Costello
One of the seminal pieces of comedy from a classic comedy duo.
Essentially the Abbott & Costello signature piece, it was recorded
a number of times – in various films and on radio and television shows.
This is an excerpt.
9. ‘Hawk Hawkins’ – Smart Casual
Ben and Nick Mattick are Roger David and Fletcher Jones (I may have the charaters in the wrong order), AKA Smart
Casual. They first appeared on the Sydney comedy scene a few years ago,
getting to the national final of the Raw Comedy competition on the strength of songs that had the good sense to be more than one gag repeated ad infinitem accompanied by 12-bar blues, or all of their jokes, delivered to opened-ended chordal vamping – which is how so much ‘musical comedy’ is unfortunately presented. (See what I’m saying, comedy n00bs? The tokenistic inclusion of music will fool the masses as easily as any other comedy corners you may find a way to cut. But people who ‘know about’ music and ‘know about’ comedy won’t be be impressed.)
Part of what makes Smart Casual’s material work is something that Garfunkel & Oates also know full well: if the joke is a quickie, so too must be the song. This year Smart Casual featured in Comedy Zone – the show the Melbourne International Comedy Festival puts together from the best new talent around Australia. ‘Hawk Hawkins’ was their Raw Comedy finale and has served them well. I suspect they’ll soon be ‘resting’ it as they move on to new material.
10. ‘Happy Darling?’ – Eleanor Bron and John Fortune
Eleanor Bron and John Fortune came to the fore as part of England’s so-called ’60s satire boom. Bron went to Cambridge University and was a contemporary of Peter Cook’s. She also has a major role in the Beatles film Help! – among other things, she’s the woman being sung to in the clip for ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’. During the 70s
Bron and Fortune developed a series of sketches about relationships under the title Is Your Marriage Strictly Necessary? which John Cleese
cites as one of the inspirations for Fawlty Towers.
11. ‘The Phonebook Song’ – Scared Weird Little Guys
The Scared Weird Little Guys are another two-guys-and-a-guitar
comedy duo specialising in genre pardies and clever-silly songs. They
comprise Rusty Berther and John Fleming, who met in a capella groups,
having cut their teeth in barbershop quartets and the like. (Their
first shared project was a five-piece a capella combo, ‘The Phones’.)
‘The Phonebook Song’ is a classic live number that demonstrates vocal
prowess. At the very end, it refers to another novelty song built
around clever rapid-fire syllables.
12. ‘Sweet Fanny Adams Part 2’ – Mel & Sue
Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins were (and possibly still are) an English comedy duo who, earlier this century, were likened – and perhaps burdened by the comparison – to ‘French & Saunders’. The BBC Radio 4 show, The Mel & Sue Thing,
and subsequent Edinburgh Fringe shows, demonstrated a clever, funny
approach to sketch comedy. ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ was a regular feature of
the show – the serialisation of Jane Austen’s last – and lost –
novella, the perfect antidote to the costumed period dramas that still
occupy BBC television broadcast schedules. Part of their ‘Mel & Sue’ persona sees them share a bed in their pyjamas in a very ‘Morecambe & Wise’ manner. Mel pops up in a Vicar of Dibley Christmas special.
13. ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ – Morecambe & Wise
Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise met as kids in a touring vaudeville
troupe and perfected their comedy in partnership very early on. Being
in the right place at the right time, they were the ones who made the
transition from the vaudeville stage to television most successfully,
becoming the most watched comedians of their age as they broke viewing
records, particularly for their Christmas specials, in which regular
non-comedic television personalities – news readers and the like –
would appear in guest roles. ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ was, by the end of their long career, established as their signature