Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Novelty Wears Off

Last year I looked at some songs of the Divine Comedy in more detail than you might want. Now I'm going to do the same to songs you don't even want to think about: Novelty Songs.

Yep. Accepting that they are all awful in a variety of awful ways, we come to an interesting question: is there merit underneath all those strata of awfulness? Is there evidence of craftsmen, unenviably tasked with writing an awful song, making an effort to produce something that didn't offend their professional pride?

I have a personal reason to believe that this is sometimes so, which I'll share later (see? Setting up tension to strengthen the later resolution. That's craftsmanship right there.), but let's dive into some places you never wanted to revisit, and see what we find.

THE IRRETRIEVABLY AWFUL

Can We Fix It? - Bob The Builder (2000, UK #1)


Firstly, allowances must be made that this is an adaptation of a 1-minute TV theme song, with lyrics probably written by the writers and not a professional song-writer ('Pilchard and Bi-ird, Travis and Spud/Playing together like good friends should' being a) witless pish; b) half the length of the previous verse). Likewise the fact than Neil Morrissey has been pitch-bent to the point of cyborghood. The single is no more than the hook, plus padding, padding, padding.

Verdict: Tossed off in five minutes. At most.


The Fast Food Song - Fast Food Rockers (2002, UK #2)


This is a 2-line playground rhyme blown out of all proportion. By 27s they've run out of material, and verses like 'You like it, you love it, you know you really want it/ The voices I he-ar whenever you're around/ I want it, I need it, - nothing else can beat it, - Hotter, - spicy, whenever I'm in town' make Agadoo sound like Cicero. I pity the poor sods in the video.

Verdict: MY EYES!


Baby Got Back - Sir Mixalot (1992 US #1)


This charming paean adopts a rhapsodic construction, boldly stating its central premise and then inventively meandering around a labyrinthine path of ingenious variations upon it. Or, to put it bluntly, it's a structureless rant about fat arses. (On a side, or possibly rear, note, Jonathan Coulton pwned the song with his ballad cover.)

Verdict: Get thy behind, my Satan.


THE MEDIOCRE

Because I Got High - Afroman (2001, UK #1)


This is a conventional list song. The AABC rhyming structure adequately conveys the idea of a man with some ability (the halfway-inventive AAs) being squandered by being a stoner (the jarring BC non-rhymes). Content Dictates Form. The list escalates to progressively worse occurrences - competently - with the sad exception of his becoming paraplegic in the middle of the song, which rather diminishes the effect of his subsequently-unfulfilled promises to lick pussy. Should have left that injury until last.

Verdict: Spoiled by a structural blunder.

Barbie Girl - Aqua (1997, UK #1)


The underlying problem with this is that it takes the 'blonde bimbo girl' at face value. There is no tension or character development there, pretty much by definition, and therefore the song goes nowhere. It's fun kitsch, but the songwriter could have done a lot by giving us a glimmer of Barbie wishing to be more than she is. An opportunity missed.

Verdict: The set designer had a blast.

The Chicken Song - Spitting Image (1986, UK #1)


This is really an anti-novelty song, embarrassed to be classified with that which it so savagely parodies. Written by Red Dwarf's Grant & Naylor, one of whose subsequent scribblings I happily hacked to pieces, it quite deliberately makes no sense at all.

Verdict: Not as good as the outrageously offensive B-side. Fully.

THE SURPRISINGLY GOOD

Do The Bartman - The Simpsons (1991, UK #1)


Co-written secretly by a Michael Jackson at the height of his powers. The verses are bland, mere snapshots of Bart's well-trodden existence, but the hook is a good one. Unlike most novelty songs, this is actually a genuine middle-of-the-road pop song from its era.

Verdict: Barring its subject matter, not novel at all.

Mr Blobby - Mr Blobby (1993, UK #1)


There is craftsmanship here, at least in the two verses. Firstly 'as far as he can see/ he's the same as you and me' deftly gives insight into a hitherto unsuspected depth to his character - it hadn't previously occurred to ponder Mr Blobby's self-image, and of course he'd believe himself to be normal. It's a pleasant surprise so see the songwriter bother to give the ridiculous Blobby a realistic human trait. Secondly 'Although he's unconventional in hue/ his philosophy of life will see him through/ and despite the limitation/ of his poor co-ordination…' is a nice way of setting down, err, what Blobby does best. The director of the video has obviously had a lot of fun (the clich├ęd novelty crowd-surf works a lot better than Bob The Builder's did), and we here at the Wordplay Guild know well-executed slapstick when we see it. Look out for Jeremy Clarkson and the odious Vorderman.

Verdict: Yes, it's awful, but it's also quite good. (Also, WTF were the spandex-dancers at the beginning for?)

Two Little Boys - Rolf Harris (1969, UK #1)


Cards on table, the craftsman here is the arranger, who is my grandfather (he's also here at 1:20, as MD of Name That Tune). He doesn't talk about this piece of work because I think he's a bit embarrassed by it (having two sons probably adds to this), but it was a quick job that was never expected to get where it did. The song itself is charming, and much older.

Verdict: This song makes me cry. Sorry, but it does.



Anyway, the point I would like to make is this: strip away the veneer of novelty, and is there anything left? Picture yourself as a jobbing songwriter - what would you do if you'd had to write it? Would you churn out some witless, meaningless padding, or would you write a competent song that stands up in its own right, and maybe adds something to its subject matter?

I know what I'd rather do.

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