Showing posts with label Novelty Songs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Novelty Songs. Show all posts

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween Rock

The songs one might consider placing under the broad rubric of “Halloween Rock” occupy a curious niche in rock music history. They do not especially exhibit the tendentiousness of the “novelty song,” those occasional or ad hoc songs recorded to raise money for a certain charity, for instance, or recorded to capitalize on a current consumer fad or craze. Nor do they form a coherent subgenre of rock music, having no recurring, identifiable characteristics, thus making them different from a highly commercialized popular musical form such as the Christmas song. Another difference from Christmas music is that “Halloween Rock” is not necessarily music one plays at Halloween, but all year long. Nonetheless, there are certain tunes that one inevitably is compelled to play at Halloween, such as “The Blob,” “Monster Mash, “Psycho Killer,” “Werewolves of London,” and “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, the latter song actually used in the movie Halloween. None of these aforementioned songs are particular “scary” in my view, although they are all highly memorable pieces of music, and somehow seem especially appropriate to play at this time of year.

Yesterday posted a list of the “Top 10 User-Submitted Halloween Rock Tunes,” consisting of readers contributing to “the perfect Halloween rock playlist.” I invite everyone to check out the list—complete with videos—that, while extraordinarily heterogeneous, marked by different styles and different historical periods, actually contains some interesting choices: among them, The Kinks’ “Wicked Annabella,” The Sonics’ “The Witch,” Electric Light Orchestra’s “Fire on High” (from the album Face the Music, the back cover of which is pictured above), The Who’s “Boris the Spider,” and what, for me anyway, is the most interesting choice, Crispin Glover’s rendition of “Ben.” Crispin Glover, remember, starred in the 2003 remake of Willard (1971), a story about a young man’s fascination and strong identification with rats. “Ben,” a huge hit for the young Michael Jackson, was the title track to that film’s 1972 sequel, Ben. Although Willard and its sequel are generally considered “campy,” for an alternative view I would recommend everyone to read Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux, in particular the chapter titled “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible.” Deleuze and Guattari are especially fond of the film Willard as an illustration of the principle they name “Becoming-Animal,” the strong identification certain human beings have with certain animals, imitating them, modeling their behavior on them, in short attempting to become them. Contrary to a film such as The Wolfman, for instance, which depicts the horror of becoming Other, Willard explores the deep desire to do just that. (Vampire films often explore similar territory.)

At any rate, over at a list of favored “Halloween Rock” tunes follows the “Top 10” Halloween songs, and I invite everyone to peruse it. Moreover, I wish all my readers, now and in the future, a Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One-Hit Wonderdom

The existence of the one-hit wonder—a designation used within the music industry to refer to a musician or band known almost exclusively for one hugely popular hit single—undermines the (Romantic) image of the artistic genius, supplanting it with the image of the idiot savant, an individual with an extraordinarily narrow area of expertise or brilliance. Hence, the existence of the one-hit wonder is a postmodern phenomenon, destabilizing the traditional understanding of what constitutes genius, (re)defining it by the vagaries of consumer culture. While some one-hit wonders are “novelty songs,” most of them are not, the latter often characterized by their tendentiousness, that is, by being an occasional song recorded to raise money for a certain charity (1985’s “We Are the World,” recorded in order to raise funds for famine-relief efforts in Ethiopia), or by its effort to capitalize on a current consumer fad or craze (C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” (1975), exploiting the then current popularity of citizen’s band—CB—radio).

If we consider only those one-hit wonders that cannot be considered novelty songs—those that do not overtly display any occasional or ad hoc characteristics—then one-hit wonders have no identifiable characteristics other than they must conform to the material requirements of the 7” 45 rpm single—that is, the time restriction. In its more pejorative formulation, one-hit wonders are characterized as “flukes,” that is, anomalies, the evidence being an empirical one: the individual musician or band was unable to reiterate (repeat) its success subsequently. Hence one would like to say Time is the final judge, but certain one-hit wonders have shown a remarkable durability, remaining as popular as songs by bands whose work consumers have endorsed repeated times. The late, lauded auteur Ingmar Bergman—always uneasy with his fame—once remarked, “No one remembers those who built Chartres,” by which he meant, among other things, the thing that endures is the art, not the artist, and while the names of the artisans who built that grand cathedral are not remembered, their artwork is, a testament to their resilience, their commitment, and their dedication to an idea greater than themselves. One-hit wonders are proof of the same idea, that the work remains long after the artist is forgotten.

“Best of” lists are essentially an expression of individual taste and aesthetic judgment, and as such they cannot appeal to any sort of empirical verification. As the old adage says, non disputandum de gustibus est: It is not possible to make disputations about taste. The keyword here is taste, and with that in mind, here’s my list of the best, and worst, one-hit wonders, confined, arbitrarily and capriciously, to hits in the United States during the years 1960-82. Ask me to repeat this exercise six months from now, my list most likely will be different. As Emerson said, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The Best (with my current #1):
10. The Undisputed Truth – Smiling Faces Sometimes (1971)
9. King Harvest – Dancing in the Moonlight (1972)
8. Danny O’Keefe – Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues (1972)
7. John Fred & His Playboy Band – Lucy in Disguise (With Glasses) (1968)
6. The Seeds – Pushin’ Too Hard (1966)
5. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers – Last Kiss (1964)
4. Jonathan King – Everyone’s Gone to the Moon (1965)
3. Sanford Townsend Band – Smoke From a Distant Fire (1977)
2. Wall of Voodoo – Mexican Radio (1982)
1. David Essex – Rock On (1973)

The Worst (but not forgotten):
10. Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods – Billy Don’t Be A Hero (1974)
9. Melanie – Brand New Key (1971)
8. Van McCoy – The Hustle (1975)
7. Alan O’Day – Undercover Angel (1977)
6. Climax – Precious and Few (1972)
5. Charlene – I’ve Never Been To Me (1982)
4. Debby Boone – You Light Up My Life (1977)
3. The Singing Nun – Dominique (1963)
2. Starland Vocal Band – Afternoon Delight (1976)
1. Millie Small – My Boy Lollipop (1964)

Recommended Reading:
Wayne Jancik, The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders. Revised and Expanded. 1998.