Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tuesday, January 26, 1960: Alien Sex

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh...

Having turned 25 years old in January, 1960, Elvis would have turned 73 years old in January of this year. Sharing the same birthday as Elvis, January 8, David Bowie turned 61 a couple of months ago (having turned 13 years old in January, 1960). In a few more months, Mick Jagger will be 65. (Astonishingly, Bill Wyman of the Stones already celebrated his 71st birthday.) In the history of rock ‘n’ roll, eventually it may come to pass that British artists such as Jagger and Bowie will be perceived as more provocative rock stars than Elvis Presley, although Elvis in a very real sense created them, that is, made them both possible, enabling their later elaborations on the image of the (white) rock star he pioneered.

One reason for this eventuality may be that both Bowie and Jagger were willing to experiment with their masculine image much more than Elvis. Although extraordinarily erotic to a generation of young women, Elvis never tried any such experimentation--it probably never occurred to him. What this difference suggests, among other things, is that Bowie’s and Jagger’s particular allure is not Elvis’s—and never was. Critic Greil Marcus has argued that what Elvis did was to purge the Sunday morning sobriety from folk and country music and expunge the dread from the blues. In doing so, he transformed a regional music into a national music, and in doing so invented party music. Elvis popularized an amalgam of musical forms and styles into “rock ‘n’ roll,” a black American euphemism for sexual intercourse. What the Rolling Stones did to rock music (and Bowie after them) some years after Elvis made sex an integral part of rock music’s appeal, was to infuse rock with a bohemian theatricality, at first through the key figure of Brian Jones, who was the first British pop star to cultivate actively a flamboyant, androgynous image. For a time, Jones even found his female double in Anita Pallenberg. Brian Jones and the Stones thus re-introduced into rock music its erotic allure, and hence made it threatening (again).

History will recognize that the cultivated androgyny and transvestitism of 1960s rock stars such as Jagger and Bowie destabilized and subverted stable categories of the self and sexual identity, which is why as cultural practices they were perceived by some as so threatening and so subversive to genteel, bourgeois culture. (Indeed, Brian Jones seems to have had deep disdain for middle-class puritanism and sexuality morality.) By the late 1960s and early 1970s, roughly four decades ago, rock music had become synonymous with decadence. The connection was cemented when Mick Jagger appeared in Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s Performance (1970) as a bohemian rock star living in a ménage à trois with two women--one of whom was Anita Pallenberg. A few years later, in 1976, David Bowie appeared as a sexually ambiguous alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, in The Man Who Fell to Earth (although, as David Cammell recently told me, Peter O'Toole was first considered for the part of Newton.) The Bowie character was similar to the Michael Rennie character (Klaatu, aka “Mr. Carpenter”) in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) by virtue of his possessing advanced technology. But he was utterly unlike the Rennie character in that his alien sexuality was foregrounded; it was essential to defining his difference. (Michael Rennie is to The Day the Earth Stood Still what Elvis Presley is, now, to rock culture—a benign, handsome, paternal, Christ-like figure purged of any real sexual menace).

The performances of Mick Jagger in Performance and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth now stand as grand subversions of the wholesome but bland image of the rock star created by Elvis in his 31 feature films (1956—1969). Elvis might have sung Leiber and Stoller’s “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” to a group of girls on a dude ranch in 1965’s Tickle Me (“It’s Fun!.....It’s Girls!.....It’s Song!.....It’s Color!”) but Jagger and Bowie (and the girls) were “dirty.” By literalizing in their films what Elvis had only sung about in his, Jagger and Bowie forever transformed the image of the rock star, and in so doing transformed rock culture.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

Most certainly 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) made Arthur C. Clarke the most famous science fiction writer in the world. I’m not claiming that he was the best nor even the greatest—although for many he is the very epitome of the SF writer—but unquestionably he was the most famous, a simple matter of fact. His closest rival in that regard may be Ray Bradbury. My personal tastes gravitate toward SF authors such as Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard, but it was the writing of Arthur C. Clarke that initially drew me to science fiction decades ago.

When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was at the impressionable age of fourteen. As everyone knows, although the one sheet of 2001: A Space Odyssey promoted the film as a Cinerama presentation, it wasn’t, of course, projected in movie theaters in true Cinerama. But for me that’s a moot point, anyway, because I didn’t see it in Super Panavision 70, what MGM was then calling Cinerama; in fact, I never have seen it in that format--and never will. I first saw it at the drive-in, of all places, and, subsequently, in the years after, during its re-release, in 35mm prints. And yet despite the less than ideal venue in which I first saw it, the film so profoundly captured my imagination that I subsequently went back to see it again, perhaps five or six times. What did I care whether it was at the drive-in? I would have gone to see it anywhere. Its power is not simply in its images, but in its ideas--and its music.

The soundtrack to 2001 became the first album I ever purchased (with my own money). I had saved up my allowance, and of all the albums on the racks—albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Association, Vanilla Fudge, Tommy James and the Shondells, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, on and on and on—the album about which I carefully deliberated, and eventually selected, was the soundtrack to 2001. I have that album to this day, and, alas, it has all of the tell-tale signs of age, e.g., “cover wear,” “corner dings,” “seam splits, “surface markings on record,” etc. Assuming my home is never subject some catastrophic event—fire, explosion, lightning, aircraft damage—I always will own it, until the day when my heirs are left to dispose of it, an antiquated, tattered material artifact connected to some decades-old movie.

Having read the novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey around age fifteen, I was compelled to find more work by its author. My high school library had a few of Clarke's books; of those I read, I remember very much liking Islands in the Sky. A juvenile novel, I remember it being about a boy living on a space station, where human problems take second place in a world in which the imaginative reach of science was boundless. Soon after, I came across a few of Clarke’s short stories in some SF anthologies that I purchased off the carousel book rack at Garvey’s Rexall Drugs store. In due time Jerome Agel’s The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 (Signet, 1970) was published in paperback, followed a couple of years later by the book I found even more interesting, Clarke’s The Lost Worlds of 2001 (Signet, 1972), a detailed account of the making of 2001 that had the virtue of including Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” (primary source for the film), as well as alternative script material that wasn’t used in the finished film.

I was a freshman in college, though, when I first read Childhood’s End, the novel that, for me, is the great Arthur C. Clarke novel. In the many years since I’ve become a college English teacher, I’ve taught it whenever I’ve had the opportunity to teach a course in science fiction. Childhood’s End employs the idea Clarke had first used in “The Sentinel” (and hence, subsequently, in 2001) in which humankind achieves transcendence under the tutelage of benevolent but inscrutable aliens—which in the case of Childhood’s End happen to have a strong resemblance to the Devil (vaguely reptilian, with horns and tail). I choose to think Clarke never abandoned the fundamental premise of American writer Charles Fort (1874-1932). Fort, a student of the paranormal and strange and unusual phenomena, postulated the utterly paranoid idea, “We are property,” meaning that the earth and its inhabitants are the playthings of unknown but immensely intelligent creatures from outer space. I’m not aware of any criticism that has been written about 2001: A Space Odyssey that explores the way in which it is a Fortean film. Fort’s assertion that “We are property” is the unstated premise of “The Sentinel,” as it is for 2001. As it turns out, many years later, in one of those unexpected turns of which life consists, as part of the research for the book I co-authored with Rebecca Umland, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (FAB Press, 2006), I was given a copy of the screenplay adaptation of Childhood's End Abraham Polonsky wrote in the early 1970s, which Donald Cammell had hoped to direct. Although not widely known, and seldom if ever referred to in discussions of Polonsky's work after he ceased film directing, I'd love to know what Clarke thought of it.

Some years ago Peter Nicholls observed in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Press, 1993), that the paradoxical legacy of Arthur C. Clarke may be that while he is associated with technological progress, he at the same time may also be

best remembered for the image of mankind being as children next to the ancient, inscrutable wisdom of alien races. There is something attractive, even moving, in what can be seen in Freudian terms as an unhappy mankind crying out for a lost father; certainly it is the closest thing SF has yet produced to an analogy for religion, and the longing for God. (230)

But a recent BBC news report published this week reported:

Sir Arthur was quoted as saying religion was “a necessary evil in the childhood of our particular species,” and he left written instructions that his funeral be completely secular.

I am not at all surprised by this revelation, among the last wishes of a supremely intelligent writer of great imaginative reach, a man whose remarkable life spanned almost the entirety of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

She Bop

aka Bop Girl Goes Calypso
1957, 79m 43s

Trivia question: What was the name of the film in which Judy Tyler (pictured, left) appeared prior to starring in Jailhouse Rock with Elvis?

Answer: Bop Girl Goes Calypso (the on-screen title; the one-sheet and lobby cards I've seen simply read Bop Girl), which was shown on Turner Classic Movies late last night. Most sources I’ve consulted indicate that Bop Girl Goes Calypso was released through United Artists in July 1957, meaning that Judy Tyler had already died (4 July 1957) by the time it and her subsequent film, Jailhouse Rock, were released in theaters. Two years ago I had a student enrolled in one of my classes who grew up near the small town in Wyoming where Judy Tyler was critically injured in an automobile crash; she avers there is a commemorative marker to this day marking the spot where the terrible event occurred. She also told me the name of the small town, but for the life of me I can’t remember it. The location of the accident is sometimes listed as Laramie, Wyoming, but that would seem to be the place where she was taken by ambulance to the city hospital, not the actual location of the automobile accident. However, it seems to me there's some confusion over this matter, as the aforementioned student told me that local lore has it that Tyler was instantly killed in the crash and pronounced DOA at the Laramie hospital. I cannot claim to be able to resolve this matter.

Fifty years on, the primary interest of Bop Girl is as a museum piece. I'm not entirely sure of the meaning of “bop” in the title, as it doesn’t refer to jazz music (as in the truncated form of the term, bebop). I believe “bop” in this case may be a slang term for “hit," as in a musical hit—a "hit single." The movie’s narrative formula is similar to that found in other films made for teenagers at the time—Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), for instance, is a good example—in which a romantic rivalry serves as a sort of corollary to the competing forms of popular music foregrounded in each film. (Career and romance go hand-in-hand, success in one complementing success in the other.) The nerdy protagonist of Bop Girl is Bob Hilton (Bobby Troup, pictured above, right), a graduate student in psychology. His thesis is tentatively titled, “Mass Hysteria and the Popular Singer,” and he is attempting to demonstrate empirically (by means of an applause meter, a clunky apparatus that appears throughout the film) that rock ‘n’ roll is on the verge of being displaced by calypso music. Improbably, his balding, equally nerdy academic mentor, Professor Winthrop (Lucien Littlefield, then nearing the end of a long acting career in the movies, dating back to the silent era), is a fan of rock ‘n’ roll. Upon hearing the conclusions Bob has drawn from his “scientific” research, he is distressed to learn that rock ‘n’ roll is yet just another passing fad. In contrast, Professor Winthrop’s good friend, Barney (prolific character actor George O'Hanlon, later the voice of TV’s George Jetson), the hot-tempered owner of a club, the Down Beat, catering to the rock ‘n’ roll crowd, dismisses Bob’s conclusions, averring rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay. But in order to save his friend’s economic future, however, Professor Winthrop convinces the Down Beat’s primary audience draw, the lovely singer, dancer, and bop girl Jo Thomas (Judy Tyler), to learn calypso in her spare time. Her calypso music adviser is none other than egghead Bob Hilton, with whom she becomes romantically involved, despite the fact that Bob is currently engaged to fellow brainy graduate student Marion Hendricks (Margo Woode). In the meantime, the recalcitrant club-owner Barney discovers the growing popularity of calypso music. He goes native, adopting the requisite clothing (including the straw hat) and renaming his establishment Club Trinidad. Just as Bob had predicted, the (former) rock ‘n’ roll fans go calypso crazy, and Jo Thomas becomes a calypso performer eagerly sought out by A&R talent scouts seeking to sign her to a recording contract. At the conclusion of the narrative, she and Bob have become a romantic couple, her career is on its way, while Marion is shown dancing with Professor Winthrop. [!]

As directed by Howard W. Koch, who the next year would direct Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970 (1958), Bop Girl is neither better nor worse than other “topical” films of the period that in one way or another were reactions to the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. Clearly the film was attempting to ride the crest of the huge popularity of Harry Belafonte’s album Calypso (1956), the first vinyl LP (as opposed to single) to sell over one million copies (31 weeks at #1, 58 weeks in the top 10, 99 weeks on the music charts). Yet unlike Don’t Knock the Rock, in which the postwar collapse of swing served as a means to historically validate the rise of rock ‘n’ roll as a popular form of music, Bop Girl simply manufactures any supposed competition between calypso and rock ‘n’ roll. Oddly, despite its titular reference to calypso, most of the songs are rock ‘n’ roll numbers, interspersed with a hybrid form of calypso music (such as “Calypso Boogie”), written or co-written by Les Baxter. The only calypso music as such in the film is performed by Lord Flea. Other performers, many of whom went on to have rather substantial careers, include saxophonist Nino Tempo (who opens the film with a fine jump tune), The Titans (doo wop), The Goofers (quirky R&B, quirky in a good way), and the Las Vegas lounge act, The Mary Kaye Trio. I'll confess my primary motive for seeing Bop Girl was to see Judy Tyler in a pre-Jailhouse Rock role, and in this regard I was not disappointed. In fact, she's prettier and sexier in Bop Girl than she is in Jailhouse Rock, in which performance was more restrained, more matronly. (The movie was all about Elvis, after all, not her.)

My original intention was to perform an analysis of Bop Girl Goes Calypso using the terms I’d employed in my earlier, January 16 blog entry on Nat King Cole (in the entry titled “The Pale Gaze”), but instead I’ll simply point readers to my earlier post as well as a very interesting analysis of the film that can be found here.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Monday, January 25, 1960: el

According to John Tobler’s book, This Day in Rock: Day by Day Record of Rock’s Biggest News Stories (Carroll & Graf, 1993), Elvis Presley’s first RCA single, Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One, was released on January 25, 1956--exactly four years earlier than the above date. (Certain web sources proffer a slightly later date, although the discrepancy is minor and ultimately insignificant.)

On January 25, 1960, Elvis had just about five weeks left in the Army. No one had yet heard of the Beatles; the band as such didn't exist. The band that would become the Beatles was still known as The Quarrymen--the band members hadn’t yet decided on the name The Silver Beetles. In a wonderful sort of symmetry, precisely four years later--January 25, 1964--the Beatles first American single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” was one week away from becoming the band’s first #1 hit on the American charts, where it would remain perched for almost two months. As everyone knows, 1964 was the annus mirabilis of the Beatles, during which they had nine different singles sharing either the #1 or #2 spot on and off throughout the year. Chart information for 1964 is as follows (courtesy Joel Whitburn, Billboard Top 1000 Singles 1955-1990, Hal Leonard Publishing, 1991):

Song Title/Peak Date/Peak Position/Weeks at Peak Position
I Want to Hold Your Hand/February 1/#1/7 weeks
Please Please Me/March 14/#2/3 weeks
She Loves You/March 21/#1/2 weeks
Can’t Buy Me Love/April 4/#1/5 weeks
Twist and Shout/April 4/#2/4 weeks
Do You Want To Know a Secret/May 9/#2/1 week
Love Me Do/May 30/#1/1 week
A Hard Day’s Night/August 1/#1/2 weeks
I Feel Fine/Dec. 26/#1/3 weeks

In contrast, Elvis Presley had no songs in the Top 40 in 1964 (or 1965, or 1966, or 1967, or…). It wasn’t until late 1969 that Elvis had another #1 hit, his first big hit in many years. Instead of making records, he was busy making movies. During the years from 1960 (Post-Army, Pre-Beatles) to 1964 (Beatlemania), Elvis made the following movies, released in the following order:

G.I. Blues (1960)
Flaming Star (1960)
Wild in the Country (1961)
Blue Hawaii (1961)
Follow That Dream (1962)
Kid Galahad (1962)
Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962)
It Happened at the World's Fair (1963)
Fun in Acapulco (1963)
Kissin’ Cousins (1964) [Arguably his worst film, the absolute bottom of the barrel, infelicitously released at the onset of Beatlemania]
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Roustabout (1964)

Hence, while Elvis was preoccupied with his movie career, the Fab Four were becoming one of the most famous bands in popular music history. The criss-cross that occurred in 1964 (one's fortunes up, the other's fortunes down, and I don't mean by fortunes "money") could not have gone unnoticed by either the Beatles or Elvis. In his biography, Elvis (1980) Albert Goldman writes:

No wonder then, that when the Beatles first came to America--welcomed on the Ed Sullivan Show by a telegram wishing them every success and signed by Elvis Presley (though dispatched without his knowledge by Colonel Parker)--Elvis refused point-blank to meet these dubious young men who aspired to the hand of his daughter, the American youth audience. “Hell, I don’t wanna meet them sons o’ bitches!” exploded Elvis when the Colonel ran the proposition by him for the first time during the Beatles’ initial tour in 1964. (Avon Books paperback, 1981, p. 447)

Elvis didn’t meet the Beatles until the third week of August 1965 (the event recounted with different rhetorical flourishes in different biographies) while in Los Angeles filming Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966), which could be considered his worst film--if it weren't for Kissin' Cousins. He hadn’t been in the recording studio for years, except, of course, for the purpose of recording material for his soundtracks. After the Beatles met Elvis in August, the rest of 1965 worked out as follows:

The Beatles--Rubber Soul (album), December 1965 (U. S.)
Elvis Presley--Harum Scarum (movie), December 1965 (U. S.)

Thus the remark John Lennon made just a few months later, “We’re more popular than Jesus now,” uttered during an interview conducted on March 4, 1966, was made only after he and the other members of the Beatles had met Elvis. Michael Jarrett, in Sound Tracks, A Musical ABC, Vols. 1-3 (Temple University Press, 1998), interprets Lennon’s infamous remark as follows:

When John Lennon declared that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, what’s the chance that he really meant--in Bible Code--that they were more popular than Elvis? In both Hebrew and the language of rock ‘n’ roll, El means “God.” Lennon, however, couldn’t bring himself to say what he meant. Why? It would have been sacrilegious. Remember, it was Lennon who said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” (84)

In other words, Lennon could not bring himself to utter the terrible truth. He could not say, “The Beatles have become more popular than Elvis,” but perhaps, nonetheless, that's what he meant. It’s worth looking at the entire infamous remark Lennon made in 1966, the following quotation taken from

When they reached the subject of religion, Lennon said, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. … We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first--rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

What if he really meant the following? I have supplied the appropriate substitutions:

Elvis will go. He will vanish and shrink. … We’re more popular than Elvis now; I don’t know which will go first--us or Elvis.

Was Lennon consciously aware of what he really meant? Could he imagine the improbability that he had displaced his precursor, the one who had, in a very real sense, made him possible in the first place? That he had, figuratively speaking, like Oedipus, committed patricide? What are we to make out of the following juxtaposition, each album representing the first formal studio recordings made by each of the artists subsequent to their August 1965 meeting?

The Beatles: Revolver (August 1966)
Elvis Presley: How Great Thou Art (February 1967; recorded 1966 except for "Crying in the Chapel," 1960)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sunday, January 24, 1960: Oldies But Goodies

According to Joel Whitburn’s The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums (Revised & Enlarged 3rd Edition, 1995), by Sunday, January 24, 1960, the compilation album Oldies But Goodies, a collection of mid-50s doo wop and R&B consisting largely of L.A.-based groups such as The Penguins (“Earth Angel”), The Teen Queens (“Eddie My Love”), The Medallions (“The Letter”), The Cadets (“Stranded in the Jungle”), and others, released on Art Laboe’s Original Sound Record Co. label, had been on the charts for well over twenty weeks. Peaking at #12 on September 28, 1959, Oldies But Goodies would remain on the charts—this again according to The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums—for a total of 61 weeks, that is, well over a year.

Most famously known (at least in the Los Angeles area) in the late 50s as a disc jockey for radio station KPOP, Art Laboe (pictured) is credited with having invented the phrase “Oldies But Goodies.” But in addition, by issuing the Oldies But Goodies album in 1959, Laboe was the first to historicize rock ‘n’ roll, to lend it the dignity and distinction of a “classic” or “golden” era--"The Original Recordings of the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits Of All Time" is boasted on the album cover (in Hi-Fi to boot, a sonic upgrade in the form of "reprocessed" stereo), while the title itself is emblazoned in gold. Outside of Atlantic’s Rock & Roll Forever (which had the virtue of including Joe Turner’s versions of “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and “Flip, Flop & Fly,” popularized by Elvis), which briefly peaked at #20 on the charts in late 1956, the huge success of Oldies But Goodies (peaking at #12, but remaining on the charts, as I indicated earlier, for well over a year) has to be the reason why rock ‘n’ roll compilation albums became such a defining feature in the later consumption of rock 'n' roll--including, of course, numerous additional volumes of Oldies But Goodies.

I’m using the word “album” here in contrast to the word “record,” following my friend Mike Jarrett on this matter, who observes that while a record is a material object, an album is a concept. (As Jarrett points out, the word “album” is from the Latin, albus, “white,” meaning “blank tablet.”) Thus all compilation albums are conceptual, however banal that concept might be. For instance:

Various Artists, Oldies But Goodies (Original Sound) (pre-Elvis R&B, with special attention to L.A.-based R&B bands)
Various Artists, The Doo Wop Box (Rhino) (historical reconstruction of doo wop as a baroque reinvention—this according to Mike Jarrett--of rhythm & blues)
Various Artists, The Doo Wop Box II (Rhino) (same as above, with the designation "II," meaning that if you own both box sets, you have most of the songs defining the genre, enough to be considered "exhaustive")
Various Artists, The Time-Life History of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Teenage Years 1957-1964 (Time Life Music) (diachronic slice of popular hits as determined by chart ranking, duplicating Top 40 radio format)

But Art Laboe did more than historicize rock with his compilation album. By giving rock a past, he thereby also gave it a future, and so significantly contributed to the institution of rock music developing a self-reflexive discourse (aware of itself)—all of which happened rather quickly, in fact. After the Oldies But Goodies album, in 1960, Art Laboe issued yet another compilation album on his Original Sound label, Memories of El Monte, the title alluding to Laboe’s rock ‘n’ roll shows at the El Monte Legion Stadium. The title of Laboe’s compilation album, in turn, became the inspiration for one of Frank Zappa’s very first compositions, “Memories of El Monte” (co-written with Ray Collins), a pastiche of doo wop incorporating allusions to several of its biggest hits (according to biographers, Zappa had fond memories of seeing shows in the 1950s at the El Monte Legion Stadium). Eventually recorded with lead vocal by Cleve Duncan of The Penguins, the single was released on Laboe’s Original Sound label in 1963. Here’s an instance of the song’s self-reflexivity:

And I, Cleve Duncan, along with the Penguins will sing:/
"Earth Angel, Earth Angel/
Will you be mine?"/
At El Monte

But the story doesn’t end there. Just a few years later, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention recorded an entire (concept) album of doo wop pastiche, Cruising With Ruben & the Jets (1968). Subsequently, according to a statement to be found about the impact of the album at, Cruising With Ruben and the Jets led to the formation of Sha Na Na, an “oldies” act that early on in its history (1969) appeared at Woodstock (“At the Hop”). But there’s a crucial difference between a band such as Sha Na Na and a band such as The Mothers of Invention. Sha Na Na misread Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, thinking it was homage, a self-conscious tribute hearkening back to a more “innocent” age. Hence, Sha Na Na sang and played “oldies” music as an act of homage--meaning band members sang and played as fans. In contrast, the music of Zappa and the Mothers consisted of parody and pastiche--mock imitation--that is, their music was created by artists, by those who are self-consciously aware of traditions, styles, as well as historic periods and movements.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mondegreen Redux: Betty and the Jets

Based on the personal emails I’ve received as well as a rather significant increase in the number of hits on my blogspot the past couple of days, my previous entry on the mondegreen would seem to have been a popular success.

For the record, there are several websites devoted to mondegreens, so I can't claim any originality in that regard. I probably should have referred to a couple of websites in my earlier entry that collect mondegreens, at least those dedicated to misheard popular song lyrics:


There are also a couple books I’m aware of that collect mondegreens, and there are probably several more of which I’m unaware: Charles Grosvenor, Jr., Hold Me Closer Tony Danza, and Gavin Edwards, Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.

I do hope that my previous blog entry hasn’t left readers with the impression that my view of mondegreens is that they are simply another form of widespread or popular "error," that is, that I was trying to diminish their (unwitting) achievement. Rather, I was trying to illustrate how mondegreens can be highly creative (the writing of an entirely new song, as it were), but also, in psychoanalytic terms, how the mondegreen has the potential for activating meaning(s) that were repressed or unacknowledged in the original set of lyrics. Moreover, there is at least one popular song lyric that was sung differently than in the form it is widely known in print. According to, The Beatles’ "Ticket to Ride" is known in its "incorrect" form. Listeners who have claimed to hear

She’s got a ticket to Rye [as in the town in East Sussex] and she don't care

are not, in fact, hearing “incorrectly”—that’s the way The Beatles sang it. As sung, the song lyric is not

She’s got a ticket to ride and she don't care

According to

The Beatles cut the record, it was confusing to U.S. audiences, the record execs changed the title and lyrics. The song was never re-recorded. Listen carefully--you hear no ‘d’ sound in the word. Thus, Rye isn’t a misheard lyric. This is according to Casey Kasem.

How many bands in the history of rock have covered "Ticket to Ride," never knowing that they were singing the lyric incorrectly? Of course, it doesn't really matter. Referring in my previous entry to Dave Marsh’s book Louie Louie, I was trying to reiterate a point made throughout his book that the lesson many early rock and rollers learned from the controversy over the lyrics to “Louie Louie” was that the best rock lyrics should be purposely enigmatic. Hence, aural ambiguity isn't an accident, but necessary for the best rock lyrics to resonate, to be provocative. More abstractly put, rock lyricists exploit the susceptibility of messages to be deformed when received by the listener: they exploit the potential deformation made possible through the electronic transformation of messages. Although there is a widespread rumor (perhaps true) that the lead singer for Iron Butterfly was so heavily intoxicated that the words, "In the garden of eden," emerged in slurred form as, "In-a-gadda-da-vida," my own view is that the band's decision to leave them in their garbled version was absolutely brilliant, and no doubt contributed in no small way to the success of the song. How mysterious and enticing, how provocative, how mystery-laden those nonsense syllables were to a young generation of listeners.

The aural ambiguity enabled by the homophone hence isn't merely an "accident" that occurs in the transmission of the message, but instead reveals the received nature of the message itself. Of course, it doesn’t help when, for instance, The Kingsmen recorded "Louie Louie" with the microphone hanging from the ceiling so that there was no way the lyrics could be properly heard--but this is yet another instance of the interference that is inherently part of any electronically transmitted message. How many popular songs are themselves about this interference?

I’ve Got To Get a Message to You

Telephone Line

Hanging on the Telephone



I made this list off the top of my head. Some enterprising person ought to assemble a CD compilation of such songs, to be called, what? Maybe The Girl With Colitis Goes By.