Song of the Week – Oliver’s Army, Elvis Costello

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

Today’s SotW is “Oliver’s Army,” by Elvis Costello.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the song, I need to warn you upfront that it contains the “N” word.  But it doesn’t offend me – and I hope it doesn’t offend you – because the song isn’t about racism against black and brown people.  (Though I admit the fact that Costello had an argument in 1979 with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett that included racial slurs seems to weaken my case.)  Still, I maintain the track is an anti-war rant that criticizes how the British government took advantage of enlisting young men with few job prospects into its military back in the late ‘70s when the song was written and recorded.  Costello was once quoted as saying “I was upset by the idea that armies always get a working-class boy to do the killing.”

Call careers information, have you got yourself an occupation

and

If you’re out of luck or out of work, we could send you to Johannesburg

Besides having such penetrating lyrics, it’s handed off to us like a stick of candy floss.  You could be forgiven missing the heft of the pointed lyrics amid the pop genius of the music, especially the Abba like piano part (think “Dancing Queen”).  The harmony soars on the last verse (“But there’s no danger…) and Costello gives the song a perfect ending when he imitates Ronnie Spector’s trademark Oh-oh-ohs.

But back to the lyrics.  Who would have thought these lines, written in 1978, would have any relevance today?

Hong Kong is up for grabs
London is full of Arabs
We could be in Palestine
Overrun by a Chinese line
With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne

And back to that controversial lyric…  It was originally inspired by the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, but how does that feel today?

Only takes one itchy trigger, one more widow, one less white nigger

Tom Waits once said “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”  That’s “Oliver’s Army” in a nutshell!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – The Monkey, Dave Bartholomew; Monkey to Man, Elvis Costello & The Smartest Monkeys, XYC

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

The great New Orleans R&B artist, songwriter and record producer, Dave Bartholomew, died on June 23rd.  I’m totally embarrassed that I missed it but that was right around the time that I was in Sonoma for 3 days and on the east coast for the following 10.

Even if you don’t know him by name, I’m certain that you’ve heard his work.  He wrote or co-wrote many Fats Domino hits, like “The Fat Man”, I’m Walkin’”, “Blue Monday”, and  “Ain’t That a Shame” – a pop #1 in 1955.  And there’s more — “I Hear You Knocking” (Smiley Lewis) and “My Ding-a-Ling” (Chuck Berry).

He produced Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” that was an R&B #1 in 1952, and Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.”

Today’s first SotW is Bartholomew’s own “The Monkey.”

“The Monkey” is a social commentary about the way humans have descended from “the monkey” but doesn’t always behave like the superior species.  (Unfortunately, a very apropos sentiment in today’s divisive political climate.)

Here’s another thing a monkey won’t do
Go out on a night and get all in a stew
Or use a gun or a club or a knife
And take another monkey’s life
Yes, man descended, the worthless bum
But, brothers, from us he did not come

In 2004, Elvis Costello released a song called “Monkey to Man.”

The opening lyric is “A long time ago, our point of view as broadcast by Mr. Bartholomew.”  I would venture to say the significance of that reference was missed on all but a few.  (Now you’re in the know!)  There’s a YouTube video of Costello and Bartholomew doing a live performance of “The Monkey” together with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Costello’s song picks up where Bartholomew’s left off.

And now the world is full of sorrow and pain
And it’s time for us to speak up again
You’re slack and sorry, such an arrogant brood
The only purpose you serve is to bring us our food
Sit here staring at your pomp and pout
Outside the bars we use for keeping you out
You’ve taken everything that you wanted
Broke it up and plundered it and hunted
Ever since we said it you went and took the credit
It’s been headed this way since the world began
When a vicious creature took the jump from monkey to man

XTC also recorded a track with another variation on the theme.

“The Smartest Monkeys” was on their 1992 album, Nonsuch and tackles the subject of homelessness.

Well man created the cardboard box to sleep in it
And man converted the newspaper to a blanket
Well you have to admit that he’s come a long way
Since swinging about in the trees
We’re the smartest monkeys

Thank you, Dave Bartholomew, for the legacy you left us and the inspiration you paid forward.  RIP.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Too Much Monkey Business, Chuck Berry, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan, Pump it Up, Elvis Costello, Wild Wild West, The Escape Club

IGNORED OBSCURED RESTORED

Over the years I’ve written several posts in what I refer to as the “Evolution Series.” It consists of two sub categories. The first highlights the development of a single song over time by different artists [say, Train Kept A-Rollin’ by Tiny Bradshaw (1951), Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio (1956), The Yardbirds (1965), Aerosmith (1974)]. The other traces a certain song style – i.e. a rhythm or lick – as artists borrow from the past to make it their own (the Bo Diddley beat to Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” to “Magic Bus” by The Who to Springsteen’s “She’s the One” to U2’s “Desire”).

Today’s SotW is another collection in the second category. It starts with Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” (1956).

Berry’s 5th single introduced an unusual rhythm for the vocal delivery of the lyrics. He spits out words to simply describe the frustrations of everyday life, like losing your money in a pay phone (that is, if you know what a pay phone is).

Pay phone, somethin’ wrong, dime gone, will mail
I ought to sue the operator for tellin’ me a tale

Bob Dylan picked up on Berry’s lyrical delivery and raised the bar on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965).

In 2004, Dylan told the L.A. Times’ Robert Hilburn of “SHB,” “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of “Too Much Monkey Business” and some of the scat songs of the 40s.”

It became even more iconic with the D. A. Pennebaker directed scene, from the documentary Don’t Look Back. of Dylan flipping through a series of cue cards with key words from the song, including one of Dylan’s most quoted lines:

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”

Next in line is “Pump It Up” (1978) from Elvis Costello’s second album, This Year’s Model.

“Pump It Up” has some of Costello’s best lyrics from his early days as the angry young man.

She’s been a bad girl
She’s like a chemical
Though you try to stop it
She’s like a narcotic
You wanna torture her
You wanna talk to her
All the things you bought for her
Putting up your temperature

Lastly is “Wild, Wild West” (1988) from the one hit wonder, The Escape Club.

In 1988 I was the DJ at a Christmas party at the famous Cask & Flagon near Fenway Park in Boston. The friends that hosted the party were mostly into the “alternative” rock of the day (Style Council, English Beat, etc.) which was right up my alley. I still remember seguing from “Pump It Up” into “Wild, Wild West” and how nicely it worked – the true test being that no one left the packed dancefloor.

I can think of a couple of other songs that might be close relatives to this series – maybe U2’s “Get On Your Boots” or R.E.M.’s “The End of the World as You Know It.” Can you come up with any others?

Enjoy… until next week.