Monday, 8 October 2012
Spoken Word Passages On AAA Songs (News, Views and Music Top Ten Issue 165)
The human singing voice carries with it a vast array of emotions, thoughts that cannot be expressed in any other way except opening the lungs and screaming or singing softly to express great loss. But occasionally musicians use their voices (and those of others) in quite different ways, using a normal speaking voice for variety, for comedy, for weirdness or to make a statement. Here, then, are the eight best examples of this we could think of, plus two good tries that, arguably, don’t work very well (keep your hand ready for the ‘skip’ button...) Only one entry per artist (or we’d have a top 50 with Pink Floyd alone) and each entry is listed in order of successfulness (in our opinion, anyway).
Pink Floyd “The Great Gig In The Sky” (from ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ 1973; ‘I am not frightened of dying, anytime will do, I don’t mind’)
‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ is a remarkable album in many ways, but for me its lasting claim to fame isn’t Roger Waters’ acerbic lyrics about the pressures of modern life or David Gilmour’s astonishing guitar solos. It’s the very adult, unique way that spoken word is used throughout the album. In an attempt to make their album more ‘universal’ the band invited a bundle of guests and local faces down to Abbey Road to answer some questions Roger had written out on sheets of cardboard and speak their answers into a microphone. Interviewees included members of Wings (recording ‘Red Rose Speedway’ next door) including Paul McCartney, although only guitarist Henry McCullouch was eventually used. The voice that works best, however, is Jerry Driscoll, the doorman at the famous studios, whose distinctive philosophy is all over this album. This is his crowning moment on the album, ruminating on death when asked by Roger ‘what are your thoughts about dying?’ with his usual aplomb, speech that makes for a great double act with Rick Wright’s beautiful chord sequences.
Small Faces “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake” side two (an album from 1968; ‘Are you sitting two square fold on you botty? Then we’ll begin...’)
‘Professor’ Stanley Unwin, master of gobbledegook and star of the 1950s, doesn’t seem the obvious choice for a rock and roll album, but then again ‘Ogden’s’ is not your usual rock album. A spoof of every rock opera of the day, its second side tale of Happiness Stan searching for the other half of the moon (which has disappeared in the sky) is taken by many fans at face value today. A very quirky, eccentric English album full of charabancs and hermits and talking flies, it’s the perfect match for Unwin’s ‘upside down’ dialogue, which links all six songs of the suite. Unwin reaches his peak during his link before closer ‘Happydoystoytown’, relating the party that’s taking place to celebrate the return of the moon ‘and dangly’ (‘Little Boy Blue brought his mellotron and left his horn at home’). It’s Unwin’s thoughtful, funny narration that keeps Stan’s story interesting and – though not made for repeated listening – makes ‘Ogden’s the memorable little album it is.
Moody Blues “Late Night Lament” (from ‘Days Of Future Passed’ 1967; ‘Breathe deep the gathering gloom, watch lights fade from every room...’)
The first – and best – spoken word passage from the Moody Blues works best because, more than any other Moodies album, this work really is a ‘suite’ of songs linked by one theme (a period of 24 hours from first light to dusk). Despite containing some of the Moodies’ weakest songs, this album is well loved – partly because it contains ‘ Nights In White Satin’, no doubt, but also partly because of this haunting poem written by drummer Graeme Edge and spoken by keyboardist Mike Pinder. Edge’s poetic words ring more true here than on some of his later, more tongue-in-cheek efforts and the lines about the light of the day disappearing and flickering shadows across the room, leaving onlookers to decide ‘which is right...and which is an illusion’ is one of the band’s most haunting images.
Belle and Sebastian “A Century Of Elvis” (from the EP ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ 1997; ‘We were sitting in the living room, on a sofa the wrong way round...’)
‘Oh look there’s Elvis, by the bike sheds...’ The best of the two eccentric spoken word comedy pieces bassist Stuart David came up with for Belle and Sebastian (we covered his spin-off ‘Looper’ albums on these pages a couple of issues back), this song tells the unlikely tale of how the narrator is convinced that a local dog is the re-incarnation of Elvis. Taking the dog home and adopting him, the narrator shows him some conspiracy programmes about Elvis’ demise and adds how much his dad looks like Elvis (both the dog and the rock icon). Stuart’s broad Scottish accent is muted throughout the song, causing the listener to really turn the sound up loud and it’s the whole straightforward ‘well, why wouldn’t he?’ ness of the song that makes it work so well. If the tune sound familiar that’s because its identical to the Stuart Murdoch song ‘A Century Of Fakers’, a track that didn’t actually appear until the next Belle and Sebastian EP ‘3...6...9...Seconds Of Light’ (both pieces are collected on the EP collection ‘Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds’).
The Monkees “Zilch” (from ‘Headquarters’ 1967; ‘Mr Doboliona, Mr Bob Dobalina...’)
The Monkees wasn’t like most television series then or now; improvisation and energy were the name of the game, with the foursome making up many of their lines and ad lobbing their way through often second-rate scripts (especially in the second series). Alas that energy didn’t often make its way onto the band’s albums, which are surprisingly comedy free for a band known for their laughs-a-minute on TV. ‘Headquarters’, the album where the band had the most control over their own work, comes the closest and even though songs like ‘Zilch’ and ‘Band 6’ confused as many people as they entertained they comes the closest to capturing that free-wheeling Monkees spirit on tape. ‘Zilch’ is my favourite, all four Monkees writing down various random phrases and in-jokes they’d come across while touring or listening to the radio and reciting them all at the same time while trying (unsuccessfully) to fend off the giggles. ‘Never mind the furthermore, the pleas is self defence’ is a phrase Micky had to learn for the TV series and hated; ‘It is of my opinion that the people are intending’ is a phrase Mike heard on the news; ‘Cghina Clipper Calling Alamita’ is something Davy heard while waiting for an aeroplane flight and goodness only knows where Peter first heard ‘Mr Dobolina, Mr Bob Dobolina’. There’s a shocking edit halfway through the piece and a lot of giggles towards the end (the ‘Rhino handmade’ edition of ‘Headquarters’ reveals that its probably because Davy improvises the lines ‘chickens...elephants’ instead of what he should be singing and Micky is busy making up gibberish words). The end result is very 60s and wouldn’t have been attempted today, but as with so much of this website, that’s no bad thing.
Jefferson Airplane “A Small Package Of Great Value Will Come To You Shortly”
(from ‘After Bathing AT Baxters’ 1967; ‘No man is an island...he’s a peninsular!’)
Another very 60s piece, this collage of noise and sound effects by drummer Spencer Dryden is a fascinating insight into life in a recording studio circa 1967. It’s mainly Dryden, Jorma Kaukanen and Jack Casady you hear trading nonsense words and blowing raspberries. The whole piece seems to be going nowhere until the band start trying to go all Shakespeare with the line ‘No man is an island...’ His serious reverie is interrupted by Dryden’s quick wit, adding ‘he’s a peninsular!’ in one of the best punchlines of any AAA album. Truly bizarre, although heard between the equally far-out but rather more serious songs either side of it (‘The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil’ and ‘Young Girl Sunday Blues’) its deliciously intoxicating, sounding like the start of an exciting journey that could literally go anywhere (‘Baxters’ remains my favourite Airplane album because, for all its faults, its the freest and most exciting of all the band’s albums, perhaps the most 1967 album of all the albums released that groundbreaking year).
The Kinks “You Make It All Worthwhile” (from ‘A Soap Opera’ 1974; ‘Would you like steam pudding and custard for afters? Darling that would be marvellous!...’)
Ray Davies’ concept album about the ‘star maker’s slow descent across an album from rock icon to tired and jealous office worker crops up a lot on these pages. A cod-musical, it works best on the unscreened television special (still the best thing I’ve ever found on Youtube) where so much more spoken word is added to get the storyline across. While words are used throughout on the lyric booklet and often on album, it’s not until the turning point of ‘You Make It All Worthwhile’ that the loose concept really comes together. The starmaker, aka Norman, comes home tired and stressed from the office and hates his wife’s cooking, before coming to his senses and realising he shouldn’t set his sights so high (her offer of ‘steam pudding and custard for afters’ is met with the line ‘darling, that would be marvellous!’ If nothing else, this little section adds a poignancy and warmth to a record that doesn’t sustain it across the whole LP.
Oasis “Fuckin’ In The Bushes” (from ‘Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants’ 2000; ‘Nice, life, bright, music...I’m all for it!’)
Noel Gallagher has always been one of rock’s biggest historians, knowing not just his Beatles and Stones and Sex Pistols but interested in all the key changing points of the past five decades. The Isle Of Wight Festival might not strike the average worldwide fan as the most important nexus point in time, but for us UK fans its the closest we had to a ‘Woodstock’. Unseen for 25 years, the film of the festival (‘Message To Love’) was finally finished and screened in 1995 – just when Oasis were at their commercial peak – and the 1960s were all around once more (its no coincidence that the Stones’ Rock’ n’ Roll Circus, unseen since being filmed in 1968, was also screened a year later). The organisers thought audience members breaking down security put up for their own good and sitting on hills to avoid paying the entrance fees were a con; some of the audience, thrilled by tales of Woodstock and the idea that ‘music should be free’ tore them down and set burger vans alight. The result was more like a war zone than a peace and love festival, although what’s curious if you’ve seen the film is how supportive the (mainly OAP) locals are of the own affair. The quote above is from an elderly lady who loves the idea that the youth of the day hate war (she’s of a generation to be toiuched by both world wars), but its set against the rather more sneering tones of a festival organiser who adds ‘We put this festival on with a lot of love for you pigs...if you want to break our walls down, then you can go to hell’). A complete one-off in the Oasis canon, this largely instrumental song sounds like a war being fought between good and evil, with neither gaining the upper hand – a bit like the troubled (but under-rated) fourth album it comes from.
Simon and Garfunkel “Voices Of Old People” (from ‘Bookends’ 1968; ‘I got little in this world; I give honestly without regret...’)
‘Bookends’ first side is Paul Simon’s writing at its best. Looking at the lifespan of a human being, it looks at youth growing older and reaching old age, his ideals worn out, his passion spent. It’s a masterful creation for a songwriter only aged 26 and is spoilt by just this one song. Art Garfunkel, in love with the idea of the album, takes it upon himself to visit a local old folk’s home in America and capture the lost enthusiasm for life and the narrowed vision of small struggles for survival on tape for real. Alas his four minutes’ worth of war veterans bad-mouthing the care they’ve been given and re-counting all the unhappy moments in their lives works better on paper than it does on the record, where it rather undoes the good work of the middle-aged song ‘Overs’. The sad fact is, none of these people had the chance for redemption – some died before the record came out and certainly all of them are long since dead now – and somehow that gets in the way of the record’s main motif, which is basically ‘seize the moment before it goes’. Something of a mistake and in retrospect I’m surprised the record label Columbia allowed it through.
The Beach Boys “Cassius Love vs Sonny Wilson” (from ‘Shut Down Volume 2’ 1964; ‘A fight suddenly breaks out between Brian and Mike...’)
However the worst spoken word moment on an AAA record must surely be this staged fight between Mike Love and Brian Wilson, who were just beginning to have fights for real in the studio. Al Jardine introduces the latest (and worst) spoken word moment made to fill up another three minutes on a Beach Boys record recorded in a hurry (other examples include outtakes and an interview) in such an uncomfortable I-don’t-want-to-do-this-manner that yoiu know something is up and so it proves. Brian attacks Mike for singing through his nose, Mike attacks Brian for sounding like Mickey Mouse, Carl and Dennis chip in half-heartedly on different sides and so it rumbles on, on and on. At last the pair appear to make up, admitting basically that they need each other, but the fade-out of the record still features the two copying each other’s styles (parting shot from Brian ‘at least my nose isn’t on the critical list!’) A truly awful moment. The title refers to a real boxing fight of 1963 by the way – Cassius Clay is better known today as Muhammad Ali, but as he’s never been forced to sing ‘Fun Fun Fun’ for the world to hear (to the best of my knowledge anyway) the comparison seems rather pointless.