Monday, 27 August 2012
AAA Songs Featuring Whistling (News, Views and Music Issue 159)
There are many dying arts in our modern world: incorruptible politicians, faith that things are going to get better and the ability to make decent music among them. We can’t do a lot about changing that – well not without paying off a hitman to prevent the spice girls reuniting permanently anyway – but we can solve another great lost art in the modern world: whistling. These days people don’t need to remember their favourite songs the way they used to – they can carry them around with them in their pockets and inside their ears – which might explain why modern music is so terribly forgettable. But back before I-pods and portable radios the only way you could remember, say, the Beatles’ latest was to fork out money for the single (which your parents only let you play when they were out the house anyway) or whistle it to keep the melody inside your head. Whistling even appeared on a few AAA records – hence this week’s little list and a guide so comprehensive even Whistler’s Mother could love:
Otis Redding “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” (Single, 1968)
We fans mourn Otis’ passing so much, not just because he was the greatest most charismatic soul performer that ever lived, but because he died (at the age of 27 in a plane crash) at the very peak of his powers. Slowly moving away from his trademark sound, Otis really found his ‘voice’ on his final recording, a big hit when released posthumously. This sad but truly lovely song harks back to Otis’ ‘Mr Pitiful’ character, wasting time at the docks because he’s got nowhere to go and no one to go with. The sadness in this song is extraordinary and the subtlety shows a new side of Otis, especially his heartbreaking vocal. What’s most memorable about this ‘goodbye’ song, though, is that emotive slightly-off key whistling with which Otis rounds off the song. Never has a narrator sounded more human, never has heartbreak sounded more real, as Otis ‘wastes his time’ whistling and contemplating things that never quite turned out right. What on earth would our hero have gone on to do next after a song as perfect as this one?
The Beach Boys “Whistle In” (‘Smiley Smile’, 1967)
‘Remember the day (day), remember the night (night), all day long’. What were we saying about whistling and memory? The Beach Boys beat us to it with this unusual, simple (unusually simple or simply unusual?) fragment of a song that sounds like it should have been a part of the legendary ‘Smile’ (actually its a Brian Wilson piece from marginally later, post-breakdown, not that Brian plays on this track). The kind of mirror of ‘Our Prayer’s invocation to prayer opening, its a short goodbye in a much more upbeat frame of mind, although it doesn’t really develop as a song, in keeping with the rather minimalist surrealism of the rest of ‘Smiley Smile’. Nice whistling from the band, though!
Paul and Linda McCartney “Ram On” (‘Ram’, 1971)
The other entries on this list use whistling as a kind of joyous expression of release, but the two Beatles go somewhat darker than that. ‘Ram On’ is simply one of the best songs Macca ever wrote, the narrator beaten and scarred but determined to follow-through what he’s doing anyway (to put it in context he’s just ruined his public image by sueing the other Beatles to escape the clutches of manager Allen Klein – time will show Macca to be in the right after Klien goes to prison but it didn’t seem that way at the time). A sad, slow melody ‘Ram’ reeks of quiet despair and that’s perfectly summed up by the whistling interlude that really brings out the feeling of loneliness and isolation in the song, as if Macca really is alone with just himself and his ukulele for support.
John Lennon “Jealous Guy” (‘Imagine’, 1971)
Lennon didn’t take kindly to being sued, especially when he knew his partner was right, and his ‘Imagine’ album – long heralded as the zenith of hippiedom thanks to the title track – is actually quite a nasty, sniping record when you study it closely. No one is safe on ‘Imagine’ from the author on down, but the biggest arguments seem to be with McCartney (John even handles a pig in a spoof of Paul handling a ram for his album cover). But the two Beatles had way more in common than they knew – hence the fact that the one truly honest song on the album sounds so similar to ‘Ram’, written approximately at the same time. Admitting his frailties and faults, Lennon owns up to his infidelity away from Yoko and adds ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’. Despite being played to a much louder, Phil Spector sponsored booming arrangement Lennon too sounds isolated and alone on this track, using his whistling solo to make his narrator sound ever more wistful and alone.
Paul Simon “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard” (‘Paul Simon’, 1972)
Paul Simon’s second single post-Garfunkel, this is another slightly confusing song that fans have spent the best of 40 years trying to decipher. The narrator and his friend Julio have clearly got up to something naughty, but what? Even the author claims he doesn’t know, claiming that he never bothered to ‘follow through on the song to find out because the song was already there’. Just as the boys are getting into trouble and about to be ‘taken away’ the narrator suddenly starts whistling in lieu of a guitar solo – a wonderfully nonchalant not-caring shrug of the shoulders that’s a complete delight because it’s so unexpected (when was the last time you heard whistling as a solo? And no the above entries don’t count!)
Cat Stevens “Whistlestar” (‘Numbers’, 1975)
The final entry on our list is the only instrumental, the bouncy and simplistic opening track to what must be one of the most complicated albums in my collection (subtitled ‘A Pyhtageron Theory Tale’, its the story of the numbers 1 to 9 who all live together and struggle to cope with the changes mr 0 brings to the city and the ‘higher’ numbers he leads them on to, making mr 1 mr 10 and so on). Like Paul Simon, Cat uses whistling as a sign of carefree joy, summing up the happy ignorant lives the kingdom of numbers lead before they realise that they should be aspiring to something ‘higher’. You have to say, though, the land sounds a much happier and nicer place before wandering minstrel Jzero comes along – and even by the end of the record, when they realise what they’ve been missing the album ends uncomfortably on a moving paean for home, despite the exciting journeys experienced along the way.
Well that’s it for another week. If you want any more to read, don’t just whistle – take a look round at our other issues instead! Bye for now!