Let's Put A Smile On That Faceby Bill Tuomala
"Personality Crisis" by the New York Dolls popped up on my iPod the other day. While listening and suppressing a grin - I was at the gym, where like at the bar, smiling to yourself while alone comes off to others as a sure sign of mental instability - a thought occurred to me: That sometimes a vital ingredient in the rock 'n' roll I typically love is not just guitars and drums and a gutsy singer and a rhythm that moves me ... the hidden ingredient, the one that I don't credit enough because of a forest-for-the-trees thing, is humor. And we're not talking about just being funny here. I admire a certain type of humor from my rock 'n' rollers. Witty instead of forcing the funny, witty instead of humor that makes it a novelty song. Humor that doesn't overshadow the rest of the tune. The sound of the song should mostly stand on its own but the lyrics are the icing and ice cream on the cake. And please: Nothing contrived and nasally like the horrible They Might Be Giants. We're talking rock 'n' roll here, not crappy bands with shitty vocals and wuss rhythm sections. (TMBG's annoying white-boy "singing" in Malcolm in the Middle's theme song is the main reason why I ended up watching exactly one episode of the show.) To define it much more would be to put up rules, and rock 'n' roll is enjoyed best when barriers are dropped. So I started to think of my favorite funny rockers. It's no coincidence that these artists are ones that I have spent quality time with the past few years, playing them over and over. Like the Cheap Trick Summer of 2004, the Coasters December of 2003, and so many late Friday nights with the two Dolls albums blasting on my headphones.
Hence, my Top Ten Favorite Funny Rockers, also listing a fave funny moment:
Bob Dylan. "Tombstone Blues" (on Highway 61 Revisited) - His first three rock 'n' roll albums - Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde - mixed garage rock, Chuck Berry licks, and Beats-influenced lyrics that made him the funniest rock 'n' roller of the sixties. So of course, ponderous self-absorbed boomers ignored the jokes and tried to make him into a prophet, avatar, messiah, etc. There is a theory that Dylan's blazing mid-sixties rock 'n' roll was done under the influence of speed. Listens to the hilarious "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" tend to confirm this. All I know is that I want take whatever pill that led Dylan to write these lines about LBJ from "Tombstone Blues":
The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, "Death to all those who would whimper and cry"
And dropping a bar bell he points to the sky
Saying, "The sun's not yellow it's chicken"
The Replacements. Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash - The 'Mats first album tends to be overlooked, most likely because Paul Westerberg hadn't gotten "serious" yet. (Though check out the morality tale of "Johnny's Gonna Die.") Their debut featured songs about a bad concert at the St. Paul Civic Center, needing cigarettes, being in love with the girl who works at the store, being lazy, making fun of rivals Husker Du, and loving somebody until Friday (been there!) Listeners to "Hangin' Downtown" might be baffled why Westerberg keeps yelling "bus stop!" until they think about the likelihood of the narrative taking place from the point of view of a northbound bus on Hennepin Avenue. This song also features the classic 'Mats stumbling, bumbling moment when Westerberg yells "everybody!" when going into a chorus and absolutely nobody else joins in. He tells us in the liner notes that they wanted to use a car horn to cover up the mistake, but "none of us own a car." He also assures us that they're thinking about taking music lessons.
Run-DMC. "You Be Illin'" (on Raising Hell) - First, honorable-mention props have to go out to these lines from their landmark rap-metal fusion, "Rockbox", unleashed a couple of years earlier:
Your Calvin Klein's no friend of mine
Don't want nobody's name on my behind
"You Be Illin'" features disses on a clueless sort who orders Big Macs at KFC, yells "touchdown!" when Dr. J scores, eats dog food by accident, and all along insists that "I be chillin'." Buoyed by an irrepressible bass-and-sax rhythm, this one showed them to be the sons of the Coasters.
Cheap Trick. "He's a Whore" (on their self-titled debut album) - This one's about servicing, all while forcing a smile, a woman with a face that could stop a clock and has green teeth. Cheap Trick's first album had a grimmer, darker humor than, say, what they eventually got to with "Dream Police." And lyrics like:
(He's a whore) I'll do anything for money
(He's a whore) Look at the things that I write
foreshadowed Cheap Trick's career in the eighties.
Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper's Greatest Hits (1974 Warner Bros. edition) - Originally the band was called Alice Cooper and the name of the singer was Vincent Furnier. He's the guy we now all know as "Alice." This is important knowledge, as it shows why these lines from "Be My Lover" are funny:
She asked me why the singer's name was "Alice"
I said, "Listen, baby, you really wouldn't understand"
This anthology captures the original Alice Cooper band in all its catchy hard rock glory. Their stage show was steeped in shocking theatrics, but these singles are just PG-13 fun. "Elected" announces "the formation of a new party, a third party, the WILD PARTY." (In your face, Libertarians!) The protagonist in "No More Mr. Nice Guy" is so nice that he aggravates his reverend into punching him in the nose. "Under My Wheels" tops the Stones's "Under My Thumb." "School's Out" is hands-down, the all-time greatest rock 'n' roll song for kids. It promises your school being "out forever" by being blown up, plus has lyrics that admit: "We can't even think of a word that rhymes".
J. Geils Band. "Love Stinks" (on eponymous album) - Geils was probably funnier live, with Peter Wolf rapping away between songs about telling his old lady that he was "just friends" with that other gal, then wondering aloud: "Who's that chick with the long hair?" and immediately a band member yells "Rapunzel!" But this hit of theirs from '80 - which went Top Ten while yours truly was fourteen and hung up on a girl I was convinced was perfect even though I barely talked to her - is a gem. Sentiments like:
I've had the blues, the reds, and the pinks
All I can say is: "Love stinks"
are the fun alternative to Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," released exactly eighteen days later.
Van Halen. "IÕm The One" (on their self-titled debut album) - Van Halen were dismissed by critics and other smugniks in the late seventies for - among other alleged transgressions against rock 'n' roll - singing about drinking and sex and not taking the world and life seriously. As a wise man once said: Well excuuuuuuse me! Thankfully, younger generations ignored the tired cultural elitism of the boomers and gladly adopted the joyous anthems of Van Halen. "I'm The One" has patented Roth braggadocio along with breathtaking playing and harmonies. Towards the end, Eddie's patented guitar stylizing leads up to the VH boys going straight into bring-down-the-curtain Showbiz by harmonizing repeated sounds of: "bop bahda shoobie doo-wa." Then they jump right back into the song like nothing happened. Moves like this made amateur pranksters like the Ramones just sound dated.
The Rolling Stones. Selected early singles - One crucial difference in the eternal Beatles vs. Rolling Stones debate is that the Stones in song were funny, while the Beatles were merely cute. (And inventive, brilliant, etc.) The Beatles were rarely funny in song, and if "A Little Help From My Friends" is your idea of rock 'n' roll humor, then you probably still buy Ringo solo albums. And then look at the Stones. They had genuinely humorous numbers in their early days: "The Spider and the Fly", "19th Nervous Breakdown", "Mother's Little Helper", "The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man", "Get Off Of My Cloud", etc. (And high praise goes to "Who's Driving Your Plane?", which is also a Blonde on Blonde knockoff.) And these songs feature a humor I'd probably appreciate even more if I were English because then I would get all the class references. But the Stones hit a wall musically and humor-wise with their attempt at psychedelia, Their Satanic Majesties Request. They soon rebounded with "Jumpin' Jack Flash" through Exile on Main Street, but the humor of the earlier days disappeared. They came up with a shtick - the country American bumpkin who drawled through the likes of "Country Honk" and "Dear Doctor." By this time they were arguably making their best music; but just as "Sympathy for the Devil" wasn't as evil as "Paint It, Black", "Dear Doctor" wasn't as funny as "Mother's Little Helper."
The New York Dolls. "Looking for a Kiss" (on their self-titled debut album) - How bizarre the New York Dolls must have sounded back in the early seventies: Fuzzy MC5 riffs that the Sex Pistols nicked a few years later, girl-group stylings, a lead vocalist who threw ongoing commentary into the very songs he was singing, the band not caring the least bit about chops or hot licks. This song starts out quoting the Shangri-Las "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" (their next album would be produced by Shangri-Las svengali Shadow Morton) and ends with a loud kiss. In between are lyrics about being out on the streets avoiding smack and searching for a smooch. There's also a nice taunt at the hipster set:
Everyone's going to your house to shoot up in your room
Most of them are beautiful but so obsessed with gloom
In the end, David Johansen admits he wants both a kiss and a fix. I assure you: The Schlitz beer that is on the album cover is not a gateway drug.
The Coasters. The Very Best Of The Coasters - These Lieber and Stoller-penned vignettes are a series of comic masterpieces released a half-century ago. They are now so familiar but still hilarious: The put-upon kid in "Yakkety Yak", the goofball in "Charlie Brown", the guy watching an old western on TV in "Along Came Jones", the (STD-infected?) girl in "Poison Ivy." Then there's the class resentment of "What About Us?" and "Shoppin' For Clothes." What else could I do at this point but quote lyrics and ask you to sing them in deadpan-funny voices? This stuff is required listening for anybody who claims to be a fan of rock 'n' roll.