I’m not a joke teller. I can’t tell a joke to save my life. I think I tried to tell a joke only one time, when I was about 12. I’ve never attempted telling another joke since then. Some of you, however, can tell jokes. And do. In a recent thread, Townsman Bobby Bittman impressed me with the following rock ‘n roll stand-up joke:
A guy goes on vacation to a tropical island. As soon as he gets off the plane, he hears drums. He thinks, “Wow, this is cool.” He goes to the beach, he hears the drums. He eats lunch, he hears drums. He goes to a luau, again with the drums. He tries to go to sleep, and he still hears drums.
This goes on for several nights, and gets to the point where the guy can’t sleep at night because of the drums. It’s driving him nuts! Finally, he goes down to the front desk.
When he gets there, he asks the manager, “Hey! What’s with these drums? Don’t they ever stop? I can’t get any sleep!”
The manager says, “No! Drums must never stop! Is very, very bad if drums stop.”
“When drums stop…bass solo begins.”
This got me thinking: there must be more rock ‘n roll jokes, old-fashioned jokes that joke tellers can tell at parties, out there. I know there are lots of drummer jokes, which have probably been documented elsewhere, but what else have you got?
True Confession #1: Until last week I never owned The Minutemen‘s legendary Double Nickles on the Dime. For what it’s worth I own another Minutemen album, but it’s not the same. Over the last 5 years I have purchased a few of my favorite tracks from that album, but I’ve always felt guilty about not owning their entire double-album masterpiece. I know, I bought a digital download of a record that was meant to be enjoyed in its vinyl gatefold glory. At least I’m finally digging this album all the way through for its incredibly fluid, aggressive playing and—yes—integrity. I will no longer have to quietly step out of the room whenever a lovefest for the album breaks out among close personal friends such as machinery and hrrundivbakshi.
True Confession #2: I cannot tell a joke to save my life. A traditional joke with a punchline, that is—I don’t want anyone getting the idea that I’m not otherwise incredibly funny. My inability to pick up the traditional joke-telling tradition has affected my ability to enjoy music that is constructed in what I believe is a punchline-based format.
Hearing the music of Frank Zappa was probably my first exposure to this style of song construction. There used to be an advertisement for either the Apostrophe album or a coming Zappa tour on one of Philadelphia’s FM stations that featured that bit about not eating the yellow snow. There was some other excerpt about moving to Montana. Yuck, yuck, for sure, but those sort of lyrics were so far removed from what I’d been listening to! I ended up buying Apostrophe a few years later (actually I stole it, as part of the wild 70-album heist that a college friend’s old high school friend let us pull off in the suburban mall record store he managed), confirming for myself how foreign those snippets of lyrics first sounded on that radio spot. I got Captain Beefheart‘s Trout Mask Replica the same night I acquired the Zappa album. Beefheart pulled that trick as well, but his punchlines were usually completely absurd and delivered in a less self-conscious, ain’t-I-funny tone than what Zappa used. Beefheart and his crew struck me as truly weird.
American punk bands out of the loosely knit “hardcore” scene must have included a lot of Zappa and Mad magazine-loving jokesters. Their songs were loaded with punchlines, where the band would stop playing and the lead singer would utter some sardonic or self-deprecating quip. I’m going to depend on you, readers, to list your favorite punchlines from that scene and others. That stuff is still too foreign and uncomfortable to me to contemplate further than I already have. The practice itself, mind you, is not uncomfortable. My sense of discomfort derives from the shame I harbor over my inability to deliver a punchline.
The floor is open, should you choose to fill it, with your thoughts on rock ‘n roll punchlines. What are the most memorable ones that come to mind? The best? The flops? What are rock’s earliest examples of this practice of songwriting?
Dear Fellow Rock’n’Rollers, I have been remiss. Many months ago now I promised to write 3 articles on 3 “very British Johns” and I did not come through on parts 2 and 3, but I do have my excuses.
Band trouble, we can all understand this affliction I hope
I have been trying to organise my life to make studying for my degree at least possible!
Drunk. Yep! Good’ol fashioned drunk
But no more excuses, on with Part 2! Better late than never.
Three Very British Johns, Part 2: John Cooper Clarke, The Bard of Salford
A lot of what people think about John Cooper Clarke is projected on to him. He has always been referred to as a “Punk Poet,” which doesn’t do him justice despite being true. He did arrive on the scene in the ’70s along with punk and he does dress very punk and the machine-gun delivery of his prose in the early days went down well with the punk audiences and he did form part of the punk vanguard, most definitely, but there is a lot more to his work than that. For me JCC is one of the greatest poets Britain has produced; laced with wit and social comment his poems range from the plight of the young to the many plus sides of a hire car.
He was born in Lancashire in 1949 and was inspired by a teacher who introduced him to poetry; his first job was a laboratory technician (he even did a sugar puffs advert in the ’80s). He began performing in folk clubs around Manchester and went on to perform on the same bill with all of the great punk acts of the ’70s. He recorded a few albums, even had a top 40 chart hit “Gimmix (Play Loud),” but after a varying level of success he disappeared off the scene for nearly 20 years. Some put this down to a chronic heroin addiction, which thankfully he kicked, but JCC puts it down to idleness and lack of ambition: “…lots of people take heroin and still keep a career,” as he explained in a TV interview in 2009.
The first time I ever heard JCC was when I caught a an episode of the Old Grey Whistle Test from 1978, with him performing a poem set to music called “I Don’t Wanna Be Nice.” I was convinced that this guy was everything that people had said about him: venomous, bile spitting drug-addled punk poet, but when you look at the body of his work and his demeanor in interviews he is actually a very “nice man” who is so much more than the moniker of Punk-Poet suggests and who only swears when it seems appropriate. Looks can be deceiving.
You probably know that Mick Jagger is hosting this week’s May 19 season finale of Saturday Night Live. Yes, he’s hosting—certainly doing a mumbling, aw shucks monologue complete with those twinkling forever-young eyes and numerous runs of his fingers through that still-luxurious hair, certainly appearing in skits and possibly being funny on occasion. Can we expect much in terms of blowing us away with his comedic acting chops? He’s had a few cracks at an acting career with little success over the years. I guess he’ll play music, too, although Keef says he’s not going to make a guest appearance with his old Glimmer Twin. We’ll see.
Jagger’s going to have to work hard to top Paul McCartney’s appearances in skits on SNL and elsewhere. Considering he was the worst actor in the Beatles’ movies, Paul’s become pretty funny in his advanced age. You know Mick’s gonna be gunning for Paul’s title as Rock’s Funniest Living Legend. He goes way back with the SNL crew, but he’s never hosted. Paul’s been on the show a number of times and killed in skits, but Mick is the first of these living legends to be billed as “host.” I bet he’s psyched.
You know Keef couldn’t care less about holding the title of SNL host or Rock’s Funniest Living Legend. Pete Townshend would be too weird to ever work in American sketch comedy. Can you imagine Bob Dylan vying for the spot? He might be the funniest rocker ever to appear on SNL, but you wouldn’t be able to tell.
Like McCartney, Jagger’s still “in the game”—at least as far as he’s concerned. Mick’s fit and trim. His hair refuses to turn gray. He’s probably hipper than any of our dads. Mick and Paul are the self-perceived Last Men Standing among 1960s pop stars. These days, who’s cooler: modern-day McCartney or modern-day Jagger?
There are three John’s that are peculiarly British to my mind. One is the relatively well-known Folk/Fusion Guitarist and songwriter John Martyn; the second is “Punk Poet” John Cooper Clarke; and the third is a lesser known gem, that is John Otway. Over the next couple of weeks I am going to introduce you to these artists, and I hope you appreciate them for the rarities that they are. I shall start with John Otway, the man who made a success out of failure.
If you know of John Otway at all it will almost definitely be for his calamitous performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972 and his most successful song, until very recently, “Really Free.” He is often described (mostly by John himself) as rock’s greatest failure, but I strongly disagree with this prognosis and I am sure that you will agree with me in the end. If my sources are correct John Otway’s parents supported him all the way through his “career,” so much so that they even remortgaged their bungalow to fund his escapades
In 1977, the song “Really Free” got to #27 in the charts, which got him a 5-album deal with Polydor Records. The album featured a Wild Willy Barrett on guitar and was produced by Pete Townsend; suffice to say that the album didn’t do very well. Polydor viewed John as a punk act rather than what he actually is, which you will have to decide for yourself. John still performs live, records and writes books to this day, and seems to have as much energy as he ever did and is loved by his loyal fans more than ever.
His self-deprecating style is what makes him peculiar to Britain as well as the subject matter he sings about and the humor that he brings to his performance. However, his exuberance led to a series of disasters early on in his career that he never would be able to overcome, and I think this is what ultimately put the kybosh on any commercial success he could have had. To truly appreciate what a liability John is must be seen to be believed. Following is the infamous 1972 Whistle Test performance that will make everything clear. Please watch before continuing to read as it is genuinely gut-bustlingly hilarious. How Wild Billy Barrett doesn’t kill him is an act of phenomenal restraint. Enjoy!
Carl Gardner, original lead singer of The Coasters, has died at 83. They just came up the other day. Well, it’s hard to argue with 83 years, having retained ownership of the band’s name through multiple lineup changes, all those excellent songs, all the excellent covers of those songs…
Too bad that, for a band that was so animated on record, that there seems to be few live performances captured on film. How ’bout you close your eyes and let “Shopping for Clothes” paint its own pictures.
For all the great covers of Coasters’ songs, here’s one we can bury in a potters’ field…after the jump!
Please explain The Damned—not their music, so much, because that’s easy enough to digest. I’ve got some of their records and like them well enough. They’re often a little too RAWK for my tastes, but at their best they deliver like a poor man’s New York Dolls or, on their surprisingly ’60s-rooted album Strawberries, a melodically challenged version of The Undertones or some other poppy punk band more up my alley. What I really want to understand is how singer Dave Vanian fits into everything. Did fans of the band’s typically rockin’ music need to make allowances for that guy? Were his bandmates initially accepting of his Count Rockula Look? Was he a “gateway drug” to goth? Their music never sounds that goth despite being sung by a lead singer in a cape and dyed-black hair.
Then there’s the issue of the band’s Clown Prince, Captain Sensible, whose schtick I better understand but whose schtick I also find distracting. Is the fact that The Damned was formed so early in the history of punk rock the reason for their lack of stylistic cohesion? Is their lack of stylistic cohesion key to their Collective Rock Super Powers?
Rock historians frequently bring The Stranglers up on charges of lack of stylistic cohesion and bandwagon jumping in the punk era, but The Damned are portrayed as “cool.” What gives, beyond the usual tie-ins to a pre-fame Chrissie Hynde and the legendary London SS, a band that seemed to exist for 3 days while containing, for at least an hour or two, a dozen members of eventual real bands?
What makes The Damned tick? I don’t recall ever focusing on an interview with any of the band members. What makes fans of The Damned tick? Do you pick and choose the songs and band members that appeal to you, or is there a significant run of albums under which Damned fans can rally?