Sep 042012

What are you laughing at, punk?

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.

[audio:|titles=The Minutemen “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing”]

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?

I look forward to your thoughts.


  25 Responses to “Rock ‘n Roll Punchlines”

  1. mockcarr

    Gonna Buy Me A Dog by the Monkees – Dolenz “I wish I had a glass of water”, Jones “Why, are you thirsty?” Dolenz “No, I want to see if my neck leaks”.

    Actually Davy’s line that Micky can’t train dogs, he can only train elephants, is a pretty good slam on the former Circus Boy.

  2. telewacker

    One syncopated punchline I still crack up over is the denouement of Little Feat’s Dixie Chicken: ‘And all the boys there – at the bar – began to sing along…’

    I believe I over sympathize with the poor schmuck in the toon having ‘woke up with a monster’ on several occasions…

  3. I remember Chevy Chase kind of doing his version of Chuck Berry’s Memphis. In his dead pan reading it goes like this. Rocking guitar riff intro. Then Chase talks sings to the tune of Memphis TN. la dee dada dada ladee dadeda then he recites

    “Long distance in formation, give me Memphis Tennessee
    Schoolmarm woman says what person do you want?
    Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
    She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
    ‘Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall
    Schoolmarm woman: I can’t help you if you only have a message posted on the wall. I need a lot more information than that just posting a number on a wall.

    Alright there is no punchline, humor in the song. I just love how Chevy Chase tears a part the rediculous nature of this Chuck Berry song. Yes I know the song is only a rock song and not to be taken on a realistic level. I think that’s what makes the parody even funnier.

  4. I never thought “No man is an island. No man is an island. He’s a peninsula” on a “Small Package of Value Will Come to You Shortly” was as hilarious as Jefferson Airplane seemed to think it was. Although I guess it could be considered somewhat daring for the time.

  5. ladymisskirroyale

    I’m all for clever lyrics. And the bands/albums may not be punch-line-genic but have a generally funny concept or a way with expressing themselves. Favorites include:
    – Camper Van Beethoven
    – They Might Be Giants
    – The Dead Milkmen
    – King Missile
    – De La Soul’s “Three Feet High and Rising” is one long pun and innuendo, and I love every juvenile minute of it.
    – LCD Soundsytem’s “Losing My Edge” is one big self-effacing, ironic groan-fest for me. (“I heard you had a compiltion of every good song ever done by anybody.”) LCD Soundsystem is also particularly good at that aural humor of including sonic references to other songs so that you knowingly chuckle when you hear them.
    – The Trash Can Sinatra’s first album, “Cake” had incredibly good puns and dextrous vocabulary.

  6. BigSteve

    I can’t tell a joke either. Punch lines in rock songs work best when they’re not comical. The line “Marie is only 6 years old” in Memphis is a good example. It’s a kind of ‘reveal’ that makes the song deeper than it appeared at first. The Kinks song Art Lover works the same way. When you hear “She’s just a substitute for what’s been taken from me” you realize what he’s really been singing about.

    Mod didn’t mention that the Minutemen’s first (mini) album was called The Punch Line. It was the first record by them I owned, so it’s still my favorite. The title song is only 40 seconds long, but it does have a sort of a punch line:

    I believe when they found the body of General George A. Custer quilled like a porcupine with Indian arrows,
    he didn’t die with any honor, any dignity, nor any valor.
    I wouldn’t doubt when they found George A. Custer
    an American General, Patriot, Indian Fighter,
    he died with shit in his pants.

  7. I thought they had an album by that name and, although too lazy to verify, hoped that I had lucked into a good title for this post.

    I’m going to have to pull out the other album I own by them, whichever one it is. I’m really digging Double Nickles…. FINALLY!

  8. I’m not dumb but I can’t understand why she walks like a woman but talks like a man.


  9. Now THAT’S one even I can get behind! That may be my favorite.

  10. bostonhistorian

    One of my favorite jokes is in Mitch Ryder’s “Jenny Take A Ride”. While Mitch is singing “C.C. Rider”, the backing vocals are singing “see Mitch Ryder”.

  11. 2000 Man

    For me a punch line song, or even just a song with some funny lines, can veer really close to whatever it is about novelty songs that drives me nuts. I can’t tell a joke to save my life, mostly because I can’t ever remember how they go, but I like funny and I know what funny is. So I usually like songs with a funny line or two. Lately I think Lydia Loveless is funny, mostly for her outlook on things. I really like the line, my daddy was a preacher, but he was a junkie too. I grew up on god and whiskey so I’m a little bit confused. That’s the kind of stuff I can chuckle about over and over, whereas a song that sets up a punchline is kind of a one and done thing for me.

  12. alexmagic

    Agreed with Raoul that Lola is the definitive rock punchline (it’s arguably a double punchline if you read the last line as the singer still not fully grasping the situation, so to speak).

    Arguably, the “I’ve got no car and it’s breakin’ my heart/But I’ve found a driver and that’s a start” turn in Drive My Car is the most well known song-with-a-punchline in rock. And “So I lit a fire/Isn’t it good/Norwegian Wood” would have to be up there for most infamous or least expected punchlines.

    That the two of them come back-to-back at the start of Rubber Soul, leading with girl-one-upping-guy followed by guy-one-upping-girl (though taken to an insane extreme) is probably happy/unhappy comic coincidence that foreshadows Girl and Run For Your Life.

    Man, In My Life has a lot of heavy-lifting to do on that album for positive relationship themes, doesn’t it?

  13. alexmagic

    I probably should have put this in the above post, but to represent for Oats: Pulp’s Babies is another great punchline song. The chorus has the repeated joke of the inexperienced, asshole narrator pledging “I want to take you home, I want to give you children, and you might be my girlfriend”, but the big payoff comes at the end when he’s relaying the story of accidentally getting it on with his intended love’s sister and caps it off with an “I only went with her ‘cuz she looks like you, MY GOD!” as if he’s shocked at his own ability to spin bullshit.

    Pulp probably has a few more, befitting Cocker’s style. Disco 2000 is arguably a punchline song, built around the hook from Laura Branningan’s Gloria (which, if you allow that the narrator is a little younger than Cocker, would presumably have been a big hit that they would have been listening to) and seems to be about a guy trying to create a scenario where he can finally hook up with the unrequited love of his youth via a class reunion, but ends with the line “you can even bring your baby!”, meaning that even in his fantasy life, he’s still only able imagine himself in the friend zone.

  14. I’m glad you brought up that Norwegian Wood line! I have never subscribed to the oft-repeated interpretation that it means the narrator burns the place down! I have no idea how that interpretation grew legs. Did Lennon ever say that??

    I’ve always pictured that as simply meaning the bird left to go to work, and he’s sitting there in front of the fire alone! The fire in the fireplace! It’s a lonely image, not a psychotic one. I’ve heard the pyro interpretation, but I just don’t get why that’s considered the narrative. Thinking that would ruin one of my favorite Lennon songs for me.

  15. “Cause if my baby don’t love me, I know her sister will.” – JMHendrix, “Red House”


  16. My favorite Lyle Lovett song “God Will” has a twist at the end:

    Who keeps on trusting you
    When you’ve been cheating
    And spending your nights on the town
    And who keeps on saying that he still wants you
    When you’re through running around
    And who keeps on loving you
    When you’ve been lying
    Saying things ain’t what they seem
    God does
    But I don’t
    God will
    But I won’t
    And that’s the difference
    Between God and me

  17. I swear, I first heard the house-burns-down theory in a Beatles book, via a quote attributed to Paul. Here’s the quote, as I recall it. I swear I’m not trying to embellish.

    It was me who decided the house should burn down at the end of ‘Norweigan Wood,’ Not that it’s a big deal or anything.

  18. I’d never heard this interpretation either. I don’t doubt, however, that Paul takes credit for it.

  19. Thanks, Oats! I was very familiar with the song before I started hearing and reading that interpretation later, and always just thought “how the hell did they get that from that lyric??” Take it back, Paul!

  20. alexmagic

    Yeah, the gag at the end is supposedly from Paul, who intentionally suggested they word it so that it could be read both ways: that he simply used the fireplace because he spent all night on the bathroom floor, or he intentionally burned down the place because he had to spend the night in the tub.

  21. machinery

    Mr. Mod, you coulda woven these two confessions together by posting a picture of the Minutemen Album “The Punch Line.”

    ba dum.

  22. I’m glad you’ve seen the light.

  23. Does EC’s “I said, ‘I’m so happy, I could die’/She said, ‘Drop dead!’, and left with another guy” count as a punch line?

  24. Warren Zevon’s “The French Inhaler” has a kind of dark punchline at the end:

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