By The Landlord
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say 'This is the worst.” – William Shakespeare, King Lear
"Ooh you are awful, but I like you." – Dick Emery
How bad can it get? Worse. More than a quarter of a century ago I was lucky enough to see the British comedy performer Chris Lynam on stage, and again, after all this time, quite recently. Chris likes to challenge his audience. From the late 1980s his act would consist of him telling terrible jokes and then pulling out a soprano saxophone, possibly made of plastic, from which he would blow, quite without remorse, a continuous, horrible, screeching noise, becoming louder and more atonal as he walked around, grinning madly, staring with his wild eyes, and fluffing up his even wilder, spiky hair. This cacophony would torture the audience for up to 20 minutes. Then came the final climax. More on that later.
And recently, my second time seeing him, all very similar, except the screeching had turned into a calamitously bad act of escapology from a large paper bag, assisted by a very embarrassed victim from the audience. And then came the climax. Again. Exactly the same. Around 28 years later, barely nothing had changed, And yet somehow, through the sheer awfulness of it, it had become funny. What was the climax? You'll have to read on to find out …
This week, we are boldly going into a musical space we've never been before, stretching the realms of musical and lyrical taste into the outer regions. In parallel, things are indeed very bad at the moment in the world at local and at large, and this week we teeter ever closer to that brink. But let us not ponder too much on the sheer omnishambles of it all, but instead attempt to inoculate ourselves from it with musical awfulness. Let us take a tumble through a musical carwash that might make us even dirtier and smellier, but perhaps on the other side, somehow feel happier and cleaner. Let us venture far out of the comfort zone, exploring songs and other forms of music that are variously bad, and challenging, and but often also funny and annoying in their insistence on being experienced, that they could also be deemed great. And as Dick Emery put it:
But in what way ‘worst’ songs? The songs might be in very poor taste, or badly written, or musically very difficult to listen to or incompetent, or indigestibly complex, or so strangely out there that you simply don't know what to make of them. In the past we have explored the different topic of successful out-of-tune songs, but that’s not always bad, equally come from very talented performers with a distinct off-key cool style, such as Lou Reed or Bob Dylan, or end up, as on that topic’s playlists, with great artists and songs such as by The Slits, Joy Division, Vic Godard and the Subway Sect, Neu! and Public Image Limited.
But more relevant this week, there is still no shortage of the out of tune, from the famously tone deaf opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins, or William Shatner and many more. And longer ago in elsewhere I set up the topic of songs ‘so bad they are good’, which focused more on cheesiness, but out of that came up with lists of some great pop.
So in other ways there's far more to discover, and far more difficult, challenging, convincing but also entertaining territory of awfulness to tread on and get sucked into. Your choices could arguably come from the extreme output of established artists, from the avant-garde to the experimental, such as the Residents, Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono or others, and perhaps different, great artists who have been purveyors of the sublime, but also went through a particularly challenging period on themselves and others, who sought to push our senses to the limits, such as the later period of the recently departed Scott Walker, or Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, and of course Frank Zappa. You may find lots of extreme jazz, prog rock, and perish the thought, even some ragga, but what's important here is not to simply name your favourite controversial or difficult track, but really explore the nature of bad, worse or worst. So that may involve all kinds of things – chanting, grunting, screaming, droning, and lyrics of apparently appalling quality or taste.
Of course this kind of music isn't always done without skill. Here's Les Dawson, who proved that you had to be a very competent pianist in order to be a terrible one:
And in times of crisis, sometimes the only solution is to turn to Derek Smalls' Jazz Odyssey:
Is it all a matter of taste? Perhaps in film, and indeed theatre, the finest example, as referenced at the top of this intro, is in Mel Brooks's The Producers, in which washed up but mad-eyed Broadway entrepreneur Max Bialystock played by Zero Mostel, hatches a scheme with nervous accountant Leopold Bloom (Gene Wilder) to pay off a huge debt mistake by selling shares in a show that can only make them money by being a huge flop. What could that be? The gloriously tasteless Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. It includes this classic chorus line lyric:
"Don't be stupid! Be a smartie! Come and join the Nazi Party!"
But then somehow, by a cruel twist of ironic misunderstanding, the audience start laughing and enjoy it, and it all goes horribly right, causing the sneaky money-making plan to all go all horribly awry. A despairing Max Bialystock remarks: "How could this happen? I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?”
But where might you find it even more such musical treasure? The former DJ, TV entertainer and madcap jingle genius Kenny Everett was particularly fond of this form, and, with thanks to this week's playlister guru, Olive Butler, I'd also like to refer to how Everett used to invite listeners of his Capital Radio Saturday show to nominate "the World's Worst Records". These standalone stinkers were often ill-advised ballads by actors or comedians (far worse than William Shatner), records with unintentionally out-of-tune vocals and/or instrumentation, songs of often questionable taste.
Everett was particularly fond of American story-songs from the 1960s about car crashes, alcoholic fathers and dead children, unfunny comedy songs, and bizarre cover versions. So merit would go this week to covers that were self-evidently terrible or strange or contained some bizarrely incongruous element. Here's one example:
And another, Cathy Berberian being a perennial favourite:
The English actor Arthur Mullard made some highly unfunny comedy records with Hylda Baker. This one appears to have been released in all seriousness, written by Tony Hiller who wrote, among other things, Brotherhood of Man’s Save Your Kisses For Me:
And there are plenty more excruciatingly awful and yet wonderful bands an singers out there, from Gloria Balsam to Edie and the Eggs to The Novas, but perhaps the most famous is that late-60s trio from Fremont, New Hampshire, The Shaggs, who because of their sheer ‘quality’ and remorseless enthusiasm, gained a level of cult status. Here's just one example:
So then, it's time to challenge your taste buds, take yourself far out of your comfort zone, face your musical minotaurs, so that when you come out of the other side of this anti-euphonius, phonetic flagellation, you may find some inner peace.
The maker for this musical mischief, I'm delighted to confirm, is the most excellently amusing and clever Olive Butler, who will seek to get the very worst, and therefore best out of you. Nominations close at last orders UK 11pm on Monday (note that clocks will go forward one hour at 2am on Sunday morning for British Summer Time), not that this should make much difference, and playlists will be published on Wednesday. It's going to be awfully good …
Which simply leaves me to reveal the climax of Chris Lynam's act, unchanged in at least 30 years. How many thousands of times his genitalia was tucked away for that naked dance, how many thousands of fire risks and singed hairs? And yet it's still one of the most bizarrely awful, and yet wonderful experiences on a live stage that will forever being seared and scorched in the memory.
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