By The Landlord
“If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“The way the world is, I think a silly evening in the theatre is a good thing, to take our minds off terror.” – Tim Curry
“Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans. It is lovely to be silly at the right moment.” – Horace
“Can a parrot eat a carrot standing on his head?
If I did that my mum would send me straight upstairs to bed.” – Spike Milligan
Fish! Umbrella! Baboon! Knickers! There’s no sensible way to start this week’s topic other than with a random set of daft words. But is anything … random? Or is silliness in any form carefully crafted by years of practice and consummate skill? Well, not that first sentence, but could Les Dawson, for example, play the piano so wonderfully badly without first being able to play incredibly well, or the incompetent silliness and spontaneity of Tommy Cooper’s magic not really come from a genius of comic timing?
So this week we’re looking at, and more to the point, looking for, songs that are whimsical, silly and strange, and ideally, all three. Whimsical is a broad spectrum. It is defined as playfully quaint or fanciful, especially in an appealing and amusing way, and can also be mischievous, waggish, quaint, fantastic, unusual, curious, or droll, but also capricious, impulsive, even fickle. Yet in particular, the effect of whimsy is to keep us guessing as to what is going to happen next. But its flavour can take all forms.
On the comedy front, you might experience it with the ramblings of Scottish standup Phil Kaye or the extraordinarily divergent mind of ‘Noodlemeister’ Ross Noble, or the slapstick mayhem and inventive daftness of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. But in terms of subtle, understated artistry when it comes to silliness and whimsy, perhaps one of the greatest is that French genius Jacques Tati, to whom all objects, from doors to kitchen knobs, appear a mystery, and yet he plays them like instruments with consummate ease, weaving a surreal symphony of sounds and bemusement as he haplessly moves everywhere, pipe in mouth:
Surreal and strange, then, is certainly part of the whimsical canon, and sometimes existing songs can be given a new hue with an unusual performance. In 1979 David Bowie appeared on Saturday Night Live with the stylish theatrical countertenor Klaus Nomi to recreate his earlier work, The Man Who Sold the World. Well, what a carry on:
Another flavour of the strange also finds reflection in surreal cartoonists, and in particular Gary Larson, whose cows inhabit a secret world of downbeat perspective. So lyrics by artists such as They Might Be Giants to The Mountain Goats may certainly have had some inspiration from this kind of thing.
Surreal settings and droll lyrics may offer a treasure trove of offerings on this week’s topic, and are particularly effective when hidden in more serious styles of music.
Now as the doors of the Song Bar swing open, there’s a little crowd of fresh visitors eager to discuss and define this week’s topic and it’s certainly an odd mixture. At one table Bruce Springsteen is chatting to Janet Jackson. First up, the Boss, who is known more for his earnest work for the working man, explains why it’s important to mix in a lighter side: “Well, y’see, Janet, you can go from doing something quite silly to something dead serious in the blink of an eye, and if you're making those connections with your audience then they're going to go right along with it.”
Janet nods at the great man, and then the discussion turns to what it’s like growing up in a famous family, particular with a brother who was such a huge star from an early age. “Did you ever feel like Michael grew up, Janet?” Janet thinks for a moment, and brings a new perspective: “Well, a lot of people who start work at a very young age never grow up because they never got that opportunity to be a child, so they hold on to that and still do a lot of childish, silly things.”
Silliness in real life, yes, but what about music? Richard Ayoade, the lovably silly computer geek in the TV series The IT Crowd, and now also a film-maker, stands awkwardly at the bar with a cup of tea, and trying to join in, explains his love of a particular film: “I like Roy Orbison's video for 'I Drove All Night' because it's so literal. It is just a man driving throughout the night. I like that silliness. To be in a video is a ridiculous thing. It's almost impossible to do it without any humour.”
A surreal silence descends on the bar, probably because the Boss doesn’t like anyone dissing Roy, but then the chatter begins again. Now, a fierce debate between another cartoonist, Ralph Steadman and that selfish gene genius and scourge of religion, Richard Dawkins. “God invented mankind because he loved silly stories,” quips Ralph. “There is no God,” replies Richard. “I was just joking about the meaning of the universe,” replies Ralph. “But 'What is the purpose of the universe?' is a silly question,” says Richard …
Before things get sillier let’s have a song, and a little dance. And with all this talk of films, popcorn anyone, courtesy of Hot Butter?
Popcorn may have been a massive hit for Hot Butter in 1972, but it was originally written by Gershon Kingsley in 1969 as one of the first great electronic pop songs, and, happily it also happens to be an absurdly silly one. The late sixties, as now, was an immensely tense period of political unrest and turbulence, but it also came hand in hand with brilliant whimsy. Just for a change, no one knew which way they were going, what with the Vietnam War failure, civil rights struggles, strikes, Watergate, and whether or not to enter the Common Market, reflected perhaps in that Monty Python favourite, the 100 yard dash for people with no sense of direction.
Another way to deal with difficult times can also be expressed in seemingly silly and random lyrics. In 1969, few did it better than that radio jingle and silly voice genius, Kenny Everett, who spent all of his spare time holed up in his shed making silly songs, as well as jingles, like this marvel:
But the strange and silly can also have a dark side, and there examples of this stretching back centuries. The ancient nursery rhyme Ring a Ring o' Roses first became popular in the 1790s, and has been variously associated with pagan rituals to Grimm fairly tales to American and adult versions, but is most commonly associated with disfiguring skin effects of the Black Death. The dark side of strange often comes with the most upbeat songs. There is something distinctly strange about Ram Jam’s Black Betty, when the origin of the lyrics of this much older song pertaining to ‘Black Betty’ being variously a musket, a bottle of whiskey, or a penitentiary transfer wagon, or whipping rope associated with slavery:
But if you want to whip things up down a more deviant path of the silly scale, one direction is to turn to Devo:
But to end, let’s look at two true icons of stupendous silliness. I’ve already quoted Spike Milligan, Goon, manic depressive, the man who called Prince Charles a “grovelling bastard”, a genius and brilliant comedian right up until his death. Who else could have on their gravestone, the immortal words, written in Gaelic: “I told you I was ill.” It’s enough to just look at this lovely face to lighten anyone’s day:
But in a year of genius deaths, including the great Victoria Wood, let’s now enjoy a few moments from that silliest of superb comic actors, Gene Wilder who above all was a master of the pause. As he put it: “A lot of comic actors derive their main force from childish behaviour. Most great comics are doing such silly things; you'd say, 'That's what a child would do.’
So then, this week’s overseer of the silly and strange, and warden of the whimsical, is also that fabulous creator of the upside down and reversed, flatfrog. Put forward your song suggestions on this topic in comments below for last orders on Monday night, and playful playlists will be published on Wednesday. Koala! Fez! Duck! Sausage!
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