Strings of Life …
The 5th Dimension get us under way with the infectious Puppet Man. Who couldn’t love such a joyful expression of devotion and the promise that” I'll do anything you say, I won't have it any other way. Take my heart and take my soul, giving you complete control” …WHAT??? Hang on a minute, we’ll come back to this.
The final track on Joan Manuel Serrat’s debut album shows the clear links between French chanson and the trovador traditions that swept the Hispanic world in the 60s. Sung defiantly in Catalan, Els Titelles is a vivid vindication of art and the artists’ lifestyle, using the metaphor of puppets packed up in a suitcase after a day of performances in the park: “Clear days will come, and rain and storms, but they must carry on. There’s always a child waiting for the puppets.”
XTC choose the most famously brutal, anarchic puppets in British folklore for Punch & Judy, a tale of domestic violence, child abuse and, of course, the equally ancient pantomime of denial: “This must be make believe, ‘cause who do we know, dear, who acts like that?”
Punch & co aren’t the only puppets to enter national consciousness: Fuzzbox’s International Rescue pays tribute to Gerry Anderson’s supermarionation shows, created in the 1960s but with enduring cultural importance among Brits of a certain age. Stand by for action – anything can happen in the next three minutes.
France Gall, who died too young last year, disowned the earlier teenybop stage of her career, but the combination of Serge Gainsbourg’s bizarre songs and her girlish yet defiant voice means that it remains compelling. Her Eurovision-winning hit, Poupee de Cire, Poupee du Son, is a complex, fascinating meditation on manipulation that the 17-year old Gall may not have fully understood. Still, it was she who chose to perform it.
More Eurovision puppetry from Sandie Shaw, who said of Puppet On a String "I hated it from the very first oompah to the final bang on the big bass drum. I was instinctively repelled by its sexist drivel and cuckoo-clock tune." Sadly for Sandie, the song became one of the biggest ever hits by a British female singer and it’s oompah, cuckoo-clock nonsense – perhaps inspired by Elvis’s Wooden Heart – followed what seemed to be a template for puppet songs. In my opinion, one of the reason’s why it’s so creepy is Sandie’s full-blooded adult voice contrasted with that playroom polka sound.
A year earlier James and Bobby Purify also chose music-box nursery chimes on I’m Your Puppet– a song whose dependency seems more resigned, confident and joyful than Sandie’s slice of door-mattery.
Tyler the Creator repeats the Purifys’ chorus in the shimmering psychedelic neo-soul track Puppet, from this year’s Igor album. Here, the relationship appears to be over, and dependence seems to be a habit, an addiction. No wonder he ends up lighting the weed and breathing on a song instead.
And again, Gregory and the Hawk pledge I’m Your Puppet, this time on a wonderfully simple song that crystallises a certain fateful combination of love, dependence and low self-esteem, that leaves the door wide open to abuse.
10,000 Maniacs continue the theme of manipulation and extend it to the world of politics with You Happy Puppet, a beguilingly pretty pop song that sugar-coats the lethal question “is it making you sane, again, to let another man tug at the thread that pulls up your nodding head?”
More explicit political puppetry is to be found on Punishment of Luxury’s Puppet Life, which uses Julius Fucik’s Entry of the Gladiators (better known as “that circus tune”) in a blast against political control and social convention.
That metaphor of social control and manipulation has been used scores of times, and Kevin Coyne conjures it up again in A Loving Hand. Here the dream is Pinocchio’s – no strings, but instead a loving hand. “We are not puppets,” he sings. “We’re looking to the future, luscious changing times.” The last line of the song repeats the word “free” four times for emphasis.
But freedom costs and no strings also means the show’s over. Elvis Costello, with help from The Roots, tell us how The Puppet Has Cut His Strings – "A deeply upsetting series of images about my father's last breath, which I could only let myself utter in the company of new friends"
The air is painted Clifford Brown
The steady gaze of your glass eye
Head in a basket smiling still
Free of will, free of wisdom
Losing your strings doesn’t always mean you become a real boy.
The A-List Playlist: Pull My String
The 5th Dimension – Puppet Man
Joan Manuel Serrat – Els Titelles
XTC – Punch & Judy
Fuzzbox – International Rescue
France Gall – Poupee de Cire, Poupee du Son
Sandie Shaw – Puppet On A String
James and Bobby Purify – I’m Your Puppet
Tyler The Creator – Puppet
Gregory and the Hawk – I’m Your Puppet
10,000 Maniacs – You Happy Puppets
Punishment of Luxury – Puppet Life
Kevin Coyne – A Loving Hand
Elvis Costello & The Roots – The Puppet Has Cut His Strings
The B-List Playlist: Puppet Parade
All songs performed by real or fictional marionettes, glove puppets, fingerpuppets etc.
LCD Soundsystem – New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
Kermit gets the big city blues
Robin the Frog – Halfway Down the Stairs
A.A. Milne-inspired froggery.
Pinocchio – I’ve Got No Strings
Classic Disney independence celebration
Von Trapp Family – The Lonely Goatherd
Stunning puppetry by Nazi refugees (well, really it was Bil Baird pulling the strings with singing led by Julie Andrews.
Torchy the Battery Boy – Naughty Children
Terrifying weirdness from the early 60s.
Levi Stubbs – Mean Green Mother From Outer Space
Giant man-eating plant with Four Tops singing voice.
Tingha & Tucka – Woomerang Boomerang
Australian wombat business.
Pinky & Perky – Let's Twist Again
Mister Rogers – Mistake
Extremely sad glove puppet
Spit the Dog (and Bob) – Nick Nack Paddy Whack
Extremely funny glove puppet.
Fingerbobs – Character Intros
Scampi’s, seagulls, mice and tortoises.
The Woodland Animals (Muppet Show) – For What It's Worth
I’m not sure this song was actually about hunting.
R.E.M. with Kate Person and Sesame Street – Furry Happy Monsters
All of a sudden this song makes perfect sense
Guru’s Wildcard Picks
Louie Ramirez – El Títere
“I’m the puppet, I go looking for fights, girls and all the rest,” Louie boasts (títere is a Puerto Rican slang for a small, swaggering guy) before showing off with a thunderous timbales solo and some nifty vibe work.
Bernd das Bröt – Bernd’s Balkon
Summer anthem from Germany’s most curmudgeonly lump of bread and his friends Chilli the Sheep and Briegel the Bush.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Who's pulling the strings? Songs about puppets and puppetry. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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