Like The David Lynch film Blue Velvet, we begin with a song that is quiet but unsettling.
The best surreal stories start off with the familiar, the “normal”. Laurie (Strange Things Happen) is a story of teen romance, crooned to a corny backing with a chorus to match. Laurie, sung by Dickey Lee was written by a psychologist called Dr Milton Addington. It was based on a story written by a 15-year-old girl called Cathie Harmon and published in 1964 in a Memphis newspaper.
The story was probably inspired by the legend of Resurrection Mary. A young lady “with cold hands” who was said to have been encountered by a number of young men at Chicago dance parties in the 1930s. In this original story it is her mother who eventually produces a photograph of her daughter – who died many years earlier. A photograph which looks exactly like the girl from the party.
Milton and Cathie shared the royalties.
From a romantic, if thoroughly creepy ghost story (with a large helping of cheese) to our friend, Genesis P Orridge. he of Throbbing Gristle fame. This time with his later band Psychic Youth he informs us over a particularly grim sonic assault that:
"As a result of our inquiry, I went through the door. I passed a wolf and a bear… Boys become dogs in the nursery, Girls become frogs in the nursery, The bear is there in the nursery, I pledge my soul to the nursery, The doors are closed in the nursery, To protect our lives in the nursery.”
In The Nursery – The voice chants in an unworldly tone sounding at times like a medium channelling the voices of the dead. At other times I thought of a Southern Trains announcer apologising for another set of delays, but maybe that’s just me.
More nursery talk from Let’s Eat Grandma with a song called Rapunzel. Fairy-tale horrors, real childhood fears and anxieties all mix to unnerving effect. And with a recorder, an instrument that always seems to sound both innocent and sinister.
“My cat is dead, my father hit me, I ran away, I'm really hungry
That wicked witch in all her power, She cast a spell and locked me in this tower I can't look down, I'm claustrophobic, Please, let me out, I can't deserve this
I hate my name, I'm not that Rapunzel, My hair's not blonde and I'm not having fun in this
Fairy tale that my mother read me About this girl, I want my mommy
The prince won't come, the clock strikes eleven I had a haircut last week and I'm only seven.”
Wire’s The Other Window is an equally dreamlike and disturbing account of a train journey through France. An Englishman who speaks little of the native language sees a horrifying scene through the window of his train carriage. A horse caught in a barbed wire fence and struggling for its life. Unable to intervene he can only stare out of the other window until the horror is no longer in view.
Rhinocratic Oaths by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band is an altogether jollier piece of work. Simultaneously surreal and mundane, it rejoices in the absurdity of the miniature scenes and parodying suburban jealousies and rivalries in a way that no other band could.
Bob Dylan’s Visions of Johanna is possibly his most celebrated lyric. The one most often quoted as an example of his poetry. In fact the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, once named it as his favourite poem. Of course, it’s always possible to hear lines such as:
“See the primitive wallflower freeze, When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, 'Jeez, I can't find my knees …'"
and wonder what Milton would have made of it. Fractured consciousness indeed. The nominator of this song quotes Breton who defined surrealism as: “Pure psychic automatism … the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns.”
See Emily Play, the classic early Pink Floyd single is a piece of psychedelic whimsy. “Emily tries but misunderstands, she’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams ‘til tomorrow.”
According to the record’s engineer, there was originally a longer version of the song but it was edited down for release as a single. There’s much use of echo, reverb and backwards tapes, adding to the dreamlike feel of the song.
The Fall of Saigon is an unlikely topic for absurdity or surrealism. Unless, like This Heat, you imagine a group of people holed up in an embassy under siege and take the question, “What did they eat?” to an insane level of speculation.
We ate Soda, the Embassy cat, Poor Soda's coda, no more da Capo, she's decapitated,
Running 'round the room, half-baked, the other part is bacon, and still sizzling in the frying pan,
We ate the TV, We ate the armchair, We ate the telephone, We ate the cellophane,
My God how we got so far, only to reach so low. The Russians saved the janitor ...
The music complements the lyric by going gradually more and more insane. Pulling sounds from a guitar that the listener never expected.
Speaking of janitors, Janitor by Californian band Suburban Lawns features a teenage girl singing “in a bizarrely mannered way” about nuclear disaster, mistaken parentage and mishearing someone at a party saying, “Oh my genitals!” when they really said: “I'm a janitor.” Happens to the best of us.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins can be relied on for some strange, theatrical insanity. Feast of the Mau Mau sounds both unappetising and an unlikely ritual for the Kenyan insurgents. Not too convinced by his impersonation of their voices either! Is it too late for them to sue?
“Cut the fat off the back of a baboon
Boil it down to a pound, get a spoon
Scoop the eyes from a fly flying backwards
Take the jaws and the paws off a 'coon
Take your time, ain't life for good cookin'
Cause the rest of this mess ain't good lookin'
Take the fleas from the knees of a demon
Tell your pals and gals and come screamin.”
Jesse was the name of Elvis Presley’s still-born elder twin brother. Scott Walker imagines Elvis sitting alone in the moonlit Memphis prairie, talking to Jesse.
We hear imagery of planes crashing into towers to a background of a slow ominous drone. A sound broken by some discordant guitar. Eventually Elvis/Scott cries out repeatedly “I’m the only one left alive!” Strange? Absolutely. Disturbing? Undoubtedly. Surreal? I think so.
After which we need to return to the daylight. X-Ray Spex – The Day the World Turned Day-Glo. Some brightness and joy, even if the source of both seems utterly artificial and synthetic. I’ll settle for that. Grab yourself a rubber bun, get into your polypropylene car, jump into a pool of Fairy Snow and watch the world turn Day-Glo. You know? You know? Oh Oh …
I do like a happy ending.
Very Strange A-list Playlist:
Dickie Lee – Laurie (Strange Things Happen)
Psychic TV – In the Nursery
Let’s Eat Grandma – Rapunzel
Wire – The Other Window
Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – Rhinocratic Oaths
Bob Dylan – Visions of Johanna
Pink Floyd – See Emily Play
This Heat – The Fall of Saigon
Suburban Lawns – Janitor
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – Feast of the Mau Mau
Scott Walker – Jesse
X-Ray Spex – The day the World Turned Day-Glo
The Bizarre B-list
Vivian Stanshall – Terry Keeps His Clips On
John Martin – Fairy Tale Lullaby
Future of the Left – Fingers Become Thumbs
The Stranglers – Waltzinblack
Powersolo – Boom Babba Do Ba Dabba
Captain Beefheart – Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish
Mr Concept – Most people Aren’t Fit to Live
De La Soul – Potholes in My Lawn
Boeing Duveen & the Beautiful Soup – Which Dreamed It
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Satan Said Dance
Flotation Toy Warning – Even Fantastica
Sparklehorse – Rainmaker
Sparks – Hippopotamus
Diamanda Galas – Vena Cava pt 1
Guru's wildcard picks:
Martin Green – I Saw The Dead
Dave Von Ronk – I Buyed Me A Little Dog
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: My log saw something … songs about the strange, disturbing and surreal. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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