Rock Humor (?)

Dirty Old Men and Bow Tie Daddies versus Urban Spacemen and Experimental Humans

By Philip Bashe

Foxtrot, September, 1976


An Introduction

      Rock is a world that takes itself far too seriously. It is ironic how rock n' roll, which is supposed to be so much fun, has spawned its humorous moments with only the remote regularity of Haley's Comet.

      It's not so much music today as it is showbiz-everybody's got their own act to follow and they pursue it to the nth degree: The Stones are evil; Jagger's the Boston Strangler and Richard's Jack the Ripper. The Dead commute constantly from being either Mayberry R.F.D. yokels or celestial beings from another planet and Bowie is Garbo, only prettier.

      Comparatively as if following the very same blueprint, the audiences follow suit: The Stones' crew plays it as baneful as possible, each trying to capture Keith's look of disdain. The Dead's crowd (with the help of lots of dope and lots of Thunderbird) usually ends up as-celestial (stoned out) as the band, and Bowie's people are feline, feminine, and bi-sexual chic to be sure.

 

      Worse still, there's a horrifying intensity about the whole thing – everybody's really into their roles. You can't just watch, you now have to participate. And watching them all march off to their respective concerts with that intensity at peak level, one can't help thinking of thousands of Sun Yung Moonies being marched off to the slaughterhouse. "Lemmings" has become a reality. It's all so ... so serious.

      Don't believe for one second, however, that this seriousness is restricted only to the seventies. Rock has never really had much of a sense of humor. Even if you look back some two and a half decades, to rock's beginnings, the amount of humor in the music has been few and far between.

 

      Alongside the heartbreaks of Valens and Holly there was mostly a kind of seductively sexual humor. It wasn't really humor so much as it was simply naughty – Hank Ballard & The Moonlighters were doing such nasty r & b classics as "Work With Me Annie" (rewritten for youthful ears as "Dance With Me Henry") and "Annie Had A Baby" as far back as 1954. Chuck Berry always wore that shit-eating grin when he played "Ding-A-Ling" 'cause he knew that the kids understood he wasn't singing about some goddamned bell. Similarly, Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" merely hinted at what J.P. Richardson really wanted.

      Early sixties shlock-rock included its own brand of humor too, one that was even less sophisticated than the fifties, if that's possible. Whereas Berry's "Reelin' And Rockin' " sounds like it could have been copped off of a bathroom wall, nonsensical drool like Bobby Boris Pickett & The Crypt Kickers' "Monster Mash" in 1962 (revived during the summer of '73 for Pickett who by that time was a New York City cab driver) was downright assinine by comparison. Topics of the day ·" were light ("Alley Oop" 1961, Hollywood Argyles), stupid ("Mashed Potato Time" – 1962 Dee-Dee Sharp (!)), but always a lot of fun (Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Freddie Cannon, The Safaris, Rockin' Rebels), concerning cars, girls, surfing, girls, school, girls, going stead, and naturally, girls.

      The English Invasion of '64 brought its own brand of British humor. The Beatles, even during their Sergeant Pepper period were kept in check by John Lennon's marvelous wit. The Kinks' Ray Davies was writing social satire years before the rock crowd had ever heard of a Dylan or an Ochs ("Well Respected Man," "Dedicated Follower of Fashion"), and the music of Herman's Hermits, Freddie & The Dreamers, and Gerry & The Pacemakers was never too serious for comfort. Even later-day groups of the second British generation retained a sense of humor (early Small Faces, certainly The Move, and who could ever forget Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich's dumb but lovable "Zabadak").

      Peter Townshend certainly remains one of rock's true geniuses: Quadrophenia put everything in its proper perspective and The Who Sell Out is still a rare and brilliant moment of rock n' roll poking fun at itself. Even his Tommy stands as a snatch of witty prowess – with a plot that ridiculous it had to be written somewhat tongue-in-cheek (although others like Ken Russell have done just about everything imaginable to poor Tommy save throw him a telethon).

      Rock's black period as far as humor want (and in general, too, as we are now seeing in retrospect) was the 1967-68 San Francisco rock period that was totally devoid of not only humor, but frankly emotion as well. The progressive kitty litter of Donovan, Quicksilver, and the Airplane was simply too preoccupied with being heavy to be any fun at all.

      An interesting contrast that very same year was the emergence of bubblegum which was a throwback to the days or Ballard and Berry; the seemingly innocent setting produced a lot of songs that would do Philip Portnoy proud: "Chewy Chewy" and "Yummy Yummy Yummy" can be quite provocative when analyzed with the proper frame of mind (easily attainable through abstention from sex for so me fifteen years).

      Both flower power and bubblegum are (blessedly) gone, but rock n' roll is not exactly experiencing a renaissance of humor. In fact, throughout the years the best (popular) rock parody would have to be The Detergents 1965 hit of sorts, "Leader of the Laundromat," that very funny take-off on the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack." It pointed out the stupidity of that song sun by three white bitchy girls (come on admit it, that song was dumb) but it also paid tribute to a wonderful piece of necro-phili-rock and celebrated gibberish.

      Which brings us full circle back to the seventies. Rock in the seventies is not dying as many say, nor is it even sick. However, you would think that in a fucked-up world like ours where the funniest thing around is a bumbling incompetent of a president or a riot of a national election, rock n' roll would offer some relief. And it doesn't. (No, Harry Chapin's squawking claptrap about "50,000 pounds of bananas" isn't great humor, nor is Cheech & Chong's offensive high school slush. )

      No one's asking for anything too extensive. I mean, it would be as unrealistic to expect Greg Allman to tell some one-liners (he's got enough trouble just breathing) as it would be to envision Rodney Dangerfield dressed up in gold lame.

      Aside from the accidental hilarities of Three Dog Night, Seals & Crofts and John Denver however, only a handful over the years have made satire and comedy their primary purpose, and they've brightened the rock world in a most splendid way.

 

The Fugs

Lenny Bruce in 4/4

      Nearly everything concerning The Fugs remains a mystery. If one were to write an epitaph for the group, nearly all of the facts would be impossible to chronicle. The birth of The Fugs is unknown – their demise is equally unclear. Under the list of personnel there would be a bevy of unknowns and M-I-A's: (Like Zappa's early Mothers of Invention, a Fugs concert was liable to bring out varying amounts of Fugs, anywhere from just a sparse few to numbers reaching epidemic proportions).

      Even more questionable would be the pinpointing of The Fugs' actual purpose; were they poets? Were they satirists? (Or were they just plain dirty?).

      Whatever, The Fugs were the first to do it. "It" consisted of bits of satire, poetry, certainly theater, and a good helping of Lenny Bruce. They were born out of St. Mark's Place in Greenwich Village, a group of East Village poets and other undesirables who sought to combine their poetry with music.

      While at last count the amount of Fugs numbered somewhere into the forties, the original Fugs began in 1964-65, ied by poets Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupfenburg, and Allen Ginsberg. To call their early music primitive would be doing it amazing justice; but to be fair about it. The Fugs were definitely more folk oriented than rock oriented, and it showed at the beginning.

 

      The first album appeared in 1965. It was very folksy. It was also very pornographic. Where The Fugs really poets? Nah. They were just dirty (and hence funny, especially when you consider the time period). The Fugs were outrageous a decade before that word was turned into a cliché. But poets? The Fugs were poets as much as Patti Smith is Elizabeth Browning.

Fucking, nothing
Sucking, nothing
Flish and sex, nothing
The world 's great poets,
a great lot of no thing;
Nothing, nothing. nothing.

      By the time the second album, The Fugs, was released in summer 1966, they had honed their musical skills very well, and a lot of the music that appears on that album can hold its head high as some good rock n' roll. It still retained that smokey Village feel though; Kupfenburg's tambourine and maracas rattled in the background like a snake in hiding, while Sanders' lyrics smote everything in sight.

      They treated U.S. imperialism far more humorously than their folk counterparts as on "Kill For Peace"; a song that  General Westmoreland would take to his very heart:

Kill! Kill! Kill for peace!
Kill! Kill! Kill for peace!
If you don't kill them,
then the Chinese will;
If you don't watch out
America,
you'll play second bill!

Kill! Kill! Kill for peace!

      The Fugs humor was mostly sociological (like much of Zappa's early humor) but one of its basic purposes was similar to Bruce's in that it strove to break, the four-letter word barrier. At times The  Fugs' music merely strung four-letter words together in endless succession, an obscene barrage of verbal machine-gun fire. "Group Grope" is a bright rocker in which "a student sucks a teacher and a daughter fucks a preacher." Hardly brilliant, but all in good fun.

      One of The Fugs "classics" is "Dirty Old Man." It concerns the murky details about one said dirty old man "hanging out by the schoolyard gate/ looking up every dress I can" who bears a striking resemblance to a warped Walter Brennan:

I got a thrill bills for all the little
chickies/ an' I got funny cigarettes
for all you boys/ An' I got dirty
pictures fer all of ya together!/ Well I
see the campus cop 's comin'/ I better
split now/ Remember Leon Trotsky! Hee!
Hee!

      Much of The Fugs early music was very acrid, very biting, with song titles that left little to the imagination: "Coca-Cola Douche," "Hallucination Horrors," and the prophetic "I Saw The Best Minds Of My Generation Rot."

      Their later humor spanned in two directions: one side of The Fugs grew more topical and political ("Exorcizing The Evil Spirits From The Pentagon, October 21, 1967") while the other side became increasingly inane ("Claude Pelliau And J.J. Lebel Discuss The Early Verlaine Bread Crust Fragments").

      By the time they released Golden Filth in the summer of 1970, it was evident to all that the 'cover-up' was over, the masquerade complete: The Fugs admitted to one and all that they weren't poets, but merely filthy. (Although with song titles like "Wet Dream," suspicions had been raised. ) They were also musicians of excellent abilities by now, and the latter-day music was much more convincing than the very early examples.

      Exactly how the end of The Fugs came about, no one is sure of. But during 1970-71 they apparently decided that enough was enough, and with one last shrug of the shoulder and a final "Fuck it," they disbanded. Ed Sanders continued on his own, releasing several albums, the best of which was Beer Cans on The Moon.

      Over the course of their several years and several albums worth of existence, The Fugs helped to catapult rock into a new area, that of social and self-satire. And for that alone, they deserve our thanks.

 

The Mothers of Invention

No Commercial Potential

 

      The thing so charming about the music of Frank Zappa is that he's so visvious. If The Fugs merely raped and strangled their victims, then Zappa communicated swift kicks to the thighs and abdomen, crammed chopped meat down their throats, stuck spikes in their eyes, and whispered 101 dead baby jokes into their ears.

      Frank Zappa hates the America that you and I have been brought up to know and love: Big Macs, TV Dinners, Have A Nice Day, and most of all that nauseating quest Americans seem to have for being normal. Frank Zappa hates that America of smile buttons and Ed Kranepool; as such his Mothers of Invention made their most conscious efforts to conform to non-conformity. In a society that worships beauty, Zappa and his Mothers made themselves ugly, freaks. He built upon what The Fugs had already started, adding theater to rock n' roll, and making satire his goal.

 

      But Zappa took his music to places that The Fugs never even dreamed of. His music was done with a keen analytical wit; his lyrics were much funnier than The Fugs', his musicians were much better than The Fugs, and they were clearly more outrageous (that word again) than The Fugs. Bluntly, Frank Zappa is one of the most perceptive men of his time.

      Over the years he seems to have softened his approach somewhat, and in fact seems to have almost become a caricature of himself; as if he's become the same stereotype that he himself would once destroy in song. But regardless, the old Zappa and The Mothers of Invention produced an incredible amount of important music (how many rock n' roll bands can honestly claim that?). It was important music in a sociological sense as well as just a musical sense.

      The original Mothers (Ray Collins) lead vocals; Jimmy Carl Black: drums; Roy Estrada: bass; Elliot Ingber: lead and rhythm guitar; and Zappa on lead guitar and vocals) were formed after scuffling about in bars for zero to seven dollars a night. After playing the Whiskey A-Go Go several times, people began to take notice that this was no ordinary band, and Freak Out!, their first album released in August 1966, confirmed that guess rather thoroughly.

      Freak Out! attacks. It attacks The Great Society, gives LBJ the finger, shows how lame much of rock n' roll really is, all in brilliant fashion. "Hungry Freaks Daddy" is an anthem to everyone of us who has ever felt that maybe we're just not included in the script Uncle Sam is handing out to the rest of the country. "Who Are The Brain Police" smacks of ultimate paranoia, not surprising for someone who has proclaimed himself a member the United Mutations and has dismembered himself from our mind-rotting educational system as had Frank Zappa.

      Zappa assailed middle America with such aggression that when listening to Freak Out! it's hard not to immediately rally 'behind him. "Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder" was fifties parody three years before it became so campy with Sha-Na-Na, and "Motherly Love' was a song concerning groupies years before most people knew they even existed: "Motherly love is a body commercial for the band. It is sung during live performances to advise the female audience of potential delights to be derived from social contacts with us folks. Trivial poop ... "

      On "Wowie Zowie" ("Wowie Zowie baby you're so fine / Wowie Zowie baby please be mine/ Wowie Zowie up and down my spine/ I don't even care if you brush your teeth '') Zappa offers how the song "is carefully designed to suck the twelve year-old into our camp," an obvious stab at record company officials who turn the music industry into just that; an industry, with assembly-Iine produced "songs."

      Absolutely Free (the title alone was inspiring) continued in much the same vein. Zappa quickly showed a genius for scathing and humorous lyrics, much funnier than those of The Fugs, who relied on their shock value and their shock value alone. The Mothers were gradually expanding, and Zappa was experimenting with symphonies and various time signature changes (probably his worst facet in that many of the early albums contain liner notes that seem to gloat over the creativity in the music- it was a bit of effete snobbery that one wouldn't expect from Pappa).

      The music on Absolutely Free was a few steps ahead of Freak Out!: "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," "Bow-Tie Daddy," and "Harry, You're A Beast" still stand as pieces of first-rate satire.

      But Zappa's greatest tour-de-farce was his We're Only In It For The Money, a clever spoof on Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, from music to outer sleeve. Another year passed and Frank Zappa's first period was ending. Ruben & The Jets was an album continuing the fifties theme and Uncle Meat, originally supposed to be the soundtrack to a Mother's film, kissed it goodbye.

      By 1970 the music was making statements of its own without the lyrics, and in a sense it was here that Zappa lost sight of his original direction. Hot Rats combined jazz elements (something that had been gradually creeping into the music throughout the late sixties). It was excellent musically, but it turned Zappa's latest aggregation into a much different one than his first band five years before.

      The highlight of Zappa's second period was the 1971 release of the film 200 Motels. Zappa's group was by now led by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (Eddie & Flo, both former Turtles), and had musicians the caliber of Ansley Dunbar (Dunbar claims to have learned much during his stint with Zappa), George Duke, and Don Preston. The film depicted "Iife on the road" and depicted it well. It received few criticisms and lots of rave reviews (although it was generally conceded that the content of the film was not for everybody and as such it lost some money). Albums were coming out by the bunches (Grand Wazoo, Waka Jawaka. Just Another Band From L.A.), but by 1972 Flo & Eddie were gone, leaving the bulk of the onstage work to Zappa once again.

      Zappa's third period has been his most successful commercially. Overnite Sensation gained him an impressive and relatively new following, and 1973's Apostrophe actually dented the Top Ten. While it was excellent musically (as is most of his most recent work - no one can argue with that), it's not really satire anymore and isn't even funny (save the song titles).

      Onstage however, Zappa's humor still holds true. He'll cut off a guitar solo with "Aw, enough of this ... " or begin one: "Great Googley Moogley!" leading his band with a smug grin and the self-assured detached look of an Ellington or a Dorsey. Frank Zappa: generally sonical, quite often bizarre, but for the most part – funny.

 

Flo & Eddie

So Happy Together

      Flo & Eddie (aka Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) took on the surnames of "The Phlorescent Leech" and "Eddie" several years ago in order to outsmart their respective record companies so that they could work with Frank Zappa.

      It would be fair to say that Zappa sharpened their comic abilities, but he by no means ignited them. Even with The Turtles Volman and Kaylan injected large helpings of humor into their music (Volman was certainly the first rock n' roller to make a conscious effort at looking tripped out while singing "Happy Together" on "The Ed Sullivan Show' in 1967). Zappa merely made the transition complete, not to mention relatively permanent.

      While Flo & Eddie are rather tame on record (the first two albums are remarkably straight-ahead, with several bits of comedy but mainly some good driving rock n' roll of their own (' Feel Older Now," "Thoughts Have Turned") plus excellent covers of The Small Faces' "Afterglow" and "Days'" by The Kinks), onstage they sniff out their -prey and bury them with the same fury of a Zappa-they show little mercy.

      Ironically, with Canned Heat waiting in the wings Flo & Eddie proposition their audience with the old-time, moth-eaten cliché "Do You Wanna Boogie?" The audience, thinking they mean it, momentarily .lose their collective senses and clamor for it. Volman and Kaylan glance at each other disapprovingly and snarl back "You wanna boogie?! We'll give ya boogie!" and commence to take Canned Heat's whole repertoire and shove the audience 's faces in it with their own version of "da boogie," replete with purposely abominable solos (Ansley Dunbar plays a wicked solo on the side of his drums while falling asleep, Volman beats the shit out of his guitar and tosses it across the stage in an exhibition that would leave Pete Townshend exhausted). It really proves the point-those forty-nine week long "boogies" of the Heat really were long and cruddy and boring; we'd just never thought of it that way before.

      Their third album, Illegal, Immoral & Fattening was recorded live and captured the true essence of Flo & Eddie on record for the first time. There's a lot of admittedly mediocre material on the album, but they absolutely destroy Elton & Joni & Leon on "Kama Sutra Time" and do likewise to George & Mick on "The Pop Star Massage Unit."

      Moving Targets, their brand new one, is similar to the first two albums in that it stresses music rather than comedy. (See Record Reviews section in this issue. Humor may not be their only vice, but Flo & Eddie do exceptionally well at it for not even trying.

( Article continued with Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and The Tubes. )

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