Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

English Blues – The Untold History of the Chunka-Chunka Song

One of the last major questions about the history of music remains unanswered, that question being: what was the first Chunka-Chunka song? Wait a second … you don’t know what a Chunka-Chunka song is? Let me explain. A Chunka-Chunka song is a song where one can, without too much trouble, sing the phrase “Chunk, chunk, chunka-chunka” over the top of the music. A good example would be ‘Dead End Street’ by The Kinks. Have a listen:

Do you hear what I mean? Chunk, chunk, chunka-chunka. This sound has forever been associated with English pop, with ribald cockneys gathering rand the old Joanna for a right old knees up. The Chunka-Chunka song, however, has a strange ancestry, an ancestry that jumps back and forth across oceans and across time.

In 1920 Mamie Smith released what is generally regarded as the first blues recording, a song called ‘Crazy Blues’. It is not the blues as it is commonly regarded, which seems to focus on either delta or Chicago blues. This was blues mixed with vaudeville and jazz. A good-time, bad-time big city blues that could easily be thought of as an early jazz recording. ‘Crazy Blues’ sounds closer in spirit to a song like ‘Dead End Street’, more so than anything in the British music hall tradition.

‘The Unfortunate Rake’, an old English folk ballad, crossed the Atlantic and became ‘The Streets Of Laredo’, but somewhere else along the way it transformed itself into ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’. In 1928 Louis Armstrong recorded a version of ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’ which went on to become one of his signature recordings. You can hear the influence of this recording on the song ‘Minnie The Moocher’ by fellow jazz artist Cab Calloway. Calloway would even record his own version of ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’ but it is ‘Minnie The Moocher’, more so than ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’, which stands as the grandfather of the Chunka-Chunka song. Though the influence of music hall was strong on The Kinks, the spirit of ‘Minnie The Moocher’ feels stronger. ‘Dead End Street’ sounds more like English vaudeville blues than music hall. Yet even before The Kinks the Chunka-Chunka song would be awakened from its slumber by another American source. Motown records.

'Where Did Our Love Go’ was close, but it was The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’ that really brought back that Chunka-Chunka feeling. Perhaps it doesn’t qualify as an indisputable Chunka-Chunka song, but it is pure proto-Chunka-Chunka. The race to deliver the first real Chunka-Chunka number was on. ‘Watcha Gonna Do About It?’ by The Small Faces was just a little too fast, ‘Girl’ by The Beatles just a little too slow. In a moment of inspired madness, The Beach Boys made a majestic effort to take the prize with ‘God Only Knows’. Sure, it’s gorgeous, sublime, and deliciously melodic, but ‘God Only Knows’ is pure Chunka-Chunka. The only thing it lacked was bite, and perhaps a touch of rinky-dinky piano.

In the end, The Kinks deserve the award for first authenticated Chunka-Chunka song with ‘Sunny Afternoon’. It had everything you could ask for in a Chunka-Chunka number, and with that patented English humour it turned the Chunka-Chunka song into an all England affair. With the floodgates open The Beatles produced ‘I Want To Tell You’ and ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ as well as the almost-but-not-quite-Chunka number ‘Good Day Sunshine’. It was at this point that McCartney (desperate to outdo the Beach Boys) went Chunka-Chunka crazy, churning out ‘Penny Lane’, ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ and perhaps the archetypal Chunka-Chunka number ‘Getting Better’.

The Small Faces helped associate Chunka-Chunka with Englishness by penning ‘Lazy Sunday’ and ‘Happy Days Toy Town’, but these songs, along with ‘Blackberry Way’ by The Move and 'Care Of Cell 44' by The Zombies, represented the final flourish for Chunka-Chunka. Its blues roots washed clean by McCartney and his Beach Boys fixation, by the 70s it was all but gone and the world would have to wait until the UK’s ill-fated flirtation with its glorious past before the Chunka-Chunka song reemerged as a recognisable song form. 

Both Blur and Oasis made use of Chunka-Chunka and its associations with the 60s and Englishness, penning ‘Sunday Sunday’ and ‘Digsy’s Dinner’ respectively. They were poor relations compared to their 60s ancestors, and once more it would take an American to breathe life into the corpse of Chunka-Chunka. After ‘Pictures Of Me’, ‘Baby Britain’ by Elliott Smith was perhaps the last hurrah for Chunka-Chunka. Rescuing it from Britpop and little-Englander hell, Smith used the Chunk as a backdrop for one of his hellish portraits of alcoholism. Except it all sounded so jaunty and fun. Then, as before, it disappeared once more. This time probably for good.

To some, the Chunka-Chunka song is a horrid creature, a stilted sexless creation that reeks of nostalgia and misplaced national pride. In truth, however, the Chunka-Chunka no more belongs to England than any other country, and the US has as many claims to the Chunka-Chunka hall of fame as England. It’s hard to declare any particular song-form dead, but it’s also hard to see how the Chunka-Chunka could be seriously resurrected. If it should die, think only this; that there’s some corner of the pop world that is forever Chunka-Chunka.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

R.I.P. Laura Kennedy

I’m going to assume that you know about Bush Tetras. Maybe you’re a fan, or maybe you’ve just seen their name here and there and you’ve always meant to check them out. If you’re in the latter category I highly recommend it. Their small discography belies their influence and importance. In their original incarnation they released a few scorching singles, an EP, and then they were gone. Those original recordings are still discussed, still sought after, and are still capable of reducing people to either slack-jawed awe, or making them dance like a demented robot.

In their original line-up was bass-player Laura Kennedy. As luck would have it, I managed to both meet and befriend Laura. A little over 10 years ago I moved to Minneapolis and, after acquiring a work permit, I got a job at the record store Cheapo in Uptown Minneapolis. Laura was already an employee of the store and when we were first introduced I had no idea about her past. She just came across as a welcoming, funny, self-assured human being. After a few weeks somebody told me she had been a member of Bush Tetras. At that point they were only a myth to me, a band I’d read about but never listened to. This would soon change.

I remember thinking that Laura was just so ridiculously … cool. She never once mentioned Bush Tetras to me, but she radiated strength and an aura of not giving a damn. She went out of her way to make me feel welcome, at one point even asking me if I wanted to go with her to see a solo show by Exene Cervenka. I never went to the show, partly fearing that my company would be disappointing outside of a work setting. The next day I asked her how the show was and she replied that it had been great, and that afterwards her and Exene had sat around and had a couple of beers. I instantly regretted my decision not to go (and still do), but at the same time wondered what I could have contributed to a conversation involving two such bad-ass women.

After we had both moved on from Cheapo I discovered to my great pleasure that Laura lived in my neighbourhood. Meeting her on the street became a regular occurrence, as we caught up on life and the goings on of Minneapolis. In 2008 she received a liver transplant and things seemed touch and go for a while, yet she came through and before long we bumped into one another again in Uptown. I saw her less and less while on the street but she was always ready to share an opinion on Facebook. I desperately wanted to interview Laura for Collapse Board, but her Facebook page had been quiet and I didn’t want to risk bothering her. I decided to wait till I heard how she was doing.

On 14 November I looked on Laura’s Facebook page and saw that things had taken a turn for the worse in regards to her health. Then suddenly the news was out. Laura had passed away that very day. I wish in no way to insult those who knew and loved Laura by implying that our friendship was anything more than random conversations on Minneapolis streets about the ups and downs of life. Yet I liked Laura, and felt in her warmth that she liked me too. The idea that we would bump into one another always filled me with happiness, and it feels strange and rather terrible to think that it won’t happen again.

If you’re reading my blog, I know you’ll love Bush Tetras. It’s your kind of music. Smart, funky, and cooler than ice-cold. Laura was a part of that magic. Goodbye Laura.

Laura Kennedy, co-founder of Bush Tetras, passed away on Monday the 14th of November, 2011.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Can - Tago Mago: 40th Anniversary Edition (album review)

Have you noticed that most attractive people are also stylish?

You would think being attractive would be enough. It gives them an advantage over lesser mortals and makes them stand out in a crowd. On top of that, their clothes look great too! Why would they bother? I’ll tell you why. Attractive people are not competing against unattractive people; they’re competing against the other attractive people. Now I’m not saying these are conscious thoughts, given that forces beyond our control drive each of us in ways not understood. I’m just saying that when an attractive person is looking to make an impact they don’t check out the uglies, they check out the direct competition. Are you with me so far? Good, because we’re going to make an all-important leap.

In cultural terms, hardcore music fans belong to the beautiful people. They are the gatekeepers, the knowledgeable ones, the historians. One thing you need to know about hardcore music fans is that they know what’s on the CD and LP shelves of other hardcore music fans. This means that even if a band is not that well-known in the grand scheme of things, among the beautiful people it’s not going to raise any eyebrows when you say that you’re a fan. Take Can for instance. Obviously the beautiful people know about Can. There was a time in the 70s when owning a Can album made you interesting but, like the small town beauty who travels to the big city only to find that there are beautiful people everywhere, owning a Can album means nothing these days. Mojo write about Can. Liking Can is almost passé. Sure, the uglies still don’t really know about them but who gives a fuck?

Ever wonder how gushing about Pop music became so fashionable among music critics? Wonder no more. They weren’t trying to buy into the mainstream so much as upset some of the other beautiful people. Oneupmanship. Oneupwomanship. Pure evolutionary psychology. There’s still a battle going on, it having started in the late 70s, between ‘serious’ music critics and ‘post-punk’ music critics who embrace Pop as a way to ruffle the feathers of the serious music critic.

Both approaches have their faults. Serious music critics tend to focus on some imaginary golden age that usually coincides with their youth or the time just before their youth, while post-punk critics have a tendency to champion awful, mainstream garbage and do so in a way that makes it seem like they’re discussing Athenian philosophy. Can have a foot in both worlds. Much loved by studious, Mojo reading rock historians, they are also an important bridge between 60s psychedelia and post-punk. In truth, they were a bunch of longhaired hippies who probably didn’t wash much. They recorded in a castle and relied on musicianship and groove rather than song-structure. A thousand post-punk hipsters, desperate to avoid rock‘n’roll clichés, would later champion their rejection of rock norms. Loved in equal measure by beard-stroking rock anal retentives and skinny jeaned hipsters, the real question is are Can any good?

To answer that question let’s actually get down to business and talk about the album being reviewed.

Tago Mago, outside of Silver Apples, sounds like almost nothing on earth. In a relatively short amount of time Can managed to transcend their influences and create something unique and exhilarating. The single most important element of Can’s music was the drumming and in Jaki Liebezeit they had the greatest drummer in rock music. I know that sounds like I'm damning him with faint praise, but Liebezeit was phenomenal. He played like some demented, funky, relentless machine. It didn’t hurt that they also had Michael Karoli on guitar, whose ability to interchange between bluesy leads and scratchy grooves made him the most interesting guitarist east of the Atlantic. In 1971 he had no rival outside of Eddie Hazel. Yeah, Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt did stuff too, probably more important than I realise, but Liebezeit and Karoli are my guys. Then we have Damo Suzuki, whose voice, lyrics and melodies provide important inroads into the Can sound. Though nonsensical, asking what a Suzuki lyric means is like asking what a Karoli guitar solo means. It means what it means. It is part of the sound. It is.

Have I answered the question yet? Yes, Can are good. Can are astounding. When Suzuki goes “Oooh” at the start of ‘Halleluhwah’ my pulse triples in speed. Just for an “Oooh”. Then he sings something about a snowman and the song does not stop for another 18 minutes. Eighteen fucking minutes. Can’s music is groove-centric pagan Germanic hippiesexfunk. Its intent is to beckon forth witches on Walpurgisnacht. Things begin slowly with ‘Paperhouse’ but this is merely a ruse to draw you in. ‘Mushroom’ explodes and all around you bonfires blaze. Broomsticks and bats fill the twilight skies above. ‘Oh Yeah’ keeps the momentum flowing. Are those people nearby naked? By the time the aforementioned ‘Halleluhwah’ is done you need a break. With reality. ‘Aumgn’ and ‘Peking O’ are part Stockhausen, part hippie prankster devilment. Scott Creney nails the half-laughter, half-screaming sensation perfectly. ‘Bring Me Coffee Or Tea’ is the gentle sound of tides receding. It is the melancholy end of the trip. Nothing left to do but play it all again. You could also play the bonus material which is, though admittedly great, just another way to get those Mojo readers to buy the album all over again. And they will.

Does anybody actually dislike Can?

There’s a temptation to play the antagonist whenever a vast critical consensus exists. It’s a healthy mentality overall, but if it closes people off to Can then something has gone wrong. No doubt if I read one more Bobby Gillespie Can anecdote I’ll vomit but we need to make sure that Can don’t end up being the property of the rock‘n’roll music collectors, the peddlers of comforting myths, the worshipers of the past. Can belong to the iconoclasts, the cynics, the lovers, the thinkers and the visionaries with hungry ears and a low threshold for boredom. They don’t belong to the beard-stroking, Jagger-imitating, amp-discussing, future-smothering, timid, frightened, white-flag-waving band of rock‘n’roll imitators and music librarians that seem to re-emerge every generation to drag music backwards.

By the late 60s, rock music was ailing, with a high number of rock ‘n’ roll pastiches already denting the chart. Can ignored this trend, ignored the nostalgia trip, and went off on their own journey. By all means listen to the music of the past, by all means be inspired by it, but for the love of god don’t try to sound like it. If at first you can’t help it then work to transcend those influences. Listen to Can then go somewhere else. If you don’t, then this truly groundbreaking band will become another touchstone for the wrong kind of music worship, and that would negate everything they stood for.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)