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)


  1. Some folk punk has got the chunka chunka going, when they are doing pony-punk galloping in three of plunk-chunk-plunk-chunkin'!