Monday, August 3, 2009

The Coasters

The nexus between rock & roll (and I include r&b) and humour has never been clear. On the whole, rock and roll isn’t very funny. Now, there’ve been a few funny men, and I’m not counting Stan Freberg, who was a comedian plain and simple. But there was Ray Stevens, who made what were considered funny records, but his stuff is generally more about silly and juvenile than funny (except Moonlight Special – now *that’s* funny). Roger Miller had a sense of humour, and so does John Prine and so do a few others.

It was the Coasters who were known as the clowns of R&B. And sure they clowned around on their records, either giving us a funny story, (Along Came Jones) or a funny take on something we deal with every day ( Poison Ivy, Shopping For Clothes), or an outrageous arrangement of a musical standard (Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart). And it’s too obvious to state (so why do I state it?) that The Coasters use humour as a kind of defence mechanism, couching so many things that hurt in jokes and laughter.

And so we have the outcast (Charlie Brown), annoying parents (Yakity Yak), financial incapacity (Shopping For Clothes), girl troubles (Poison Ivy). And they laugh, but they’re not laughing inside.

I picked up this album, The Greatest Recordings: The Early Years, at Country Music Centre. It’s an odd collection, with an odd name. To begin with, it has two tracks by The Robins, who are not The Coasters at all, though Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn were members. Then, insofar as they were hit makers, their early years where their only years. The tracks on the album span the years 1957 – 1961. After 1961 they only ever had two more hits, one in ’64 and one in 1971 (!). And the album has 9 of their hits, and doesn’t have 10. I have another 2 hits here besides those, plus some classics that weren’t hits but have acquired some kind of status based on covers and just being well-known. They came mostly from singles.

The Coasters:

Along Came Jones – A cartoon in song, reminds me of the Mighty Mouse cartoons my sister used to watch. (Me? No. I watched Yogi Bear). I suppose it would be a stretch to suggest that there is some profound statement about good and evil here.A top 10 hit in the summer of 1959, and remade by Ray Stevens in 1969.
Searchin’ – Their top 10 debut. A song of determination. From the summer of 1957.
Shopping For Clothes – Listed by Whitburn as a novelty track, but this is pure social commentary. A simple tale of a man buying fancy duds, but he’s denied credit, and so the whole deal goes out the window. The slinking rhythm and the smoky sax suggests that customer isn’t on the up and up, which adds another dimension to the tragic tale. From the fall of 1960.
Besame Mucho – One of those tropical sunset songs, written in 1940 and recorded by many, including The Beatles for the Decca audition in January, 1962, but The Coasters take it somewhere else. From the spring of 1960. This song covered both sides of a single, and I’ve got both here, but I’m only listing it once.
Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart – Made famous by Judy Garland, among others, The Coasters gave this a truly idiosyncratic arrangement, so inspired that The Move and later The Trampps did note-for-note copies. Wasn’t a hit but should have been.
I’m A Hog For You – This is the B side of Poison Ivy and it was from the fall of 1959. Easily the most romantic song around with a porcine theme. Freddy & The Dreamers did this.
Three Cool Cats – Another song full of caricatures. Another one that The Beatles did on their audition.
Let’s Go Get Stoned – An early Ashford – Simpson composition. This from the latter 60s, long after the group had ceased to matter, but the song was a hit for Ray Charles.
Yakety Yak – Perhaps the best protest song of all time, with what is probably King Curtis’ most famous sax solo. This song went to #1 in the summer of 1958
Little Egypt (Ying Yang) – A song about a stripper. But the punch line is that they get married in the end. Not only that, but they have seven kids. Not only that, but they’re *all* crawlin’ ‘round the floor. From the summer of 1961. Ying Yang.
Charlie Brown – Not, as far as I can tell, the Peanuts character, more like the school troublemaker. A song about someone who just does not fit in. From the winter of 1959. “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me…”
Down In Mexico – Drama, think Come A Little Bit Closer by Jay & The Americans, but steamier, all atmosphere, with a sax that steams along like a locomotive, and, imagine, a happy ending – or at least no violence, no cheating, no jealous boyfriend…
That Is Rock And Roll – Did you ever hear the guitar clang, jimgi-jingi-jingi-jang. I’m sure I’ve never heard a better description. Down to earth.
Poison Ivy – Hands down best song ever about a toxic female. From the fall of 1959. The Stones covered this, and so did The Hollies. “You’re gonna need an ocean … of Calamine lotion…”
Young Blood – One only need imagine what this is about. “I took one look but I was fractured.” From the summer of 1957, the B side of Searchin’ and top 10 in its own right.
Turtle Dovin’ – A description of the perfect relationship, sounds like.
Idol With The Golden Head – Moral: be careful what you pray for. This song of out and out paganism was a hit in the fall of 1957.

1 comment:

ACcountryFan said...

Technically, Ray Stevens is known as a novelty artist...but within his concerts he slips in jokes in between his serious and comical songs. I've been to a few of his concerts and he usually fills the time between songs with one-liners and comical stories.

True, a lot of his comical songs are more silly than cerebral, off-the-wall and outrageous as well, but they're meant to evoke laughter or whimsy.

The concept of a novelty song for those who may not know is to lampoon, spoof, mock, and or poke fun at something in pop culture or something everyone seems to be talking about...Ray's biggest recordings were considered novelties because they generally spoofed a current fad or something topical...but not everyone has the same sense of humor.

Stan Freberg, though, is a satirist...he spoofed rock and roll songs in addition to making sketch-comedy records.

I know it sounds like I'm picky but within comedy there's various forms and styles. The bottom line, or the end result of all those various styles of comedy and humor, is laughter.

Although something comes across un-funny to some doesn't mean that others aren't finding the material funny. There are some who'd put Roger Miller in the goofy category but you praised his kind of music as funny...but I feel Ray Stevens and Roger Miller go hand in hand. They both could sing, which isn't usually the case with acts known as "comical singers". Also, they were both songwriters...Ray still is since he's still among the living. Ray also, like Roger, sang both comical and serious songs. Ray also is a multi-instrumentalist and both of them had acting ability.

The Coasters were one of Ray's biggest idols. You may be biased toward the Coasters and not want to hear others sing their songs but I prefer Ray's versions of "Along Came Jones", "Yakety Yak", and "Little Egypt" but I also like the original recordings by the Coasters, too.

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