A Most Atypical Song (Or Ten)

I have a fond spot for The Police’s 1983 album Synchronicity, having first played it (many, many times) right after its release, on a Sony Walkman while out in the North Atlantic for a couple of months on an epic sailing adventure. It was a great soundtrack for laying atop the ketch’s pilot house at night, gazing up at the incredible offshore stars, singing along to “King of Pain” and “O My God” and being angst-ridden like nobody’s business. (Yeah, The Police were still borderline edgy when that album first came out, kids, as Sting had not quite yet become STING!).

I occasionally load Synchronicity up onto my iPods for nostalgia’s sake, and yesterday the randomizer queued up its fourth track, “Mother.” I would bet very good money that this song is the most skipped/least played of any track released on any Police studio album, hands down, no question, end of argument. Why? Well, if you don’t aren’t familiar with it, give it a spin:

Long way from “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and “Every Breath You Take,” huh? That’s guitarist Andy Summers singing, and he wrote the thing too, where Sting obviously composed and sang the lion’s share of the Police canon. (Drummer Stewart Copeland also chipped in on occasion, but his voice and compositional styles were close enough to Sting’s that I don’t think casual listeners would even notice the difference). “Mother,” on the other hand, sounds nothing like the rest of the group’s catalog, standing as a true, weird, “what were they thinking?” outlier on an otherwise hugely popular album.

I should note here for the record that I actually love Summers’ mutant blues ode to his maternal frustrations, whereas I suspect that most Police fans most emphatically do not. This got me to thinking about other groups whose catalogs contain such one-of-a-kind, what-the-hell-is-this numbers that somehow made the cut for release, and have likely been ignored (at best) or hated (more likely) ever since listeners first spun them, and then never did so again. There are some fairly obvious cases where some big names did some big experimental things (e.g The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” or Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”), but I kinda sorta think in those cases that the artists in question knew they were doing something that nobody really wanted to hear, for their own edification. More interesting (to me, anyway) are cases where artists put out cuts within their main studio album catalogs that were nominally song based and listenable, but which diverged so radically from their creators’ “normal” sound that they have mostly ended up being known (if at all) as the songs that the artists’ fans most love to hate.

I scrolled through my music library this morning and found ten fine examples of these most atypical songs, which I share below. Probably not surprisingly, if you know me and my weird tastes, I’m actually fairly fond of a lot of them, though a few are such transgressions that they even rub me the wrong way. I provide some brief statements of context on what makes each of them so anomalous, and a summary judgment on how I feel about the cut in question. Git to listening!

Genesis, “Who Dunnit?”: So let’s make one thing clear right up front: I am not a Phil Collins hater, by any stretch of the imagination. Phil is great. He really is. He just tries too hard sometimes, and we can’t gig him for that now, can we? (You don’t need to answer that). I regularly listen to the Philisis era albums Wind and Wuthering (1976), . . . And Then There Were Three (1978), Duke (1980), and Abacab (1981) more than I do any of the Peter Gabriel-fronted records. “Who Dunnit?” is from Abacab, which I consider to be the last great Genesis studio album. It’s one of two anomalous songs on the disc: “No Reply At All” features the Earth, Wind and Fire horns — but by the time it came out, people had already heard Phil sing with brass, so it wasn’t that much of a departure — and then there is this thing, a goofy, noisy Prophet V-fueled New Wave sort of number with ridiculous lyrics being delivered ridiculously, years after New Wave stopped being fun. Amazingly enough, they actually played this one live for a (short) while, with bassist-guitarist Mike Rutherford playing drums while Phil mugged about in the way that probably makes most Phil-haters hate Phil the most. My verdict: I like the studio version well enough, but the live version (see it in all of its terribly glory here) is too much even for me.

Black Sabbath, “It’s Alright”: This track comes from the unfairly maligned 1976 album Technical Ecstasy, and it was written and sung by drummer Bill Ward. It features absolutely none of the ’70s-era Sabs trademarks: no Ozzy howling, no Tony power chords, no scary Geezer lyrics. While subsequent history demonstrated that Black Sabbath could function reasonably well without at least two of those things (most especially when the late lamented Ronnie James Dio was penning and keening the words), nothing else in the catalog gave any inkling of a hint that the band could have made a go as sweet middle-of-the-road balladeers. Had this one gotten single release, it might could have followed Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed” onto the short list of shocking rockers impressing the adult contemporary crowd, lucratively.  My verdict: I love it. It’s a stone cold classic cut.

The Grateful Dead, “France”: When I considered the Dead’s formidable catalog, the anomalous studio songs that immediately popped to mind were Donna Jean Godchaux’s compositions and solo spotlights “From The Heart of Me” and “Sunrise,” just because it’s unusual to hear her on her own given the group’s normal sausage party mix on the vocal front line. But those songs did get some live workouts, and when you hear them that way, with the usual noodling and doodling, it’s clear it’s the Dead you’re dealing with. So for me, the biggest outlier in their canon ends up being “France,” a cut from 1978’s Shakedown Street that was so very ennnnggghhhh from the git-go that the group never once bothered to take it to the stage. Never! The song also bears the very unusual writing credit of Hart-Hunter-Weir, and it seems that those three formidable composers somehow sort of neutralized each other when they put their chops in one place at one time. The Dead were collaborating with Lowell George and his friend, Cocaine, at this stage in their development, and “France” sounds like (at best) some deep album cut by George’s Little Feat, or (probably more approximately) like something you might hear at a Margaritaville happy hour, on a Monday night. My verdict: I don’t hate it, because it’s too harmless to inspire that level of emotion, and I don’t know if I would skip it if it came up on the stereo, because I haven’t been able to get past the studio “Good Lovin'” that opens Shakedown since about 1980. The most memorable thing about “France” is its forgetability . . . one hour after I type this paragraph, I will not be able to remember how it goes.

Steely Dan, “Dallas”: Before their smash hit debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972), Steely Dan released a single with the Walter Becker/Donald Fagen composition “Dallas” on the A-side, backed with their “Sail the Waterway.” It was definitely pressed, it was definitely released to radio . . . and then it vanished. Becker and Fagen disavowed it from their catalog, on the only other quasi-official re-release that it ever received under the band’s name was on a four-song bargain EP called (sensibly) Four Tracks From Steely Dan, which ABC Records released for reasons mysterious in the Royal Scam to Aja era. That’s where I heard it the first time. It’s a sweet, sweet country song with lead vocals by Jim Hodder, who also sang the stellar “Midnight Cruiser” on Thrill, and was the first member of the original band to get the big heave-ho a year or so later. So atypical-Dan is “Dallas” in its style and structure that MOR country rockers Poco even managed a credible cover of it in 1975. My verdict: I love, love, love it. Hodder did some session work after the Dan, then died in a swimming pool. Based on this cut and “Midnight Cruiser” alone, he’s one of my favorite singers.

Captain Beefheart, “Captain’s Holiday”: A good number of songs on this list (e.g. “Mother” and “Who Dunnit?”) earn their spots because they’re far more abrasive and offputting than their creators’ usual fare. This is the opposite case. “Captain’s Holiday” is from Captain Beefheart’s widely loathed (and not without reason) 1974 album Bluejeans & Moonbeams. The core of his original Magic Band had bailed on him after their prior album, Unconditionally Guaranteed, and the group of largely anonymous sessioneers assembled to replace them have come to be known as “The Tragic Band” for their work on the notably unremarkable Bluejeans. Although he later denied it, the general critical consensus is that Beefheart was trying to offset years of penury by crafting a radio-ready, easy-to-digest record. While a couple of tracks bear the lyrical or vocal quirks that define the man, most of this record is pap, with “Captain’s Holiday” standing as the most egregious of the lot, as the song’s title pretty much tells you exactly what it is: Captain Beefheart did not write it, he barely appears on it (possibly only tootling a little harmonica), while lead vocals are by a group of women, singing such lines as “Oooh Captain, Captain, play your magic note.” That’s quite a step backwards from (say) “Her little head clinking like a barrel of red velvet balls, full past noise, treats filled her eyes, turning them yellow like enamel coated tacks, soft like butter hard not to pour.” (“Pena,” from 1969’s epic Trout Mask Replica). My verdict: This is a terrible song. Truly the worst anomaly in the Beefheart canon.

The Fall, “Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes”: I’m sticking with the esoteric side of things here, noting that the late Mark E. Smith’s long-running Fall group arguably took significant inspiration from Captain Beefheart’s catalog (they once covered his “Beatle Bones ‘n’ Smokin’ Stones” on one of their many Peel Sessions), though not likely from Bluejeans & Moonbeams. The Fall covered a lot of sonic turf over the years, and Mark E. Smith’s voice is so very distinctive that the easiest way to pick an epic Fall anomaly might seem to be to focus on one of the small number of tracks sung by other members of the group. But I’m going to take a different tack, and pick this jazzbo number from 2000’s The Unutterable album. Yep, that’s definitely Mark singing, no doubt about it. But is that a jazz flute accompanying him? Or worse yet, a synth jazz flute? And did that irascible Northern poet really just sing about how pumpkin soup and mashed potatoes keep his bowels regular? I think it was, and I think he did. And I think most Fall fans tend to avert their gazes and pretend they didn’t hear what you said when you mention it to them. A later incarnation of the band returned to vaguely jazz-informed stylings more successfully, to these ears, with 2008’s “Alton Towers,” a weirder and wiggier beast, and therefore far more popular with the Falloisie, of course. But “Pumpkin Soup” still stands alone, and mostly despised. My verdict: I like it, and it’s always nice to hear Mark and company seeming to have fun. It’s catchy and it makes me smile, and that should be good enough on some plane, right?

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “T-Bone”: And on the subject of mashed potatoes: Mark E. Smith is happy to have them; Neil Young, not so much. Neil has covered so much stylistic ground over the years that a lot of songs in his catalog could qualify for biggest “Huh?” factor in his collection (I was also thinking about “We R In Control” from Trans, for example), but I think this greasy slab from 1981’s re-ac-tor album is the one most likely to raise hackles, and the most likely to invoke the “skip” button when it comes on. If it comes on. I doubt it does very often. The skuzzy riff is pure Crazy Horse, sure, and it’s got one of Neil’s trademark one-finger/one-string guitar solos, so nothing out of line there (except that re-ac-tor is recorded with such a teeth-grindingly brittle sound that is almost hurts at high volume), but the lyrics and the length of the song are what truly try the patience of the folks who might be hoping for a little “Harvest Moon” when they see Neil pop up on the playlist. Here’s the complete lyric sheet: “Got mashed potatoes. Ain’t got no t-bone.” Now repeat. For over nine minutes. My verdict: I distinctly remember the very first time I heard this song, after walking into a record store in the Jacksonville (North Carolina) Mall when the record was new. It stopped me in my tracks, and I stood there by the cash register waiting for it to run its course, which got increasingly awkward for me and the cashier alike as it went on and on and on. I loved it then, and I love it now, and re-ac-tor is the very best of all possible Neil Young albums. There. I said it. Let’s fight.

Joni Mitchell, “The Jungle Line”: Joni Mitchell’s 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns opens with “In France They Kiss On Main Street,” which wouldn’t have felt stylistically out of place on Court and Spark, her prior, most commercially-successful studio album. I’m sure many, many fans of her work just loved “France” when they spun Hissing for the first time, happy that they were gonna get another fine collection of Joni’s sweet folk-rock magic. And then “The Jungle Line” happens: four-plus minutes of Burundi drums, Moog synth squiggles, and Joni singing a melody line with a tonal structure that might have pleased Arnold Schoenberg, but not likely many fans of “A Free Man in Paris.” Joni pushed her jazz chops ever-harder after Hissing with varying degrees of success over her next three studio albums (Hejira in 1976, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter in 1977, and Mingus in 1979) before returning to more pop-flavored fare with 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast. Despite a wide variety of wild and weird throughout her jazz period, the majority of the music is all recognizably part of the jazz canon, or the pop canon, or the folk canon, or some combination of the three. “The Jungle Line” stands alone, and there’s not much of anything, anywhere, that sounds quite like it, for better or for worse. My verdict: I like the concept and the forward-looking experimental vision better than I like the execution. I’ll usually get all the way through it when it spins, but not always. Which is weird, because I love African drums, and I love Moogs, and I love atonality, and I love Joni . . . but the disparate pieces just don’t quite hold together in any meaningful way for me.

The Pogues, “Lorelei”: The Pogues were a true force of nature when they blasted out of London with their shambolic Celtic Punk debut album Red Roses for Me in 1984. They moved from strength to strength over the next five years, both onstage and in the studio, but by 1989, singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan’s punishing drinking regimen had begun to take its toll on his creativity and performing capabilities, and other members of the band stepped up to try to fill the gaps that their snaggle-toothed frontman opened for them. Most of the tunes penned by other band members on 1989’s Peace and Love and 1990’s Hell’s Ditch were recognizably Poguey, and MacGowan was still singing the lion’s share of them. By 1993, though, MacGowan had withdrawn, and penny-whistle player Spider Stacy took over as lead vocalist on Waiting for Herb, offering a similar slurry, shouty style, on mostly similar slurry, shouty Irish-infused post-punk songs. The group pushed on without MacGowan and a few other founding/long-term members through 1996, but the shtick got old, and the band members went their separate ways soon thereafter. But right in that cusp between the original inspired piss and vinegar days and the tired post-MacGowan afterlife, guitarist Philip Chevron (since deceased) penned and sang lead vocals on “Lorelei,” a big-sounding, guitar-stoked, plaintive rock ballad, recorded with nary a tin whistle nor cittern nor banjo nor accordion to let you know that it had any conceptual ties to the rest of the Pogues’ catalog. Guaranteed to make a casual, first-time listener wonder if the CD player didn’t somehow auto-skip to the next record during that Pogues playlist. My verdict: An utterly killer song that I never grow tired of, one of the most played in our family playlists since I started keeping track of such things over a decade ago. But I almost think of it as a Chevron solo song, so far removed it is from everything else that this group did and stood for.

Paul McCartney, “Temporary Secretary”: I opened this by noting that I am on Team Phil, and I close by noting that Paul is my favorite Beatle, and that I love Wings and listen to them more than I spin the Beatles anymore, and that I see some goodness in just about everything that Paul does musically, always. Classic case in point: “Silly Love Songs,” which seems to make a lot of folks apoplectic for its lyrical content and lite disco beats, but Jeezum Krow, listen to that bass!! That’s a six-minute “Here’s how you do it” clinic for the kids with the four-string guitars. That said, there are certainly a lot of eye-rolling moments in Paul’s catalog, especially in the early Wings days with things like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Bip Bop” and “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” and suchlike. But they’re all obviously Paul (and Linda), and they obviously bear the usual guitar, bass, drum, and/or piano-based arrangements of his work at the time. And most of the time before and since. In 1981, though, after Paul’s weed arrest in Japan put Wings to sleep for the last time, Paul issued McCartney II, marketed in title (if not really in reality) as his second solo disc. Paul plays and sings everything on it, bar some incidental vocals from Linda. A good friend of mine bought this when it came out, spun it once, and told I didn’t have to buy my own copy, because I could have his, so terrible was it. It’s heavily electronic, has but one marginal hit, “Coming Up,” which was actually released in a live format featuring Wings to make it more palatable, and it has a lot of dogdy lyrics and wanky instrumental bits. If there’s one song that Macca fans know well from it, and usually hate, it’s “Temporary Secretary.” With nasal singing, misogynistic lyrics, and sequenced backing tracks, it’s about as far from “Yesterday” or “Hey Jude” as one can get. It’s also a sound that Paul’s never revisited, hence me picking it as this great artist’s greatest anomaly. My verdict: I love it, of course. Duh.

So there you go, ten truly atypical songs, most of which I like in varying degrees. Because me. Hit me with other weirdo suggestions in the comment section. I’ll listen to them all. And probably like them as well.

3 thoughts on “A Most Atypical Song (Or Ten)

  1. A couple months ago, I was trying to remember who did this song, and it was such a surprise when I looked it up, so maybe it belongs here:

    Rolling Stones: Waiting on a Friend

    • That is s good one. Sweet and gentle. I considered this one for the Stones too.

      Not only does it not sound like anything else by them, it also sort of stands alone in its spooky weirdness and swampy vibe. (I love it, of course).

  2. Pingback: What’s Up in the Neighborhood, August 24, 2019 – Chuck The Writer

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