Thursday, May 27, 2010

Off Script: Who's Funny?

In yesterday's Who post, I discussed a little bit, at the end, The Who's impressive harmonizing skills1. But as someone once said, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture"2; and part of the reason that is so, to my mind, is because we talk about aspects of music — in my own case, I tend to stress lyrics — as though they existed separate from the rest of the music, or, to put it more accurately, from the totality of the integral musical whole, be it song, album, opera, symphony, or chant.

And that's a bit of a shame because no matter how insightful the exegesis, it will still give a false impression because of what it deliberately excludes or unknowingly fails to include. The music itself speaks better than any words about it could.

That caveat in place, I nevertheless intend, in this post and future ones, to go on discussing aspects of The Who's music. There are aspects of their music that I lack the competence and technical expertise to discuss — for example, my observations regarding the actual musical aspects of Who songs are noticeably cursory and rudimentary because I am woefully deficient in knowledge in this area: I love the music but lack the education, training and vocabulary to discuss it in an even halfway intelligent manner. In all likelihood, many of the observations I do make are flat-out wrong or so obvious as to be not worth making. In this post, however, I am going to attempt to address a facet of The Who's music that I think anyone can understand but to which I've been particularly guilty of having given short shrift — viz., the humor of The Who's music3.

As I was exercising this morning, this Pete Townshend demo for a song the Who never recorded came on — "Lazy Fat People" — complete with its penny-whistle lead riffs:

This is not a particularly good song and it is understandable why The Who never recorded it for release. But it is funny.

Here's one from John: "My Wife":

My life's in jeopardy
Murdered in cold blood is what I'm gonna be
I ain't been home since Friday night
And now my wife is coming after me

Give me police protection
Gonna buy a gun so
I can look after number one
Give me a bodyguard
A back belt Judo expert with a machine gun

Gonna buy a tank and an aeroplane
When she catches up with me
Won't be no time to explain
She thinks I've been with another woman
And that's enough to send her half insane
Gonna buy a fast car
Put on my lead boots
And take a long, long drive
I may end up spending all my money
But I'll still be alive

All I did was have a bit too much to drink
And I picked the wrong precinct
Got picked up by the law
And now I ain't got time to think

O, man! I been there!

"I'm a Boy"


This song, incidentally, is the anomaly on The Who by Numbers album, which is not infrequently described as "Pete Townshend's suicide note" because of the bleak and self-lacerating nature of most of the songs' lyrics.

That is just a random sampling of humorous Who songs — there are plenty more where that came from!

1 Obviously The Who were/are successful professional musicians and you might think it kind of a job requirement that they be able to achieve, at the least, competent harmonization. But you could be a pretty successful group and still be borderline incompetent at harmonizing. Listen to the harmonies on just about any Rolling Stone recording, for example. "Let's Spend the Night Together" is my favorite — especially the "doooooooo"s in the middle, many of which are not only ear-abusingly flat, but a few of them seem to come in late — just slightly, but noticeably, off-beat.

If you've misbehaved particularly badly one day and feel you need to punish yourself especially severely to atone, why not listen to the Stones trying to do this song live? Note in that linked example that they don't even assay the middle-of-the-song "dooooo"s. When speaking of the Stones' live harmonizing abilities, it's best just to drop the qualifier "borderline" and head straight to "incompetent". Don't worry: Mick's live lead vocal abilities will already be there to meet you. (If you go to see the Rolling Stones live, it better be to see Mick's dancing, because his live singing, to my ear, invariably blows.)

But "Let's Spend the Night Together" was, and is, a successful song — deservedly so. I myself love it, despite the occasional shaky, even risible, harmonies.

Then, of course, there are other successful groups who did an end-around on competent harmonizing by virtually never doing any — like Led Zeppelin. On their records, Robert Plant occasionally multi-tracks a bit of harmony vocals, but apparently Page, Jones and Bonham were all, for all intents and purposes, just incapable of any singing, much less harmonization.

2 Someone said it first, I suppose, but good luck discovering who. You'll hear it was Thelonious Monk or Louis Armstrong or David Byrne or Elvis Costello or Igor Stravinsky or Frank Lloyd Wright ... or any number of people. It's one of those quotes the first utterance of which everyone wants to attribute to somebody specific but nobody can do so with any authority because when you try to trace the source, you invariably find that either there is no solid evidence that the person credited with the quote ever actually said it or, if she did, the source material clearly shows that she was repeating it as a quote by someone else that she had heard before, not claiming it as an original.

3 I see nothing wrong with discussing humor in the abstract — that can be rewarding and helpful when you're trying to understand or work your way through something — but a humorous thing itself is pretty self-explanatory and nothing — nothing —takes the funny out of something humorous like trying to discuss why it is funny. As an undergraduate English major, I would immediately dismiss as unworthy of being taken seriously as an educator any prof who would hover over, say, a passage in Mark Twain that the class had just collectively guffawed at and ask, "But why is this funny?" ... and then spend the next 15 minutes sucking all the funny out of the passage and, seemingly, all of the air out of the room. I had one dickhead professor who was especially adept at this and I'm pretty sure he ruined for all time the experience of good, humorous literature for more than one student ... and remained smugly oblivious to the fact that he was doing so.

It's hard to overstate how soul-crushingly tedious and painful it is to be enjoying the humor of an essay like Twain's "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" one minute, and then, the next, to be forced to listen to someone anatomize, for a full quarter hour, what allegedly made a particular part of it funny. When you take a funny thing apart, what you are left with are its decidedly unfunny constituent parts, just as when you take an automobile apart you're left with multiple chunks of metal, rubber and plastic that won't transport you anywhere.

There is no better way in the universe to ruin "a good read" for a reader.

4 Hahahahahahaha! As if! I bet no one read this far! You all hit Next post in your Google Reader as soon as you saw it was yet another Who post, didn't you? Hahahahahaha! Don't worry ... I already know no one reads this shit!


  1. This post reminds me of teh joke about the parents going through a divorce and while in court the judge asks the young child what parent he wants to go with....the little child pauses, "I want to live with the Phillies because they don't hit anyone..."

  2. I actually did read the whole thing. Of course, I'm on the clock and anything is better than actually working.

  3. "4 Hahahahahahaha! As if! I bet no one read this far! You all hit Next post in your Google Reader as soon as you saw it was yet another Who post, didn't you? Hahahahahaha! Don't worry ... I already know no one reads this shit! "

    You lose. But then, I skipped the Who stuff, and maybe there was some Phillies stuff in there too, and went straight to the footnotes. I'm waiting for the day when there's a post where there are only a few words of blog, and a huge number of long, soul searching, explanatory, kertwanging footnotes.

  4. I'm dancing about some architecture right now (well, actually, a second ago, because I can't type and dance at the same time).

    Analyzing comedy is one of the things I do and also one of the reasons it's blasted hard to get me to laugh. The worst book on comedy was Freud's, the second a French philosopher whose name's escaping me... starts with a "B"... wrote about time as non-discreet endurance..., the third anything written by Paul Reiser, like "Couplehood."

  5. Andre Breton, I think is who I meant.

  6. btw, I'm hoping you discover Regina Spektor: love to see you spell her name.

    All producers have their idiosyncrasies, Phil Spector just has little else. The Wall of Sound worked well with some artists.

    I liked Steve Lilliewhite as a producer until someone pointed out he just put drum WAY up in the mix. Now that's all I hear.