Saturday, 18 March 2017

Number 8
28 December 1976
Howard Devoto goes ba-dum ba-dum and saves punk rock from itself

Humour in music

Two words. Noel Coward. There was a time when music could be both clever and humourous. Blues, jazz and folk musicians knew the benefit of adding humour to their music if they wanted to keep an audience entertained rather than scratching their chins. The classic lyricists of Broadway and Hollywood wrote songs that combined cleverness and wit in equal measure. From the 1960s onwards there came a separation into serious and humourous artists. The serious musicians sometimes attempted humour with disastrous results (witness "Yellow Submarine" or Cream's "A Mother's Lament"). Humourous musicians were not taken seriously (tragically so in the case of the Bonzo Dog Band's "The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse"). Popular music and its fans became increasingly po-faced. As always, there are exceptions to this but let's focus on earnest young men with beards and flares rather than Ian Anderson in a codpiece and Rick Wakeman in a cape performing on ice.

Music had to be heavy (to achieve heaviosity as Woody Allen had it). Either in its sound or in its meaning. Artists were either heavy or pop. Led Zeppelin were heavy. Dylan was heavy. Neil Young was heavy. Mud and The Sweet were pop. The new groups that came in the wake of The Sex Pistols were to replace this artificial divide with music that was both serious and fun. But at the outset it was not apparent that this would be the case. The initial punk groups out of London like the Pistols, The Damned and The Clash were deadly serious and earnest. The good-time groups, Ramones copyists and bandwagon jumpers like The Vibrators, The Lurkers and The Stranglers, even when they were pretending to be dumb, were not funny just stupid. UK punk rock was angry and raw but nothing more than that.

Howard Devoto

In 1976, Brian Eno-lookalike and Bolton Institute of Technology student, Howard Trafford (who was to rename himself Howard Devoto), wrote some songs together with fellow student and krautrock fan Peter McNeish (who renamed himself Pete Shelley). They had arranged for The Sex Pistols to play in Manchester and Trafford and McNeish wanted to form a band so that they too could play at The Sex Pistols concert. And obviously they needed some songs to play.

Trafford and McNeish had already travelled to London to see some of the punk groups play so they were familiar with the short, sharp nature of the music. It would have been easy for McNeish to produce facsimile copies of the London music as so many other groups were later to do. However, McNeish was a fan of experimental music and managed to produce tunes that were compositionally and melodically interesting. In particular, one song was based on a recurring riff combined with a two note guitar interlude that sounded like something the German experimentalists Faust were producing two or three years earlier. All it needed was for Trafford to sling a few angry phrases together to shout over the top and, presto, another song.

Boredom

Nowhere. Boredom. By the time Jamie Reid used these as destinations for the buses on the back sleeve of The Sex Pistols "Pretty Vacant" single in July 1977 they were already signifiers of punk cliche (although Reid had first used them in 1972 and the Pistols in December 1976). The punks were bored. The Adverts sang about "Bored Teenagers". The Clash said that London was burning with boredom. Punk dilettantes Snatch sang "When I'm Bored". "How Much Longer" moaned Alternative TV like bored kids in the back of the car. Boredom became a pose. Punk bands adopted being bored as a pose, like The Saints on the cover of "(I'm) Stranded".
The (bored) Saints, yesterday
When Howard Trafford wrote a song about boredom his lyric satirised this pose. The scene is hum-drum. London groups complained of being bored yet they lived in London. Imagine studying at Bolton Tech in 1976 if you want to experience real tedium: "I just came from nowhere, and I'm going straight back there".

The one thing punks craved to alleviate their boredom was excitement. Specifically excitement in music. And they were not above adopting rock cliches if they thought this would help. McNeish's music for the song that would become "Boredom" by Buzzcocks contained natural pauses after each refrain. McNeish had a plan for a thrilling, imaginative guitar solo in the middle of the song. Trafford filled the early pauses in the tune by calling out the title of the song. When it came time for McNeish's guitar solo, Trafford had the chance to up the ante and come up with a thrilling rock style statement.

Trafford was an Iggy Pop fan and Iggy had put forth his own thoughts on boredom some years earlier in "No Fun" and "1969" by The Stooges. Imagine what Iggy would have done with a space in the music to be filled by something. A strangulated yelp like in "Down on the Street". A gutteral howl like in "TV Eye". Or that weird cut-off "shdumd" sound he makes into the microphone at the end of "1970". Or all three.

Instead, Trafford makes the crucial move of intoning "Ba-dum ba-dum" in place of "boredom" and introduces wit and humour into punk. It is humorous because it is unexpected. It is playful, substituting a soundalike for the title of the song, for the meaning of the song. It cuts through the expected angst that one anticipates from bored, disaffected youths and harks back to the "Hey-ho" insouciance of childhood. The power to accept the things that you cannot change, la-di-da, fiddle-de-dee, ba-dum ba-dum.

The impact was immediate. The audience understood the ramifications of what Trafford had done. He had greatly expanded the emotional palette of the music. It could be simultaneously angry and funny, clever and dumb. It could pinprick pomposity and posing and other stupidities. It could draw on older and more varied inspirations. Like Noel Coward.

            "The Grand Duke was dancing a foxtrot with me
            When suddenly Cyril screamed "Fiddle-de-dee"
            And ripped off his trousers and jumped in the sea,
            I couldn't have liked it more."

Get bored with The Buzzcocks here.
 
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