The Importance of Having a Laugh
Ned Raggett on the Squirrels
We all have our examples – the bands we love to laugh at because they suck. Just now I was reminded of this glorious bunch of idiots who are bold but still ridiculous, the Italian band Rhapsody, who are Dungeons and Dragons prog-metal par excellence. I like them in a weird way because it takes a certain something to be completely, totally un-cool and just do what you love, but that's about the extent of it because they're just completely, awfully insane.
But what about the bands who are out to intentionally make you laugh and put a smile on your face? And why are they seen as even more un-cool by many?
There's no real answer to this and I can't pretend to be innocent of some great crime – not that it's a great crime anyway, by any standard. Still, when the gurning idiots in the Barenaked Ladies hove into my view a while back, I was so happily and thoroughly tempted to throw rocks at them should they have ever have materialized in front of my face at any juncture. Thankfully they didn't, teleportation technology being slightly rusty in the early nineties and not much better now.
But then other names come to mind, "Weird" Al Yankovic, They Might Be Giants, Dread Zeppelin, folks who don't have any real connection at all besides they fact that they use guitars and one way or another are anxious to use to humor overtly, who are inviting you to laugh, not necessarily every second but more often than not. The implication, though, is that these aren't bands to take seriously or enjoy seriously – there's long been an idea that somehow, in some ways, people who like them aren't actually serious about music at all, that it's music for nerdish accountants in training, for computer programmers to enjoy in between tapes of Monty Python. Even "Weird" Al, whose decade-long career has turned him into a downright national institution, can't quite escape this tag still – witness the truly horrible joke The Onion made at his expense after the honestly tragic death of his parents due to a home accident. For a long time Devo seemed like the noble exception and maybe still is in some corners.
Serious artists – be they earnest Springsteens or meta-celebrity Britneys, seen in a thankfully increasingly expansive critical light that allows for everything and anything sonically – are the ones who get the praise for, well, being serious artists, whether its adherence to craft or revamping avant-garde touches into pop songs or being 'proper' rock stars, throwing the right tantrums at the right places. Someone who comes in free of angst, eager to please, aiming to raise a smile on your face – it just seems wrong for some, whether your favorite tortured artist of choice is Jim Morrison ralphing on stage or Xtina recreating Showgirls. Hip-hop thankfully allows for humor and good times but it's interesting how often that it has to be accompanied by a persona that still has to be anti-nerd somehow – 50 Cent created a party anthem of 2003 in "In Da Club" even though he sounds like shit. Apparently the bullets meant more than the delivery.
The strange thing is that most bands in this general vein are actually among the most open-minded pop listeners out there – in ways, they have to be. Long before rockism vs. pop-ism became the circular debate of RockCritVille in 2004, someone like Spike Jones was listening to everything from grand opera to bluegrass to weepy mid-century pop ballads and pulverizing them completely. Under the guise of humor, he and his musicians were demonstrating that the advantages of broad-minded listening were apparent, largely because then the possibility of entertaining just about everyone possible was apparent.
"Weird" Al Yankovic is no stranger to this, of course – his career is based on identifying trends and locking onto pop hits that almost by default end up defining a place and time. Then there's Rob Morgan, merry minstrel of Seattle, who has led his band the Squirrels in various guises for over twenty years now – you can find out more about him at Poplust and you should. Rob has often described what the Squirrels do as "Frank Zappa meets a high school dance band" – and it's a telling comparison, because a high school dance band, a prom band, a wedding band, whoever and whatever, needs to be up on the hits, aware of what's getting people going, ready to play requests at the drop of a hat. Again, broadmindedness – and not simply by default, not just because.
In mid-December, for the third time in four years, I journeyed to Seattle to see the Squirrels do their legendary Christmas show. They've been doing this for fifteen years now and since the band doesn't tour – Rob told me once, "We've got one freak fan in every city, maybe, but that's not enough to support a touring band!" – that means up the coast from Orange County I go. Their regular standards for the Christmas show include smashing the lyrics of "Up on the Housetop" with the riff from "Smoke on the Water" and interpolating "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" into "Rhiannon" so perfectly I prefer it to the Fleetwood Mac original. But among the other highlights of this show and other recent shows include a great vocal riff by Rob on the chorus of Pink's "Get This Party Started" and suddenly transforming the Baha Men's one-hit-wonder into "Who Let the Squirrels Out?"
Perhaps the secret highlight of the show for me was a version of Cher's "Believe," sung by long-time Squirrel Joey Kline. The amount of scathingly crap versions of pop hits by "indie" types, whatever that means these days, is near uncountable – thanks for nothing, Travis. If anything, though, the Squirrels were even more pop, more enjoyable and giddy and ridiculous, than the original, Joey going to town on the vocals with the band in their bizarre Christmas get-ups, humor and entertainment and just plain hilarious fun.
So have a laugh if you want to – of course not every such group dedicated to laughs will work for a listener, but that's no reason to just dismiss them all out of hand. Because if you're too worried about being cooler than them, then the joke's on you.
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