Sunday, July 25, 2010

November 17, 2009: What’s My Name? : 20 Great Songs in which the Artists Name-Check Themselves

Since its birth, Rock & Roll has always been about the big boast. “Ooooh, my car is so fast, my dick is so big, my dance moves are so slick, my sounds are so righteous…” and so on and so on. A few artists have actually had the audacity to give themselves props by name—sometimes specifically, sometimes cagily. I can’t explain why, but I love it when singers do this. It gives me the same half-mast thrill as when a film’s title is mentioned in the movie or when a singer mentions an album title in a song that isn’t the title track of the album. Maybe it’s the flash of familiarity that makes these things fun: “Hey… I know who that ‘Bo Diddley’ guy you’re singing about is! It’s you!” So here are 20 little thrills in which the artists name-check themselves in one way or another.

1. “Bo Diddley by Bo Diddley (1955)

When it comes to artists who like to sing about themselves, Bo Diddley is the king. He wrote and sang songs with titles such as “Bo Diddley”, “Hey! Bo Diddley”, “Bo Diddley is a Lover”, “Bo Diddley is an Outlaw”, “Bo Diddley is Loose”, “Bo Diddley is Crazy”, “Bo Diddley Put the Rock in Rock and Roll”, “Bo Diddley Vamp”, “Bo Diddley’s Dog”, “Bo Meets the Monster”, and “Diddley Daddy”. And that’s a mere sampling. Bo Diddley was singing the praises of Bo Diddley as early as his very first single, “Bo Diddley”. Not only is the man’s yen for self-referencing on full display here, but so is the monumental “shave-and-a-haircut” beat he’d recycle as many times as he’d sing his own name.

2. “Pretty Thing” by The Pretty Things (1965)

When Bo Diddley wasn’t singing about Bo Diddley he was giving other artists opportunities to sing about themselves. The Pretty Things pulled the neat trick of naming themselves after an early hit by the Diddley Daddy, then covering that very song for their
eponymous debut. For those keeping score, that makes this “Pretty Thing” by The Pretty Things from the album The Pretty Things.

3. “I’m Just a Mops” by The Mops (1968)

This burst of Mersey-beat-influenced pop was pretty out of time in psychedelic ’68, but such matters were probably of little concern to The Mops. “I’m Just a Mops” is a great big, blissful mess by a Japanese outfit who were clearly enamored with the “Yeah Yeah Yeah”-era Beatles, but didn’t bother to hire a professional translator to convert their lyrics into English. Yet statements like “Everybody see we gonna be, we gonna be a star / and then you will know mops is a style, yes it true” just add to the charm of this infectious explosion of energy and elated self-aggrandizing. Yes it true.

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4. “The Fat Angel” by Jefferson Airplane (1969)

Like The Pretty Things’ “Pretty Thing”, this is another cover, but unlike that song, “The Fat Angel” was specifically written as a tribute to the name-checked band. In fact, Donovan’s “The Fat Angel” is a two-for-one tribute: the title refers to Mama Cass Elliott; the third chorus refers to that motley horde of San Francisco miscreants, Jefferson Airplane. Donovan originally recorded “The Fat Angel” for his third album Sunshine Superman. The Airplane covered it definitively on their freaky live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head. My favorite part of the recording is when Paul Katner first sings “Fly, Jefferson Airplane,” and some lone concertgoer answers it with an affirmative whistle. That dude was totally thinking, “Am I the only one who picked up on that?”

5. “In the Court of the Crimson King” by King Crimson (1969)

Don’t be confused by the switcheroo they pull in the title. The “Crimson King” in question is just a sneaky shuffling of “King Crimson”. I’m guessing that the court over which he’s presiding is Hell, as “King Crimson” is one of the Devil’s many nicknames. I’ll have to rely on that theory because the lyrics are basically a bunch of inscrutable prog-rock bullshit about fire witches and purple pipers and dancing puppets. Still this is a powerful hunk of prog, and if The Crim’s main directive was to scare the shit out of their fans, they couldn’t have done better than this self-referencing anthem.

6. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” by Black Sabbath (1973)

Oh, those Black Sabbath scamps. They write a song called “Black Sabbath”, yet never actually reference themselves in it. That’s OK. I’m perfectly happy to settle for “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, which is a better song, anyway. This is as fitting an anthem for the perpetually glum godfathers of metal as “In the Court of the Crimson King” was for the demons of prog. Ozzy jam-packs the number with all the Sabbath tropes: fruitless revenge fantasies; even fruitlesser attempts to flee from some nameless, approaching evil; references to Hell and nightmares and “hands of doom”. By the time he starts shouting “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” you know just whom he’s talking about. He’s talking about himself, Daddy-O. And maybe Geezer Butler.

7. “Killer Queen” by Queen (1974)

I’ve never been a big Queen fan. A lot of their stuff was too goofily bombastic. “Radio Ga Ga”, “We are the Champions”, and “We Will Rock You” make me cringe, but Queen has such a wide range of material that a few of their wittier songs still appeal to a non-fan such as myself. My personal favorite is their duet with Bowie on “Under Pressure”, but “Killer Queen” is a pretty great one, too. It’s a jaunty little soft shoe with a buttery vocal by Freddie Mercury, who once explained that the killer queen in question is a “high-class call girl.” That Queen name-checks themselves in a ditty about a hooker falls more into the “witty” camp than the “goofily bombastic” one.

8. “Little Johnny Jewel” by Television (1975)

Two years before Television released their monumental debut album Marquee Moon, they put out this seven-minute epic spread over two sides of a 7” single. “Little Johnny Jewel” is not only the auspicious first recorded display of Tom Verlaine’s heart-stopping guitar work, which Patti Smith famously compared to “a thousand bluebirds screaming,” but it’s one of the neater name-checks on this list. That’s because the self-reference is concealed in a homophone. See if you can spot it: “Now Little Johnny Jewel / Oh, he’s so cool / He has no decision / He’s just trying to tell a vision.” Get it? Get it? “Tell a vision”? “Television”? Oh, forget it.

9. “All This and More” by The Dead Boys (1977)

The Dead Boys were semi-adopted by the punks, although they were just as much a crude-for-crude’s-sake cock-rock outfit. These two poles are well represented on their bizarrely boastful “All This and More”, in which Stiv Bators spouts a load of “I’m gonna do you, baby!” clichés while reminding the object of his affection that he’s a “dead boy.” It’s like the national anthem of the Benevolent Order of Necrophiliac Aerosmith Fans. All of this sleazy, sleazy sleaze is pumped out over a greezy guitar lick and strutting rhythm, making the unsavory statement unexpectedly palatable—much like The Dead Boys, themselves.

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10. “Motörhead” by Motörhead (1977)

Motörhead wasted no time in telling the world that they were Motörhead and you’d better not fucking forget it. Lemmy Kilmister had been given the sack by the freaky prog-rock combo Hawkwind in May 1975 for doing un-sanctioned drugs (he preferred amphetamines to the band’s beloved hallucinogens) and immediately formed the speed-rock group named after the final song he penned for Hawkwind. Motörhead recorded “Motörhead” in ’75, but the single did not get released until the Chiswick label picked it up in ’77. It blended in nicely with that year’s onslaught of punk issues, but would have stuck out like a big, bloody, sore thumb had it been released closer to the date of its recording. In any event, “Motörhead” effectively laid bare the Motörhead agenda in a song for and about speed freaks: “I should be tired and all I am is wired / ain’t feel this good for a hour / Motörhead, remember me now.” Don’t worry, Lemmy. We’ll remember.

11. “Ramona” by The Ramones (1977)

Images of Joey Ramone dolled up in lipstick and a poodle skirt spring to mind every time I hear this gender-flipping self-referencer. “This one’s a stretch,” you say? Well, I contend that The Ramones wouldn’t have written “Ramona” had the band been called, say, The Steves or The Arthurs. The song starts with a name-check for each member of the band (“Hey, Johnny, hey, Dee Dee, Little Tom and Joey / You Know we’re gonna go over sweet, sweet Little Ramona”) before celebrating the boys’ number-one fan. Little Ramona is a reflection of the group, so her name is no accident, and “Ramona” is one of the most thoroughly self-referential tunes on this list.

12. “Clash City Rockers” by The Clash (1978)

The riff may allude to The Who’s “I Can’t Explain”, but the lyrics are all about the boys making this noise. As part of their “bringing our righteous message to the street” stance, The Clash occasionally referred to themselves in song so there was no mistaking the messengers. The communiqué in “Clash City Rockers” is just a basic introduction to the Clash ethos— a sort of Punk Rock “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees”. They would get a bit more specific on their pet issues—the Sandinista insurgency in Nicaragua, the dire state of inner-city ghettoes, U.S atrocities in Vietnam— on “This is Radio Clash” a few years later, but that single didn’t rock as hard as “Clash City Rockers”.

13. “Rich Kids” by The Rich Kids (1978)

After Johnny Rotten made the dumb-ass move of kicking Glen Matlock out of The Sex Pistols—reportedly because Matlock was a Beatles fan!—the band lost their only capable songwriter and never produced another record. Whatever. Matlock went on his merry way and put together The Rich Kids, a band that surely did not have the cultural impact of the Pistols, but made more interesting and eclectic music as far as I’m concerned. Matlock’s fondness for melody propels the power-popping “Rich Kids” with healthy support from some Keith Richards-inspired guitar riffs. The bubble-gummy sentiment “I’m talkin’ ‘bout rich kids; guys too much for you / We got so much feeling and something special to do” doesn’t have the righteous angst of “God Save the Queen”, but the song is a lot more hummable.

14. “Who Are You” by The Who (1978)

When you call your band a word as common as “Who” it’s inevitable you’ll be singing your own name from time to time. But there’s no mistaking the self-referential nature of their last hit with Keith Moon. The Who loved using sly plays on their name as album titles, and Who Are You is the most intriguing of these. The title suggests a question, but where’s the question mark? As it’s punctuated, Who Are You is a proclamation to their fans: we are you. The Who were flawed and human and obsessed with Rock & Roll in a way that aligned them with fans in ways that superhuman heroes like The Beatles and The Stones could never be. “Who Are You” chronicles one of Pete Townshend’s a less-than-shining moments, a night on which he drunkenly tore up a seven-figure royalty check after fighting for it during an eleven-hour meeting, shouted about his own irrelevance to members of The Sex Pistols, and passed out in an alley. Not all songs in which the artists sing about themselves are boastful.

15. “The Adverts” by The Adverts (1979)

The Adverts made the fatal mistake of following their super-charged debut with A Cast of Thousands, an album that—shudder!—showed signs of growth and maturity. Bad punks! How dare you embellish your songs, which are uniformly excellent, with keyboards, choirs, and acoustic guitars! Although The Adverts’ fans left the band in the dust for their blasphemy, TV Smith is still unapologetic about the direction his group took on their sophomore platter, sarcastically writing “we didn’t know that punk rock meant having to make the same record over and over again” in the liner notes to The Adverts Singles Compilation in 1998. 19 years earlier, he was equally unapologetic. In “The Adverts” he informs listeners that although you may be wary of the band’s wild sounds at first, “Pretty soon you’ll be thinking like The Adverts… Things could be worse”. They certainly could be, and you owe it to yourself to hear A Cast of Thousands.

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16. “The Monochrome Set” by The Monochrome Set (1979)

So often when bands give themselves shout-outs in song their boasts are nebulous and not entirely convincing. This isn’t the case with post-punkers The Monochrome Set, who really delineate all the reasons why they’re tops on their self-titled anthem: “I fascinate, infatuate… I’m heaven sent, so eloquent… My rhetoric, so magnetic aesthetically…” Along with explaining their many positive attributes, they inform you, poor listener, why you suck: “You’re dreary, you’re base, deary, your face is weary to me…I’ll nominate you to abominate...” Ummm, I suggest you get your shit together, listener.

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17. “Madness” by Madness (1979)

Madness weren’t quite as self-infatuated as Bo Diddley, but the fact that they released two singles called “Madness” is still worthy of mention. Actually, the second of these was called “Madness (It’s All in the Mind)”, but what kind of asshole pays attention to the parenthetical portion of a song title? Not me. The first of these singles is better than the parentheses-saddled second, which sounds like a refugee from the Dick Tracy soundtrack. The first is a cover of a 1963 A-side by Prince Buster, and it makes fine use of Madness’ mastery of upbeat ska grooves.

18. “Rev Up” by The Revillos (1980)

As it is in “Little Johnny Jewel” and “Ramona”, the name-check in The Revillos’ “Rev Up” is more implied than explicitly stated. But I assure you that you can’t rev-up like this with anyone but the colorful, crazy Revillos, so when they’re revving up on “Rev Up” the “Rev” in the song’s refrain is a direct reference to “Revillos”. Does that make sense? Has this post simply degenerated into incoherent babble? Yes? Well, perhaps I should stand back, shut the fuck up, and let The Revillos speak for themselves. Get ready, get set… Rev Up, motherfucker!

19. “Talk Talk” by Talk Talk (1982)

British New Wavers Talk Talk actually exercised a degree of humble restraint when they released their hit “Talk Talk” in 1982. When the song was originally recorded by The Reaction in 1977 for Beggars Banquet Records’ first release, a compilation called Streets, it was called “Talk Talk Talk Talk”. Apparently, Talk Talk realized covering a song with such a name was overkill and halved the title. Still, there is a total of 84 uses of the word “talk” in their version of the song, so they may not deserve that much credit. It’s still a pretty classic record, though.

20. “In a Big Country” by Big Country (1983)

If you’re gonna call your band Big Country and name your third single “In a Big Country”, you best be prepared to lay down some panoramic shit. It’s to Big Country’s credit that this is exactly what they do on “In a Big Country”. The track stirs up images of fresh-faced Scotch youth traversing a sprawling, open, green countryside... although I may only be saying this because it’s what happens in the music video. Regardless, the lyrics do a fine job of conveying these images: “I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert, but I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime.” Big Country was huge in the UK, but they are generally regarded as one-hit-wonders in the U.S. Too bad for them, but I guess if you’re only going to have one hit, it might as well be a song in which you say the name of your group six times. At least no one will ever forget who recorded it.

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