Saturday, September 11, 2010

Meet the Song of the Day: "The Ostrich" by The Primitives

Even with all those grotesque tales of addiction, decadence, and coprophagia, the weirdest chapter in the Lou Reed myth may be the time he spent as a sub-Tin Pan Alley hack for the Long Island, New York, label Pickwick. The guy best known for penning such freaky excursions as “Heroin”, “Sister Ray”, and “The Murder Mystery” spent time in ’64 and ’65 cranking out made-to-order surf and pop tunes for ex-Phil Spector roommate and wannabe pop mogul Terry Phillips. Phillips paid Reed $25 per day to hole up in a tiny studio with collaborators Jerry Vance and Jimmie Sims and write disposable novelties like “Cycle Annie”, “Johnny Can’t Surf No More”, and “Hot Rod Song”. While one number actually went on to achieve classic status among garage rock fanatics, the great “Why Don’t You Smile Now?” (co-written by future Velvet John Cale) recorded by The All Night Workers in the US and The Downliner’s Sect in the UK, the one that most suggested Reed’s upcoming work was a dance tune begging the listener to “put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it … do The Ostrich!”

Recorded by “The Primitives” (i.e.: Reed but soon to include Cale, guitarist Tony Conrad, and drummer Walter De Maria), “The Ostrich” is notable not only for its bizarre lyrics inspired by an article about the ostrich feather fashion craze, noisy wall-of-sound, and keening harmonies, but for what has become known as Reed’s “ostrich guitar”. This describes a tuning rather than a unique instrument: Reed tuned all his guitar strings to a single note, a technique he’d employ later on the Velvet Underground tracks “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. A live performance of the number at a high school in Leigh Valley, Pennsylvania, inspired a local DJ to shout, “These guys have really got something—I hope it’s not catching!”
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