Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Things That Suck: '50s Novelty Songs

Ah, the '50s. A decade with something for almost everyone to hate. Liberals hate the '50s as the decade of conformity, McCarthyism, and white picket fences. Conservatives hate the '50s as the decade of big government, over-unionization, and rock n' roll. But what if, like me, you're too wimpy to identify yourself with a political philosophy? Take heart, for there is still another very good reason to hate the '50s: it was the decade of "novelty songs." That may be worse than McCarthyism, come to think of it.

There had always been novelty songs -- songs on silly or wacky topics or built around gimmicks. Think of "Under the Bamboo Tree" or "Mairzey Doats" or "Bongo, Bongo, Bongo (I Don't Want to Leave the Congo)." But for some reason, the genre really came into its own in the early '50s. Maybe the regular avenues of pop music -- love, mostly, requited or unrequited -- had been over-explored and the music industry came to rely more and more on gimmicks to set individual songs and recordings apart. Whatever the reason, the '50s was the golden age of "wacky" songs, some of which are still popular today, e.g. "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." But many, many other novelty hits of this era are not remembered with affection, but with horror. Think "Jingle Bells" by the singing dogs.

The unacknowledged king of novelty songwriting was Bob Merrill, who gave the world "Mambo Italiano," "How Much is that Doggie in the Window," and dozens of others. When Merrill died (by his own hand) at age 76, Mark Steyn's obit in Slate called him "the worst songwriter of all time," the man who "single-handedly produced the worst songs of the decade and so debauched the currency of mainstream Tin Pan Alley that it had no moral authority to resist rock 'n' roll." The piece is remarkably unfair to Merrill, a talented if erratic songwriter who happened to be writing for a particular market; I hope to write at another time about Merrill's Broadway work (which Steyn hardly mentions at all). But it does give a good summary of the terrors of the novelty-song craze:

In those days, Sinatra was a loser. The smart money was on [Mitch] Miller's new discovery, Guy Mitchell--nice kid, pleasant voice, no trouble. Frank didn't want "Sparrow in the Treetop," so Miller gave it to Mitchell, along with "My Truly, Truly Fair," "Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle," "Feet Up (Pat Him on the Po-Po)," "She Wears Red Feathers (And a Hula-Hula Skirt)" and "There's a Pawnshop on the Corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania"--the biggest hit ever written about Pittsburgh.

All six songs were by Bob Merrill, all were arranged with Miller's unrelenting jolliness (whooping French horns throughout), and all were smashes. If Merrill had a yen to write boy-meets-girl, it didn't show: boy-meets-cake, girl-meets-dog, sparrow-meets-treetop ... Pop songs are supposed to be universal--"I Will Always Love You"--but Merrill was specific with a vengeance: Even if you were minded to write a song about a gal who wears red feathers and a huley-huley skirt and lives on jes' cokeynuts, why would you open with the line "I work in a London bank"? It remains, incidentally, the biggest hit ever written about a London banker who meets a hula-hula girl.

Merrill's most-derided song is, of course, "Doggie in the Window," but at least it makes sense. What happens when Merrill writes what amounts to a novelty song for grown-ups -- an attempt to write a bouncy, wacky but "suggestive" song? Well, you get this song, which was recorded by Doris Day:

Some have ginger and some have snap
Some have this'n and some have that,
But my guy, all he's got is
Ooh Bang Jiggly Jang (Boing Boing)
Some have kisses that taste so sweet,
Taste like 'taters or taste like meat
But my guy, what a flavor,
Ooh Bang Jiggly Jang (Boing Boing)
My Bonnie lies over the (Boing Boing)
My Bonnie lies over the
Ooh Bang, Jiggly Jang (Boing Boing)
There's nobody lies like my Bonnie,
But even though my Bonnie lies to me,
I'll forgive him 'cause
Some are charming and some have looks,
Some have money and some read books,
Buy my guy, he's got so much
Ooh Bang Jiggly Jang (Boing Boing).

But let's face it: Bob Merrill gets singled out for ridicule not because he was the worst, but because he was good at writing a bad, evil, misbegotten type of song. There are worse examples, by novelty songwriters who never became as successful. The very worst is the type of novelty song written to exploit a then-current phenomenon. Songs are supposed to have a timeless quality, but this is the kind of song that is absolutely intended to sound even stupider in two years than it sounds now. The one that always sticks in my mind is a song that the veteran lounge reptile Louis Prima recorded just after Sputnik went up:

My baby's going on a trip to the moon,
And she won't be back too soon.
She doesn't write me and I can't sleep,
All I hear from her is BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!...
I wonder if BEEP! means "I miss you,"
And maybe BOOP! means "I want to kiss you,"
I'm hopin' that BLOOP! means "I love you,"
And she's comin' down to earth again.
My baby's up in the stratosphere,
I'm so low 'cause I'm down here.
My love for her is gonna keep
Till she comes back and whispers BEEP BEEP BEEP!

The "beep"s are provided not by the singer but by sound effects apparently borrowed from some recently-wrapped science fiction movie. But really, anything recorded by Louis Prima becomes a bad novelty song even if it wasn't one originally. (And I actually like Louis Prima, in a through-a-drunken-haze sort of way.) Similarly, Mitch Miller's arrangements on recordings and his popular TV show "Sing Along With Mitch" transformed everything into novelty songs: relentlessly perky and with absolutely no connection to human emotion. For an example, take his recording of "Do Re Mi" with the kids from The Sound of Music, included as a bonus track on the Broadway Cast Album. Miller could take any song and make it sound like it could have, nay should have, been "Mama Will Bark."

1 comment:

Pokey said...

Perhaps not QUITE a novelty, but I'm listening to Eddie Fisher & Hugo WInterhalher nad chorus's 1954 best seller "Little Shoemaker"----also recorded by the "Gaylords" trio--who had an even bigger hit---and it's one of a many number of (presumably) 19th century "village job" songs...i.e.in this case a cobbler/shoemaker.

Good article. I enjoy the pre-rock novelties...Incindentally, Record Researcher Joel Whitburn identified "You Call Everybody Darlin'" and "Mairzy Doats"'s "Al Trace" as the composer of "If I Knew you were comin I'd have baked a cake", which Steyn says is a Merrill song, maybe cowritten...imagine if Streisand who reocrded his "People" in 1964 had to sing the 1950s Merrill songs..seems like he wrote all unusual (lyrically or musically) hits of the era that were not remakes.