On Vaudeville

People ask me why I keep harping on about vaudeville; 'futuristic' vaudeville, 'sepia-tinted' vaudeville, getting ahead in vaudeville... Why do I insist on playing characters in songs and acting them out onstage? You can't do that on stage any more, they tell me, there is no artistic credibility in vaudeville, it's cheap-shot comedy, leave it to television. Pop and rock are more noble than that, more mysterious and spiritual.

But pop and rock are also heavily formulaic. Generally speaking they do two things. They provide a contractual framework for breeding, a commentary on our amorous dalliances. Hence Britney, Whitney and the gang. Or else they do the art school thing of formalistic experimentation with sounds and textures for their own sake. Hence Autechre, The Beta Band, Stereolab and so on. Lyrics in this case are 'atmospheric', 'surrealistic', or left off altogether.

What's My Motivation Here?

I remember once trying to write a song with Howard Devoto. He wanted to make a duet for himself and a Japanese girl. I started, in my tremendously literal-minded way, to ask the occupations of the characters in the song, their motivations. 'How about this: she's a photographer, sent to interview him...'

But it became clear that Devoto doesn't work that way at all. He works from mysterious phrases he's collected, phrases he pieces together to create something suggestive. I quoted the first line of his song 'Philadelphia': 'Your clean-living clear-eyed clever, level-headed brother says he'll put all the screws upon your newest lover' and said that I'd always wanted that relationship between brothers to be developed in the song and had been slightly disappointed that the characters disappeared after that first line, lost in a succession of impressive but unrelated metaphors and images. It became clear that we had a totally different conception of what songs are.

Like a method actor, I want to ask, when I sing a song, 'What's my motivation here? How does my character relate to other characters in the song? Is he successful or frustrated in his goals? Is he comic or tragic?' If you embody a character in a song, you have a good chance of hitting on universal archetypes and making things that people will remember or identify with. Like the man who seduces other people's girlfriends while pretending to be gay in The Homosexual, or the hero raised to die young in Bishonen. It's essential that these are not just pop songs, but narratives with consistent characters, personalities who could easily be typecast undergoing a series of events which could easily be storyboarded.

It really surprises me that so few people approach pop writing in this way. It's so much fun, for a start. I love acting out characters and their adventures on stage. It's exactly like the kind of games I played as a child. My characters killed each other, had sex with each other, shouted, made threats, had their own theme tunes (like the characters in Prokoviev's 'Peter and the Wolf'), made entrances and exits. Some were animals (Cruel Ribit was a frog) some humans (Mr Gravy was a shop-keeper). Some were satirical portraits of living people, others pure figments of my imagination. It was important that these games were farcical and funny, to make my brother and sister laugh and want to join in. It was also important that any adults in the area were excluded, so we used slang and cartoon violence to repell them. These games weren't supposed to teach responsibility or educate in any way. They were totally anarchistic.

The Archies On Speed and Hate

I've never been to a real vaudeville theatre and seen the acts there. I've read books about it, I've seen pantomimes or heard satirical radio programmes. And I've heard rock music influenced by vaudeville: The Beatles' 'Sgt Pepper', David Bowie's 'Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars'. These are often described as concept albums, a term which smacks of art school and Marcel Duchamp, but they seem to me much closer to vaudeville. The idea of taking an archetypal character and playing him out on stage.

In pop music, if you play a character, you're pretty much expected to stick with that your whole career. It's meant to be a slightly larger, more brightly-coloured version of you. It's meant to overlap enough with your real personality that you can, for instance, play 'George Michael' or 'Prince' in interviews as well as songs. What you're not encouraged to do is play as many different characters as an actor does, or to maintain an ironic, ambivalent or critical distance between yourself and the character you're playing. Hence the unintelligent critiques of Momus as a necrophile, child abuser and serial pervert in (usually, sigh) The New Musical Express. The NME is like those women's magazines who put soap stars on the cover and interview the actors as though they were the characters they portray on television.

But if you fail to allow performers to be other than the characters they play, you knock a whole dimension out of the artform which is pop music. You start demanding a dull (and usually synthetic) sincerity instead of encouraging irony, playfulness, comedy and adventure.

All the best things in British pop have had a pantomime or vaudeville element. McLaren's Pistols 'frigging in the rigging', Ziggy Stardust and Boy George, Adam and the Ants, Morrissey, they could all have fallen off the bus during some British Variety Guild coach tour. (At this point I hear a chorus of establishment voices crying 'McLaren ruined the Pistols, by the time they started frigging in the rigging it was a lurid vaudeville joke!' To which I respond 'To me they were always cartoons, the Archies on speed and hate. Don't drag sincerity into this!')

Nazis and Jesus

My personal route to vaudeville goes like this. I remember satirical TV shows in the 60s like Rowan and Martin's Laugh In, where a naughty little girl would sing:

Nobody told me that I shouldn't paint the baby
Nobody told me that I shouldn't mow the carpet...
So I did!

And then a Nazi would pop up and say 'Very eenteresteeng!' Following the fake Nazi trail (there are a lot of them in vaudeville, all the way down to Analog Baroque's very own Mister Swenson), we have to mention 'The Producers' by Mel Brooks, with songs like 'Springtime For Hitler' or 'Cabaret' with Joel Gray's decadent and amoral routines. Or Serge Gainsbourg circa 'Rock Around The Bunker'.

I was also marked for life by seeing Jake Thackray on That Was The Week That Was, responding to the week's events, making up a song pretty much as a newspaper cartoonist would draw a topical cartoon. Later, when I discovered Georges Brassens, I realised where Thackray was coming from. Brassens saw songs as a way to correct social injustices with laughter. His 'The Gorilla' (about a hanging judge anally raped by an escaped gorilla) is still shocking, still the ultimate gesture of defiance towards unjust authority.

Tom Lehrer also figures pretty big in my vaudeville pantheon. Taking the Periodic Table Of The Elements and turning it into a song is total genius, and songs like 'The Sado-Masochism Tango' and 'Poisoning Pigeons In The Park' more or less define the style of moral provocation which I later made my own with songs like 'Hotel Marquis De Sade' and 'The Poisoners'.

Oddly enough, I think The Velvet Underground are not a million miles from the 60s satire movement. Obviously Venus In Furs and Heroin are provocative in their refusal to take a moral stance. But you could also make a case for songs like 'Jesus' being a sort of moral provocation. And Lou Reed's early experience working in a Tin Pan Alley song factory means that there's a real element of sarcastic pastiche in his later songs. They mock conventions even while tapping into their emotional power. The Velvet Underground are a kind of satirical metapop.

Hitler, Jesus, these are the figures who loom large in the vaudeville / satire tradition, because they represent authority. And vaudeville, irreverent and yet fascinated by the power conferred by dressing up, can't resist apeing and sending up the powerful and pompous. Think Chaplin in The Great Dictator, think Brecht in Arturo Ui.

Jesus dominated my early 70s in the form of dire rock operas by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, which satirised the hippy and Marxist youth movements of the time. The character of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar uses heavy rock and radical posturing in much the same way that David Bowie uses it in Ziggy: it's in quotation marks. It's as if rock is just too hot for the British to handle. It doesn't belong to us, we can't use it sincerely and simply channel Satan, we have to quote it, ironise it, put in a bit of Brechtian alienation.

The King Of The Swingers Is An Ape

The biggest influence on me from that period, though, has to be the rock opera Hair. Looking back, it's weird that the hippy period will be remembered by a satire on its values, but then again, perhaps satire is always doomed to incarnate the very values it seeks to problematise. After all, we now know about the poets of early renaissance Florence thanks to Dante's attempt to put them in his satirical hell, and the minor poets of the 18th century through Pope's 'Dunciad'.

I've always loved songs out of context, songs that pop up in the middle of a Shakespeare play or in the credit sequence of a movie like 'What's New Pussycat?' There's another satirist-turned-exemplar, a crooner trying to ape the slang of the swingers... and yet now, thanks to typecasting, we see Tom Jones as one of the very swingers he was mocking, a sort of proto-Austin Powers. In the same way, we commemorate whacky 60s pop groups with The Monkees, who were in fact a satirical construct, a meta-pop group made up of actors. Satire, by focusing on the most archetypal and parodic elements in a movement, becomes a distillation of its most salient features. It's perfect for time capsules, a concentrated essence of the spirit of an era which is so exaggerated that, in the future, even idiots, foreigners and children will be able to grasp it.

So are we likely to remember grunge by Bush rather than Nirvana? No, because Bush are copyists rather than satirists. Satire is always intelligent, it tends to look down (affectionately) on the things it mocks. 'I can do that,' it says, 'and I can make it look as stupid as it actually is'. It's smart, university-educated people looking at popular culture, loving it and wanting to be part of it, yet unable to forget how stupid it all is. And satire is the way such people have their cake and eat it. History tends to be written by people like them (not just academic historians, but also the people who programme the retro TV channels and make up the documentaries), so popular culture is always going to be skewed to metapop rather than pop, satire rather than authenticity.

You have to be careful not to dismiss intelligence, though, in your attempts to champion the aboriginal and the primitive. It's possible that even the rawest blues singers were actually pastiching and satirising an even more primal set of blues artists who never recorded. It's possible (I put it no more strongly) that even that digeridoo recording you have in your collection is the work of a cunning satirist who didn't believe in the ancestor spirits and was simply taking the ethnologists for a ride.

Rob Wilton: Better Than Drugs

Being any kind of entertainer, you have to be smart and opportunistic. The public get quickly bored, so sticking to your stylistic guns is not the thing to do. You have to know how to betray, abjure, and change to keep people interested. To the extent that you're good at that, you're essentially a pastiche-artist, a satirist.

Coming up through the world of indiepop, especially the Creation Records world of 1980s refits of 1960s drug culture (drugs and satire don't mix, you need to stay sharp as a needle and somewhat detached to be a satirist, otherwise, like Primal Scream apeing the Stones, you become an embarrassingly sincere take on a satirical project, slightly less intelligent the second time around), it was a liberation for me to stumble on, say, 'Back Answers' by 1930s music hall artist Rob Wilton. Like an old British car, it had such fantastic build quality. I used to perform this number at early Momus shows, bewildering the psychedelia fans who would turn up at Creation all-dayers in their skinny-collared paisley pattern shirts. Here are the first and last verses. You've got to imagine Wilton doing the repartee very quickly, with a pianist sketching the chords behind the dialogue, speeding up and slowing down, matching Wilton's pace:

I'm subject to colds and they make me quite deaf
And then I can't hear what you say
A fellow once offered to buy me a drink
(I heard that with a cold, by the way)
So we're drinking and talking of women we've known
I described a sweet girl dressed in red
My description was good, and my pal went half mad
-- It was the girl he was planning to wed!
He said 'I'll punch your head!' I said 'Whose?' He said 'Yours!'
I said 'Mine?' He said 'Yes!' I said 'Oh?'
He said 'Want a fight?' I said 'Who?' He said 'You!'
I said 'Me?' He said 'Yes!' I said 'No!'
So we then came to words, he said 'You're a cad!'
I said 'Cad?' He said 'Yes!' I said 'Who?'
He said 'Who?' I said 'Yes?' He said 'You!'
So of course then I knew

A cruise on the sea is a thing that suits me
And I've done some sailing, it's true
I was at my wits end when, setting out from Land's End
One night when I'd had one or two
The captain comes out on the bridge and says
'Lads, we are doomed, the old tub's going down
To the boats every man... except you!' I said 'Me?'
He said 'Yes, there's no room, you must drown'
I said 'Drown?' He said 'Drown! The old tub's going down
Don't you stand arguing there! I've just told you straight
There's no room for you, mate, in the boats or in fact anywhere
I know it's upsetting, but what's the use fretting
We might have lost all of the crew
But now, as I say, we can all get away
And only lose one, and that's you!'

But, Seriously, Folks...

I was watching a TV programme the other day on a french satellite channel and they showed a clip of an old Variete artist I'd never heard of. He was a decrepit old man called Ouvrard dressed in a bizarre military uniform. He looked like Sid James from the Carry On films. He stood at the mike and sang a song which was all on one chord (like so much vaudeville, it was remarkable, almost avant garde, musically: it's as if putting music in second place frees it of its self-consciousness and encourages it to break rules, do whatever the hell it feels like). It was about his health. He was detailing, with incredible verbal acrobatics, everything that was wrong with him. Although I couldn't keep up with the french, I knew that the wordplay was incredible. 'I've got stones in my bladder, my liver is squishy, my brain's had a heart attack, my stomach's in my boots...' it went something like that, all delivered in a toothless old man rasp. Then came the chorus, 'But apart from that, I'm feeling on top of the world!'

It was perfect vaudeville. I was instantly jealous and wished I'd written the song. I made a mental note to steal the idea as soon as possible. I wanted to be that old man, to be onstage telling that brilliant, heartbreaking joke. A joke Sam Beckett would have appreciated, but journalists at the New Musical Express would consider undignified and, probably, a threat to the future of British rock music.

Momus, London, July 1999

Column Index