Thursday, November 19, 2015

Five Just Plain Awful Songs By Some of My Favorite Performers

This is a fun post for me, but it may not be for you if you like (or love) any of these songs. Keep in mind however that I am including performers who I love with all my heart because of all the great songs they did produce, and not because I revel in their failures. Well, maybe I revel a little. One of the joys of loving pop music is to point out the really bad stuff even as you laud the great stuff, if only because pop art is all about the balance between glorious achievement and often hilarious botching. Plus, it's just plain good fun to make fun of bad things. So in that spirit, please take a listen and a gander at some notorious botches from these otherwise stratospheric talents.

10. R.E.M., "Shiny Happy People"
R.E.M.'s 1983 debut album Murmur was and still is one of the touchstones of my pop culture life -- its shimmering, summery mysteriousness and baffling vocals reach me with equal force every time I listen to it. But as their career and popularity grew to greater heights, I felt less connected with the band's music, which was probably more my problem than theirs. It's not like they should have (or could have) duplicated Murmur with every new record. But then came the last straw for me in 1991 when R.E.M. released this grossly dopey ditty. I was especially stupefied by the crayon-color music video with all the goofy hopping around, especially by Michael Stipe, one of college rock's most notorious introverts. (The exceptions are the presence of the B-52s Kate Pierson, who makes the video almost bearable, and Peter Buck, whose facial expression throughout tells you all you need to know.) But honest to god, what were they thinking? (Stipe reportedly regrets this song to this day, and the band purposely left it off their greatest hits collections.)

9. Bruce Springsteen, "Queen of the Supermarket"

Here's where I'm really asking for trouble. Ask any hardcore Springsteen fan to name his worst song, and they will most likely answer that Bruce doesn't write really bad songs. On a certain level, this is true. It's hard to find anything in his catalog that is truly execrable, unless you can't stand Springsteen and in which case your answer would be "all of them".  But by the time I first heard this song my patience was about used up -- it seemed to me that Bruce had gotten to a point where he was just spinning out albums so he and the E Street Band would have an excuse to go on tour. Which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but this guy at the age of 24 wrote lyrics like "running into the darkness, some hurt bad, some really dying/at night sometimes it seemed you could hear the whole damn city crying" and was now stickin' us with

I'm in love with the Queen of the Supermarket
As the evening sky turns blue
A dream awaits in aisle number two

-- and I for one was having no part of it.

8. Elvis Presley, "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad"

Yes I know -- this is shooting fish in a barrel. It's actually fairly difficult to choose a bad Elvis song, because there are so many. I could easily have chosen "(There's) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car" or "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce" or even "Do the Clam". The list is almost endless. And anyway, it's not entirely Elvis's fault. Once the Colonel in all his wisdom cut Elvis off from great songwriters like Leiber & Stoller (who quite rightly balked at having to cut the King in on 50% of their publishing rights), he handed his client's considerable talent over to some of the most talentless songwriting hacks who ever put notes on paper. Still, a legacy is a legacy, and Elvis sure went along with whatever crap got put on his plate, so it is what it is.

I finally decided on this song because its message is we need to pay our taxes! In case you think I'm kidding:

If you're not in form, ten-forty's your salvation
By deprivation of temptation
Dark and blondes I hear are not deductible
Oh, say, can you see if there's anything left for me?

7. John Lennon, "Luck of the Irish"

One often wonders what John Lennon would have accomplished musically had he not been gunned down savagely at the age of 40. Musically, it's hard to say -- I like to believe he would have embraced the coming of the internet and social media with fiery enthusiasm, and I am completely sure the 1996 Beatles reunion would have been absolutely fine by him. One thing I do know is that we wouldn't be left with what is a very small and deeply uneven legacy of solo work -- once you get past Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, the number of truly great Lennon solo songs is pretty meager. His 1972 album Some Time in New York City has zero great Lennon songs, so it's where I aimed my critical scope. Yoko's songs on the LP are unspeakably awful, but that's really no surprise and anyway she doesn't count for our purposes. The real standout as far as John's songs go has to be this one -- not so much for its performance, which is rather quite beautiful and earnestly sung (excepting again Yoko, whose vocals are so bad you want to hit your head with a leprechaun). What puts this song into the realm of Just Plain Awful are the lyrics, which have to be the most embarrassing and politically tone-deaf odes to the Troubles in Ireland:

If you had the luck of the Irish
You'd be sorry and wish you were dead
You should have the luck of the Irish
And you'd wish you was English instead!

Listen, I could have been really mean and quoted the verses Yoko sings, which include such brilliant observations such as "let's walk over rainbows like leprechauns/the world would be one big Blarney stone". But I would never do that to you.

6. The Clash, "Lose This Skin"

Well, I suppose maybe this doesn't count. But then again, it does. It comes from the band's 1981 album Sandinista!, which at the time was considered a staggering artistic achievement and stands as a precursor to the coming of what soon would be called "world music" and includes a brilliant hodgepodge of punk, gospel, hip-hop, and reggae that still kicks the ass of anything U2 ever came up with. Unfortunately, this 3-LP set also comes with a lot of filler, including "dub" versions of many of the songs, and a few novelty odds 'n' ends that probably could have been shelved in the interest of making Sandinista! a truly great double LP. Case in point: Joe Strummer's pal Tymon Dogg, who wrote, sang, and played violin on this track. So it doesn't count in that it is not an actual Clash song, but then the Clash released it and put their name on it, so I blame them. It's not so much that this song is so incredibly awful, it's that it should never have been on the album in the first place. But it is pretty bad. (Which still won't stop Clash fans from kicking my ass for including it here.)

What are some clunkers by some of your favorite performers?

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