It used to be easy to spot them. Ever since the 1950s, silly songs have charted and become irresistible earworms, whatever their critical shortcomings. ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window’ may have started the trend, hitting number one in the US in early 1953. But it’s in the UK where the novelty song has seen the most success. Over here we’ve had The Wombles (pictured), Mr Blobby, Bob The Builder, Timmy Mallett’s Bombalurina, Benny Hill, the Teletubbies and the bloody ‘Stonk’, all hanging around the chart like the worst smells. At least the last one was for charity.
Nowadays, there are freak chart entries when events making the national and international news rally consumers behind a particular deemed-relevant-enough track – ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead’, from the OST to The Wizard Of Oz, went to number two in the UK in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death. But newly minted novelty tracks don’t really come like they used to – primarily because their chief contemporary architect, Simon Cowell, traded his BBC deals for Teletubbies and Mr Blobby for the Pop Idol (not his creation, but Simon Fuller’s) and X Factor franchises. Yes, he’s the man to blame for these monstrosities – hideous creations that you will never, ever unhear.
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Mr Blobby. This was actually number one, in 1993 – and remains at the top forever, in your nightmares.
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Today, novelty records – singles and albums – are finding new forms. It’s not so simple to just point and laugh and move along, as they’re coming from artists of respect, of acclaim. Jack White’s plan to record and release the fastest single in history – announced on April 3rd (Clash news) – is just the latest instance of an act you feel a certain ‘authenticity’ about, whatever that truly means in pop, embarking on a project with a distinctly novelty feel about it.
White’s method of releasing his new single ‘Lazaretto’ is something that just doesn’t need to happen as it is, something that the overall quality of could well be compromised by the (albeit interesting) process of doing everything – from recording to pressing to selling – in a single day. White’s a reliable, solid songwriter – ‘Lazaretto’ won’t be awful, but equally he’s someone whose solo material has never conveyed the energy that the best of The White Stripes delivered, which could lead one to throw in the diminishing returns tag. And yet his sole solo LP to date, ‘Blunderbuss’, scored and sold well, so there’s likely life in the ol’ dog yet.
White’s timed his Record Store Day-set venture well – its global circulation coincides with the confirmation that he’ll be playing Glastonbury. His appearance in Pilton represents a UK festival exclusive, which means precisely nothing in PR terms as the event already sold out several weeks ago. And equally, he’s not the sort of artist who needs to play several festivals in a single summer – he can be choosy, and opt for the one that will receive the very highest level of public-funded media coverage.
The Fastest Record In The World angle, then: it’s the right kind of PR to balance the meaningless Glastonbury exclusivity. It guarantees that the music press – hello – will write about White’s single and its forthcoming parent LP of the same name (due June 10th). White means well – he loves records, and in an age where the ritual of collecting music has become a very vaporous thing (can one collect MP3s?), that’s to be celebrated. But be honest: this ‘Lazaretto’ lark is a purely self-serving venture undertaken only to drum up column inches for an artist otherwise maintaining a steady roll.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s announcement of their single-edition-only ‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’ (Clash news) caused some in the press to wonder if the New York rap crew had got their dates muddled and were publicising an April Fool a few days early. But no: here is a proper Wu release, a double-LP album recorded over several years, which will be restricted, initially, to just one copy.
Art is what RZA has called it. “Like someone having the sceptre of an Egyptian king,” he said, of the status-symbol qualities attached to owning such an item. And that may well be true – but the news serves another function: the Wu have an overdue album proper, ‘A Better Tomorrow’, apparently coming out, and that really needs a push given that there’s nothing really new to say about it since its existence was first reported, back in 2011. To the Wu, the new novelty record isn’t one to be stacked high and sold cheap, looking to turn millions in the process. It’s to realise a single release and have someone pay seven figures for the privilege.
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Timmy Mallett in the pop charts. This was allowed to happen. And now it’s in your head for the rest of the day.
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Late in 2013, Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke announced a novelty record of his own. A single, the Bobbie Gordon duet ‘Down Boy’, would be released, with proceeds going to the Nordoff Robins charity. Very honourable, but very so what at the same time. The quirk, the novelty factor: that the single would be the first made using a 3D printer (Clash news). Hell, if it works for guns, and might do for human organs in the future, why not something as simple as records. They go round and round, not pump blood or anything so clever as that.
Backed by the Bacardi Beginnings initiative, ‘Down Boy’ was a rudimentary dance track that did precisely nothing on release – save for make some valuable money for a worthy charity, of course. It didn’t connect with the kind of audience that Okereke had enjoyed previously – look on YouTube and the Bacardi-channel stream of the track has fewer than 2,000 views, whereas the video explaining the 3D printing process has 41,000. So it’s the perfect modern novelty record, where the appeal of the music is secondary to another aspect of its existence, a context or a cause.
Except, older novelty records were popular: add up the various YouTube posts of Bombalurina’s ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ and the total views run into six figures with ease. Nostalgia plays its part, of course, but who’d have thought that a fellow notorious for hitting schoolchildren with a plush hammer would be a bigger ‘net draw in the 21st century than one of the makers of ‘Silent Alarm’, an album comfortably amongst the finest British debuts of recent history.
Ultimately, today’s physical-form novelty records exist to stir up perceptions of how music should be delivered – how its processes can change, and adapt, and shape themselves to a modernity running wild with technological progression and short on attention spans. But strictly online, the old-school novelty song can still be heard amid the cacophony of new buzz bands and returning champions: just look at the massive successes of The Lonely Island and Ylvis’ ‘The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?)’, which has amassed just short of 400 million views on YouTube.
Which just proves that perhaps respected rappers of the world might do better to drop science on ducks going quack and fishes blubbing than package up a bunch of material for a million-buck price tag and call it something it’s not. It’s music, lads. Not a Matisse. And as for what comes next: Aidan Moffat’s greatest hits housed on a flash drive inside a £15 scotch pie, perhaps?
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If you, somehow, haven’t seen this Ylvis thing until now, and are watching it for the first time, we’re so, so sorry.
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