(This first appeared in The Guardian in 2003)
So you think it’s only since the rise of manufactured pop, with its endless boy and girl bands, each a more faded and insipid photocopy of the last, that the music biz has degenerated into a hive of hype and shoddy product, leeching on the hopes and dreams of the masses? That scamsters and cynicism are a recent invention? Wrong. For one particular music industry rip-off has been parting the starry-eyed and gullible with their money for over 100 years. That rip-off is the “Song Poem” industry, which reached its zenith during the halcyon, wide-eyed decades of the Sixties and Seventies. It’s commemorated on The American Song Poem Anthology CD, released this week.
Here’s how it worked. Ads in supermarket mags like National Inquirer urged budding songwriters to send in their “song-poems” for a “free appraisal”. The music companies used the phrase “song-poems” in these ads because they didn’t believe that the wordsmiths they sought were quite wordy enough to understand what “lyrics” meant. Once you’d sent in your “song-poem”, you’d receive by return of post a letter, from no less a personage than the company president himself, happily confirming that your verses had passed the appraisal with flying colours. Whereupon, for a fee (up to $400) the company would make a “magnificent recording” of your words, to a “beautiful musical setting” of your choice, be it soul, country & western, or “spiritual”. This was pressed up in limited editions, which the company solemnly pledged to circulate among major labels on your behalf, the quaint blurb of their brochures assuring you that your song had a fighting chance of topping the Billboard charts.
Of course, as anyone fool enough to believe them discovered, the companies’ involvement in your quest for stardom ceased the moment they’d cashed your cheque. No one ever got a hit through the “song-poem” scheme, though this didn’t deter successive generations of sanguine suckers born on a per-minute basis from giving it a try.
Churned out by session musicians at the rate of a dozen tunes per session, there was a reason why these “song-poems”, their atrocious lyrics gamely squeezed into ill-fitting, off-the-peg musical arrangements, didn’t trouble the hit parade. Yet, today, these demos are sought-after curios, feted by the likes of Matt Groening, even covered by artists like Yo La Tengo. The American Song-Poem Anthology showcases not just their inadvertent hilarity but their strangely persistent charm.
Memorable moments abound. Take “City’s Hospital Patients”, in which, with a sass and gusto reminiscent of Patti Labelle, Teri Summers & The Librettos deliver a paean to the efficacy of hospital staff. “They’ll do x-rays, all for your sake/They’ll soon found out what makes you ache . . .you’ll receive flowers with the finest smell.”. Or “The Moon Men”, a tribute to the astronauts whereon John Muir delivers in epic tones lines like “In quarantine they’ll have to stay a spell/Improving their health mighty well”, as if reciting Dangerous Dan McGrew.
There’s a salute to President Nixon, orated to the stirring accompaniment of military drums. “God in his infinite wisdom put Richard Nixon on this earth/To bring us his heritage/One of priceless worth,” opines the song-poet, via Rod & The MSR singers. This heritage, apparently, consists not of napalm and Watergate but “the rapture of music and melody/of culture and of love”. More “with-it” is “How Long Are You Staying” whose author, with an eye for the main commercial chance, throws the phrase “disco, disco disco” randomly into a non-sequiturial saga of cake-baking and mental illness. The instructive “All You Need Is A Fertile Mind”, meanwhile, performed mechanically by Gene Marshall, rejects pornography, encouraging the listener to – ahem – fall back on their own devices to “build up that sexual impetus”. “You don’t need a woman like Venus,” continues the author, heroically resisting the obvious rhyme as he extols the benefits of auto-eroticism. “Feel great, proud and unwind”.
The history of dreadful poetry as a means for the creatively frustrated to gratify themselves, if no one else, is long. The calling card of William MacGonagall, Victorian purveyor of clumsy doggerel boasted he was “successor to Shakespeare”, adding, “Poetry executed on the shortest notice.” Another Victorian favourite of mine is self-appointed “Canadian poet Laureate” James Gay, responsible for, among others, self-published efforts like The Elephant And The Flea (“Between the two there’s a great contrast/The elephant is slow, the flea very fast.”) and What About This Egyptian Affair? wherein he advocates the wholesale slaughter of this heathen population for refusing to be civilised by their colonial invaders. (“It seems they are a wicked race/The British flag they don’t embrace”).
Had Gay and MacGonagall lived longer, they might have availed of the song-poem industry. “Love’s Sweet Dawn” (those initials. Hmmm . . .) was written by one Amelia Baker and published by the ill-named Success Music Co in 1901. The first major song-poem scamster was John T Hall, who bilked numerous writers with a spurious scheme to publish their work for a fee, on the promise of having won a “Popular Songwriter’s Contest”. He was prosecuted in 1914 but his victims had to endure the indignity of their efforts “keeping the court in fits of convulsive laughter” when read aloud during the trial. World War II saw an upsurge in firms like the Nordyke Publishing Company who took advantage of patriotic versemongers anxious to have self-penned odes like “The Man In The Moon’s An American” solicited at their own expense.
The rise of the song-poem scam horrified many and efforts were made to warn the public against the “songsharks”, with even Superman conscripted to combat them. All to no avail – the industry continued to flourish. While these recordings have afforded hours of amusement for flea-market sleuths as well as we who merely enjoy mocking our inferiors, consider the poor sods – struggling or has-been musicians – forced to record the stuff. Most tragic was Rodd Keith, whose versatility is evinced on American Song-Poem Anthology on the sleazy, jazz-marinated “I’m Just The Other Woman”, in which he records the part of the (female) narrator in a wailing falsetto. Never able to make it as a “legitimate” musician he turned to drugs and died in 1976, aged 37.
One song-poet has achieved immortality, however – John Trubee, a prankster who wondered, if even the legendary “song-poet” the tireless, syntactically challenged Thomas J, Guygax Sr could get his work recorded (sample lyric; “Although by the also to have differed with yearly and all known dearly/Throughout and among, we use preferred”), how bad would you have to be to be rejected by these people? Hence, he submitted to a Nashville company “Peace And Love”, a disjointed account of an acid trip which contained this epiphany; “Stevie Wonder’s penis is erect/Because he is blind.” This revoltingly inappropriate and inaccurate sentiment was, Trubee recalled, “invented out of sheer boredom and homicidal frustration as I laboured as a cashier in a convenience store in 1975”. To his amazement the song was accepted, with even lines like “Ramona’s titties died in hell/And the Nazis want to kill everyone” scrupulously rendered by vocalist Ramsay Kearney, a snapshot of whom shows an upstanding looking feller in a butterfly print polyester shirt. One change; the Stevie Wonder references were replaced by the words “A blind man” and, years later, the song was unearthed and re-pressed under its new name, “A Blind Man’s Penis”, which is how it’s listed on this Anthology.
The American Song-Poem Anthology is risible – yet there’s also the occasional waft of nostalgia for the old school of one-shot studio recording, faint reminders of Gil Scott-Heron, Captain Beefheart, even, as these session musos steadfastly try to animate the dead verbal tissue of verses like “I Like Yellow Things”. Happily, they can’t. Happily because the cynicism or our own era means we’re fobbed off with bland, technical efficiency, denying us not just truly magnificent pop but also the truly awful. Here, however, you’ll find it in droves. God bless America.