The Packer of the Leads

by Harry on May 15, 2006

Roy Hudd’s investigation into the history of the comic song ended last week with a show on parody. The main highlight for me was being reminded of seeing Neil Lewis at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1979 performing his hit song, “The Packer of the Leads”—google provides just a single reference, and the song is only mentioned (by Richard Digance) not played. The big question arising out of the show, though, is: why were The Smiths famous? Mitch Benn claims it is because fans fell for Morrisey’s winsome tortured poet act. But my wife (an American) says she liked them because they were funny. Me, I did fall for the act, so I thought they were prats; if I’d realised they were funny I’d probably have loved them (I eventually bought her their greatest hits, but only because it has Charles Hawtrey on the cover and I thought that was worth the money). Anyway, who’s right; Mitch Benn or my wife?

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The Eternal Questions § Unqualified Offerings
05.15.06 at 10:35 pm

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1

Urinated State of America 05.15.06 at 12:18 pm

Your wife. Didn’t you get the point of the flowers in the early concerts?

Or lyrics like: “I want to live and I want to love: I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of.”

2

pp 05.15.06 at 12:30 pm

Your wife.
“what she asked of me at the end of the day,
caligula would have blushed”
That is funny.
“you go and you stand on your own,
and you leave on your own,
and you go home and cry and you want to die”
funny as well (but toungue in cheek)
Marr also played a some great guitar riffs.
The arctic monkeys are a newer band that is equal in humorous lyrics.

3

Mrs Tilton 05.15.06 at 12:36 pm

Your wife. Benn cannot have been playing close attention. ‘Spending warm summer days indoors/Writing frightful verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg’, indeed.

pp makes an important point, though: any consideration of The Smiths’ genius that ignores Marr must fail. Morrissey alone would never ahve done it; post-Smiths he remains clever, but it was never the same.

4

spencer 05.15.06 at 12:58 pm

They’re both right. People who were paying attention understood that The Smiths were funny; people who weren’t, instead bought into the tortured poet act (which was actually all part of the joke, IMO).

So there.

5

Lee A. Arnold 05.15.06 at 1:00 pm

For parody, satire, and da-da eternity, if you want to see the greatest stuff, go to YouTube and type in “Bonzo Dog Band.” Their five record albums were “Gorilla,” “The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse” (AKA “Urban Spaceman” in the U.S.,) “Tadpoles” and the extraordinary “Keynsham.” They perform their Elvis parody “Deathcab for Cutie” in The Beatles’ movie, “Magical Mystery Tour.” The lead singer was the genius Vivian Stanshall, who is memorialized at the website Ginger Geezer. The bandleader is Neil Innes, one of the best songwriters of the last fifty years, who played the singing minstrel in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” later wrote and performed all The Rutles songs, and last year toured the U.S. in a brillliant one-man show. Get it all!

6

Simstim 05.15.06 at 1:01 pm

Doesn’t answer your question, but Mitch Benn has always struck me as a pale imitation of Bill Bailey.

7

duncan 05.15.06 at 1:10 pm

There is a bit of tortured poet there, but it’s too self-conscious and self-mocking to be taken all seriously all the time. If we’re quoting lyrics, how about, “I know that windwept mystical air, it means I’d like to see your underwear” or “She wants it now and she will not wait, but she’s too rough and I’m too delicate” (pronounced so that it rhymes). Or there’s “You just haven’t earned it yet baby,” which expresses how some people sometimes feel, but, by articulating the feeling, makes its implausibility apparent (in a way that is funny). So, yes, it’s both.

8

harry b 05.15.06 at 1:13 pm

lee — Roy Hudd discusses the Bonzos (I have all their albums, which include Keynsham, in my view one of the greatest albums of all time). You might want to check out this post, too:

http://crookedtimber.org/2006/04/13/the-prehistory-of-python/

9

LowLife 05.15.06 at 1:31 pm

I thought they were a scream. Girlfriend in a Coma. Unhappy Birthday. C’mon! Even the tortured poet stuff had a music counterpoint that either made light or put it so over the top that it was campy. Also, I appreciate songs about something other that moon-june-balloon. Not that they didn’t do serious. Meat is Murder is as emotionally evocative as a Vegitarian anthem can get.

10

Dæn 05.15.06 at 1:43 pm

All of the above, definitely. Morrissey always struck me as emoting sincerely, but possessed of the prescence of mind to riff on the absurdity of his own dispositional self-absorption. If only more of his disciples could be as apperceptive . . .

11

Kip 05.15.06 at 1:45 pm

I think that Morrissey’s determination to sing brilliant/funny songs from the perspective of the unpopular plays a big role in his popularity. That, and his music/voice is amazing and his lyrics have a knack of describing emotions that one had no idea anyone else was feeling. As the following quote describes, they are “complex, contradictory feelings.”

from

http://www.slate.com/id/2140918/

“Morrissey, too clever for Bono’s po-faced sincerity, eschews the self-congratulatory earnestness of the maudlin sloganeers and the peacenik righteousness of Vietnam-era pop musicians. Instead, Ringleader is aggrieved—candidly personal yet vividly reportorial. The songs are full of the mixed emotions that characterize our conflicted allegiances. Whatever one’s position on Iraq, Gitmo, or that mosque down the street, Morrissey’s perspicacity fits the mood through his indulgence of complex, contradictory feelings.”

Another interesting question:

Why are The Smiths and Morrissey so popular with the American Latino population?

http://www.ocweekly.com/features/features/their-charming-man/21569/

12

Jim Henley 05.15.06 at 1:48 pm

By the way, Nirvana was hilarious. It’s what made them such a much better (and more serious!) band than Pearl Jam, which couldn’t find a sense of humor with Richard Cohen to alert them to false positives.

13

Frank 05.15.06 at 1:54 pm

Why would we need The Smiths when we already had Gracie Fields. For me, The Smith will always be Linda Smith (RIP).

14

Heather 05.15.06 at 1:55 pm

Your wife.
When I was 14, I thought the Smiths music was the work of a tourtured poet and a very talented guitarist, because I was 14 and suseptible to that sort of thing. The next year, I went to see the band play live and, in a flash, realized that they were more of a (albeit somewhat sophisticated for pop music)comedy act. All that camping around was, to American eyes, hillarious. I mean, c’mon: “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar, it meant that you were a protest singer. I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible…” Plus, Morrissey’s lyrics in counterpoint to Marr’s “Wabash cannonball coming into the station” guitar-work is amusing in and of itself. Very funny, and still one of my favorite bands of all time.

15

dave heasman 05.15.06 at 2:08 pm

“Their five record albums were “Gorilla,” “The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse” (AKA “Urban Spaceman” in the U.S.,) “Tadpoles” and the extraordinary “Keynsham.” “

and the final contractual “Let’s Make Up & Be Friendly”, featuring a bit of Rawlinson End – “George has turned in on himself. No mean feat for a 20-stone man”. I have personally won..

16

Kip 05.15.06 at 2:28 pm

In other words.

I don’t think it is as simple as “tortured poet” or “all a big joke” with The Smiths. Which, I think, is why I like them.

17

Urinated State of America 05.15.06 at 2:46 pm

‘For parody, satire, and da-da eternity, if you want to see the greatest stuff, go to YouTube and type in “Bonzo Dog Band.”’

Da Bomb. Remember Monster Mash?

18

blah 05.15.06 at 2:52 pm

Well, that really is a bit of a simplification.

First of all, they made good music! As others have pointed out, Mars was a very talented guitarist and Morrisey wasn’t too bad at making melodies.

Second, yes they were very funny. Almost every song is chock full of mockery and self-mockery. Only the callowest teenager fails to perceive this.

Third, there is also a strong emotional undercurrent underlying most of the mockery. It’s not for nothing that the Smiths were especially popular among the losers and unloved.

19

pp 05.15.06 at 3:06 pm

“Third, there is also a strong emotional undercurrent underlying most of the mockery. It’s not for nothing that the Smiths were especially popular among the losers and unloved.”

They were the ones the Smiths were making fun of!

20

Lee A. Arnold 05.15.06 at 3:22 pm

There are at least three extant versions of the Bonzos doing Monster Mash, if you include the live TV version on YouTube. In addition to the cut on “Gorilla”, there is a CD of “Bonzo Dog Band — the John Peel Sessions” with a terrific live studio version, again with different incidental lyrics added by Stanshall. Very late in the track is a second, hidden song that few Bonzo lovers know about: they did a perfect imitation of Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band, singing “Give Booze a Chance.” “Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout lager, pilsner,…”

21

blah 05.15.06 at 3:41 pm

They were the ones the Smiths were making fun of!

Too simplistic! It’s mockery through identification and ironic self-loathing. Morrissey is making fun of them because he is one of them.

22

wcw 05.15.06 at 4:08 pm

Exactly.

Remember, this is a man whose great musical awakening was discovering the New York Dolls LPs. Great purely musical moments though they have at times, they appeal precisely to the reject who knows what he is and — beyond simply not caring — wishes to throw it in straight (cough) society’s face.

The joke is a funny counterpoint to Sid’s pathetic razor-to-the-chest plea, “GIMME A FIX.”

Plus, as has been noted, none of this works without Johnny Marr. There wasn’t much good guitar going around in the late ’80s.

23

r4d20 05.15.06 at 4:34 pm

I love Morrissey BECAUSE he is camp.

24

joel turnipseed 05.15.06 at 4:36 pm

“Is it really so strange? I say ‘no,’ you say ‘yes’–and you will change your mind.”

25

joel turnipseed 05.15.06 at 4:38 pm

And hey, among academics, how can you not love a band that wrote a catchy anti-plagiarism song?

26

r4d20 05.15.06 at 6:36 pm

“And hey, among academics, how can you not love a band that wrote a catchy anti-plagiarism song?”

One in which Morrissey ‘plagarised’ some of the lyrics to boot. lol.

27

r4d20 05.15.06 at 6:37 pm

I could have been wild and I could have been free,
but nature played this trick on me.

She wants it now and she will not wait,
but shes too rough and I’m to delicate.

28

r4d20 05.15.06 at 6:38 pm

This post made me break out the old CDs and listen again. Every few years I dust em off and love em again.

29

Hamilton Lovecraft 05.15.06 at 6:53 pm

I always took it as kidding-on-the-square: Morrissey saying in effect ‘this is how I feel, and yes it’s stupid and funny and pathetic, but there you go’.

30

Uncle Kvetch 05.15.06 at 8:21 pm

I could have been wild and I could have been free,
but nature played this trick on me.

How do ya like that. For 20+ years now I thought that line was “I could have been one and I could have been three…,” which I simply took to be one of Moz’s more opaque lines.

What a great blog this is.

As for the Smiths: Daen (#10) nails it. “Emoting sincerely, but possessed of the prescence of mind to riff on the absurdity of his own dispositional self-absorption.” It’s not reducible to neither/nor, sincere mopery vs. tongue-in-cheek camp–it’s both. And therein lies a good bit of the genius.

Yeah, and having one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock & roll didn’t hurt either. Speaking of Johnny, how about a “Greatest unrealized potential” thread one of these Fridays? It’s astounding how little of note he’s done since the Smiths.

31

'As you know' Bob 05.15.06 at 9:37 pm

And if you ever need self-validation
Just meet me in the alley by the railway station.

all by itself, that line justified four billion years of evolution up from the ooze.

32

Alan 05.15.06 at 10:32 pm

I remember my mother couldn’t stop laughing at these lines

A schoolgirl is denied
She said : “How quickly would I die
If I jumped from the top of the parachutes ?”
La …

So … scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen
(This means you really love me)

33

Dazza 05.15.06 at 11:12 pm

Yer missus, mate — any band quoting Oscar Wilde and the Carry On crew HAS to be crack-up funny, surely?

And any commentator who rails against Mozzer for being a prat is, well, missing something: the man’s a genius, shame on you for attacking his finely calibrated grasp of English working class life on derelict housing estates, among other jolly things the Bard of Manchester croons…

34

trialsanderrors 05.15.06 at 11:58 pm

Morrissey and Mark Eitzel both were usually pretty good at walking on the knife’s edge of pathos and ridiculousness. But they also quite frequently fell off to either side…

35

mykej 05.16.06 at 1:10 am

Now I know how Joan of Arc felt
As the flames rose to her roman nose
and her walkman started to melt

36

Down and Out in Saigon 05.16.06 at 1:31 am

And if a double-decker bus
Crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die.
And if a ten-tonne truck.
Kills the both of us.
To die by your side
The pleasure and the privilege is mine.

Utterly ludicrous, yet heartfelt: that’s why I keep liking the Smiths.

37

Frank 05.16.06 at 3:25 am

>Morrissey is making fun of them because he is one of them.

Is he hellus like! He is feted and fawned on everywhere he goes; and he is an arrogant git, with it!

38

Daniel 05.16.06 at 4:23 am

Speaking of Johnny, how about a “Greatest unrealized potential” thread one of these Fridays? It’s astounding how little of note he’s done since the Smiths.

Him, Bernard Butler, John Squires, Graham Coxon … every indie guitar hero ought to be assigned a special roadie to stand behind them whispering “you may believe you are the true creative genius, but all of those people, every single one of them, have actually turned up to see the moody lazy charismatic one, which is why he’s at the front, with the microphone”. Butler actually fucked this one up twice.

39

dave heasman 05.16.06 at 5:34 am

“you may believe you are the true creative genius, but all of those people, every single one of them, have actually turned up to see the moody lazy charismatic one, which is why he’s at the front, with the microphone”.

The English didn’t use to be so stupid. Noone went to see Keith Relf.

40

rich 05.16.06 at 5:58 am

It’s not like any other love
This one is different because it’s us

My vote’s for both: funny and affecting.

41

Doug 05.16.06 at 7:19 am

‹i›Meat is Murder is as emotionally evocative as a Vegitarian anthem can get.‹/i›

Now you’re getting in on the too-sincere-not-to-be-funny act!

42

SomeCallMeTim 05.16.06 at 9:54 am

Sweetness
sweetness I was only joking when I said
I’d like to smash every tooth in your head.
Oh sweetness
sweetness I was only joking when I said
by rights you should be bludgeoned in your bed.

As someone else said, it’s not either/or. The Smiths are plainly hillarious. And all the more delicious for meaning it.

43

Brian 05.16.06 at 10:15 am

So I broke into the Palace
With a sponge and a rusty spanner
She said, “Eh, I know you and you cannot sing”
I said, “That’s nothing – you should hear me play piano”

44

soubzriquet 05.16.06 at 11:35 am

Definitely your wife. And `The Queen is Dead’ was some of the best pop music produced in the 80s.

45

Henry Holland 05.16.06 at 2:16 pm

For this gay boy, I was hooked from the time I heard the b-side of Hand in Glove, their first single:

All the streets are crammed with things
Eager to be held
I know what hands are for
And I’d like to help myself
You ask me the time
But I sense something more
And I would like to give you
What I think you’re asking for

Oh, you Handsome Devil

The Smiths were the band of the 80’s for me, by thousands of light years. Great lyrics, brilliant guitar parts, a great rhythm section, a charismatic frontman who was a great quote machine in interviews, a defined visual style on their sleeves, the sad/funny twists in their lyrics, such as:

Poor old man
Had an accident with a 3 by 5
But that’s OK
Because he wasn’t very happy anyway

Poor woman
Strangled in her very own bed as she read
But that’s OK
She was old and she would have died anyway

Don’t blame the sweet and tender hooligan

46

radek 05.16.06 at 6:45 pm

Your wife, defintetly.

Some girls are bigger than others
Some girls are bigger than others
Some girl’s mothers are bigger than
Other girl’s mothers

First time I heard that I thought “well, that’s pretty true”.
Also agree with the ‘Meat is Murder’ having crappy lyrics.

47

radek 05.16.06 at 6:54 pm

This brings up another topic. What’s the funniest band ever?
There’s two subcategories here. Intentionally funny and unintentionally funny.

I’m thinking that in the intentionally funny cat punk rock’s gonna dominate top ten. Maybe some blues too. Ramones, NY Dolls, Angry Samoans have made me laugh outloud. So has Leadbelly and, strangely, Charlie Parker.

I don’t know if Spinal Tap would count.

Unintentionally funny? Abba (though I also think their music genuinely good).

48

Delmore Macnamara 05.17.06 at 9:02 am

Damn! some1 beat me to “some girls are bigger than others”, tho its not _so_ funny without the preceding line “As Anthony said to Cleopatra as he opened a crate of ale ‘Oooh I say…”

49

John Holbo 05.17.06 at 10:24 am

There’s a point near the end of some fairly recent Morrissey song where he starts falsettoing out: “oooh, the squalor of the mind. ooooh, the squalor of the mind.” But my impression is that he’s really depressed, the poor, dear man.

A friend of mine who works at Amoeba Records in LA says a friend of his who works at Amoeba Records in LA saw Morrissey looking through the Smiths section, disconsolately. This friend – who was too cool to like Morrissey – said ‘you’ve probably heard some of that before.’ To which the Great One replied: ‘there are things in here that I’ve never seen.’

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