“This House stinks of racism!” Cornelius Cardew, October 1981
“We had marvellous musicians on those sessions, but they couldn't get it. They knew what I was sort of trying to do, but I probably listened to that sort of thing more than they did, and it was driving us nuts, so we sent the drummer and the bass-player and the guitarist home. And I had a keyboard player called Dave Macrae, who'd played with Matching Mole and Robert Wyatt and people like that - governor player - and he started playing some clavinet, very Stevie Wonder-type feel to it, and I said, 'That's fine; could you do a synth-bass on it?'
And then I literally started whacking the top of the grand piano. So the actual rhythm-track of 'The Funky Gibbon' has only got me and Dave on it - he plays clavinet and synth-bass and we miked up the top of the piano. Then we got the horn section of Gonzales playing a Memphis Horns-type thing. It was lovely for me to be able to use musicians I liked and try to reproduce sounds which I also listened to. And then put the stupid song over the top of it. The idea that all that effort went into 'The Funky Gibbon'!” Bill Oddie. as quoted in Alwyn Turner's blog The Lion and the Unicorn.
I recently saw a comment about irony and music – its author very clearly stated that he did not appreciate it. And you know what? I do understand this point of view. Most great music does not have a side; it is not trying to do two things at once, though it is possible to hear a song for some time and not know what it is really about. In that case, you might get upset that you yourself did not realize this or you might project this anger on to the song itself or the person who told you.
Most songs are very directly what they say they are. However it is noticeable that anyone trying to express something by saying it with irony or in an indirect way is usually saying something the public at large may not want to hear. It is entirely possible to enjoy a song and not get its irony*, and irony comes in many levels, of course...
I did not expect “The Funky Gibbon” to be in one of these spirals of irony, but it is the 1970s, when juxtapositions were all over the place. The beginning is simple enough – jazz/funk fan Bill Oddie wanted his comedy troupe The Goodies to have a song for their hit tv show, and came up with something suitably dumb lyrically – the trio had an association with gibbons, doing a song called “Stuff The Gibbon” when they were on the BBC radio show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again in the 1960s. (I will also note that before they made total fools of themselves on The Goodies, Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor had a tv show called Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life which was a faux-documentary show that hardly ever gets mentioned.)
Oddie was on the fringe of the UK jazz scene and had the good fortune to work with the Mike Westbrook Band’s Dave Macrae and Gonzales’ horn section, as explained above.** The song reached #2 on the Luxembourg chart and got them on Top of the Pops – I doubt if they expected the song to do so well, but the kids loved it and so it happened. It’s a catchy song and you could imagine it spreading around to the parents of children, to certain ears....
...to the ears of a certain composer who had been in various modernist trenches for many years, doggedly loyal to political ideas which may or may not have helped his music; a man who led a group of musicians (the Scratch Orchestra) that worked bottom-up and was too avant garde to be mistaken for another early 1970s conglomeration of musicians, Centipede.*** By 1975 the composer was beginning to shift his thinking to writing popular hard-left songs for people to hear and be moved by (politically at least). Take the ideas straight to the people, with language and melodies they can sing and understand.
Cornelius Cardew’s need to make overtly and transparently popular music was not perhaps what was expected of him, but it is what he (once a disciple of Stockhausen) wanted to do – and so in 1977 he wrote “Smash the Social Contract.” This is the chorus:
So smash, smash, smash the social contract
It’s the cry of workers all over the land
No to class collaboration
We’ve sorted out your lies and deception
Sure to be a hit, right? Well in a way, it is. (And yes, the chorus’ melody sounds an awful lot like...”The Funky Gibbon.”) Cardew’s instinct – that he had to bring his political ideas into popular music, not just live them with whatever free-jazz avant garde music he was doing for the greater good (as self-effacing/self-satisfying being in AMM or the Scratch Orchestra must have been) was in keeping with the times.**** I don’t know if he wanted this to be a hit or just something played to striking workers; I don’t even know if he knew about the Goodies, though having two sons the right age to be into them must have helped. He seemed happy to compose lively tunes to, well, non-rhyming and just clunky but sincere revolutionary lyrics. His being arrested for disturbing Parliament (during a speech by Enoch Powell, quoted above) shows how committed he was...I can't say his works have been hits, exactly, but Cardew is a fine example of English rebelliousness and I sense the establishment still isn't really ready for him yet.
I don’t know if Oddie ever heard this song, but the whole idea of the one song lifting from the other would have been (I’m guessing) more amusing to him than anything else. You can’t really sue someone poor and Cardew at this point – while in demand and travelling around spreading the word – wasn’t exactly wealthy.
And so we have the story of a dumb but reasonably catchy song entering the revolutionary atmosphere, fitting into a lively song about the deconstruction of the world as we know it. If this can happen, what else is possible?
Next up: Exit, pursued by foxes.
*”Good Times” by Chic is the gold standard here. Sadly I won’t be writing about it as it only reached #5 in the NME and regular charts.
**I can imagine he wanted something between Rufus Thomas’ “Do The Funky Chicken” and Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin.’”
***Both groups had a short lifespan, both groups had (live, at least) Brian Eno as one of their members. Coincidentally, the Oblique Strategies cards Eno helped to make appeared around this time: go here to get a random card if you like...
****Cardew, by the way, had no interest in punk – he called The Clash “reactionary” and I can’t imagine he had much time for Citizen Smith either. This despite him looking a bit like Joe Strummer in the early 1970s.