Wednesday, July 07, 2010

7/7/10 - Songs of the Summer, #19-20 - "Purple People Eater" and "The Battle of New Orleans"

The Master List:

Top Song of 1958: "Purple People Eater" by Sheb Wooley

A scant two or three years after rock'n'roll appears on the summer charts, novelty rock makes its first appearance with Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater", about an alien from outer space who dreams of being a rock star. Didn't take long before everyone wanted to be Elvis, even fictional interstellar space creatures.

To its credit, "Purple People Eater" boasts an absolutely inescapable earworm of a hook - in terms of the songs on the summer list, the only hook that got as stubbornly stuck in my head was the opening line of "Sentimental Journey", and even that's a distant second to the way that the "one-eyed one-horned flyin' purple people eater" refrain burrows into the brain. It's also a triumph of absurdity - Wooley wrote in an hour, and it has the tossed-off absurdity of a five-year old describing a month-long trip.

Hilariously enough, the Time magazine article describing the genesis of the song is partially a screed against the then-fashionable production trick of speeding up vocals to create hooks in hit songs, something that Kanye West would adopt as a calling card before stepping out in front of the mic. Swap in auto-tune, or drum machines, or any other prone to evaporate sonic fad, and, well, the more things change...

Top Song of 1959: The Battle For New Orleans by Johnny Horton

The Wikipedia entry on this song is nearly too amazing to be true: the song was written by a school principal in Arkansas who set the events of the pivotal battle of the War of 1912 to music to get his students more interesting in learning history. Then Johnny Horton recorded a version with fewer expletives and historical references and enjoyed the hit of summer 1959, and the top country song of the first 50 years of the billboard charts.

What stands out about that is the way that even up until the end of the 50s, the world of pop music was still a bit of a Wild Wild West. Sure, you had professionals like Lieber and Stoller supplying Elvis with material, but you could also record a song written by a principal set to an old folk melody with a martial drumbeat and have the song of the summer. Following up, of course, a song written by a 37-year old actor based on a joke told by a friend of his kid. Fast forward Jimmie Driftwood and Sheb Wooley to 2010, and they'd be churning out quirky YouTube videos. They'd be OK Go at best, not Rihanna.

1 comment:

ariyele said...

purple people eater was a song of my childhood days at camp. weird.

post-heartbreak hotel, the only words that come to mind for how anyone dealt with these two songs as the hits for the summer are from the famous hansel of the 2001 film zoolander: how do you live?