ESC 2019: Top Ten of Top Tens, Pt 4

A sad man up a pole

Never let it be said that I don’t have feelings. In fact, I like feelings and have on occasion experienced some of the most popular ones. Here are my Top Ten ESC 2019 songs that engage the valves of my emotion organ. <3

Top Ten Songs for Feelings

  1. Telemoveis – Conan Osiris (Portugal): Now if you want a 3 minute abstract musical about the alienation and loneliness of modern app-mediated life then here you go.
  2. Soldi – Mahmood (Italy): Because families are complicated and so are Mahmood’s feelings.
  3. Sebi – Zala & Gasper (Slovenia): Love is a feeling, right?
  4. Ktheju Tokes – Jonida Maliqi (Albania): This is HUGE and because it got selected so incredibly long ago I feel like everyone is overlooking it. Why wouldn’t beautifully sung portentous trip hop make you feel something?
  5. Zero Gravity – Kate Miller-Heidke (Australia): Because depression is a bastard, and this song sounds like when you realise you might be feeling better and you can do things again.
  6. Kruna – Nevena Bozovic (Serbia): I really respected the costume choices at Beovizija and I can get behind a classy ballad.
  7. Bigger Than Us – Michael Rice (UK): I really feel for poor doomed Mikey Rice. Protect him.
  8. Limits – Paenda (Austria): This is barely there as a record, all it is is emotion and a garnish of synths)
  9. Hatrið Mun Sigra – Hatari (Iceland): If love is a feeling, then hate is a feeling too. Although tbh this song makes me feel a lot more of the former than the latter.
  10. Arcade – Duncan Laurence (The Netherlands): The finest of this year’s emoting boys

(bubbling under: Joci Papai, John Ludvik, On a Sunday, Roi)

ESC 2019: Top Ten of Top Tens, Pt 3

It’s the weekend and my thoughts turn to love. Which of this year’s Eurovision contenders do I think set the most romantic mood?

Top Ten Songs for Romance

  1. Sebi – Zala Kralj & Gašper Šantl (Slovenia): This is just a beautiful heartfelt moment for lovers everywhere. I am so glad we get to have it at Eurovision. It’s a mood, it’s an astral projection into a moment where it’s just the two of you.
  2. Hatrid mun sigra – Hatari (Iceland): Pants off, harnesses on, and away you go. Just make sure you’re not first cousins, please.
  3. Telemoveis – Conan Osiris (Portugal): Ok, so the song is actually quite sad, it’s about the essential loneliness of modern life as even our most intimate relationships become mediated by mobile phones. Put down your phone and look deep into your lover’s eyes. Feel the mutant fado move through your bodies.
  4. Replay – Tamta (Cyprus): My heart actually does beat like an 808 – it originated in the 1980s, it is still in use to this day and hopefully has a few more decades in it yet. But yes, this is quite sexy. Also the video contains FLAGRANT breaches of workshop and welding health and safety. Unacceptable.
  5. Better Love – Katerine Duska (Greece): Everyone deserves better love. Give it to each other.
  6. Friend of a Friend – Lake Malawi (Czech Republic): Ok, now this is going to get meta. You could be making looooove, with Lake Malawi asking you if you can hear the people next door at it too. Maybe you are the people next door? Maybe you’re only a friend. Can you make this song make any sense?
  7. That Night – Carousel (Latvia): This one has crept up on me. I never actually start my Eurovision playlist with it, but I am appreciating the tender coffee-shop country vibe. It’s lovely and sad.
  8. Limits – Paenda (Austria): It’s not quite the full Sebi, but it’s still got a nice romantic chill out vibe.
  9. Bigger Than Us/Too Late For Love – Mikey Rice/John Ludvik (UK/Sweden): Every young love affair needs a big rousing boy band ballad to be Your Song. This is a bit of a choose your own adventure. Will you take the one with the key change or the electric interchange with the backing singers? Will you take the slick popstar or the lad from down the market? It’s up to you.
  10. Heaven – D mol (Montenegro): Sometimes love is cheesy. It just is.

ESC 2019: Top Ten of Top Tens, Pt 2

I’m still none the wiser about who is going to win the big show in May, but I do like to dance. In today’s alternative Eurovision reviews, we are taking to the dancefloor and getting ready to shake it.

Top Ten Songs To Dance To

  1. Telemoveis – Conan Osiris (Portugal): Whether you dance like a sinuous djinn or like a crash test dummy falling down some stairs, this song wants you to move like you have never moved before. Be careful not to dislocate a hip, and don’t attempt the death drop without a warm up. I find the groove irresistable.
  2. Chameleon – Michaela Pace (Malta): I am always going to give it a go to the old pineapple-infused post-dancehall beat. Of this year’s Fuegalike contenders, this has the cheekiest drop. I like that drop a lot: it’s a bit like a very low swanny whistle and also has a cheek pop, just to assist with the bottom moving. The build to the final “Give me [noun], I’m a [noun]er” bridge is also smashing. Put it on Spotify though, babes?
  3. She Got Me – Luca Hänni (Switzerland): 2nd in our line-up of Fuegalikes. Suspect B has less of a post-dancehall theme in the verses, it doesn’t really kick off and make you wind your body until the pre-chorus. All our Fuegalikes have drops instead of choruses of course, but I think the ‘dirty dancing’ chant is probably the most chorus-like of our drops. If you get me.
  4. Replay – Tamta (Cyprus): Only just behind the other two Fuegalikes, and probably just because it’s less novel to me. I am ready to gie it laldy to this on any dancefloor you care to put me on.
  5. Spirit In The Sky – Keiino (Norway): Schlagerjoik was made for the dancefloor.
  6. Hatrid mun sigra – Hatari (Iceland):   When you and the rest of the Hatari cult are performing your 110bpm quasi-sexual gyrations, be very careful not to get tangled up in each other’s gear.
  7. La Venda – Miki (Spain): It’s not so much of a dance as a joyous pogo, but I’m there.
  8. Ktheju tokës – Jonida Maliqi (Albania): Dancing isn’t all slut drops and bum wiggles – sometimes you need a good old gothy waft. Jonida has that for you. Although I would imagine that the nightcore version would work even better. (I was right)
  9. Say Na Na Na – Serhat (San Marino): Sail away in the disco loving arms of our favourite Turkish light entertainer and Billboard Dance Chart superstar.
  10. Friend of a Friend – Lake Malawi (Czech Republic): If you’re dancing hard enough, you can hear neither the lyrics nor the accent.

Eurovision 2019 – The Top 10 of Top 10s

I’m having a bit of a problem with Eurovision this year. Well, I’m having a few problems with Eurovision this year but let us, for the moment, stick to the songs. My problem is this: at some point during national final season, I stopped caring. A bunch of internal selections were coming out all at once and I just ran out of damns to give.

My Eurovision season has probably already peaked. It peaked in a handball arena in Reykjavik where I and several thousand pre-teen Icelanders cheered Hatari to victory in Songvakeppnin. I have never before been somewhere that it felt like children might riot. It was really intense. I don’t think even the actual contest in May is going to be that good.

So, in an attempt to shake things up for myself I am changing my review criteria for this year and giving you ten Top 10 lists from the ESC 2019 songs. First up…

Top 10 ESC 2019 songs that sound good in the car:

  1. Hatrið mun Sigra – Hatari (Iceland): When I am driving and the first crunchy bits of intro synth start, I am immediately excited. Huh! It makes me feel like a really cool demon, even though I’m going home via Lidl and I’m wearing a corporate polo shirt. I feel like I’m wearing shades underneath my skin. I feel empowered and a bit naughty. I feel like my Honda Jazz might suddenly sprout spikes and prongs and I might be able to go all Mad Max as I cruise majestically across the Erskine Bridge.
  2. La Venda – Miki (Spain): Here mainly because yelling ‘LO QUE ERE-ERE-EH feels very, very good indeed. And also it’s helping me with my Spanish pronunciation.
  3. Soldi – Mahmood (Italy): This is such a cool, cool song. For some reason the bass on the version on Spotify has immense, immense presence. It’s not the best Eurovision related song for bass; that would have to be Vidlik by Onuka – the ravey 2017 interval act – which makes all the plastic trim on the dashboard rattle and the windows vibrate. Soldi is not quite that, but it’s close.
  4. Zero Gravity – Kate Miller-Heidke (Australia): In the car, no-one can hear you doing the opera bits. Right? Plus, as I fail to avoid the potholes on the dissolving road surface of Byres Road, I get the e-e-e-e- bits just right.
  5. Ktheju Tokes – Jonida Maliki (Albania): I love a bit of portentous wailing and huge bass, so this is a surefire, mystical hit.
  6. Spirit In The Sky – Keiino (Norway): You had better believe that I joik along with gusto and chant He lå he loi la with reckless abandon.
  7. Better Love – Katrina Duska (Greece): It’s expansive, positive, and contains some excellent hooting vocals, which are well suited for the car.
  8. Replay – Tamta (Cyprus): That fuego beat is great for chair dancing, and I love the great, great line ‘Heart beats like an 808’. As you drive along, ponder what happened to the rule about not mentioning specific commercial products. Then forget it. Jon Ola did, so you can too.
  9. Say Na Na Na – Serhat (San Marino): This blast of positivity from Serhat will help you on your way wherever you are going.
  10. Sebi – Zala & Gasper (Slovenia): Not all driving needs to be the sharp-elbowed horror of commuting down a motorway. This is a late night drive with your sweetie, and you’re almost home.

Bonus songs conspicuously absent from the Top 10:

  • Michaela Pace’s Chameleon, which they have managed to not put on Spotify yet and no-one commutes with YouTube on, Malta.
  • Siren Song, because Ukraine.

Nova Twins – HIT GIRL

I’ve been meaning to show you Nova Twins for ages! Amy and Georgia are from London and play very gnarly hip hop punk with hard hitting basslines and a pleasingly gobby attitude. You will want to be in their gang, be like them when you grow up and want to go out and scare loads of square boys with them. Hit Girl is a single from 2018, but you might also enjoy Bassline Bitch or Mood Swings.

Nova Twins are on Bandcamp

Nova Twins are on Facebook

AfriMusic Song Contest

We just wrapped up the song selection part of the Eurovision Song Contest, but if you’re up for a bit more song-choosing then the AfriMusic Song Contest has just put all of this year’s hopefuls up.

I’m instantly drawn to Serwah Amoakohene’s 90s-ish Hypnotize which is in with a chance of representing Ghana, but if you want something a bit more serious there’s Water Time Bomb which is also quite a tune.

There’s a tentative link-up between this contest and the European version – the winner of the Afrimusic 2018 contest, Symphony, performed in the Eurovillage during the Lisbon contest.

Tüsn – Küsn

Tüsn are providing bouncy pop thrills in Küsn, or as they put it ‘dramatische Popularmusik’. They’re incredibly (and deliberately) hard to google but what I gather is that they’ve been active as part of the Berlin scene since 2012 and they’re very heavily into that monochrome aesthetic.

Küsn isn’t massively typical for their output, but I thought you’d appreciate the happy love song with the lovely choreography.

Tüsn are on Facebook

Tüsn have a website

Emma Smetana & Jordan Haj: Lost And Found

Let’s get back into the music recommendations with a love story between two upsettingly beautiful people. Let’s start with Emma Smetana. She was born in Prague, spent her childhood in Paris, studied European Affairs at the Sciences Po in Paris and International Relations in the Free University of Berlin. She returned to the Czech Republic where she worked as a journalist and TV news anchor. She’s also a stage and film actress and since 2012 she’s expanded her remit to include producing sultry pop music. Truly, she’s an impressive woman.

Her other half, Jordan Haj, is an Israeli/Palestinian/Czech actor and musician. He’s got his own band – Peter Pan Complex – but I think that you’re going to find the duets with Emma more compelling.

Lost and Found is the kind of chemistry-first duet I love. They’re sharing a mic! Their bands are duelling! They’re smouldering at each other! Jordan’s wounded roar contrasts amazingly with Emma’s smooth purr, as they wonder what putting so much of their lives on display costs them. The haunting 1960’s vibe

If you enjoyed this, there’s also No Fire and Waiting

Emma Smetana has a website

Emma Smetana is on Facebook

A Duel with “Witch Doctor”

As the songs were announced for the Halloween Week of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing (I do a podcast, you see), one of the songs drew me back into a mystery that’s plagued me for years.

Witch Doctor.

I first heard this song being honked out of some tinny speakers by a Danish cover band in the foodcourt of Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre. And I asked myself, “What is this nonsense and where did it come from?”

In the case of Witch Doctor’s blend of R&B knockoff backing, vintage racial and sexual politics and a totally sense-free chorus, the answers to these questions form a sort-of potted history of entertainment in the 20th Century.  

Where did this song come from?

As a very middling songwriter, I find that songs come from three main places:

  1. Expressing a feeling, idea or mood
  2. Writing to order
  3. Unconscious remixing and plagiarism of stuff that you’ve heard before somewhere

All songs come from a mixture of 1, 2 and (more often than the songwriter would like) 3.

But less flippantly and more realistically, songs come from songwriters.

The songwriter behind Witch Doctor is Ross Bagdasarian Snr, who wrote and performed a batch of novelty hits in the 1950s under the name David Seville. Like a lot of folks in the entertainment industry, the change of name was about gently eliding the fact that he was not uncomplicatedly ‘American’ (European, Protestant and white, basically). Ross Bagdasarian’s parents had been forced to leave Armenia under the Stalinist regime – and like the Kardashians and Cher’s family the Sarkisians, they set up their new lives in California. The Bagdasarian’s ran a vineyard out in Fresno, where there a lot of the family still live.

After his time in military service during WW2, Ross eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where a significant Armenian diaspora community had settled around Glendale and Pasadena, and thanks to some general connections via his cousin, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright William Saroyan. (A lot of the stories in this article originate from Saroyan: A Biography by Lawrence Lee & Barry Gifford)

Bagdasarian started out his songwriting career turning out unusual novelty songs, some of them at least partially based on Armenian folk tunes. His first big success – Come On-A My House – is apparently based on an Armenian folk song about hospitality and was written in collaboration with his cousin William Saroyan, while they were touring. The recording combining Rosemary Clooney’s game stab at an Armenian accent and rollicking harpsichord backing became a number 1 hit in 1951, and things started to look up. For a while.

In the Autumn of 1957, Ross Bagdasarian was on the last throw of the dice. The entertainment industry is pretty fickle when you’re a novelty song writer and you’re no longer new. The money from the earlier hits had dried up and Liberty Records was on the verge of folding. In later interviews, he refers to spending $190 of his last $200 on a Varispeed tape deck. He was writing to order and he had to come up with a new hit, with a new gimmick, no matter how formulaic.

Let’s try to work out what ingredients were sloshing around in Bagdasarian’s conscious and subconscious mind to find out where this lethal earworm came from.

Finding Inspiration

In the same interviews that refer to the $190 tape machine, he also describes Witch Doctor as a response to ‘teenage records where you couldn’t hear the words’. In the late 1950s, this can basically only mean doo-wop. Doo-wop combines vocal harmony, sung phrases that don’t have lyrics, and the excitement and romance of rock and roll. It was also a primarily black form of music, and therefore doo-wop acts didn’t necessarily benefit from the huge national record distribution networks and had more limited opportunities to have their songs heard on TV and radio.

Have a listen to The Chips perform Rubber Biscuit to get yourself into that uptempo doo wop mood.

If at the start of Bagdasarian’s career he had found it fruitful to mine his own rich musical heritage to find folk songs that could easily be transposed into pop songwriting, then it makes sense to look for individual, somewhat obscure songs that provided direct inspiration for Witch Doctor. And after a pleasant afternoon scrolling through the doo-wop archives, I think I’ve found the specific record.

Back in 1956, a group called The Cellos recorded a slightly questionable record called Rang Tang Ding Dong (I am the Japanese Sandman). It features a nonsense word chorus, an ‘exotic’ central character based on racial stereotyping and this character is also evoked by a pitch altered vocal. It reached #62 in the Billboard Hot 100 charts in May 1957, placing it at about the right time to have been in the back of Ross Bagdasarian’s mind as he tried to songwrite himself out of financial disaster.

The Cellos were on a New York based label called Apollo Records, which at the time of release was notable for being run by a woman – Bess Berman. She’d started the label with her husband Ike, where they collaborated until he passed away until 1956. Their major artist had been Mahalia Jackson, but they had an extremely varied roster of artists, from jazz to devotional music to Jewish standup comedian Sam Levenson’s spoken word monologues.

The Cello’s song was intially entitled I Am The Japanese Sandman, but citing legal issues, it was inititally released as Rang Tang Ding Dong and then re-released with the original title as subtitle. But wait, legal issues?. Let’s see if rabbit hole goes deeper.

The Cello’s song is itself a reference back to a 1920 song called Japanese Sandman, which became used for propaganda purposes by both the US and the Nazis, and then passed into memehood as a catchall slur on Japanese people, including being used as the epithet for boxer Harold Hoshino. Also, if you watched Boardwalk Empire, you’ve definitely heard this song before, soundtracking various moments of drama in the first few episodes.

So perhaps the legal issues would have been with the original publisher of this piece, who wanted to ensure that the two works remained legally distinct in the eyes of the public. Sadly, they’ve failed, because many of the references to the song by The Cellos (especially those relating to doo-wop and exotica connoisseur Frank Zappa) refer to it as being a cover of the older 1920 jazz tune.

Oh, and while we’re linking in ‘Western representations of Japanese culture’ and ‘cult recording artists’ the title of Sparks’ influential album Kimono My House is reference to that first hit that Ross Bagdasarian wrote for Rosemary Clooney.

Dutch Origins

Why did the Sandman become a Witch Doctor? Bagdasarian was evidently a subscriber to the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books – a very 20th century publication that provided abridged versions of modern novels bound together in a single volume. In the Summer and Autumn 1957 editions of the Reader’s Digest, a novel called The Spiral Road by Jan de Hartog was covered in two sections, “Mission To Borneo” and “Duel With A Witch Doctor”. This places the idea of a witch doctor, the Varispeed tape machine and, potentially, the half-remembered Cello’s single all in Bagdasarian’s head in the late Autumn of 1957.

The Spiral Road is the curiously moralistic pulp adventure story of a Dutch doctor and atheist who joins a medical expedition to the Indonesian jungle, and encounters a witch doctor by the name of Burubi. The novel is hard to locate now (and I haven’t located a reasonably priced local copy yet), and isn’t available digitally, but the 1962 film adaptation starring Rock Hudson and Burl Ives is apparently available on DVD. I doubt there’ll be any oo-ee oo-ah ah business in it, I don’t think Bagdasarian’s inspiration ran that deep.

While I don’t think it’s worth trying to track down all the lyrics to their source, the ‘Walla Walla’ part of Bagdasarians’ nonsense chorus is supposed to be a reference to Walla Walla in Washington State, where Bagdasarian’s uncle (who is suspiciously unnamed in any source that I can find – also no Bagdasarians or Saroyans come up in any local paper obituaries) had just moved. Walla Walla is interesting in itself – named after the Waluulapam people who lived there before the place was colonised by Europeans.

Why Do I Have To Be Screamin’?

An undeniable part of the pop cultural landscape was also Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.  In 1956, his earth-shaking single I Put A Spell On You generated equal proportions of excitement and notoriety by combining an immortal blues ballad with the exotic sense of Other provided by Hawkins’ vocal performance.  Banned from radio broadcast variously for being too sexy (and let’s be honest, too black) the single apparently sold loads but never actually hit the charts.

By 1960 Hawkins was performing in full faux-cannibalistic regalia in this segment captured by one of Granada TV’s Travelling Eye teams (prototype roving reporter/outside broadcast units)

In 1957 would Bagdasarian have been aware of the story of Hawkins’ evocation of control through love magic? Maybe he’d be aware of the smash hit that Okeh Records missed out on by Hawkins’ performance being just that little bit too wild? Maybe he realised that there was a cultural moment ready to be capitalised on – one that combined musical forms developed by black artists with imagery that tacitly mocked and dehumanised them? There was a lot of money to be made by repackaging black cool for white consumption.

And maybe that’s Witch Doctor came from, too.

Back in the Autumn of 1957, Ross Bagdasarian was on the last throw of the dice. Into the cauldron goes pulp adventure fiction, the thrilling sound of doo-wop, tape manipulation, and the history of the Armenian diaspora.

And out comes a tune that I wish I could dislodge from my head.

If you’re interested in Ross Bagdasarian’s early discography (and want to help me try and match each song to its Armenian inspiration!) take a look here