Ill Advised Rocking Out
I’m not going to cop out and try to tell anybody that my enjoyment of any of these records I’m going to write about is ironic in some sort of postmodern cocking-a-snook-at-the-squares way because the fact is, I really enjoy crappy attempts by non-Rock ‘n’ Rollers to demonstrate that, even though most of their output is gentle as hell, actually they could rock out with the best of them if only they felt like it. Especially when they can’t. You might want to bear in mind that I don’t particularly enjoy it when genuine Rock ‘n’ Rollers rock out and let it all hang out in some sort of genuine way. I consider it a bit facile and, given the choice, I’d much rather listen to – and watch especially – non Rock ‘n’ Rollers who don’t realise their limitations.
For each of the records I’m going to be talking about, I’ve tried to put up a version in which the people are moving about – because part of my enjoyment comes from the dancing and gestures. I’ve not always succeeded in that. In fact, mostly I’ve failed.
- Peter, Paul & Mary – I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.
I have a soft spot for Peter, Paul and Mary and I have since I can remember. Although ‘soft spot’ might be overstating what I feel about them because, mainly, my experience with them relates to my inability to listen to Puff The Magic Dragon without wanting to cry at Little Jackie Paper’s atrocious behaviour towards the titular Puff. Ghosting, I believe, is how the kids nowadays refer to it. That bastard Jackie Paper, I fucking hate that bastard. Anyway, apart from that, I like Leaving On A Jet Plane and Early Morning Rain, even though they’re basically the same idea expressed from alternative points of view – the first one’s from the perspective of the person doing the leaving, and the second one’s from the perspective of the person being left. They both appeal to me, perhaps from a nostalgic point of view (my Dad liked them) or perhaps from a slightly ironic viewpoint. Not really though, I think they’re both good songs and Peter, Paul & Mary do them nicely. In a lot of ways, Peter, Paul & Mary were a bit like an American Rod, Jane & Freddy who provided the musical interludes on popular ITV children’s programme Rainbow. Except that Rod, Jane and Freddy were obviously aimed at pre school children and Peter, Paul and Mary seemed to have a cross generational appeal, being the acceptable face of burgeoning 60s youth culture. Bob Dylan’s first exposure came through their cover of Blowin’ In The Wind and their singing voices were probably seen as a more realistically radio friendly prospect than Bob’s nasal rasp.
All of which might suggest that I don’t like I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, but I do, even though, personally, I don’t dig Rock ‘n’ Roll music particularly, although I also don’t consider the bands that they sing about (The Mamas & The Papas, Donovan and The Beatles) to be especially Rock ‘n’ Roll either.
Check that video out.
For starters, as the camera establishes the band in performance, the viewers eyes are dragged by the stalks towards Mary’s grinding go-go dancing. Here’s a hippy chick who wouldn’t offend the squarest square in Squaresville, even though she’s wearing a groovy paisley dress that almost counts as a mini dress, her briefly and infrequently exposed knees threatening to bring down the government probably. Before the singing starts, we know what kind of chick Mary is: she’s a gyrating, thrusting rock chick. Mary is, in case you’d not worked it out yet, sex. Well, she’s not really, but maybe if you were a geriatric republican, you might think that’s what she is. You, know, like how sailors used to think that seals were mermaids because they didn’t know what seals were. Or mermaids.
The dudes – and dudes is what they surely must be – proto dudes at least – on the right of our screen might not be jiving around quite like Rock Chick Mary but as they’re the motherflippers making this raucous, riotous, rocking sound, that’s fair enough, right? There’s Peter, the chap with the particularly apt comb-over and guitar and even though he’s playing a guitar – and acoustic guitar, so steady on, eh? – check out his shoulders. Peter’s fettered to a guitar but that’s not going to stop him expressing himself. Mary’s sex alright, but Peter’s not far behind, right girls? Chicks, I mean. Look at him, staring into the middle distance, looking not only wistful and open to the possibility of drug taking, he’s yearning – yearning, mind – for this rock n roll music that he digs so much. He doesn’t even want to be on telly because he wants to be hanging out with rock n roll people, doing rock n roll things with them. This is a man who lives rock n roll. Peter is rock n roll and rock n roll is Peter. You couldn’t invent a more perfect frontman for ill-advised rocking out. He’s not just a rockin’ dude though because he’s got a goatee, which means he’s a beatnik, which means drugs, right? We’ve only had close ups on two thirds of Peter, Paul and Mary and already we’ve got sex, drugs and rock n roll. What in the name of God is Paul going to be bringing to the party?
Not yet fifteen seconds into the performance and we, the viewers, have been alerted to everything dangerous about rock n roll music. There’s a brief cut back to better show Mary’s descent into a primordial state with a little crouch and hop. Check out 25s – 37s and tell me you can take your eyes off Mary’s crazed physical representation of digging that rock n roll music. If this was an instrumental and somebody asked you to think of a suitable title for it, based on the performers, you’d say “I’d call it, I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. Of course you would. That chick’s losing herself in that groove. That groove, incidentally, that doesn’t even need a drum kit because they’ve got fucking bongos and congas pattering behind Peter and Paul’s guitars. That’s right. They don’t even need drums to rock out. They are rock.
I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking, these mothers have peaked too soon. There’s no way on God’s green Earth that even these people have got anywhere they can take this grinding performance beyond where it’s already gone. But you’d be wrong, because then the camera pulls back to show us the full, unexpurgated vision of Mary’s thrusting, grinding expression of joy and it’s unconstrained. By anything. On the other hand, this pull back by the camera also shows us that, while Paul might also dig Rock ‘n’ Roll music just as much as Peter and Mary, he’s too busy inventing Beverly’s hen pecked husband Laurence in Abigail’s Party. So maybe he’s not adding anything very Rock ‘n’ Roll to the party, but perhaps he’s sort of showing us that even squares can have a go at digging it. Well, if not exactly digging it, then at least having a go at joining in.
These shots of Peter, Paul & Mary are interspersed at first with footage of The Mamas & Papas in slow motion as if to emphasise the gravitas of this Rock ‘n’ Roll thing that they know all about and are generously telling us all about. There’s a lingering shot of the admittedly pulchritudinous Michelle Phillips with her mouth open to entice all red blooded males further, like Mary wasn’t enough all by herself.
Second verse and it’s the Donovan pastiche section. You can tell because the arrangement’s a bit eastern and, if that was a bit vague, they co-opt the rhythm and implied Eastern mysticism via the medium of sitars of his Sunshine Superman, Donovan’s recent number one American hit while showing further slow motion clips of Three Dog Night, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, a chesty go go dancer, Vanilla Fudge and The Animals.
Third verse and Peter’s evident drugginess and Mary’s jiving has evidently been noted as being the equivalent of a live sex show by the director – even though Paul’s studied reticence probably reflected the expressions of much of the older members of the audience – and the footage of The Fabs apparently exudes rather less druggy and sexy menace than Peter and Mary.
Lyrically, there is a suggestion that I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music shouldn’t be taken at face value at all because of lines such as, “The message may not move me / Or mean a great deal to me / But hey! It feels so groovy to say…” And maybe the song was written in order to take the piss out of these Rock ‘n’ Roll people and how the words don’t mean anything and it’s just disposable ephemera. Also, “And when the Beatles tell you / They’ve got a word “love” to sell you / They mean exactly what they say…” it implies a certain degree of cynicism inherent in Rock ‘n’ Roll music that, if it does have a meaning, isn’t particularly hidden and it has no purpose beyond a capitalistic moneymaking urge.
In fairness, it’s difficult not to listen to the lyrics and come away with the idea that these people – Peter, Paul & Mary – and their background in folk singing and communism (which naturally came with the territory) are being sarcastic about Rock ‘n’ Roll and that – gasp – they don’t really dig it at all.
Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t write I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music though* and, while I’m not suggesting they had no comprehension of the lyrics they were singing, either they’re taking the piss in an absolutely deadpan manner or I’m wrong about their ability to extract meaning from the written word because it sure as hell looks like they dig it to me. Well, Mary does. Maybe Paul’s apparent reticence to get down to those crazy Rock ‘n’ Roll sounds is rooted in some sort of deep seated and genuine love for Rock ‘n’ Roll music and he’s just upset that the songwriters labelled The Fabs as breadheads, dismissed The Mamas & The Papas’ songs lyrically at least as meaningless doggerel and Donovan as being away with the fairies and is keeping his head down. Mary either doesn’t care about the potential cycnicism of the words or doesn’t know what she’s singing about and Peter? Well, Peter’s probably just thinking about shooting heroin into his own eyeballs backstage just as soon as PP&M can get out of Squaresville.
It’s hardly Rock ‘n’ Roll but I quite like it.
*Edit – going through one of my very occasional Peter, Paul & Mary phases, I finally decided to give the cheap shots a rest and actually look into it.
And, it turns out, Paul *did* write it, but Peter and Mary hated it and refused to play it onstage because they couldn’t replicate the “feedback”. Which is a strange excuse because there isn’t any on this, or any other Peter, Paul & Mary records. Mary had gone on record stating that she wasn’t a fan of Folk-Rock because she wasn’t a fan of “the writers”, which was another strange idea because Bob Dylan was still the big Folk-Rock writer, although The Byrds’ jangle was probably the rock part.
I think what happened was that Peter, Paul & Mary – who were put together by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman and weren’t the imagined college buddies any more than The Monkees all lived in one big house and took on implausible jobs that resulted in singing The Last Train To Clarksville over a sped up montage of comical high spirits, and culminated with Davy falling in love with yet another boss’s daughter.
I mean they were showbiz too. I don’t know about IDRARM though. The message is snarky but it’s also easy for the casual listener to mistake the intended sneer for genuine affection. And that’s why I think they dropped it. They didn’t want to alienate their audience by having to tell them that they weren’t very good folk music fans if they didn’t even listen to the fucking words, were they?
Still, it’s quite surprising really. It’d be like Bruce Springsteen refusing to play Born In The USA because he meant the opposite of what the chest beaters thought he meant. He wouldn’t do that, would he? Peter, Paul and Mary did though, and maybe that makes them, ironically, closer to the rock n roll that they tried and failed to satirise.
Is that better or worse? I’ll tell you: it’s better *and* worse. And I dig it.