Monday, August 29, 2005

45s: Head of the sass

"Harper Valley P.T.A.," by Jeannie C. Riley
Written by Tom T. Hall

Here be sassiness. First, I love the middle initial. Intended to make you sit up and pay respect? Or an attempt to be different than the one hundred other Jeannes/Jeanies/Jeans then working in country music world? No matter. It worked on both levels.

"Harper Valley P.T.A." was a gigantic dominates-the-playlist-for-weeks kind of hit. Though not the first straight country number to rise to the top of the pop charts, it was one of the few to do so after the two genres diverged in the early 1960s—and as the rest of American society was doing some divergin’ of its own. Jeannie’s penchant for miniskirts and high boots translated on both sides of the cultural divide. The song’s wide success only proves that, while we all had differences, nobody liked a self-righteous busybody. (If only that attitude still prevailed…)

Rock has its share of story songs, but country does the genre better. Think "El Paso," or "One Piece at a Time," or if you’ve got the guts, "Ode to Billy Joe." Maybe this is because of the oral tradition’s influence on southern culture. (Let’s face it, "oral tradition" means something very different in rock.) "Harper Valley P.T.A." is one of the classics, complete with humor, name-calling, a twist near the end, and a real sense of mood—you can easily visualize the reactions of the characters.

For the uninitiated, "Harper Valley P.T.A." kicks off with Riley’s big voice throwing out sass from Word One. A Harper Valley widowed wife gets a letter from the P.T.A. bringing attention to her short skirts, drinking, and general running wild. Mini-skirt in place, she heads down to the P.T.A. meeting—I think we can assume in very high heels—and proceeds to spend two verses cleaning her out a place. The Association has many skeletons in the janitor’s closet. Infidelity. Secretaries mysteriously leaving town. Rampant alcoholism. The Widow Jones' exhibitionism. To say nothing of Riley dragging out her vowels in the best flirtatious manner. All hail small-town living! It’s as entertaining as a pair of cut-off shorts up until then, and worthy enough of success. But Riley throws in a money shot—the kind of memorable line that separates million-seller from six million-seller:

No I wouldn't put you on
Because it really did, it happened just this way
The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.
Fist-pumping triumph and a Flip Wilson reference! Small wonder it crossed over.

Riley had kicked around Nashville a few years as a wannabe before "Harper Valley P.T.A." vaulted her onto TV, radio, and the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. As is often the case with artists and their breakthrough songs, Riley hated "Harper Valley P.T.A." at first sight. Not country enough. She recorded it in two takes, with the "socked it to…" line added in the second. Less than an hour’s work for Grammy glory and, more significantly, one of the bigger singles of the decade. A string of country singles followed, enough to fill a K-Tel collection. After a born again experience in the mid-1970s, she sang gospel, then found her way into the growing contemporary Christian scene. No doubt the new direction curtailed her sass some.

Video, video. The song was a hit pre-video, but it had a rare distinction for a pop song: it inspired a movie, and not just Robbie Benson in the NBC Movie Event Ode to Billy Joe, either. Ten years after its musical success "Harper Valley P.T.A." returned as the title and plot of the world's only hit Barbara Eden movie. A sitcom followed. That's a lot of baggage for any song, and the gods have condemned Eden to an old age of being leered at by Larry King.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Thunder from the white

Pat Boone is a man so unwith-it his cells are square. Recipient of a fortune earned by singing "Tutti Frutti" to white people frightened of Little Richard, Boone has given us briefly-famous daughter Debbie and a faux-heavy metal album that single-handedly destroyed irony. That should be enough. But no! The former teen idol, now 71, has emerged from semi-retirement, and it's not just his bowel that's irritable:
This lady and the groups that have been demonstrating in front of the president's ranch in Crawford and following him around are the very same people that were the dropout, turn-on, anti-war peace activists back [in the Vietnam War era]. They still have this crazy notion that by just being peaceful and maybe toking up or something like that – it's like an ostrich with its head in the sand – maybe the danger and the bad guys will go away and leave you alone, which is not gonna happen.
Boy, you put one "Cheech for President" bumper sticker on your Volvo...

Truly the hippies have a lot to answer for—starting with the Doors, ending with tie-dye infant bibs, and everything in-between. Whether or not Boone's anti-contribution outweighs all that is probably a matter of personal politics, though even those leaning rightward should keep in mind he's about to add a concept album about NASCAR and a duet with James Brown to his, uh, accomplishments. (Anyone as white as Pat should worry the Godfather will try to snort him.)

Though he condemns his own secular and permissive society, Boone isn't exactly raining on efforts to get him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a temple dedicated to some of the most godless and hedonistic human beings outside of politics. We encourage readers to vote! Anything that will embarrass that celebrity-besotted, contrary-to-the-spirit-of-rock institution deserves our support!

[Thanks to here.]

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The real Big Island

Don Ho is under the beautiful Hawaiian weather. Ah, Don Ho, the mellowest man of all time. He was one of the two big Ho's to come out of the 1960s and even then he had begun to cement his living legend status. As far as this blog knows, his only hits (so far) were that crooner's delight "Tiny Bubbles" and possibly the "Hawaiian Wedding Song," yet Don H. parlayed that into international celebrity and one of the strangest daytime TV shows of all time back in the Seventies. Don would do some singing, maybe a few jokes in his smooth manner, and then he'd throw it over to Wayland Flowers & Madame for their mid-morning double entendre. I dimly remember thinking I was watching a TV signal beamed straight from Neptune.

The years have passed. Don continues to perform, though, having survived the perils of showbiz and the irony of alternative-nation travelers flocking to his show. We wish Mr. Cool the best.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005