Friday, April 13, 2007

Death Cab for Cutie: Presaging the Seventies.

The sixties were the natural home of teenage car crash songs. One, a deliberately (as opposed to inadvertently) funny one, seems to have one foot in the sobbing teen era from which it came and the other boldly poised to tread on something in the hard-nosed seventies. It's the Bonzos singing Death Cab for Cutie, with a twist.

Actually, it's with a strip, not a twist. The Beatles' movie Magical Mystery Tour aired over Christmas 1967 on both British and American TV. It was first shown in black and white on BBC1 and repeated a few days later on BBC2 in color, which must have been a treat for all six people with a color set and the ability to recieve that station at the time. Magical Mystery Tour is a one-hour unscripted movie by the Fab Four featuring themselves and a couple of dozen characters taking a day-trip "mystery tour" by charabanc. Watching it, I had a vague memory of having been on a mystery tour in a coach myself as a kid, but it may just have been a horrible cheese-before-bedtime dream. Certainly the anxious, over-eating auntie, bad tempered cousin, all-round-strange old geezer Buster Bloodvessel (played by Ivor Cutler), the classy dolly-bird tour guide and some of the other characters seemed familiar. The Beatles' bus tour takes in several spots where the lovable moptops sing their own beat tunes. The piece-de-yellowmattercustard is the famous performance of I Am The Walrus, of course. Most of the bus's stops, however, are for the set pieces, which are mainly post-Goon sub-Monty Python japes (or possibly hijinx, I can never tell those two apart).

One stop is very different. For a start, it's set in Paul Raymond's RevueBar, a famous and long-lived strip club in Soho just a few hundred yards from the major London music clubs of the time. Secondly, the band performing at this stop are not the Beatles. Ivor Cutler, the ex-leather-clad rockers responsible for the movie and various others file in to sit at the variety-club style tables. Through the curtain jumps The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. They play one of their more mainstream hits, Death Cab For Cutie.

Death Cab For Cutie is a honkin'-saxed pseudo-Elvis tune featuring many yards of gold lame, sequins, brothel creepers and teddy-boy moves. It is, as you might guess, about a car-crash death. Cutie and her beau are warned that if she carries on this way, one day she "will have to pay [her] fare", a common warning to teen girls of the era. And indeed, she's doomed; the driver fails to notice that that lights have changed. (A rather Beatley motif, that.) Rather than make the song a horrorific sob-fest, as were the songs of its parent genre, the teen-death-crash pop single, Viv Stanshall sings Death Cab For Cutie with an amused twinkle in his eye and a hip-gyration for Elvis to envy. So far, so ordinary Bonzos - it's a familiar pastiche. This set-up for Death Cab For Cutie was even shown on children's television at the time it came out, and was widely regarded as an amusing trifle by mums and hepcats alike.

But The Magical Mystery Tour version diverges from the standard performance. After a verse or so, one of the Paul Raymond Revue Bar strippers comes onto the stage with the band. She's wearing a very nice classical mid-sixties buttoned twinset in pale orange, lovely back-combed hair and fetching devil-girl make-up that would put Meyer's Faster Pussycat Kill Kill girls to shame. And a pink feather boa. She strips as Stanshall wiggles his hips at her and sings, "Don't you know, baby, curves can kill?"

The images that accompany the line about death are rather . . . telling. By contrast, the images edited around the last few lines, where a normal (if that's the right word) teen-death-crash song explains how the teenager had it coming because they're, you know, nubile, those images are tame in comparison. The death is the money-shot in the piece. Stanshall clearly knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is doing is a pre-Ballard ode to smash-ups. Very, very much a product of 1967-70 art with a capital A.

It got broadcast on Auntie Beeb before it was totally outdated, too. What a strange year 1967 must have been.

Watch out forStanshall missing a cue, laughing and getting slapped with Jan's feather boa for his mistake. He's a one.

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