23
Nov 09

SPITTING IMAGE – “The Chicken Song”

FT + Popular69 comments • 5,892 views

#570, 17th May 1986, video

I wouldn’t say I was a ever a fan of “Agadoo”. But I danced to it – like “The Birdie Song” and Russ Abbot’s “Atmosphere” it was played at school discos when I was 12 or 13, to entertain the segment who were there to jump around and didn’t care about girls. I saw Black Lace as quite harmless, a thing apart from the rest of pop and not really to be judged on its terms: they were the soundtrack to marshmallow eating contests and birthday congas, nothing more. So in a way “The Chicken Song” taught me to hate them. Because “The Chicken Song” was something more: it was satire. Not only that, the B-Side was political satire.

Actually, I’m not even sure “I’ve Never Met A Nice South African” qualifies as satire – it’s just sheer nastiness and all the more effective for that. It uncovers the secret of Spitting Image – the show was all about dehumanisation: the reduction of the famous to latex tics was also a way of creating the distance needed to really lay into them. “South African” worked because it was dehumanising the dehumanisers, damning a proud and prejudiced culture as a stinking, rubber-faced joke. Unfortunately, it was only the B-Side, and the A-Side dealt far less well with a far less worthy target.

Not that I thought so at the time: I loved “The Chicken Song”. But I was wrong: it’s asking you to make a straight comparison between a record which, however dreadful, is designed to help people enjoy themselves, or a record which is designed to sneer at people enjoying themselves. Which “The Chicken Song” does, very effectively: I don’t know who sang it but his voice is a black hole of disdain. Ah, you might say, but the problem with Black Lace and their Roadshow-fodder ilk is that they were a kind of enforced fun. If you weren’t joining in you could be seen as a killjoy. And this is a good point. I would counter that if you had the good luck to be a student in the 80s or 90s the kind of tupenny-ha’penny ‘surrealism’ peddled by “The Chicken Song” was far more grindingly inescapable and orthodox than any pineapple-pushing heartiness, and makes it exhausting to hear now.

And I’d add the very obvious point that Spitting Image are destroying the charts in order to save them – all that happened was “The Chicken Song” found its way onto disco playlists and people had the same kind of inane fun they were having before, only now with added air quotes. As Nietzsche said, battle not with funsters lest ye become a funster.

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Comments

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  1. 51

    If I am not busy at the weekend, I may attempt a critique of Spitting Image thru the radical lens of my old pal-foe B.Watson’s Adornoid reading of Zappa.

    LUCKILY FOR ALL OF YOU I AM VERY LIKELY TO BE BUSY AT THE WEEKEND.

  2. 52
    Billy Smart on 25 Nov 2009 #

    The best Spitting Image song pastiche was in the summer of 1985, The middle-aged Who singing;

    “We used to be on LSD!
    Talkin’ ’bout our generation.
    Now we’re in the SDP!
    Talking about proportional representation.”

  3. 53
    LondonLee on 25 Nov 2009 #

    My opinion on Frank Zappa was formed while on a five hour drive across Florida with a Zappa nut and having to listen to several of his albums. Unfortunately it wasn’t my car so I had no choice in the musical selection. Believe me, your first impression was right, he’s bloody awful. By the time we got to Miami I wanted to rip my own ears off.

  4. 54
    thefatgit on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Zappa was the most Marmite of artists. Either inspiring love or hate. My Dad brought home a Zappa album after one of his “lost weekends”, where he would end up round a friends house smoking dope and watching Cheech and Chong videos. The album in question was “Sheikh Yabouti” which really only had 2 memorable tracks on it. One was “Dancing Fool” and the other was “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes”. I got the feeling that Mr Zappa was a cynical old misogynist who should take a good long hard look in the mirror. The same could be said for my Dad at the time.

  5. 55
    Erithian on 26 Nov 2009 #

    #48 – Andy, I have to take issue with you a little concerning “middle class Oxbridge educated” types taking the piss out of the working class. What about those members of the working class who hated “Agadoo” and the like as well? – there must have been a significant number of those buying the record, not thinking they were having the piss taken out of them but enjoying the pisstake of an irritating record.

    As I write this I’m thinking of the scene in “Educating Rita” – by Willy Russell, no middle-class type himself – where Rita’s family is singing along to a Black Lace-type song in the pub and her mother moans “there must be better songs to sing”. Not everybody buying the Chicken Song will have had aspirations to an Open University degree, granted, but what you’re saying still seems “classist” in itself.

    Having been subjected to mass breakouts of dancing to Agadoo, the Birdie Song etc as I was preparing to leave the nest (ha!) I enjoyed the Chicken Song and still do from time to time. It’s the inventiveness of the “instructions” (e.g. form a string quartet and pretend your name is Keith) which makes it listenable more than a couple of times, and although I wouldn’t defend it as a great record, it’s better than the average comedy hit.

    These were politically fraught times which brought about harsh responses in comedy, which is why Spitting Image was so vituperative during the high summer of Thatcherism. It was also around this time that “When Saturday Comes” and “Off The Ball” were launched, the harsh Private Eye-style response to the state of football at the time.

    It became received wisdom that Spitting Image’s puppets were of a rather higher quality than their scripts, and a lot of the time this was true. Nevertheless the final series included some of its sharpest material: Major and Lamont as layabout workers who greet every enquiry as to when the recession will end with a dismissive “Dunno mate”; and the advent of New Labour.

    If the ratings had been as high as in its heyday, the portrayal of the relationship between Blair and John Prescott would have entered the public consciousness as surely as that of Steel in Owen’s pocket. One sketch showed Prescott getting up every morning thinking THIS will be the day the traditional values of the Labour Party come to the fore. He spends the day being foiled at every step by Blair and goes to bed every night thinking TOMORROW will be the day… etc. Another was a parody of Supergrass’s “Alright” video showing Prescott, Blair and Margaret Beckett on those bikes, with Prezza singing “shut me gob… zip it tight… while ‘e talks shite…”

  6. 56

    I remember the original Fluck and Law maquettes from the sunday glossies long before the show started, and looked on wikipedia to fnd a little more about F&L, then and now. Very thin etry — somehow they’ve fallen out of (internet-generated) history — except that, to my baffled delight, Roger Law has (apparently) moved to China, to the legendary Jingdhezen*, the “porcelain city”, were he makes ceramics!

    *This place pops up in my day job fairly often, as the craft of ceramics is a regular feature.

  7. 57
    Izzy on 26 Nov 2009 #

    #55: those Prescott ideas absolutely scream ‘missed opportunity’. Why did Spitting Image eventually fail? It can’t have been for want of material* – think what you could do with a Vladimir Putin puppet. The only reasons I can think of are bad writing, and the rise of the much sharper Have I Got News For You?. Or maybe it just got old – but then there’s always some kind of political satire thing kicking around to some kind of acclaim, even if it’s really poor like the political bits of Mock The Week.

    * that said, I do remember reading that the ill-fated recent computer-animated revival deliberately cut out Jack Straw for fear that the audience wouldn’t know who he is. That’s a shocking lack of faith in the medium right there.

  8. 58
    ace inhibitor on 27 Nov 2009 #

    Are HIGNFY, mock the week etc sharper than spitting image, or just cheaper?

  9. 59
    Erithian on 27 Nov 2009 #

    I wonder in which sense of the word you mean “cheaper”? Cheaper to make, no doubt – but in the case of Mock the Week in particular some of the humour tends to be pretty cheap – you laugh but feel slightly dirty about it afterwards! Of course as Billy pointed out upthread, Ian Hislop was a major scriptwriter for Spitting Image in its early days, and with his bursts of outrage and Merton’s flights of surrealism HIGNFY is still going strong. (Not to mention Hislop’s startling version of an upcoming number one…)

    But there’s a definite backlash underway against “edgy” humour – Mock the Week v Rebecca Adlington, Jimmy Carr on injured soldiers and of course Sachsgate being cases where they’ve gone a step too far. And it’s curious to note how some of the arguments in defence of those cases could have been made for Bernard Manning in the 70s.

    BTW Punctum #9 – “the majority of British people were about to want [Thatcherism] for the third time” – not quite. The Tories got, as I recall, some 60% of the seats in 1987 with 42% of the vote; and with a turnout around 70% that means that fewer than three people in ten who could have voted for them did so. Still more than any other party of course, but not a majority of us – it rarely if ever is.

  10. 60
    Izzy on 27 Nov 2009 #

    Jimmy Carr absolutely didn’t go a step too far. The backlash came from professional offendees only. The actual targets of the joke no doubt go in for exactly that sort of humour among themselves. Not that the soldiers actually were the targets, of course – the whole thing is exactly what political humour should be about, and I’m delighted that Carr came out fighting.

    Edit: I’m not getting at you, I know you were only noting the backlash – it’s just that the whole cheapening of debate and the elevation of ‘offence’ to the worst of crimes really gets to me. Comedy may not be a very important manifestation of it, but the same process threatens sensible treatment of other public issues and that is important. Such is fertile soil for ‘edgy’ humour in future, I guess, so maybe the rest of them will have to sharpen their acts up.

  11. 61
    Pete Baran on 27 Nov 2009 #

    The irony of the Jimmy Carr gag was that the paralympics was initially designed for injured servicemen: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paralympics

  12. 62
    Erithian on 27 Nov 2009 #

    Thanks for saying that Izzy, and no I didn’t take it personally. Listening to the debate on the radio between a Carr fan and the mother of a maimed soldier, I could see elements of both viewpoints. As someone was quick to point out, that gag is just the kind of one soldiers would make amongst themselves (my dad was in Italy at the end of WW2 and told me some gags I’d hesitate to reproduce here), but maybe the point is that as a non-soldier Carr wasn’t entitled to tell it himself – is it analogous to a white comic telling gags black comics can tell about black people, or is that a dangerous route to go down?

    I hear what you say about professional offendees too. It’s noticeable how when this sort of thing arises the media know exactly who to contact for an outraged response. Similar to the fuss the other week about £47m being paid in bonuses to MoD staff – it’s just part of the kind of pay package that thousands in the public sector are on, but it’s easy to contact bereaved families, spin it as outrageous and exploit their grief for the sake of a two-day story.

    Can you not imagine a point, though, at which you yourself would say someone has gone too far? I enjoyed Billy Connolly for years, give or take a Lotto ad or two, but the Ken Bigley joke was hard to stomach.

  13. 63
    Izzy on 27 Nov 2009 #

    Funny you should mention that: I was actually at the Apollo the night of the Ken Bigley joke (one of about four comedy gigs I’ve ever been to) and feel Connolly’s been misrepresented. As I recall it, the immediate context was what bastards the kidnappers were for putting him through the ordeal of pleading for his life every night, as if they were ever going to let him go. i.e. ‘just put him out of his misery’ rather than ‘come on, don’t make us wait’.

    It’s a really risky line to go down and I totally understand why he got pilloried – I suspect principally because at least part of the public was equally strung along into getting its hopes up every time a new video appeared – but it wasn’t the malicious one that got reported. As things panned out, it was even arguably right on point.

  14. 64
    Erithian on 27 Nov 2009 #

    You’re right, that is a subtly different spin on it, and one which might have eased the public outrage which ensued (I think the execution happened within 48 hours of the controversy over the joke, didn’t it?) Connolly didn’t seem to be trying too hard to defend himself, though (perhaps he was weary of dealing with the press), and his career did seem to take a knock.

  15. 65
    Izzy on 27 Nov 2009 #

    I’d call it a ‘murder’ rather than an ‘execution’ myself.

    I don’t think it would have eased the outrage. The joke was undeniably in terrible taste, if by bad taste one means things unpalatable to the majority – even if the point was a good one. It would have taken some effort to change the zeitgeist on that one, and I think anyone would duck that challenge. (I think Boris Johnson was next into that hot water, wasn’t he? He didn’t have the option of sitting it all out.)

    Normally everyone does duck out, hence the insincere, meaningless apologies that clog up too much coverage – leading to more and more of the same tactics. This is why I was so pleased to see Jimmy Carr come out swinging, I wish people would do it more often (where they have a good case that is – it didn’t do Carol Thatcher much good!)

    The stuff you say at #62 is an education in how the media works. Not just offendees but all sorts of pressure groups influence the way a story is reported. I’m not sure it’s the media pushing it all the time, I think the pressure groups are feeding these stories a lot of the time. I think you see this particularly with a scrupulous organ like the BBC which tries hard not to impose a narrative of its own, but ends up having its context set for it by whoever has the loudest mouth bellowing in its ear. I saw this myself when something I’d been working on hit the BBC website during the week – there was an accurate story with the unadorned facts for the first couple of hours after the story broke, but thereafter the context got filled up by interest groups getting their quotes in, until by the end of the day you can get something quite distorted. That didn’t actually happen too badly this time around because there were voices on both sides, but on a previous occasion only one side were interested in lobbying for coverage, with the result that the story did a full 180° during the course of the day – what had started as a victory for one side ended the day being reported as a victory for the other!

  16. 66
    ace inhibitor on 29 Nov 2009 #

    well actually, I just meant cheaper to make, but interesting subsequent debate…My thought was that HIGNFY-style ‘quiz’ shows are the comedic equivalent of reality TV, an interesting idea to begin with that becomes ubiquitous, lazy programming (according to which analogy HIGNFY is the original Castaway, and Argumental is something like Celebrity Love Island). You don’t have to spend months making puppets and thinking up songs that may or may not fall flat.

  17. 67
    lonepilgrim on 30 Dec 2009 #

    I seem to recall that the Chicken Song featured in the BBC history of comedy pop that was shown (again) recently and which is featured here: http://tinyurl.com/ybyqopz

  18. 68
    Tom on 8 Feb 2010 #

    Know this was mentioned in the thread but I can’t remember whether it was linked: the 87 “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” election special http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReIAna459sg

    (thanks @danhancox on Twitter)

  19. 69
    Steve Mannion on 8 Feb 2010 #

    I saw Prezza retweeting it the other day so did the same (er, not that i RT everything he does).

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