23
Nov 09

SPITTING IMAGE – “The Chicken Song”

FT + Popular71 comments • 8,600 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. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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)

  9. 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).

  10. 70
    benson_79 on 22 Sep 2020 #

    This was the song that got me into watching TOTP and following the charts properly, for better or worse. Found it hilarious at the time, but Tom’s review is alas pretty much spot on. I’ve much more time for Black Lace these days – teaching a motley bunch of Germans the moves to Agadoo remains a fond memory of mine.

  11. 71
    Gareth Parker on 27 May 2021 #

    4/10 for the A-side, but I think the B-side is terrific.

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