Nov 09

SPITTING IMAGE – “The Chicken Song”

FT + Popular71 comments • 8,388 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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  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 23 Nov 2009 #

    I hate, hate , hate this song – ‘a black hole of disdain’ succinctly sums up why

  2. 2
    Kat but logged out innit on 23 Nov 2009 #

    Hurray! The first number one that I absolutely ADORED at the time. I will forever associate it with being on holiday in Hayling Island, watching my dad constantly fall over while windsurfing and being incredibly annoying to my poor sister (trying to stick deckchairs up her nose etc).

  3. 3
    Birdseed on 23 Nov 2009 #

    Fascinating stuff, another I’d never heard before.

    The double irony of a song meant to mock the charts topping the chart makes me wonder who’s playing a joke on whom. Is it Spitting Image, fooling the public into mocking themselves and laughing all the way to the bank? Is it the public, repurposing a joke at their expense and subverting it by taking it literally?

    Or is it 1986, laughing at the attempts of amateur cultural analysts in 2009 to make sense of it all?

  4. 4
    Matt DC on 23 Nov 2009 #

    This is I think the first song I ever knew all the words to. Being in primary school at the time helped, as it was pretty much everywhere in the playground. Obviously I haven’t listened to it in at least 22 years.

  5. 5
    Kat but logged out innit on 23 Nov 2009 #

    OK, listening back to it for the first time since I was 4 now.

    Oh dear.

  6. 6
    poohugh on 23 Nov 2009 #

    Listen to the b-side it’s comedy gold!

  7. 7
    will on 23 Nov 2009 #

    Whilst I loved the TV show I never saw the point of this record. Black Lace never took themselves remotely seriously and in any case Agadoo was now TWO WHOLE YEARS OLD. Dire Straits or Five Star were far more deserving satirical targets in May 1986.

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    Steve Mannion on 23 Nov 2009 #

    I don’t suppose they had the Match Of The Day theme vaguely in mind when composing this? It hadn’t occurred to me before tho so perhaps not.

  9. 9
    punctum on 23 Nov 2009 #

    Though not directly aligned with the alternative comedy movement, the Central TV puppet show Spitting Image could be said to have shamed most of it from the point of view of political polemic; yet, as with TW3 a generation previously, the programme eventually demonstrated how any protest, if sufficiently popular, can be assimilated and nullified by any Establishment. The voice characterisations for the likes of skinhead biker Norman Tebbit, besuited cold rationalist Thatcher and the ventriloquist act of Davids Owen and Steel, were provided by the youthful likes of Rory Bremner, Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse and Steve Coogan. The caricatures and schematas were frighteningly spot on (and continued to be such into the nineties, with John Major literally The Grey Man), and few who witnessed it are likely to forget the 1987 election special which ended with the Thatcher puppet, hissing spite and sputum at the camera below, chillingly singing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”; it remains one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen on television, and only slightly less terrifying than the resigned horror that the majority of British people were about to want it for the third time.

    The downside of this type of satire, as always, lay in the easier targets the show found to pillory, particuarly in the light entertainment arena. “The Chicken Song” was written as a parody of the group Black Lace, erstwhile underperforming Eurovision entrants (“Mary-Ann”, 1979), who subsequently specialised in cheesy snare-the-tourists-at-the-airport Eurotack dance routine knees-ups, the most successful of which were “Superman (Gioca Jouer)” (#9, 1983) and the dreaded “Agadoo,” which stopped just short of becoming 1984’s eighth million-selling single and was kept off number one only by “Careless Whisper.”

    However, Black Lace were perhaps too easy a target for a series which had set its main targets so high, and as with the continued jibes at punk rock in David Nobbs’ Perrin novels – but didn’t the writer realise that Reggie Perrin WAS punk? – there is a slight air of condescension in “The Chicken Song,” which adopts the standard Black Lace template and then becomes the Club 18-30 equivalent of “Imagine” in its dance instructions; starting off with “Hold a chicken in the air/Stick a deckchair up your nose,” it then progresses through ever unlikelier steps (“Form a string quartet,” “Learn to speak Arapahoe”) before culminating in the bloodied cheer of “Casserole your gran/Disembowel yourself with spears,” all delivered as a jaunty singalong. But its irony, almost inevitably, worked against it; despite its inbuilt warning of “Though you hate this song/You’ll be humming it for weeks,” that is exactly what its public did, sending it speedily to number one and clapping along to it on the dancefloor in complete ignorance of what the song was saying.

    The other half of the “double B-side,” namely “(I’ve Never Met A) Nice South African” – and both were listed on the charts at the time – unsurprisingly received little airplay; another list song in the Lance Percival topical calypso/”I’ve Been Everywhere” mode (with more than a touch of Squeeze’s “Cool For Cats”) which again deliberately lurches toward the absurd (“I had lunch with Rowan Atkinson when he paid and wasn’t late,” “I’ve danced with ten-foot pygmies in a Montezuma ball”) until it gets to its payoff chorus of “But I’ve never met a nice South African…/’Cos we’re a bunch of arrogant bastards/Who hate black people.” It is unknown how many, if any, of the 800,000 people who bought the single gave this half any serious thought, or even listened to it; but bonus points to lyricist John Lloyd and colleagues for at least attempting a Trojan horse, and indeed making this the only chart-topping song to namecheck Breyten Breytenbach.

  10. 10
    MikeMCSG on 23 Nov 2009 #

    Tom – I think Phil Pope is the lead vocalist on this. I remember the South African song was actually broadcast on the show much earlier (autumn 84 IIRC). The common room audience was laughing along with it until the third chorus where an exception is made for white dissident Breyten Breytenbach of whom only 0.0000001% (being generous) had heard and the joke was killed stone dead.

    #3 Birdseed yes you can tie yourselves in knots pondering the multiple ironies of releasing this as a single. I don’t recall it being a charity single so the moral value of satirising a process you’re taking part in is dubious.

    I didn’t mind it without finding it remotely funny and wished it had hung on given the horror that came next.

  11. 11
    Alan on 23 Nov 2009 #

    the lyrics were by the creators of Red Dwarf

  12. 12
    Erithian on 23 Nov 2009 #

    Can I get in and be the first to say it’s written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, later best known as the creators of “Red Dwarf”?

  13. 13
    Erithian on 23 Nov 2009 #

    In the words of Unlucky Alf: “Booger!”

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    thefatgit on 23 Nov 2009 #

    I had instinctively resisted Black Lace’s “Agadoo”. Not because I was a miserable git at parties (I WAS a miserable git at parties btw), but I felt that it’s chivvying “this is FUN! You should be JOINING IN!” message was anathaema to me. This reeked of the kind of Butlins/Pontins “organised” jolly-up, that I never ever felt comfortable with. Maybe it was a half-hearted attempt to “act cool” or perhaps more likely it was fear of assimilation. An attempt to resist, like Picard against The Borg and their imperative to homogenise the universe into cyber-zombies. Without our uniqueness, our individuality, who are we? It’s the same reason I resist Line Dancing, simply because it’s a calculated form of control, a rigid, structured exercise in dancehall totalitarianism…but more on that at a much later occasion.

    The Spitting Image parody did nothing more than make me shudder in bleak recognition of a joyless experience where everyone else was “having fun” except me.

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    lonepilgrim on 23 Nov 2009 #

    re14 Picard and the Enterprise are the forces of blandness – viva la borg!

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    Steve Mannion on 23 Nov 2009 #

    #10 It certainly sounds like it could be Philip Pope – much respect for this guy and his best works so a shame to realise that this is also on his CV!

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 23 Nov 2009 #

    if the borg did line-dancing it would be AWESOME

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    ace inhibitor on 23 Nov 2009 #

    direct oughties descendant = that peter kaye cross-dressing x-parody christmas song

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    ace inhibitor on 23 Nov 2009 #


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    thefatgit on 23 Nov 2009 #

    Maybe I should have used The Amnion in Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series as a comparative, rather than The Borg.

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    Birdseed on 23 Nov 2009 #

    I have to say, though: as a Swede, the nonsensical humour appeals to me a great deal. Come on, “Behead an Eskimo”, that’s funny. Ha ha. Isn’t it?

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    wichita lineman on 23 Nov 2009 #

    The singer sounds like one of Crass, who usually picked more deserving targets at least. Middle class whey-faced types pointing and sniggering at poor people on package holidays. They went on to write a sci-fi series? Coo, what a shock! Stones and glass houses aside, this is truly nasty nerdwork.

    Those well known satirists The Shadows released a double B-side of The Dreams I Dream/Scotch On The Socks in 1966 (quite beautiful – red B’s on a white label, just like the regular Columbia A-label demos, for those into less spiteful nerdwork).

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    Pete on 23 Nov 2009 #

    I think there is a lot of the Police in the backing in I’ve Never Met A Nice South African, which I think a lot of people listened to a bit more than the a-side because, well the a-side grates quite quickly.

  24. 24
    Garry on 23 Nov 2009 #

    I prefer “Checkout the Chicken” by Grandmaster Chicken and the DJ Duck for silly uses of chickens in songs.

    There’s a deconstruction of South African here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3700234

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    Jungman Jansson on 23 Nov 2009 #

    I had never even heard of “Agadoo” until now, and the same goes for “The Chicken Song”. Hence no unpleasant memories of being tormented by a song that (wittingly or unwittingly) became the very thing it set out to mock.

    And while I’d say it isn’t very nice to sneer at people for their taste in musical entertainment, I’m also not saintly enough to be above a good sneer every now and then.

    So – slightly funny the first and maybe the second time I heard it, but definitely not enjoyable as an actual song, only as cheap shot comedy.

    SwedenWatch: No trace of it. To the best of my knowledge, Spitting Image never aired here – whether it was thought to be “too British”, too rude, or if it’s simply coincidence, I don’t know. Not the Nine O’Clock News was, for instance, shown on national TV and that seems British enough – so it’s anyone’s guess.

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    col124 on 23 Nov 2009 #

    With all the cheap novelties and irritants that filled up the top of the ’86 charts, the George Michael track sounds like Schubert by comparison.

    “Spitting Image” had a mild vogue in the US around this time. I think there were a couple of made-for-America specials, unless I’m remembering wrongly (one had Reagan and Stallone heavily featured, and one amusing bit about Roger Moore praising Leonard Nimoy’s acting versatility). The “jump the shark” moment for SI came when they did Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” video, at least for my sullen teenage friends..

  27. 27
    swanstep on 23 Nov 2009 #

    Seeing this title coming up, I’d assumed that someone had got to #1 with, say, a dance/silly costumes video to the old Chicken Dance polka (which often shows up in sloppy drunk settings in the US, and which did get some Pabst-swilling, hipster attention in the ’90s). Alas not. Next.

  28. 28
    Billy Smart on 24 Nov 2009 #

    This is the third and final disc on Popular that my father ever bought – after Jailhouse Rock and Two Little Boys!

    I must say that in the context of being performed by puppets of Douglas Hurd and Archbishop Runcie, and then within the context of a half-hour Sunday night show, I did find this – and do now – funny. Divorced from the visuals though, this did become a bit tiresome. And listening to it again now, overwhelmingly sour.

    Yes, there were a couple of US specials, which suffered from being extended and carrying a plot, instead of quickfire sketches and songs. My feeling about Spitting Image as a show is that it stopped being funny once Ian Hislop and Nick Newman stopped writing the bulk of it in 1989.

    Agadoo I like though! Something to do with the tinkling structure of it that seems to turn in on itself.

  29. 29
    Billy Smart on 24 Nov 2009 #

    Number 2 watch: Three weeks of Patti LaBelle and Michael MacDonald’s ‘On My Own’. Certainly not to the taste of my 13 year-old self.

  30. 30
    TomLane on 24 Nov 2009 #

    Happy to say that here in the U.S. we passed on this one.

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