Wednesday, December 9, 2009

SONG #9-- Short People


Such cruelty... such unfeeling callousness...

One of my favorite Randy Newman lines is "Americans love irony.  They write me letters all the time.  'More irony!,' they yell."  Unthinkably, "Short People" was not played on a lot of radio stations for fear that the midget community would rise up to a modest, unassuming height and come and threaten the station with their tiny little fists of adorable rage.


I am short.  Not tiny short, but shorter than the average bear short.  In 1977, though, I was really really small, and "Short People" was a huge hit.  I remember hearing it on Q107 on the way to school with my mom, and the DJ's nervous announcements; "OK... that was 'Short People.'  Hey-- don't blame me, folks!  I just play 'em!!  HAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHA!  And now here's The Bee Gees!"  Once at school, I got the expected grief.  "Hey!  Did you write that?"  "Look out!  Nasty little feet!"

Here's the thing-- no one actually thought that the song was a credo to be followed. I still got picked for kickball.  It's not like "Short People" is a companion song to "Bitches Ain't Sh*t" or "Kim."  In fact, like so many of Randy Newman's songs, it's grossly misunderstood.  Randy Newman frequently plays the role of the ignorant bigot in his songs, and those thoughts are then ascribed to him.  That definitely happened when Newman finally had this hit ten years into his career.  People asked him over and over again what he had against short people throughout that summer.

These days, Newman is now the anonymous voice of the touching Pixar moment, and I do think he's slipped a bit... see the following spot-on parodies:

But I love all of Randy Newman's 1970s work, and think "Short People" is everything a hit single should be.  It's short, catchy, funny, and smart.  It examines racism and discrimination by picking on something ridiculous.  In the first stanza, he has fairly innocuous concerns: our "little hands" and "little eyes."  By the end, though, things turn nasty, and Newman points out how easy it is to go from harmless fun to hazing: "they got grubby little fingers and dirty little minds / They're gonna get you every time."  It's not funny by the end; that's what makes it so great.

The song also features the quintessential 70s studio band.  If the DX-7 synthesizer defined 80s music, this session band defined LA pop music in the 70s.  Randy takes care of piano and vocals, and here's the rest of the band on this track:

Backing vocals are by the Eagles.

Bass is Klaus Voorman, who made the Revolver cover for The Beatles and played bass in John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band.

Drums are Jim Keltner, perhaps the greatest session drummer of his age (go ahead and check out his wiki page-- it's unreal)

Congas are Milt Holland (Ella FItzgerald, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell)

And Guitars are Waddy Wachtel (best known as Stevie Nicks' lead guitarist and musical director; also played for Warren Zevon and James Taylor).  Has the reputation for having perhaps the best internal metronome among guitar players.

Here's a fabulous picture of Waddy in Stevie Nicks' band in 1983; Waddy is the guy who looks like Stevie Nicks.  That is indeed Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers in the middle, and Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel's drummer for thirty years) on the right.  Say what you want about Stevie, but she hired great players.  And can we please bring back that eyewear and deliberately exposed chest hair?  How outstanding do these fellas look?

So it's a great band, and a slick, perfect backing track.  If Newman's voice were... well... good, then the track would be unlistenably smooth.  Instead, Newman's voice is all gravel and rock salt, as he rejects the rights of short folks systematically.  The great moment comes in the bridge, fifteen seconds of quiet interjection:

"Short people are just the same, as you and I (a fool such as I)
All men are brothers until the day we die; it's a wonderful world"

Surrounding these lines are two minutes of hilarious insults and put downs.  It's not a wonderful world; we're not brothers.  In fact, the world is a cesspool, dingy and hard, and people are jerks.  I love that he got The Eagles to sing those lines of harmony and connection, as The Eagles were easily the most cynical, jaded, selfish, woman-hating band of the decade ("Already Gone," I Can't Tell You Why," "Heartache Tonight," "Take It Easy," "Witchy Woman," "Lyin' Eyes").  We'll get to them at some point.

To underscore the song's grit, look at the album cover for Little Criminals, with Newman is perched over the 405 freeway.  Look how crappy LA looks!!  I love this photograph.  It captures the roughness of the city in the 70s.  It's so empty, and check out those refrigerator on wheels 70s cars lumbering by.  It looks tired and run-down-- totally low budget.  You could take the same picture right now in Stockton.  That's the America Newman wrote about in the 70s-- his songs were about Birmingham and Baltimore and Cleveland, dying American cities.  LA was a dark place in the 70s, and "Short People" is the perfect blend of the city's slickness and its meanness.

As LA remade itself as hip again in the 80s, Newman was happy both to profit from it and skewer it at the same time.  These 1977 LA visions were replaced in 1983 by this one:

That album's single is "I Love L.A."  It was also biting and satirical, but the Lakers still played it during timeouts.

That's the final thing I love about "Short People" and Newman in general.  Like many others, I bought Little Criminals after hearing the single, and then had no idea what the hell to do with it.  I was nine, and the album's songs are about, among other things: death, the murder of a child by a sociopath, urban decay, and general misanthropy.  "Short People" does not prepare you at all for what comes next, and I put the album away for years before my discovery of Good Old Boys led me back to it and all of Newman's outstanding early work.  Once you dig in, he's a great American voice, who made three great albums in a row from 1970-1974.  He's the Mark Twain or H.L. Mencken of rock music.

So here's to satire, irony and general orneriness.  Enjoy the song, all of you... except you Belgians.  Who has time for Belgians?  Crazy mayonnaise-loving chocolate-makers...

Solo, BBC, 1978:


  1. Is it bad that I'm tall and strongly dislike this song? Randy Newman sort of drives me insane...

  2. Love Randy Newman- and, yes, those parodies are spot on!

    I'd also recommend his "comeback" album, after 11 years tinkering on soundtracks, "Bad Love." Tracks 5 (The Great Nations of Europe) and 7 (The World Isn't Fair) in particular.

  3. "I Love L.A." still plays at Dodger Stadium after every home victory.

    I'm not crazy about the Dutch, myself.