Thursday, April 29, 2010

SONG #102: The Joker

STEVE MILLER, THE JOKER, 1973







Will Ferrell's imfamous "cowbell" sketch has changed our relationship to "Don't Fear The Reaper" forever.  It is impossible now to hear that song without focusing on the cowbell.  It's like a drug-- you just sit there waiting for it to enter and then dominate the mix.  Thanks to the observations of my friend Jerry Becker, I am about to do the same thing to "The Joker" for you.  So be warned-- if you love this song, if your summers are filled with barbecues on the water and Steve Miller and Jimmy Buffett wafting through the citronella and the steady hum of insects, if you yourself secretly feel like the Midnight Toker himself, then you might want to skip this entry.  On the other hand, if, like me, your favorite version of this song is Homer Simpson's in the flashback to high school episode (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJQOuT_s3vg) then read on, Macduff.

The cowbell of "The Joker" is, without question, the cymbal crashes made by drummer John King.  Let's just listen to the first forty five seconds together.  Go ahead.  Did you hear those cymbals?  I mean, REALLY hear them?  If you need to, go back and listen again.  The rest of us can wait.  

There.

First, notice the double-clutch cymbal hits at the top.  King goes for it on both the one and the two, and the first one sounds like a mistake because of a colossally sloppy tape edit.  If you listen carefully in your right speaker, you'll hear that the cymbal was edited off the top, but then punched back in while it was still ringing, hence the halting, sloppy feeling at the top of the song.  It's the kind of thing you never hear nowadays-- a serious mixing error in the first second of a major label, million-selling single.

After that, we get cymbal hits in no discernable pattern.  Here's the way it breaks down:

(Crash!, Crash!) Some people call me the space cowboy yeah
(Crash!) Some call me the gangster of love (Crash!)
(Crash!) Some people call me Maurice
Cause I speak of the pompetous  (Crash!) of love (Crash!)

People talk ab (Crash!) out me baby
Say I'm doin' you wrong, doin' you wrong (Crash!)
(Crash!) But don't you (Crash!) worry baby don't (Crash!) worry
Cause' I'm right here (Crash!) right here right here right here at home


The only thing I can think of is that Jon was looking down most of the time while playing, grooving into his snare drum, and every time he looked up, he saw the cymbal, and thought, "Yeah!  Cymbal!" and hit it.  Almost NEVER on the one, mind you.  In 95% of songs, cymbals are used to accentuate the kick drum.  On this song, there are 31 cymbal hits (yes-- I had some free time today.  Sue me).  Nine of them occur on a downbeat.  The other 22 are spread randomly around the track.  I think "Joker cymbal" would make a great drinking game.  My favorite moment is the "don't you worry" line where John just keeps going back to the well.  Crash!  Crash!  Crash!  It honestly makes me laugh almost every time I listen to it.  It sounds like the way an eight year-old plays drums when you stick him behind the kit for the first time.  It breaks every rule of a drum track-- lay a foundation, don't pull focus away from the vocal, accentuate without derailing the rhythm, etc etc.  I'd love to know if this was a practice run-through that Steve just decided was good enough to use, or if this was John's vision.  "Listen, man-- I'm gonna WAIL on that cymbal, but NOT when you THINK I am!  It's gonna be amazing! (Snooorrrrrrrrrt)."**  

Try this game-- imagine King yelling "Yay!!!" out loud every time he hits a cymbal like the Crank Yankers puppet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Gj8bin3vlQ); it brings a whole new level of meaning and specialness to the tune:


(Yay!, Yay!) Some people call me the space cowboy yeah
(Yay!) Some call me the gangster of love (Yay!)
(Yay!) Some people call me Maurice
Cause I speak of the pompetous  (Yay!) of love (Yay!)

People talk ab (Yay!) out me baby
Say I'm doin' you wrong, doin' you wrong (Yay!)
(Yay!) But don't you (Yay!) worry baby don't (Yay!) worry
Cause' I'm right here (Yay!) right here right here right here at home


"The Joker" is hardly fine art.  Or fine.  Or art.  But that drum track?  Solid.  Freaking.  Gold.


** I have no idea if John King did drugs.  That's a shameless 70s stereotype, and I apologize for stooping so low.  But did you look at the cover of this album?  They were on something, wouldn't you agree?  Also, there's this:




LINK:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFV2iG3dnpU  


9 comments:

  1. Yeah, ok, fine Jeff, thanks for ruining that for me. ;-)

    Actually, it was the 'pompetus of love' that originally pulled me out of the moment on this song, so the cymbals are just a pile on.

    But I'm going to stick to my story, and assert that the fun made of the cowbell, and now the absurdity of the cymbals (I bet the stoned engineer thought the 'mistake' you refer to was pure genius), just makes these songs better and increases my love for them even more. i have to put on my nostalgia goggles to listen to most of this old stuff anyway, but once I do, the ridiculousness of it all just seems to fit the times and who we all were. Makes me feel like a character in Dazed and Confused, the best 70's movie ever.

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  2. Dazed And Confused is one of my all-time Top 10. Couldn't agree more.

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  3. Having played a Junior Talent Show cover of this song that was borderline audience poison, I feel the need to fight fire with fire here on the inappropriate percussion issue:
    http://www.morecowbell.dj/listen?id=BtQhAU
    See, you barely even notice it now!

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  4. So tasteful, Rob-- well done. NOW everything blends...

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  5. Most likely the anti-depressant Cymbalta was not yet invented in the 70's, but if it was, Jon King would have been snorting it.

    Seriously, Jeff, thanks for pointing out the gratuitous, seemingly random use of the cymbal in this song. I'm amazed that for the all times I've heard the tune, I'd never noticed it before! And I love the way, Jon King goes ape on the cymbal in the first verse, so much so, that he's almost bored of it by the time the first chorus comes around, and barely uses it then. Unlike a typical rock song that tends to builds momentum through the verses and then throws some strategic cymbal hits to make the chorus rock harder, he does the complete opposite.

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  6. First of all, there is no way to ruin this song. This was the song of my senior year in High School. At one high school party we put the track on repeat and listened to it for an entire 3 hour party. Not kidding. Yes, it's a little cheezy. But it's a song I will love forever.

    Also, disagree strongly about the symbols. As you can imagine air drumming to this song was a major past time Senior year. You could tell the rookies from the pros by the symbols. Since they arrive at seemingly random moments it was a pretty big challenge to try to get them correctly. I was a major pro by the end of the year.

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  7. I agree that "symbols" are deeply important. "Cymbals," however, are another matter... I have always thought you were a major pro with the symbols, if it's any consolation.

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  8. Hilarious! And, yeah, amazing that I'd never noticed how crazy those cymbals are. Thanks, Jeff!

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  9. Andrew ClevengerMay 14, 2010 at 9:26 AM

    I know I'm really late on this, but I think King's plan was to hammer the 2 throughout. If you think about that guitar riff, it's the only spot there's really space. (Bum bum/CRASH/ba da bum bum/ba da bum bum/ba da ba da ba da ba da ba da ba da)

    When he backs off on the guitar solo, he still hits the snare on 2.

    And when he did it, he thought it was so cool that he went a little batshit and started pounding almost every upbeat.

    As I've mentioned before, FM radio has spoiled many of the staples of classic rock for me forever, so this hilarious post won't cost me a song that I love. It will, however, make me smile every time I hear it.

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