Despite what artists like U2 would have you believe, the answer is yes–sorry to quell the suspense so soon. And while I’m spoiling the conclusion, I might as well throw out a disclaimer: this piece is not intended to criticize any artists with solemn convictions, however joyless, pompous, and boring they may be; instead, this piece is about defending the artists who make us laugh out loud while maintaining their rock ‘n roll integrity. Well damn, I’ve gone and dropped a lazy cliche; just what the hell is rock ‘n roll integrity anyway? What separates a musical humorist like Weird Al Yankovic (whom I love, mind you) from a humorous musician like, say, Todd Rundgren?
Here‘s a top five of my favorite artists who gracefully toe(d) the razor thin line between musicianship and comedy:
5. ZZ Top
From their campy image (beards, trench coats, shades) to their bawdy material (“Legs,” “Tush,” “Wake Up With Wood”), the Texas trio never seemed to take itself too seriously. On the other hand, any discerning ear would agree that guitarist Billy Gibbons, bass player Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard epitomized the sound of the American badass. To this day, it’s impossible to watch the video for “Sleeping Bag” without touting a furrowed brow and a smile simultaneously.
NO MUSIC LOVER CAN DO WITHOUT: Tres Hombres
Emerging from ATL when gangsta rap was king, Andre 3000 and Big Boi walked a tightrope between the gritty, mean-spirited New Yorkers (Mobb Deep, Nas, Wu Tang Clan) and something too polite to be taken seriously (Coolio, Skee-Lo, Puff Daddy). Even when OutKast get aggressive on tracks like “Bombs Over Baghdad” or “Royal Flush,” they’re never far behind with winks like “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Hey Ya.” From their wardrobes to their productions, OutKast are quintessentially quirky; additionally, they’re among the finest artists pop music has seen in the last two decades–right up there with Radiohead and Wilco in brilliance and consistency. [It should be noted that artists from the Atlanta scene generally have a great handle on keeping things both substantial and fun; see Goodie Mob’s Soul Food (1995) and Ludacris’ Chicken -N- Beer (2003)]
NO MUSIC LOVER CAN DO WITHOUT: Aquemini (1998)
This is my left field choice, as Welsh indie punk trio Mclusky seemed to go away as quickly as they came about. With titles like My Pain and Sadness Is More Sad and Painful Then Yours (2000) and The Difference Between Me and You Is That I’m Not on Fire (2004), it’s plain to see where Mclusky’s collective tongue was firmly planted. And while these punks were good for an amused chuckle, their sense of humor never upstaged their adept songcraft. The best Mclusky tracks like “Without MSG I’m Nothing,” “Joy,” and “Undress For Success” are as infectious as anything that tops the pop charts, albeit with raucous bass distortion and wildly obnoxious vocalizing. Who says indie kids take themselves too seriously? Okay, I do, but these guys don’t count.
NO MUSIC LOVER CAN DO WITHOUT: Mclusky Do Dallas (2002)
When music folks chat impartially about the titans of alternative–the REMs, the Pixies, the Nirvanas–Dean and Gene Ween are too often forgotten. While some may be turned off by their more insensitive material like “Mister Richard Smoker” and “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down),” the duo from New Hope, PA, have amassed a body of work that easily stands alongside those of the aforementioned titans. Every Ween record since GodWeenSatan: The Oneness (1990) is a demonstrative example of pop eclecticism; few offerings of the 90s are as diverse (and concise) as Chocolate and Cheese (1994) and The Mollusk (1997).
NO MUSIC LOVER CAN DO WITHOUT: Pure Guava (1992)
1. Frank Zappa
I heard Frank Zappa’s music for the first time in high school; during a lunch break, my band director casually listened to a brass quintet playing an arrangement of something… I don’t remember. I asked about it and my teacher told me about it, including a juicy tidbit in which he tossed out the word “genius” (that word always perked my ears up). I asked “what makes Frank Zappa a genius?” After a somewhat indignant deliberation–Mr. D was on his lunch break–he replied with a question: “Well, what time signature is this in?” From that moment, I would go on to collect nearly everything FZ ever recorded–over 120 albums!
To this day, he’s my biggest influence as a musician. His legacy is a testament to the fact that rockers can compose classical music, hit songs can contain more than three chords, and that humor (read: brutal satire) can and does belong in music (which answers Zappa’s own question from the title of a live release from 1986).
NO MUSIC LOVER CAN DO WITHOUT: We’re Only In It For the Money (1968)
The great British actor Sir Donald Wolfit purportedly said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Indeed, with the aid of loud drums and amplifiers, it’s not rocket science for a group of musicians to sell the big drama. There’re plenty of real-life tragedies around every corner to inspire a “What’s Going On” or two. And, it’s easy to laugh off a song title like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” or “Poop Ship Destroyer,” but, for those willing to get serious about humor, it’s even easier to see why the artists who recorded these songs are so worthy of attention. For something to be funny, it has to provoke an indiscriminate cycle through every conceivable emotion until the senses are overwhelmed into resignation–laughter. That’s pretty tough; and these guys do it to beautiful music to boot.
Image credit: Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo
Tripper Ryder is a composer and session bass player in Nashville,TN. When not studying counterpoint, he enjoys the music of Madonna and Meshuggah.