The Smiths: Meat is murder (1985)
Full disclosure: I never liked the Smiths, not even in the 80s, when they were actually relevant. To me, they sounded like whining, depressed english guys singing to whining depressed, english teenagers. 30 years later I haven’t changed opinion but, being older, I discovered a new dimension to Morrissey: he is hilarious. I mean: “British singer Morrissey has accused a Transportation Security Administration officer of sexually assaulting him earlier this week at a security checkpoint at the San Francisco International Airport.” Now picture James Brown or Lemmy doing that.
The song Meat is murder is also pretty funny, with mooing cows and sad english guitars. There is nothing sophisticated about this song. It’s a simple and effective tool to gather consensus: “Closer comes the screaming knife, this beautiful creature must die, a death for no reason is MURDER”. Please. But the actual truth is that this tune, included in their 1985 Meat is murder album, has been the first Pop song to endorse vegetarianism, and it’s still an anthem for postpunk vegetarians today. Meat is murder actually convinced quite a number of people to stop eating meat; this is quite a feat for a song – and I bow to that. I’m not a vegetarian, but I can see the point of talking people into eating less meat – even scaring them with whining, depressing music, I guess.
There was a time, way before Facebook, when you could joke about whole categories of people, without having to hear them complain. And even if you were someone very respectable, like Nat King Cole or Johnny Mercer, you could sing a song like Save the bones for Henry Jones (written by Danny Barker and Vernon Lee) and get away with it. It’s certainly the very first tune that acknowledges the existence of vegetarians by choice (or even use the term, I think), although it mocks them (but I guess mocking vegetarianism, or any other non mainstream choice, was considered cool back then). Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
Henry is not a drinker – He rarely takes a nip
He don’t need a napkin – ‘Cause the things he eats don’t drip
One day we had a banquet – It really was a bake
They started off with short ribs – Then finished off with steak
But when the feast was over – Brother Henry just kept his seat
And we served the bones to Henry Jones – ‘Cause Henry don’t eat no meat
Henry don’t eat no meat – He’s an egg man!
Henry don’t eat no meat – He dig that yogurt!
Henry don’t eat no meat – A vegetarian!
It’s a lovely song, with a bluesy melody and merciless lyrics, not so uncommon back in the day. There are a number of pretty versions of it, all somewhat similar. Ray Charles with Lou Rawls☊ (from his 2007 Duets album), the Four Freshmen whose lush vocal arrangement was recorded it in 1961, and the version I heard first☊, from the Pointer sisters‘ 1975 album Steppin’, which also includes this explosive Duke Ellington tribute☊: these ladies could sing.
Bessie Smith: Gimme a pigfoot (and a bottle of beer) (1933)
To describe the influence such an important Pop artist as Bessie Smith (born in 1894) has had is no easy task. You should read the very meticolous (and somewhat gory) Wikipedia entry, and watch this 3’20” documentary♾ (from Biography.com). You’ll find out how Smith, along with her mentor Ma Rainey (another giant), are the first bad girls of contemporary Pop culture. You’d discover that both were bisexual (today Rainey is an icon of the LGBT movement), that both made a fortune and spent it (Smith traveled on her own railroad car), that both loved to party hard. Bessie Smith died in a horrible car accident in 1937.
Recorded in 1933 (and released by Okeh), Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer seems to be a social critique about expensive clubs (“I wouldn’t pay twenty-five cents to go in nowhere”) where the “high-browns” congregate, and “what they do is tut-tut-tut”. Old Hannah Brown seems to have different tastes: she ‘d like a pigfoot (which is a delicacy in many cultures, including mine) and a bottle of beer, which by the end of the song become a reefer and a gang o’ gin. (Other versions of this song, like Nina Simone’s☊ have slightly different lyrics.)
Bessie Smith’s work was so crucial to Janis Joplin, that she bought her a new tombstone. Her voice still resonates in thousands of singers, many of which learned Smith’s style second hand, and have never heard of her. But the way she says “He’s got rhythm, yeah!” – that is hard to copy.