Koko Taylor: Wang Dang Doodle (1966)

koko taylorHere’s a true Old School party. It’s so Old School that even Howlin’ Wolf, the first to record this tune in 1960, found it old fashioned. Willie Dixon, who wrote it years earlier, explained that Wang Dang Doodle “meant a good time, especially if the guy came in from the South. A wang dang meant having a ball and a lot of dancing, they called it a rocking style so that’s what it meant to wang dang doodle” (from Wikipedia). The characters are straight out of the 1930s: Automatic Slim, Razor totin’ Jim, Butcher knife totin’ Annie, Fast talkin’ Fannie and so forth. The party sounds rough and exciting:

We’re gonna pitch a ball, Down to the union hall,
We’re gonna romp and trump till midnight,
We’re gonna fuss and fight till daylight,
We’re gonna pitch a Wang dang doodle all night long.
(Click here for the full lyrics)

Howlin’ Wolf’s version☊ is ok, although it doesn’t compare to the other songs he recorded in the same session, like the murderously sexy Back Door Man☊ (later covered by the Doors☊, who unfortunately, in this case, sound more like sheep than wolves). In 1965 Koko Taylor joined Chess records, who also had Wolf and Dixon under contract, and immediately recorded her own version of this tune (with Buddy Guy on guitar and Dixon singing background vocals). She added a real badass attitude to it, making it sound like a hell of a party. So much so that it went in the charts, and it became Koko Taylor’s signature song. In 1995, her version was inducted in the Classics of Blues Recording category of the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. There’s a 1973 Pointer Sisters cover (somewhat Hard Rockish): the ladies were sort of badass too♾, but nowhere near as much as Koko. So remember: you throw a party, but you pitch a wang dang doodle.

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B52s: Love Shack (1989)

The 1980s produced a number of interesting musical oddities: artists that didn’t sound like anybody else, who had hits back then, but would probably struggle to survive in today’s market. Ian Dury is an example, so are Devo and the B52s. Their first song to get airplay, Rock Lobster (1979), was pretty bizarre – yet it went in the charts. However, with the B52s formula (some post-Punk New wave, 60s rock’n’roll, teenage Pop, Trash references, bizarre lyrics and beehives) is not so easy to consistently produce hits, and in the mid 80s the band’s success dwindled. Love Shack not only brought them fame and money (much more that Rock Lobster ten years before), but gave the B52s a place in Pop heaven. Love Shack is an evergreen, it still gets a lot of airplay, it’s often used in adverts, sitcoms, tv series and movies – and it’s a party favorite.

Produced by Don Was (who produced everybody, including several Rolling Stones albums), in my opinion Love Shack is a minor masterpiece of Pop cunning. Usually, songs have one hook, often the chorus. Some songs have two (like California love♾). Sometimes a song might have no chorus at all, but hooks throughout, like Marving Gaye’s Got To Give It Up (see below). Or Love Shack – which is a festive collection of hooks, one into the other. There is some kind of verse (the male voice), but then it breaks into a hook too: The whole shack shimmies! The LP version☊ is a minute longer than the one in the videoclip: they edited out a hook (having so many).

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The energetic, over-the-top way in which B52s approach the song, might sound annoying to some (it certainly is the opposite of cool), but that is one of the ways to sing a pop song: to sound like you’re having BIG fun. Love Shack is still a huge party anthem – unless you’re at a Disney party: they refuse to play it because of possible sexual double meanings. This, and other Love Shack fun facts, can be found on the song’s page.

Marvin Gaye: Got To Give It Up (Parts 1 & 2) (1977)

marvin gayeHere’s one of the most influential song on the past 40 years. A song so hard to beat that many artists could only copy it, in some cases note by note. I’m not talking about the lawsuit for plagiarism regarding the song Blurred Lines: that’s different, and you can judge for yourself. I’m referring to a style of singing and producing vocal and rhythm parts that became the foundation of a large part of contemporary Pop music. Without Marvin Gaye (in general) and Got To Give It Up (in particular), we wouldn’t have Michael Jackson, who repeatedly appropriated hooks from this song, and whose vocal technique (both singing and recording) owes a lot to Gaye’s. Without Jackson there would be no contemporary R’n’B as we know it. So this song resonates in millions of other songs, often without anyone noticing. It’s almost like trying to count how many songs use the 12 bar Blues chord structure: Got To Give It Up is THAT important.

The song itself was written as a joke: “Gaye’s label Motown tried to get the artist to record in the current sound of the times, Disco music. Gaye criticized the music, claiming it lacked substance and vowed against recording in the genre. After months of holding off from recording anything resembling disco, the singer set upon writing a song parodying a disco setting.” (From the song’s very informative Wikipedia page.) The lyrics are a classic story of Disco liberation:

I used to go out to parties and stand around, ’cause I was too nervous to really get down.
But my body yearned to be free, I got up on the floor and thought somebody could choose me.
No more standin’ there beside the walls, I done got myself together baby, and now I’m havin’ a ball.

But what sets this tune (and this recording) apart is the way it’s been made: the structure is free-form, there’s no hook, but rather a series of micro choruses that keep surfacing (in one case only once; it’s my favorite, at 4’54”) out of a dense musical mix, very funky and festive, that keeps growing for almost 12 minutes. There is also a “party track” audible throughout the song: people cheering and having fun – since then, another classic sonic solution. By 1977 Gaye had refined his signature way of recording vocal tracks: several layers of rhytmic and melodic parts, to create a musical tension only possible in a recording studio. This technique has since become the staple for Michael Jackson (who used it in almost every song he’s recorded as an adult) and a host of artists and producers that followed. A good example is Timbaland, who has taken this trick to new heights, recording entire beats using layers of his voice.

There are a few covers of this tune: Aalyah♾ (1996, slower and somewhat different), Atoms for Peace♾ (2013, mechanical and intensely unsexy), and a loungy, bizarre 1978 rendition☊ by Jazz legend Pharoah Sanders. Predictably Justin Timberlake, who owes a lot to this song, played it live♾ in 2008 (his version is identical to the original, and he tries very hard).

Got To Give It Up was first released as a 7″ single (edited into parts I & II) and a 12″ full version (11’50”), and it charted at #1 in many countries. But its legacy is still incredibly powerful. And no, I’m not talking about the 7.4 million dollar compensation that a useless singer and Pharrell Williams (who should have known better) had to pay to Gaye’s family for allegedly copying it. It’s much more complex than that.

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*Regrettably, on digital music stores, the full version is only available in bundle with the album. The links point to the single version, or Part 1.

Runner ups

The Beastie Boys: (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)♾ (1986) At the crossroad between Rock and Rap, this one should have made the top list. One of the first evidences that partying and pranks are more meaningful and profound than most people think. And the video is a classic.

Prince: 1999 (1982) This song is such a party anthem (a meta-party song, as it’s often the case) that it wasn’t just played at all New Years Eve parties between ’82 and ’99, but it still works – backwards. Unfortunately no Prince material is available to stream for free, not even for fair use/educational purposes.

Elio e le Storie Tese: Tapparella♾ (1996) If you don’t speak italian, you’ll miss most of this surreal teenage party drama. Yet it’s worth listening: this Zappaesque band from Milan has been the single most interesting italian musical phenomenon of the past 30 years, elegantly jumping from Rossini♾ to Earth, Wind and Fire☊ and much more.

Pink: Get The Party Started♾ (2001) Written and produced by Linda Perry, this is the song that put Pink on the maps. And at that time she was an interesting Pop object (and female teen role model). The video is pretty, the hook is there, and the rather basic groove just works.

Kool & The Gang: Celebration♾ (1980) Parties, celebrations and good times in general are often the theme of Disco lyrics. Like Good Times by Chic, You Should Be Dancing by the Bee Gees, All Night Long by Lionel Richie or this tune – still a party favorite in many latitudes.

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