For western people like myself, the snake is first and foremost a symbolic animal (and, for some, the object of a specific phobia). Egyptians considered it a divinity, the Greeks associated it with healing, for Jews and Christians it embodies evil deviousness. Snake is also used in everyday language, seldom as a compliment (unless you’re talking about a dancer, or a lover). There are many songs that use the snake as a metaphor. Since Alice Cooper (photo below), snakes have become the mandatory pets of Metal stars. There are even bands with snakes in the name, like Whitesnake or Slash’s Snakepit. Here are some songs with a different perspective on these reptiles.
John Lee Hooker: Crawling King Snake (1959)
In African american music, secular and religious, snakes are abundant. In both cases, the prototype is usually the biblical image of the serpent. This song is an exception and, as usual, there’s a story behind it: “Crawling King Snake is believed to have originated as a Delta blues in the 1920s, and be related to earlier songs, such as Black Snake Blues by Victoria Spivey (1926) and Black Snake Moan by Blind Lemon Jefferson (1926). As Crawling King Snake, it was first recorded by Big Joe Williams☊ in 1941. Shortly after, Delta bluesman Tony Hollins recorded a markedly different version☊, which served as the basis for many subsequent versions. John Lee Hooker began performing it live in the early 1940s.” (edited from Wikipedia)
Crawling King Snake☊ was JLH’s third hit single and, like the previous Boogie Chillen and Hobo Blues, was released in 1948. He re-recorded it eleven years later, for what I consider to be one of his best albums, I’m John Lee Hooker. The two versions are similar in form, but they sound very different. The earlier recording seems somewhat more timid, also because the voice is slightly far away, out of focus. The beat is slower, and a bit restrained. The 1959 version is faster, his foot on a board keeping the beat, and the guitar in the forefront. But it’s his voice, close miked and slightly reverbered, that makes the difference. It’s a haunting, threatening sound from the depths of hell. And the lyrics, macho and menacious, don’t help: he’s the King snake, he rules the place, and he loves it.
You know I’m a crawlin’ king snake baby, and I rules my den
I don’t want you hangin’ around my mate, wanna use her for myself
You know you caught me crawlin’ baby when the, when the grass was very high
I’m just gonna keep on crawlin’ now baby until the day I die,
Because I’m a crawlin’ king snake baby, and I rules my den
Don’t you hangin’ around my mate, wanna use her for myself
You know I’m gon’ crawl up to your window baby, wanna crawl up to your door,
You got anything I want baby, wanna crawl up on your floor
Because I’m a crawlin’ king snake baby, and I rules my den.
There are many covers of this tune. Hooker himself recorded it throughout his career, never managing to summon the same demons. There’s even a 1991 version with Keith Richard☊ (from JLH multiplatinum album Mr Lucky), sadly a bit flat and overproduced. Many other artists have covered Crawling King Snake, including The Doors☊ and Etta James☊ – who adds a layer of oddity, singing it in third person. But no one gets as mean and credible as the King snake himself.
Underworld: King Of Snake (1999/2002)
Underworld have always had a very special quality to me. They are a Techno band, but also manage to add different colors to their tunes. Also, they’re not afraid to venture into strange territory, sometime with amazing results. Two examples: Banstyle/Sappy’s Curry☊ has a fantastic symphonic structure, a perfect one note vocal line and a wagnerian finale. Skym☊, on the other hand, is an emotional foray into digital sound poetry. King Of Snake, and its sampled guitar intro Shudder, were included in Beaucoup Fish, an album with a difficult task: follow the immense success of the single Born Slippy, used in the 1996 blockbuster film Trainspotting.
Underworld’s lyric style is often pure stream of consciousness, and King of Snake is no exception. Set to the mandatory late-90s-Techno 140 bpm, this tune is really an evergreen – still danced to all over the world, in one of the many remixes (legal or otherwise) released throughout the years. The official list is immense, and it’s a Who’s’who of the scene back then: Fatboy Slim, Ashley Beedle, Dave Clarke, Claudio Coccoluto and many others. The song’s bassline is lifted from Donna Summer’s Disco classic I Feel Love☊: that’s why the list of authors includes Giorgio Moroder and Summer. The original version has a spoken montage at the end☊. Again: a little sound poetry (this time in engrish), about snake fighting:
Snake, snake, snake, snake fighting it’s very scary, fighting snake, really dangerous, so it’s really popular, at midnight everybody dancing on the street here, everyone with same identity, down their saki, saki’s really strong, like vodka, really dangerous so, everyone get a roll up of new newspaper, set it on fire, and put it in between, snake fighting life, strong food and strong drink at midnight.
Underworld included a live rendition of King Of Snake in their 2000 album Everything, Everything, that documents the ’98/’99 Beaucoup Fish tour. it’s a beautiful version, and also an occasion to see what a great Techno band at the top of their game could do to an audience*.
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*One of the propelling ingredients of this tune is a House keyboard riff, very simple but murderously funky. In this version it comes in at 3:06, and the crowd goes wild.
Nicki Minaj: Anaconda (2014)
Warning: this song has nothing to do with snakes. The topic is perfectly explained on the cover: it’s the butt, but not just any butt. A BIG one, with prominent cheeks and the ability to behave as if it had a life of its own. The snake analogy is also very obvious (way more than in the elegant John Lee Hooker metaphor). The reptile in question belongs to Sir Mix-a-Lot, and it’s mentioned in his 1992 hit single Baby Got Back, a song that celebrates the African-american female behind. “At the time of its original release, the song caused controversy with its outspoken and blatantly sexual lyrics about women, as well as specific references to the female buttocks which some people found objectionable.” (from Wikipedia) At 3:03 into the song, Sir Mix-a-Lot declares: “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns hun!”
22 years later, this sample found its way to the Queen of Buttocks, Trinidadian-american rapper Nicki Minaj, who built Anaconda around this sampled verse, to celebrate her own sumptuous butt. The controversy started with the often censored cover picture (obscured even on Spotify), and continued with the lavish video, an explicit ode to fat asses. It’s interesting to note that some avant-garde feminists approve of Minaj, who is certainly also putting center stage, and reclaiming, a part of the female black anatomy that hasn’t always been acceptable to the general white audiences (see the illuminating dialog in the intro of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s video♾).
Johnny Cash: (I’m getting swallowed by a) Boa Constrictor☊ (1966) A children song, often performed on Tv. Here’s a country rendition by the Man in Black.
Motörhead: Snake Bite Love☊ (1998) “In the zoo, I wanna see the snakes, I don’t want to see the lions or the gorillas or the apes. I want to see a python squeeze somebody tight. I wanna see a cobra inflate his scary hood, and bite the unsuspecting, I think that’s really good.”
Samuel L. Jackson: Snakes On A Plane♾ (2006): “Enough is enough! I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane. Everybody strap in: we’re about to open some fucking windows.”