When I was in high school, I found a record by a comedian I’d never heard of – someone who was apparently big in the 50s – named Stan Freberg. Even though I didn’t get all the references to what were apparently pop culture figures and phenomena of the an earlier generation, Freberg’s musical gifts were apparent, and his wacky takes on songs like “The Great Pretender” and “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” struck me as borderline genius. It seems that musical and comedic gifts often go hand in hand. Think of Steve Martin and his banjo, for example, or Eric Idle and his various songwriting endeavors, with and without his friend George Harrison.
When you add politics to the mix, as Harry Shearer has done in his new album, “Songs of the Bushmen,” it reminds me of something else: John Cleese once said on Fresh Air with Terry Gross that much of his comedy came from feelings of rage that he didn’t otherwise feel comfortable expressing. At some point, Shearer’s angry, pointed barbs about Bush’s administration will be dulled by time; so the question is, do songs like this come with a “best before” date somehow stamped on them? Stan Freberg’s songs are still funny because they play on archetypal images of how musicians behave and how the creative process and the practicalities of a song can clash. It seems to me that how well comic songs do over time depends on how independent the music and comedy is from the specific times and people that inspired them.
Like Stan Freberg, Shearer has evident musical gifts – but anyone who’s seen him in “Spinal Tap” or “A Mighty Wind” already knows that. On the new album, he takes on everything from classic rock to blues, from jazz to Beethoven. The musicians are terrific. But will the comedy survive when the Bush administration has faded away? Given the length of the current presidential campaign, figures like John Bolton and Karen Hughes already seem like ancient history, and songs about them somewhat quaint. But then there’s a song like “Who Is Yoo?” – which blatantly rips off the Who’s classic song “Who Are You?” and recasts it as a funny indictment of John Yoo’s infamous memos on the possible uses of torture. A song like this may still be relevant, unfortunately, when Yoo’s name has faded into history’s footnotes.
Do you have any favorite “topical” songs from bygone years that still sound good today? Or is this type of song doomed to a short shelf life just by its very nature?