Tuesday, December 07, 2010

At Last! A Pop Song About Nairobi!

I believe that pop music has evolved for the better. Take even the most braindead Ke$ha song, and you’ll probably find that it’s less stupid that a lot of the also-rans that got radio play in the 40, 50s and early 60s. Yes, even I can think of many exceptions to the declaration I just made, but the songs we’re both thinking of are more likely not representative of the overall quality of songwriting back then. They’re the good ones, the songs whose fame extends beyond the year they were released in by virtue of not being mere trifles. Let me give you an example of one of the less-than-golden oldies of which I speak: “Roly Poly,” as performed by Muriel Landers in the 1959 movie Pillow Talk.

It’s no slam against Muriel’s music abilities, but the fact that Doris Day and Rock Hudson’s characters are enjoying the song as much as they are makes me think they’re both developmentally disabled. To me, a lot of pop music from back in the day just seems simple. You could make a similar argument about some TV and film, I suppose, but I feel it’s truer of music. Songs that seemed appropriate and fun to audiences back then seem today more like songs for babies.

Also, I’ve long believed that back-up singers from these eras often existed to make the lead vocalist sound better. Think about it. In many songs, they just parrot what comes out of the main singer’s mouth, only in shrill voices. It’s not a bad thing, really, and I’d be lying if I said I never wanted my own trio of doo-wop singers, making me sound smarter and less annoying by comparison. But I’m also glad music have moved away from that technique.

It’s with these thoughts that I present to you Tommy Steele’s “Nairobi.” Despite everything about this 1958 track, Spencer actually heard it just this week, played in a public space as it were the most normal thing in the world.

And here are the lyrics. It’s a call-and-response song, and I’m printing the lyrics with Steele’s unformatted and the back up singers in parentheses. My comments are un-indented.
Listen to the cockatoo
(Listen to the cockatoo)
Singin' to the monkeys
(Singin' to the monkeys)
I have no clue if any part in Kenya has cockatoos or monkeys, to be honest, but I’m willing to believe that these lines constitute scene-setting.
Meet me in the moonlight
(Meet me in the moonlight)
Riding on a donkey
(Riding on a donkey)
Again, I’m not sure if people actually ride donkeys in Nairobi, but I’m at least glad the lyrics didn’t have anyone riding on zebra in a attempt to sound Africa-y.
Meet me in the moonlight
Just the way you used to
(Hot dog!)
Talk a little love talk
(Hey boy!)
Cook a little rooster
(Cook a little rooster!)
At this point in the song, I believe the back-up singers to have gone insane, for they stop repeated Steele’s lines and just start shouting gibberish… except for the whole part about cooking a little rooster, which seems like a weird departure from the developing romantic mood.
Rolling in the sand dunes
(Flying fishy)
Splashing in the water
(Don't get wet)
I'm-a-gonna kiss you
(You're gonna kiss me)
Only when I oughta
(That's nice)
Where to begin? I don’t know why anyone is seeing flying fish in the sand dunes, nor why they’re moving from sand dunes to the water so quickly, nor how anyone can splash in the water without getting wet. However, it’s heartening to see that both male and female parties have consented to refrain from sexually assaulting each other.
I'm a-gonna squeeze you
(I'm a-gonna squeeze you)
Pretty little gum drop
(Pretty little gum drop)
Well, they’re squeezing now. But the women seem okay with that.
Hear the way my heart goes
(Hear the way my heart goes)
If you’re heart is ever going jing-a-ling-a-pop-pop, you should go to the hospital.
Don't tell-a mama
(Oh no)
Don't tell-a papa
(I don't care)
Meet me by the back porch
Give a little ha-ha
(Give a little ha-ha)
Based on the “Don’t tell-a papa / I don’t care” lyrics, I now suspect that the women are less inhibited than I might have guessed. I feel that the “back porch” and “Give a little ha-ha” references are more sexually explicit than I’d expect from the era.
I'm a-gonna be there
(Where's that?)
Waiting at the bamboo
(Big bamboo)
Give a little whistle
(Peep peep)
Make a little yoo-hoo
Two words: “Big bamboo.” A few more: Do they have bamboo in Nairobi? And why did anyone think that “Where’s that?” would be an appropriate response to the line “I’m a-gonna be there”?
Bring along a banjo
(Bring along a banjo)
Plink a little sing-song
(Plink a little sing-song)
Bring along a bongo
(Bring along a bongo)
Pick a little bing-bong
(Pick a little bing-bong)
Just as I suspect that the lyrics-writer has never been to Nairobi and lacked an encyclopedia about the Kenyan capital city, I also suspect that he had never heard a bongo before, for he would have otherwise know that “pick a little bing-bong” isn’t necessarily the best way to describe the sound or action of playing one. Unless “pick a little bing-bong” is perhaps in the same category as “big bamboo,” “back porch” and “ha-ha.”

So that’s the song. Granted, it’s not representative of music in the 60s, exactly, but it does boast some extreme examples of the traits that bother me the most. The song was written by Bob Merrill, best known for penning legit hits “(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window?” and “Mambo Italiano,” but responsible for other oddities such as “She Wears Red Feathers (And a Huly-Huly Skirt)” and “Feet Up (Pat Him on the Po-Po),” the latter of which, yes, does have a Wikipedia page. Be thankful, because it has allowed us to know that po-po is, in fact, a euphemism for the bottom.

In closing, I’d like to say that I hope the Kenyan Tourism Board was very confused by this song and wrote to the record company a letter that featured some variation of the sentence, “This song could not have less to do with our fair capital city.”

Previously overanalyzed lyrics:


  1. In 8th grade, Pillow Talk was my favorite movie and the Roly Poly song my favorite scene, so I memorized all the lyrics and taught myself how to play it on the piano. When I showed my piano teacher, he was unamused and reprimanded me for wasting time instead of practicing. My love for this movie faded, and when I watch it now, am confused as to why I felt so drawn to it as a kid. But Roly Poly remains a delightful, catchy song about fat people that I continue to enjoy today, despite your censure.

  2. The first thing that I thought of was "You won't find Adobe here in Nairobi!". YouTube has ruined my mind, hasn't it?

  3. Anonymous10:00 PM

    The website has it wrong. That's "flying fancy," not "flying fishy." Not that that helps.

  4. If you buy the CD for Getz and Gilberto and look at the liner notes, it contains a long rant about how "Girl from Ipanema" was the last time a good song ever broke through on the radio, and it prove it, they show the titles of the Billboard hits from '88 or something like that.

    I think it's normal for people to hate pop music of their time. But seriously, the 90's had some pretty terrible pop. Hootie and Blowfish made it big, for some reason. (Nothing against them, but they were always meant to be a college/regional band.) In the 2000s at least the hip-hop producers were exploring some innovative beats, even if some of the lyrics were poor. 80s music is mostly good on the instrumentation side, mostly terrible on the singing side. The 70s disco hits were a bit dull in terms of lyrics and themes, but the grooves back then were solid. And the 60s were the 60s, what can you say?

  5. I remember my parents sing that "Pat Him on the Po-Po" song to me when I was a kid. Why, I have no idea.