Obsessions: December 28th, 2009

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The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle.

Last night, my boyfriend Su and I visited a retro night here in Chicago. Retro nights kind of flip me out—the folks celebrating music from that era tend to be in their mid-20s and early 30s, so their idea of what happened in the 1980s is a really freaky and inaccurate pastiche that stirs up all the neon-colored parts of the decades into a super-syrupy junkfood version of history.

But then again, I can’t really get a bead on whether retro movements’ true goal is to recreate with accuracy, to sample, or to poke fun. We did the same thing in the late 1980s and early 90s when rave, 1970s revisionism, and punk were converging and we all found stockpiles of forgotten bellbottoms and our parents’ punk T-shirts. I know we never meant to do anything but play dress-up. Nevertheless, there we were, making our own stoned, drunk, inadvertent contributions to culture. A lot of the idiotic things done in the clubs then are now an indelible part of pop culture. Some are even now thought of as art.

It’s interesting to see the convoluted way ideas turn from individual habit to cultural icon. Here’s a neat example: Last night, Su was griping that “you just can’t have a decent ’80s night without acknowledging late-era Sex Pistols, and frankly, I want to hear Friggin’ in the Riggin’!” I had no idea what he was talking about. Su’s an amazing DJ in his own right, but he’s known as the guy who plays “the other song”: If there’s one song everyone knows, Su will find the other song that’s just as good but never gets played. So if you request Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming, he’ll yawn in your face, then play Beat My Guest. In other words, I needed to look up Friggin’ in the Riggin’.

It turns out to be a Sex Pistols track that several people have covered, including Anthrax (why have I never heard of this? Oh right, I was busy perfecting my New Wave androgyny). It was the last track of The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, and it was the band’s biggest-selling single. I’m sure that irked the band, considering they were just covering some old drinking song. It’s actually titled The Good Ship Venus, and grew up organically in the early 1800s as a sort of a sea shanty crossed with a drinking game. The idea was that the ship’s crew, drunk off their faces, would make up the bawdiest, dirtiest verses they could, and pass the song around from singer to singer, adding verses to a melody while still making sense. We all know how hard that is when plastered.

Aboard the good shop Venus

The game seems to have first turn into an actual song with set lyrics sometime in the mid-1800s, and appears to have seen its first recording somewhere in the 1950s. The one thing that’s remained fairly constant is the first verse, which sets the course of the song and is deliciously, ridiculously ribald. Since then, it’s been re-recorded and reinterpreted over and over by several artists with different styles each time. Rather than a song, it’s become more of a musical framework.

Incidentally, the melody’s very close to Pop Goes the Weasel, which also comes from mysterious origins and was first put to paper in the same period as The Good Ship Venus. Could it be that the songs are the same? Did sailors come home from the seas to see their children and improvise with cleaned-up lyrics to their own fondly remembered drinking song?

The song seems to have some sort of historical reality to it, possibly based upon the account of a prisoner named Charlotte on a ship named Venus. Whoever she was, whatever happened to her, there was something so vital in her story that it took seed in many different minds as many versions of the same event, thereby burying the real occurrence in strata upon strata of collective memory.

And that’s what’s happening to our individual memories of the ’80s as we speak. Heaven knows what that will turn into as our collective story continues to be written.