Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Space Guitar.

Ask and ye shall receive. No less than two dedicated readers sent on to me the wild "Space Guitar" by Johnny "Guitar" Watson (AKA Young John Watson), after I admitted that I didn't have it. So thanks to them, here it is, in all its reverb and twangy glory.

Watson, born in 1935 in Houston, became a top R&B sideman by the early '50s, playing with the likes of Amos Milburn (two decades later, Watson would be playing with Frank Zappa). Consider Watson's "Space Guitar" the wild, uncouth cousin to Bryant and West's "Stratosphere Boogie"--the sounds the man wreaked from his Stratocaster are frightening.

Released as Federal 12175 (b/w "Half Pint of Whiskey"). Though the single flopped, "Space Guitar" would resound on through the decades. Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Johnny Winter, et al, are inconceivable without it. Find it on Very Best of.

Thanks to: Jason Smith and Ray Davis.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Big Joe Turner, Shake, Rattle & Roll.

I'm gone the rest of the week, so no time, nor reason, to gas on about this one. It's the mother lode--the colossus--possibly the finest rock and roll record ever made. It stomps, it swings, it kicks it all over the place. Like St. Augustine said, it's "sound that time cannot seize."

And good Lord, it's filthy. It begins:

Get outta that bed
wash your face and hands

and just gets better.

If you don't have it, get it.

Recorded on February 15, 1954, and released as Atlantic 1026. The vitiated Bill Haley version still gets played more on oldies stations.

Monday, January 23, 2006


Nolan Strong and the Diablos, The Wind.

One of the odder records made in the '50s, "The Wind" is both campy and unknowable. After an intro out of Night Gallery, the Diablos enter, anchored by a droning bass intoning "Wind..wind..bloow-oh-whooow", as if supplicating a god of some sort, and at last Strong's falsetto, drenched in echo, takes the verse. It's a glorious taste of early doo wop. But then comes the middle section, in which Nolan speaks some ridiculous lyrics in a gossamer voice freakily similar to Michael Jackson's. (Something first noticed by Dave Marsh, who put the song near the top of his 1,001 singles list.)

Strong would continue to make recordings for another decade, none as compelling or as strange as this, until 1962, when he surfaced with an amazing rock & roll single "Mind Over Matter" that seemed to presage the Rolling Stones. So Nolan had a gift for pop prophecy, if nothing else.

Released as Fortune 511 in September 1954. Find it on Fortune of Hits, a compilation that seems to be out of print but can be purchased on a number of websites.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


George Handy, Pegasus.
George Handy, Blinuet.

It is a summer evening in the late 1930s, and there is a stultifying society dance in a Brooklyn neighborhood rapidly going out of fashion. Swains, debutantes, bored middle-aged men are scattered all around, and a swing band is playing just what you’d expect—“Begin the Beguine," “Night and Day,"“Isle of Capri.”

On the stage, the pianist is an intense kid wearing glasses and scowling at everyone—the oblivious dancers, his fellow musicians and, most especially, the bandleader, who plays the accordion and who swings by the pianist every so often, like a teacher inspecting a child’s finger painting. A new tune starts, and it appears the pianist is getting a solo: after a cursory run through the tune's melody, he begins spiking out chords, whirling across the keyboard, shattering the rhythm, throwing off his compatriots. It sounds like a Stravinsky piece, but demented.

The dancers look confused, some walk off the floor. The bandleader is flustered, his cheeks rouged with anger and embarassment, and he zips over to the pianist to get him to stop. At first, the pianist ignores him. The bandleader tries again, a wave of his hand as if to indicate the waning audience. "Hey, they're dancing," he pleads. "Play the melody." The pianist replies, quite loudly: “Fuck you!”

This was the pianist George Handy in his youth.

And the whole place stopped dancing. He sat down and went back to his shit like it never happened…We went on with the tune, and we played another tune whatever, society tune and, again, when it was George's turn, he went into Stravinsky, and Herb (the bandleader) talked to him again, and again George said, ‘Hey, I told you to go fuck yourself.’ And Herb said, ‘Go home.’ But George wouldn’t go home. He went over to my vibes, and, oh, it was a scene. But George was different anyhow, of all the guys. But George has got talent.”

So recalled the vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, quoted in Ira Gitler’s Swing to Bop.

George Handy is the type of pioneer who never got the recognition he deserved, in good part because he didn't want it. After an intensive period in the late 1940s (in which he turned Boyd Raeburn's swing band into an avant-garde troupe), a few solo recordings in the early '50s and a period with Zoot Sims, Handy fell off the map, dying almost a complete unknown in 1997.

Handy, born in in Brooklyn in 1920, was of the generation of jazz players who attempted, with varying degrees of success, to incorporate the innovations of recent classical compositions, especially the works of Bartok and Stravinsky, into the more populist world of jazz.

He joined the Army in 1940, worked with Raymond Scott for a time and joined Boyd Raeburn's band at the Lincoln Hotel in 1944 (around the same time he worked as a songwriter for Paramount Studios). During those years, Handy was considered the hottest new arranger in jazz circles, regarded as the equal, if not the superior, of the likes of Neal Hefti, Billy May or Nelson Riddle.

After disappearing for a few years, he returned in the early '50s and recorded a pair of albums for RCA Victor's short-lived, esoteric "Label X." On the night of August 16, 1954, Handy and a hand-picked group of players taped a session in front of a group of friends at New York's Webster Hall, then regarded as a "large meeting place typically used for weddings" (according to the LP liner notes). (One of the worst nights I ever endured in NYC in the 1990s was at Webster Hall, in its latter-day incarnation as a hothouse overrun by club kids.)

The session resulted in a great LP, christened with the uncompelling title Handyland USA and given the sort of LP cover that only the 1950s could produce--a farrago featuring a castle apparently drawn by Rankin-Bass, some "serious" band photos tinged so deeply blue that everyone seems to have cyanosis, and a driver's map of a gruesome series of highway intersections, cleverly dotted with track names.

Here are two tracks from it: the jaunty “Pegasus”, which features a glorious opening solo on alto sax by Dave Schildkraut. And “Blinuet,” in which Mozart meets cool jazz, could be Handy’s most recognizable tune, as it was featured (in a version recorded by Zoot Sims) on the Rushmore soundtrack.

Players: Allen Eager (tenor sax), Danny Banks (bari sax), Schildkraut (alto sax), Kai Winding (trombone), Handy (p), Burke (b) and Art Mardigan (d). Handyland USA is found on import CD here. More on Handy.

Top painting: Dubuffet, The Cow with the Subtile Nose.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Stratosphere Boogie.
Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Flippin' the Lid.

Jimmy Bryant, on electric guitar, played bebop-fused country, reeling out knotty lines at speeds rivaling Bud Powell, with picking as clean as water. Speedy West was a peacock--his playing was studded with flamboyant runs up the guitar necks while he rapped the fretting bar against the strings.

But listening to "Stratosphere Boogie," their best track as soloists, provides a far better sense of what the two men could do than mere words are able to.

Ivy J. Bryant was born in Pavo, Georgia, in 1925. He served in Europe during WWII, was injured by a grenade and convalesced in a Washington DC hospital in 1945, where he began playing the guitar, his greatest inspiration being Django Reinhardt. Wesley West, born in Springfield, Mo. in 1924, worked on his family's farm to raise crops during the war, becoming subsumed in learning how to play steel guitar like his idol, Leon McAuliffe, Bob Wills' classic guitarist.

By 1946, both men had married and had moved to Los Angeles. One night at Murphy's Bar the two met and jammed for the first time, and realized they were kindred souls. Over the next seven years, they became session gods, playing on hits like Tennessee Ernie Ford's "I'll Never Be Free" and the great Jean Shepard tracks featured last week.

Each was armed with a new type of guitar: West played a three-neck pedal steel, custom-made by Paul Bigsby (using a pedal enabled the steel player to play more adventurous chords, while Bigsby's perfection of the whammy bar gave the player greater control of the instrument's sound.) Nor did West play like a traditional steel guitarist, who typically sat on the stage, stone-still, as if setting linotype--West hopped around, sweeping his arms across the frets.

And Bryant was the first professional guitarist to endorse Leo Fender's prototype, the solid body electric guitar known as the Fender Telecaster.

On their solo sessions (they made about 50 instrumentals for Capitol), West and Bryant were recorded without artifice--their amps were faced against each other in the studio, using the same microphone; West and Bryant would typically grind out four tracks at a pop: the tracks were often improvised, with no take sounding the same, and with track names tacked on as an afterthought.

"Stratosphere" was born when Bryant got a new guitar--the double neck Stratosphere Twin, which had six-string and 12-string necks, enabling Bryant to essentially duet with himself. With West's soaring contributions, the performance sounds like it's been multi-tracked, or performed by a guitar armada. And the wild "Flippin' the Lid" is fused from the wreckage of the folk/country standard "My Pretty Little Pink".

Both were recorded on September 2, 1954, in Los Angeles. "Stratosphere" was released as Capitol 2964 and, although it didn't chart nationally, was quite popular among the emerging class of DJs. "Flippin'" was released as Capitol 3026. The band included Billy Strange, providing superfluous rhythm guitar, Cliffie Stone (b), Les Taylor (p) and Pee Wee Adams (d). Both can be found on Stratosphere Boogie, a great Razor & Tie compilation.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


Jean Shepard, Two Whoops and a Holler.
Jean Shepard, Don't Fall in Love with a Married Man.

"I went up and I see this little mite of a girl with this big bass, and she was whacking away, and I liked her and I signed her." So said Ken Nelson, head of Capitol Records' country music division, about the night he first saw the mighty Jean Shepard.

At a time when women in country music served mainly as either muses or metaphors (honky tonk jezebels, basically) Jean Shepard took on cultural hypocrisy and adultery (lots and lots of adultery) in her songs with a smirk and a lot of fire. Along with Kitty Wells, she cleared the way for everyone from Loretta Lynn to the Dixie Chicks.

Ollie Imogene Shepard was born in Paul's Valley, Oklahoma, in 1933 at the depth of the Dust Bowl era. She, along with nine other siblings, lived in colossal poverty, in a dust-blown house without electricity or running water. The Shepards did have a radio, though, so young Jean could listen to the Grand Ole Opry, and once a year, her father bought a Jimmie Rodgers record with the pennies he had saved.

After the war, the family moved out to California, following in the wake of thousands of Okies, and when Jean was a sophomore in high school she helped found an all-girl country band, the Melody Ranch Girls, in which she sung and played bass. Because there were so few women country singers (and because Jean wasn't interested in doing "girl" numbers anyhow), the Melody Ranch Girls covered Hank Williams and Bob Wills.

By 1952, the band broke up, in part due to cultural pressures. As Jean put it years later, "the girls got to be marrying, and the husbands started getting jealous." But luckily, before the split, Hank Thompson had seen Jean play and advocated for her at Capitol Records, which signed Shepard. (Capitol was also looking to find competition for Kitty Wells.)

When she first recorded, she was 18 years old and terrified, but luckily she had a fantastic session band for her first single--the guitarists Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant (who will be turning up on "Locust St" very soon) and Cliffie Stone on bass. The result was "Twice the Lovin' (in Half the Time)", a fantastic honky-tonk number distinguished by a typically sly, dextrous steel solo by West.

In 1953, Jean had a major hit dueting with Ferlin Husky on the weepy "A Dear John Letter" and there were some at Capitol who wanted to smother Jean in tepid duets with male singers (the awful follow-up to "Dear John", "Forgive Me John", shows the road thankfully not taken), but again, she had support where it counted, from label head Nelson.

So at the tail end of '53, Jean recorded the incredible "Two Whoops and a Holler", which, while written by a man (Joseph Franklin), is about as feminist as the '50s ever got. The lyrics may have been written as a bit of a joke on the singer--listen to this gal speak her mind!--but Shepard sings it with ferocity, brilliance and a great dose of black humor; it's an astonishing performance. "Two Whoops" was recorded on December 17, 1953 and issued in April 1954 as the b-side of the vastly inferior "Why Did You Wait" (Capitol F2791).

And "Don't Fall in Love with a Married Man", recorded a few months later, showcases just how well Jean could sing traditional country. It was recorded on April 12, 1954, and issued in Sept '54 as the b-side of "You'll Come Crawlin' Back" (Capitol F2905).

Shepard's back catalog on CD is a bit of a mess. For the avid and the cash-happy, there is the 5-CD set Melody Ranch Girl. Otherwise, there is little from which to choose: Jean Shepard, a hodgepodge of later stuff; a couple of cut-rate collections that have few songs from her classic years; and one truly great compilation on CD: Honky Tonk Heroine, which collects the best of the 1952-1964 years and was issued by the Country Music Foundation in 1995 but scarcely distributed--it is available used, for a relatively steep price, but worth it.

Jean Shepard is now recording for Enormous Records--here are some of her more recent recordings.

Top photo: the '54 Studebaker.

Monday, January 09, 2006

7 Drinks of Mankind: Water

The Sons of the Pioneers, Cool Water.
Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina, Águas De Março (Waters Of March).
Tommy Johnson, Cool Drink of Water Blues.
Burl Ives, Cool Water.
The Cats and the Fiddle, I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water.
Francis Lemarque, D'Amour et d'Eau Fraiche.
Frankie Laine, Cool Water.
Grant McLennan, Hot Water.
DeFord Bailey, Ice Water Blues.
Marty Robbins, Cool Water.
The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Jesus Gave Me Water.
Bob Dylan and the Band, Cool Water.

And I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first,
And I will drink clear, clean water for to quench my thirst.

Van Morrison, "Sweet Thing."

Yes: in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown.
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.

Matthew Arnold, To Marguerite.

How still,
How strangely still
The water is today,
It is not good
For water
To be so still that way.

Langston Hughes, Sea Calm.

The way of the dark water is to ponder
The way the light sings as of something waning.
The far-off water fall can sound asunder

Stillness of distances, as if in blunder,
Tumbling over the rim of all explaining.
Water proves nothing, but can only maunder...

John Hollander, Variations on a Fragment by Trumbull Stickney.

These were happy moments. Still more delightful were the moments where they reached the stream where the rows ended, and the old man rubbed his scythe with the wet, thick grass, rinsed its blade in the fresh water of the stream, ladled out a little in a tin dipper, and offered Levin a drink.

‘What do you say to my home-brew, eh? Good, eh?’ said he, winking.

And truly Levin had never drunk any liqueur so good as this warm water with green bits floating in it, and a taste of rust from the tin dipper.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

And the three brake through the host of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem, that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David: but David would not drink of it, but poured it out to the Lord.

1 Chronicles, 18.

The sea all water, yet receives rain still
And in abundance addeth to his store

Shakespeare, Sonnet CXXXV.

Things That Give a Clean Feeling

An earthen cup. A new metal bowl.
A rush mat.
The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book.

A serious moment for the water is
when it boils
And though one usually regards it
merely as a convenience
To have the boiling water
available for bath or table
Occasionally there is someone
around who understands
The importance of this moment
for the water—maybe a saint...

Kenneth Koch, The Boiling Water.

A growing number of rural and suburban water systems are owned by a handful of publicly traded utilities, like Aqua America...at levels that might seem more appropriate for commodities like precious metals or petroleum....investors who are bullish on the industry say it it about to undergo a historic change--moving oceans of municipal water into the hands of for-profit companies.

NY Times (30 Oct 2005).

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.

Lao-tse, Tao te Ching, 8.

And it was said, 'O earth! swallow down your water!' and, 'O heaven! hold! 'and the water abated; and the affair was decided, and it settled on al-Judi, and it was said, 'Away with the people who are evildoers!'

The Qu'ran, Sura 11.

The entire house will drown!
Everywhere I look, I see
water, water, running down.

Goethe, The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

The continued heating of the atmosphere had begun to melt the polar ice-caps...tens of thousands of glaciers poured themselves into the sea, millions of acres of permafrost liquefied into gigantic rivers...the new seas completely altered the shape and countours of the continents. The Middle West of the United States, filled by the Mississippi as it drained the Rocky Mountains, became an enormous gulf opening to the Hudson Bay...Europe became a system of giant lagoons, centred on the principal low-lying cities, inundated by the silt carried southwards by the expanding rivers...

J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World.

Shelley never flourished far from water. When compelled to take up his quarters in a town, he every morning, with the instinct that guides the water-birds, fled to the nearest lake, river, or sea-shore, and only returned to roost at night. If debarred from this, he sought out the most solitary places.

Edward Trelawny, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion ;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink ;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

No wind disturbs our coloured sails.
The radio is silent, so are we.
Julie's head is on her arm;
Her fingers brush the surface of the sea
Now I wonder if we'll be seen here
Or if time has left us all alone.
The still sea is darker than before...

Brian Eno, "Julie With..."

My spirit wails for water, water now!
My tongue is aching dry, my throat is hot
For water, fresh rain shaken from a bough,
Or dawn dews heavy in some leafy spot.

Claude McKay, Thirst.

I asked for water
and she gave me gasoline.

Tommy Johnson, "Cool Drink of Water Blues."

'But do you really sustain your bodies on water?'

'Supposing you could find nothing else to live on, Maskull--would you eat other men?'

'I would not.'

'Neither will we eat plants and animals, which are our fellow creatures. So nothing is left to us but water, and as one can really live on anything, water does very well.'

David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs- commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.

Randall Jarrell, Well Water.

Water Music

Five takes on Bob Nolan's "Cool Water," which he wrote in 1936; it soon became as much a Wild West legend as Wyatt Earp. Nolan's Sons of the Pioneers first recorded it in 1941, with haunting harmonies (find here); Burl Ives' take is on 1961's Songs of the West--it's an odd version, with Ives wringing every effect he can from the verses' rhymes while hobbled by a cheesy "clop clop" rhythm; Marty Robbins' fairly spare take is on 1959's Gunfighter Ballads; Frankie Laine's Technicolor performance became a huge hit in 1955--find here. The Dylan/Band version is part of the cache of Basement Tapes recordings which have not been officially released. One day, maybe.

"Waters of March", from 1974, is on Elis and Tom.

Johnson's epochal "Cool Drink of Water Blues" and Bailey's "Ice Water Blues", both from 1928, are found here and here.

Grant McLennan's "Hot Water" is from 1994's Horsebreaker Star, one of the records of the 1990s I was confident would be established as a classic. Naturally, it's now out of print (but easy to find).

Lemarque's ode to love and fresh water is from 1951--find it here. Cats and Fiddle's "Muddy Water", from 1939, is on When the Sun Goes Down 4. The Five Blind Boys' "Jesus Gave Me Water", from 1950, was featured on this site way back last year. Here's an encore performance. On All Time Gospel Greats.

End Credits

Thanks especially to:
Tom Standage.
Rev. Frost.
Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Radio CRMW.
Bibb Edwards and Ed from the Old Blue Bus.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

7 Drinks of Mankind: Cola

The New Seekers, I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke.
Lord Invader, Pepsi Cola.
Mel Tillis, Coca Cola Cowboy.
The Fugs, Coca Cola Douche.
Lost Kids, Cola Freaks.
Edwin Birdsong, Cola Bottle Baby.
The Clash, Koka Kola.
The Waltons, Coca Cola is Coke.
The Coolies, Coke Light Ice.
T. Rex, Pepsi Jingle.

A Prelude

"We took off our goddam skates and went inside this bar where you can get drinks and watch the skaters in just your stocking feet. As soon as we sat down, old Sally took off her gloves, and I gave her a cigarette. She wasn't looking too happy. The waiter came up, and I ordered a Coke for her--she didn't drink--and a Scotch and soda for myself, but the sonuvabitch wouldn't bring me one, so I had a Coke, too. Then I sort of started lighting matches. I do that quite a lot when I'm in a certain mood. I sort of let them burn down till I can't hold them any more, then I drop them in the ashtray. It's a nervous habit."

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.

Our American Cousin

He thought he was the king of America
where they pour Coca Cola just like vintage wine.

Elvis Costello, "Brilliant Mistake."

The Sumerians and Egyptians bequeathed us beer, the Greeks, Romans and Hebrews, wine; to the Arabs we owe the miracles of distillation and coffee; the Chinese have given us tea. As for the Americans, we have given the world soda pop.

In particular, we have given the world cola. Call it the taste of modern democracy, the upper that is safe for children to drink, the world's common currency, a symbol of everything enjoyed and reviled about the United States. Providing a happy daily dose of caffeine and sugar to the masses, cola is a completely artificial drink that is advertised as being "real"; it is the great leveler--literally colorless, able to be drunk in the morning or evening, in any season, at any caste of society.

Cola, against the wishes of its manufacturers, also has become a metaphor for progress or imperialism, take your pick. For the Eastern bloc during the Cold War, it was a symbol of the forbidden lures of the West; for the nationalist in Indonesia, or Ghana, or Yemen, it is an acid dissolving centuries of tradition, apparently overnight.

Perhaps there is only one thing everyone can agree on about cola: it's not good for your teeth.

Andy Warhol, Green Coca Cola Bottles, 1962.

There are very few cola songs in popular music, in good part because the two major soda companies have done an admirable job over the past century in writing and creating their own approved music, brilliantly aping current sounds, and paying the biggest names in popular music, from Ray Charles to Michael Jackson, to sing for them.

The only "unauthorized" songs about cola tend to be obscure, odd things, half-remembered at best, by bands whose names few have heard. They are funny, bitter, sometimes violent--but almost impossible to summarize, really. Writing about Coke is like writing about the President, or Allstate Insurance--it's almost too broad a target, too ambitious a task to take on in the confines of a song.

Plus, the cola companies and their hired songwriters are strong competition: cola jingles have a way of infesting contemporary music and creating simulacra that sound as good as, if not better than, than the real issue.

Take Michael Jackson's Pepsi ads from the mid-1980s, in which Jackson rewrote his hit "Billie Jean" (for over $5.5 million) as "You're a Whole New Generation." Greil Marcus, in Lipstick Traces, thought the commercial was a stronger track:

"...one could hear 'You're a Whole New Generation' as a new piece of music. It was tougher: the rhythm was harsh, the production not elliptical but direct, Jackson's voice not pleading or confused but fierce. When he sang the line, "That choice is up to you", dramatizing the consumer's option of Pepsi vs. Coke, he made it sound like a moral choice."

It's hard to describe just how culturally ominpresent these ads became--I recall reading the TV listings in the newspaper and seeing that an episode of "Love Boat" was highlighted simply because a Jackson commerical was going to air during the show.

1964: the two Atlantic icons meet at last

But perhaps the greatest case in point is the New Seekers' "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke", from 1971, the most memorable of Coke jingles, at least for anyone in my generation, to whom the song became a childhood hymn.

The jingle was so popular that the ad was hastily rewritten into an actual pop hit, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," with lyrics celebrating Coke replaced by Madison Avenue's idea of hippie-isms, but "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" sounds far better than its "legitimate" replacement. It's punchier, the harmonies are craftier, and, since it's barely a minute long, it compresses the song into its core essence. If you want, go ahead and buy a CD full of commercial jingles. "Remember, just because you get hooked on the jingle for a particular commercial, you are under no obligation to actually go out and buy/use the product," as one helpful Amazon reviewer writes.

Or Lord Invader's happy "Pepsi Cola", which isn't a jingle but sounds like it's auditioning for the role. The song was allegedly the fruit of an attempt by Pepsi to push songwriters to create a rival for the then-popular "Rum and Coca Cola"; Invader's version was never released, and was at last collected on a new compilation: Calypso in New York.

Fixed air

"The whole washed down with generous amounts of Tab, a fiery liquor brewed under license by the Coca-Cola Company which will not divulge the age-old secret recipe no matter how one begs and pleads with them but yearly allows a small quantity to circulate to certain connoisseurs and bibbers whose credentials meet the very rigid requirements of the Cellarmaster. All of this stupendous feed being a mere scherzo before the announcement of the main theme, chilidogs."

Donald Barthelme, We Have All Misunderstood Billy the Kid.

Soda was born around 1767, when an English clergyman and amateur chemist, Joseph Priestley, who lived next door to a brewery, began experimenting with what the brewers called "fixed air": that is, the bubbling gases generated by the fermentation vats. By pouring water between two glasses held over a brewing vat, Priestley was able to cause the gas to dissolve in the water instead, creating "sparkling water."

By 1800, the concept of soda water--water infused with what we now know is carbon dioxide--had diffused throughout Europe, though generally considered a sort of medicine. (Even today, drinking Coke is the best thing for an upset stomach, I find). The likes of Schweppe in London began selling soda water as a general, all purpose beverage, and by 1810, soda water was being sold in the U.S. as well: the soda "fountain" (whose product would be mixed with various syrups, such as strawberries or sarsaparilla) becoming a staple of apothecary shops, the forerunners of drug stores.

Much of this history comes from (of course) Tom Standage's A History of the World in Six Glasses.

Pepsi graciously provides its own sheet music for its awful cartoon

Cola--essentially, soda water infused with extracts from the coca plant and/or kola nuts--came out of this tradition, but also has ties to another venerable American ancestor--the traveling quack.

"I'll be shot if it ain't a Yankee!" begins Constance Rourke's depiction of a typical traveling hustler, descending upon an American frontier town, circa 1780.

"With scarcely a halt, the peddler made his way into their houses and silver leapt into his pockets. When his pack was unrolled, calicoes, glittering knives, razors, scissors, cotton caps made a holiday at a fair...every one bought...Staying the night at a tavern, he traded the landlord out of bed and breakfast and left with most of the money in the settlement..."

Throughout the 19th Century, a regular feature of your typical mountebank was his variety of elixirs for sale--balsams, creams, oils, concoctions--a good many of which consisted of adulterated dope: laudanum, cocaine, morphine. And in addition to the traveling quack, there was a strong growth in the "patent medicine" catalog business after the Civil War, in which someone with a toothache could order via mail essentially a nice gallon of dope for her troubles.

Coke paterfamilias

An Atlanta pharmacist named John Pemberton had been reading in medical journals about some of the latest wonder cures, and determined to experiment with a few. One was extract of the coca plant. Leaves of the coca plant, when chewed, provide the sort of natural high similar to that caused by chewing tea leaves or coffee beans, but in 1855, cocaine was extracted for the first time from the leaves, and the world would never be same again.

Coke ad,1933: wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door

Pemberton first attempted to sell a coca-infused wine, to which he added another hip additive--extract of African koka nuts, which had long been used in Western Africa as an all-purpose pain reliever and pick-me-up. In classic grifter fashion, Pemberton essentially stole the formula of a French coca wine and even rewrote celebrity testimonials so that they became endorsements for his own drink.

But Pemberton, whose coca wine likely would have flopped eventually and been filed away in history's dustbin, got a second chance when Atlanta decided to prohibit alcohol sales for a two-year trial period in 1886. Pemberton went back to the laboratory to create a non-alcoholic version of his drink, coming up with soda water infused with coca and kola and a good dose of sugar to mask the bitterness of the two main ingredients. Thus was born Coca Cola, first offered in an Atlanta pharmacy in May 1886.

Pemberton was dead of stomach cancer two years later, and after a legal wrangle, control of Coca Cola fell to Asa Candler, the man who would transform Coke from a questionable drugstore potion to the lifeblood of American commerce. (Candler always hated the nickname "Coke".)

Two American takes on Coke: "Coca Cola Cowboy", Mel Tillis' contribution to the Clint Eastwood 1978 film Every Which Way But Loose (the first of the orangutan movies). On Greatest Hits. A contribution by Jamie at Radio CRMW.

And The Waltons' "Coca Cola is Coke" was the B-side of the band's first single, released in 1987. While I was trying to come up with songs that would qualify for this post, I remembered hearing this track many, many years ago or so on a college radio station, but figured I would never find it. But, thanks to coincidence or divine intervention, the fine blog Something Old Something New posted it earlier this week. So thanks to them.

The monument of Queens, NY

Coke had its growing pains. In 1898, the federal government began finally regulating patent medicines, which Coke was classified as, and imposed a tax on them. So Candler and other Coke barons had to make a critical choice--whether to give up marketing Coke as a wonder drug (and risk losing the lucrative pharmacy trade) and instead push it as a healthy, family-friendly general beverage. They went with the latter choice, which made them millionaires. (Around 1900 also came the appearance of Coke's great rival, Pepsi.)

The drink had its enemies, such as Harvey Washington Wiley, the first FDA Commissioner and a leading force behind the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Wiley began investigating Coke soon afterward, worried that children were heartily drinking caffeine and even traces of cocaine in a drink their parents believed to be harmless.

A Cocaine Interlude

Yes--there was cocaine in Coca Cola, up until 1905 or so. It's one of those things that stoners and the conspiracy-minded love to obsess about, but drinking a bottle of Coke was usually never the equivalent of doing a line of coke--by the time of mass production, ca. 1900, the drink only had very small traces of cocaine (in the form of coca extract) in it.

Some estimate Pemberton's original mixture, however, had about 9 mg of cocaine per glass. So if you had three Cokes a day, well, you're feeling pretty elated. It was enough to give the drink a racy reputation: In William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, written in the late 1920s, Faulkner has the repugnant Jason Compson heading to the drugstore every few hours for a "dope", which Compson claims helps his headaches.

And the parallels between international Coke distribution and international drug cartels proved too potent for some to resist. The Clash's "Koka Kola", from 1979's London Calling, sums it up--one of the album's lesser tracks, but one I've always enjoyed.

The United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca Cola

Wiley's case against Coke, the brilliantly-named The United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca Cola (1911), was Coke's life or death moment. But Wiley, luckily for Coke, blew his prosecution--calling as witnesses religious fundamentalists who blamed Coke for various sexual transgressions ("wild nocturnal freaks" at one girl's school, allegedly) and a number of junk scientists who drew upon shaky experiments involving rabbits. The core problem for Wiley, and what doomed him, was that he appeared to be mainly attacking Coke for having caffeine in it, which was not illegal, and nor was Wiley was not looking to ban tea or coffee, which had similar doses.

The courts ultimately ruled in favor of Coca Cola, which did agree to reduce its caffeine count and not to picture children in its advertisements (something it adhered to until the 1980s). So Coke was finally freed of its unsavory reputation, and prepared to become something far greater than John Pemberton could have ever dreamed.

1918: Coke has done its part, now do yours

"Wild nocturnal freaks" sounds pretty interesting. The Lost Kids were a Danish punk group: "Cola Freaks" is from their only release, a 1979 EP. I found the track last year on the blog Strange Reaction.

Thirst Knows No Season

The walls decorated with posters, bathing girls, blondes with big breasts and slender hips and waxen faces, in white bathing suits, and holding a bottle of Coca-Cola and smiling--see what you get with a Coca-Cola?

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

move over, Molly Bloom

Going through a bunch of old Coke magazine ads from the '20s through the '60s for this post, what struck me is that a great many of them could have doubled as Esquire pin-ups. What sold Coke? Apparently pictures of pretty girls, decade after decade.

1923: Prohibition? What prohibition?

The WWII years were the pinnacle of this strategy. Along with cheap 5-cent Cokes, soldiers in Europe and Asia were plastered with illustration after illustration of beautiful, eager girls waiting for them back home.

1943: fuel for the baby boom

1947--utterly ecstatic because you're coming home!!

1945--just like old times indeed

Cola has also had a long, if sadly ineffective, use as an alleged spermicide by desperate teenagers.

"Back in the 1950s and 1960s, this method of parenthood prevention proved somewhat popular because not only was it cheap and universally available at a time when reliable birth control methods were hard to come by, but it also came in its own handy "shake and shoot" disposable applicator. After intercourse, the girl would uncap a warm Coke, put her thumb over the mouth of the bottle, shake up the beverage..."

Read on if you want the gory details.

1965--the end of the Coke cheesecake era

The Fugs' "Coca Cola Douche" is an ode to teenage Coke-bottle contraception. This is a live recording from the Fillmore East in 1968, found on Golden Filth. (Studio version on Virgin Fugs.) Contributed by Jamie from Radio CRMW. A warning for the wary--this is probably the most obscene song ever posted on this site.

By the early '70s, the era of the Coke Babe ended, replaced by photos of happy young people of mixed sex and mixed races, creating a sort of utopian society of true believers. The lustful urges have been replaced by frenetic activity--that's why people in cola ads are always hand-gliding, or water-skiing, or snowboarding or running down a mountain. Poor bastards.

Edwin Birdsong's 1979 "Cola Bottle Baby" was the template for the Daft Punk track "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger". Birdsong, a neglected funk artist who's been championed by a number of fine blogs over the past year, deserves a good anthology. Until then, "Cola Bottle" is only available on expensive, out of print CDs.

In Which Coke and Pepsi Conquer the World

"At every table, some great-aunt
would steer him with cool spotted hands
to a glass of Coca-Cola.
One even sang to him, in all the English
she could remember, a Coca-Cola jingle
from the forties. He drank obediently, though
he was bored with this potion, familiar
from soda fountains in Brooklyn."

Martin Espada, Coca Cola and Coco Frio.

Some time between Pearl Harbor and the founding of NATO, Coke and Pepsi began dominating the world.

It happened innocently enough--American troops in WWII, being shipped to the South Pacific and Europe, wanted a steady supply of Cokes, and Coke complied, keeping its price at five cents a bottle, regardless of production costs. Of course, this was helped by Coke being exempted from sugar rationing, which the company managed by stressing its morale-boosting efforts.

Rather than shipping Coke overseas, which would have cost a fortune, Coke instead set up military-run production and bottling plants. These followed in the wakes of Allied victories--Northern Africa, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Burma, the Philippines, and ultimately Germany and Japan. When the war ended, the plants stayed, now being run by civilians. Suddenly, Coke had local production units in nearly every Western European country, as well as a good chunk of the Pacific. By 1950, a third of Coke's profits came from outside the U.S.

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Colonel... that Coca-Cola machine. I want you to shoot the lock off it. There may be some change in there.

Colonel "Bat" Guano: That's private property.

Mandrake: Colonel! Can you possibly imagine what is going to happen to you, your frame, outlook, way of life, and everything, when they learn that you have obstructed a telephone call to the President of the United States? Can you imagine? Shoot it off! Shoot! With a gun! That's what the bullets are for, you twit!

Guano: Okay. I'm gonna get your money for ya. But if you don't get the President of the United States on that phone, you know what's gonna happen to you?

Mandrake: What?

Guano: You're gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.

Dr. Strangelove, 1964.

Coke's association with Western policies, becoming a symbol of Yankee aggression and thus banned by the USSR and its satellites, wound up helping Pepsi, which began bottling soda in the USSR during the '60s, for example.

Cildo Meireles, Inserções em Circuitos Ideológicos: Projeto Coca-Cola [Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project] 1970

And so it on went--Coke getting in trouble in the Middle East, first for allegedly ignoring Israel to win a share of the growing Arab market, then facing an Arab boycott in 1968 for setting up shop in Israel; Pepsi winding up on the table of the Iraqi cease-fire in 1991, and both occasionally getting dumped on the ground, burned in effigy and blamed for all sorts of atrocities, real and cultural, by people around the globe.

1991: Norman Schwarzkopf accepts Iraqi cease-fire, with strategically placed Pepsi

I said to him, "Why is it, Alfonse, that decent, well-meaning and responsible people find themselves intrigued by catastrophe when they see it in television?"

I told him about the recent evening of lava, mud and raging water that the children and I had found so entertaining. "We wanted more, more."

"It's natural, it's normal," he said, with a reassuring nod. "It happens to everybody."


"Because we're suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information...Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy the disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom."

Cotsakis crushed a can of Diet Pepsi and threw it at a garbage pail.

Don DeLillo, White Noise.

A Whole New Generation

The children of Marx (well, maybe not) and Coca Cola

I had thought cola would always be with us, possibly existing as the last beverage on earth, but there are some signs it's losing its long-held grip on youth (at least in the U.S.) Kids who want a caffeine fix are now going for more hardcore stuff, like Red Bull, and there's now a movement afoot by concerned parents to ban soda vending machines from schools.

"Coke Light Ice" is off the Coolies' 1988 album Doug (out of print for ages, buy it for a ridiculous price here), a parodic rock opera about a skinhead who beats up a transvestite cook and steals his recipes. The Coolies were Atlanta-based--their only other record was dig?, a collection of Simon & Garfunkel covers.

the great dream, still unfulfilled

A Half-Century of Coke Ads

The McGuire Sisters, Be Really Refreshed.
The Bee Gees, Things Go Better With Coca Cola.
Petula Clark, Things Go Better With Coca Cola.
It's the Real Thing.
Coke Adds Life.
Aretha Franklin and the Supremes, Look Up America.
Coke Is It.
Joey Diggs, Always Coca Cola.
Life Tastes Good.

The McGuire Sisters' "Be Really Refreshed", from 1959, is one of Coke's scarier anthems. A high-treble mantra with a main riff possibly performed on accordion(!!), the jingle mainly consists of two strains, chanted and chanted over again, one of which especially gives me nightmares: "King Size Coke Has More for You! KING SIZE COKE HAS MORE FOR YOU!"

A half-decade later, the British Invasion is soon co-opted by Coke, first in a dippy attempt by the Bee Gees, and then by Petula Clark (given a nickname by the American announcer, who perhaps feared "Petula" was too ungainly a name for U.S. audiences). This track is pretty fun, and is not much different than Clark's actual hits, like "I Know a Place." Listen to how Coke ad men have completely aped the mid-'60s pop sound, with lots of echo, a pseudo-Phil Spector booming chorus, rolling drum fills. Godard should have used it in Masculin-Féminin.

1969's "It's the Real Thing" is pretty rancid, "plastic America" at its finest. Though made by studio hacks, the jingle conveys the image of being performed by guys with helmet hair in matching mustard-colored turtlenecks, singing this sort of crap at frat parties and corporate affairs.

1974's "Coke Adds Life" attempts to get funky, with a sound that appears to have been derived from listening to some Chicago and Crusaders LPs, unfortunately. The lyrics get a little weird, actually: are they singing about "tropical fish" at the end? And from 1975 finds Aretha and the Supremes, both in career troughs, enlisted to make a Coke ad soulful. Dense and messy, but the studio band provides some good bottom end, at least.

1982's "Coke Is It", strikes me, at least in the beginning of each verse, as being a melodic rip-off of Antonio Jobim's "Waters of March." Am I crazy? It's the '80s now, so the sound is clean and crisp, showing off the synthesizer and drum machine the studio musicians just bought from a high-end store on Coke's expense budget.

"Always Coca Cola", from 1992, in which one Joey Diggs brings Coke into the Clinton era, and God help us, Coke's discovered hip hop. Well, just a touch--there's some weak beats and some "scratching" noises. This is the sort of anti-music that gets blasted at you before a movie starts, or follows you around a shopping mall like a happy vagrant.

1998: Bill Clinton steels himself for another humiliating round with a slug of Diet Coke

And 2001's "Life Tastes Good" brings us close to the present day--we've got some ProTooled guitars, a Sheryl Crow soundalike, and a beat designed to serve as the pulse to a rapidly-edited montage of characters from "Laguna Beach" dancing and imbibing Coke.

Pepsi run, Iraq 2004

Empty Bottle

First things--an extra precaution for this post:

Coca-Cola and Coke are registered trademarks of the Coca-Cola company. Pepsi is a registered trademark of Pepsico. This site is in absolutely no way affiliated with either of them, and has no intentions of ever doing so.

So, the big question: Coke or Pepsi? For me, there's no choice but Coke. Pepsi to Coke is like Cracked magazine to Mad magazine, Burger King to McDonalds, "Mad About You" to "Seinfeld", Newsweek to Time--there's just something second-place ingrained in the drink. Plus it's too sweet.

Whoof. Almost done. The last entry in this back-breaking series will be an epilogue of sorts, and be much, much shorter than the rest. Look for it early next week.