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At a Loss for Words

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Picture a songwriter sitting at a piano, fiddling around on the keys. He’s got a beautiful melody mapped out, a verse and a half of lyrics, a roughed-out idea for the chorus. The studio’s booked; the singers are showing up in 20 minutes. In desperation, he throws in a few nonsense syllables to fill out the measure. And lo and behold – THEY WORK.

So, in tribute to all those lazy lyricists on a deadline, here’s my Top Ten List of Songs Without Words.

10. “Sh Boom” charted not once but twice in 1954 – first for the Chords, and then a brighter and whiter version by a Canadian band called the Crew Cuts (which of course sold way more). I’ve read that the phrase “sh boom” referred to the atom bomb, which was no doubt on everyone’s mind in 1954 – but I don’t believe it for one moment. This is just too upbeat a number for that (“life could be a dream / If I could take you up in paradise up above / If you would tell me I’m the only one that you love…”) Sh-boom is the sound of a drummer’s rim shot, and anyone who tells you anything else doesn’t get doo-wop.

9. Doo wop really dug nonsense syllables, which were ideal for using vocalists to fill in instrumental parts. The classic “Rama Lama Ding Dong” (1958) by the Edsels lays down a pretty cool vocal guitar riff, but the real masterstroke here is the Rivingtons’ “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” (1962). If you’ve ever heard this song you know that you are compelled to sing it WAY down deep — and presto, you’re performing the bass line.

8. “Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” Otis Redding’s 1966 R&B classic, took a page from the doo-woppers to trade off his vocal fa-fa-fa’s with a real horn section. But like everything else Otis Redding did, this took somebody else’s technique to a whole new level. Just hear how he wails into those fa’s. “Sad songs are all I know,” he remarks, with a soulful shake of the head. “When you sing this song / It’ll make your whole body move.” Indeed it does, Otis. Unh-HUNH.

7. The phrase “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop” (1960, Little Anthony and the Imperials) doesn’t sound like instrumentals – it sounds like a body gyrating. Just hear the rustle of clothing, the clack of footsteps, the thump of bodies colliding. I don’t think you can even say this title without starting to dance a little. This song is dated, granted – it’s set in a hut in Africa where a native girl begins to . . . ah, you don’t want to know. Just babble the lyrics and dance to that delirious rhythm.

6. I hear more than an echo of Little Anthony in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 2006 track “Hump de Bump,” along with a healthy dose of the Meters’ New Orleans funk, with its go-for-broke percussion and chugging guitar riffs. Whooo! “Workin’ the beat as we speak,” indeed. Yes, “Hump De Bump” imitates the grinding sound of bodies dancing. But it also sounds damn suggestive – which leads us to the next category of nonsense lyrics.

5. Blame Phil Spector, and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Spector produced this 1963 hit for the Crystals, a track full of glassy female harmonies, finger-snapping rhythms, and that impenetrable fat arrangement (the Wall of Sound already). “Da Doo Ron Ron” is just nonsense syllables to fill out a line, as the singer chatters about meeting a boy named Bill and going on a date with him. That’s all that happens here, I swear. But somehow the nonsense syllables sound like they refer to something else, the and-so-on-and-so-forth that you couldn’t sing about on Top 40 radio at the time. I’m convinced that this is why it became such a monster hit, and why it has never gone off the AM radio rotation since.

4. Same basic deal with “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy,” that chart-topping 1964 track by the UK’s Manfred Mann (though the US girl group the Exciters recorded it first). Technically, “Doo Wah Diddy” is the song that the singer and his new girlfriend sing together, but even when I was ten I thought it meant something else, something dirty. Elated with its success, Manfred Mann went for the repeat later that year with a cover of the Shirelles’ “Sha La La,” and the Small Faces cashed in on the trend in 1966 with the slightly psychedelic-sounding “Sha-La-La-La Lee.” FOOTNOTE: The Police’s 1980 track “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da”? Think of it as “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” with a reggae hook.

3. As the 1960s progressed, you didn’t need code words in order to sing about sex – you needed code words to sing about drugs. Take the Beatles’ 1968 track “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Sure, the nonsense phrase imitates horns; sure, it’s got an old-fashioned music-hall vibe. But what is Desmond really selling in his barrow in the marketplace? It’s something you smoke that makes life go on, and quite happily too. If you didn’t get the joke, then you were on the wrong side of the cultural divide and didn’t deserve to know. (And that doesn’t even begin to get into the gender-bending subtext of this song.)

2. The Iron Butterfly’s 1968 classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is known for two things: being 17 minutes long and inspiring endless stoned dorm-room debates about the title’s meaning. (Was it “In the Garden of Eden” or “In the Garden of Life”?). Not since the Kingsmen mumbled “Louie Louie” was an incomprehensible lyric so effective. I can’t say much more about this song because . . . well, where were we? What’s going on? Anybody got anything to eat?

1. Which brings us at last to the taunting nonsense syllables of “NaNaNa Hey Hey Goodbye,” one of the nastiest kiss-off songs ever written. (The Kaiser Chiefs’ propulsive 2005 track “Na Na Na Na Na” is an obvious offspring.) It was recorded in 1969 by an already-defunct Connecticut band called the Chateaus; the snide na-na-na’s were so effective that they didn’t bother to replace them with words, especially since this was just supposed to be a filler B-side. Then the record company decided to release it as an A-side, and the embarrassed musicians released it under a fake band name – The Steam – hoping it would die a quick death. No such luck. It zoomed to the top of the charts, and they had to knock together a band, name it Steam, and go on tour. (Needless to say, Steam never had a follow-up hit.) Bananarama also scored on the UK charts with their cover in 1983 — but we all know the real reason “NaNaNa Hey Hey Goodbye” has survived. There’s nothing more satisfying than to stand in a sports arena and chant this, along with hundreds of other fans, to mock the opposing team at their moments of failure. Ah, yes — too sweet for words.

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About Holly Hughes

  • This somewhat fanciful story is possibly somewhat accurate too: The lead singer of Iron Butterfly was home alone writing a song, but there was nothing left to eat or drink in the house except two bottles of wine. “In the Garden of Eden” is what he tried to shlubb out to his bandmates when they got home with the pizza. When he awoke the next morning, they told him his new song “In-A-Gadda-Da-vida” was brilliant.

    Who said this, Karloff or Lugosi? “Supernatural – perhaps. Baloney – perhaps not.”

  • Let’s not forget “Fa Fa” by Guster, that Alvin & The Chipmunks “Witch Doctor” thing, and “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys.

  • Hey now, no “Iko Iko”?

    I’ll take “Iko iko un day/ Jockomo feeno ah na nay/ Jockomo feena nay” over “sh-boom”

  • Hey, there s a whole ‘nother article about New Orleans music with nonsense words — Ay Te-Te Fee, Look-Ka Py Py, Hey Pocky A-Way — but I must admit, I’m never sure that they’re not just singing in some kind of Cajun dialect I don’t know.

    Yeah, DJ, I didn’t know that Guster song but it fits just fine. Any chance it was inspired by the Otis Redding?

    I feel compelled to point out that Alvin and the Chipmunks were NOT the original artists on “Witch Doctor.” The original artist was Dave Seville (who real name was Ross Bagdasarian) and it was released in 1958. When Bagdasarian later dreamed up Alvin and the Chipmunks, it was a perfect chance for him to revive his old novelty hit and re-release it in a thoroughly annoying speeded-up version. “Ooh ee ooh-ah-ah ting tang walla walla bing bang…” But to be honest, I’m not positive it isn’t some African dialect I don’t know…

  • “Witch Doctor” – no vocals, all nonsense. Brilliant!