Boy Trouble: 2

1. Girl on the Billboard Michael Hurley
2. Forever Pete Drake
3. Pretty Girl Delroy Wilson
4. Wet Dream Max Romeo
5. No John No The Copper Family

This song, sung here by Michael Hurley, was originally written by Country and Western songwriter Hank Mills and recorded by Del Reeves in 1965. Country and Western developed several ways to vent the maudlin awfulness of its stock repertory of jilted pity songs, and aside from the odd hymn tune, novelty songs were an important sub-genre. It’s not surprising then that this alternative gives license to an interesting subversion of the established genre cliches.
Michael Hurley is one of those few singers capable of accommodating voices of both the controlled and the cuckold in a single performance. The male character is both undone and done over by his experience of the female character, and at the same time tickled, amused by her presence. He is both below, in his helplessness, and above, in his easeful misogyny and the care with which he warns us of the hazard. That’s an interesting interplay, a definite duality of positions, high and low.
The rolling, driving sound, and the long, long lines both speak openly, blissfully of happiness, and the effect is one of peculiar, motive joy; “I better get on my way.” This joy is partly in the discovery that we, as listeners, are left unhuddled, free to take in this duality from a remove. Del Reeves isn’t quite so capable of this sleight, and in his goofy, joke-telling delivery his performance comes far more from a position near to that occupied by the listeners, rather than his protagonist.
This is one of the odd anomalies in popular song. Pete Drake runs his voice through his electric lap steel guitar, and the result is a curious, uncomfortable auto-erotic spectacle. In the footage from the performance, I recall Pete Drake sitting stage centre with a thick rubber tube extending out of sight from the corner of his mouth, descending towards some hidden input on the instrument in front of him. It was a fabulous experiment, yet it takes little further analysis to see how it didn’t catch on. It’s rather one of those occasions  after which semiologists can rejoice. After all, the fine sound aside, we discover evidence for the suspicion that when a singer sings there are far more factors at play than that of mere music and words. Aside from those things, which are all in place here anyway, there is something unsettling, unwelcome, at a song whose normative musical parts have been so brazenly reoriented away from the human, towards the machine, and towards the collaboration of man and machine, especially. There result is a piece whose outward appearances are all acceptable, but whose signs point towards something unwelcome and transgressive, and not in the least affirmatory for those who might otherwise be attracted by the otherwise normal elements of the work. On that curiosity alone, it earns its place in this set.
It’s curious to discover that rocksteady and reggae are genres that, by this evidence, seem to accommodate songs whose joy is partly located in playing with or calling into question the strength of the masculine voice. The sentiment in ‘Pretty Girl’ is simple. Where other songs, also outwardly concerned with addressing the embattled sexual agency of the male character, may dwell on rejection, this one takes the reverse tack. Far from claiming or inflating masculine agency and appeal, this song uses the implication of one’s weak sexual appeal (also implicit to rejection songs) as a starting point for something much more interesting. The request of course sounds as disingenuous as it is unappealing. Where other songs wish for or project one’s greater beauty so as to enable social facility of one kind or another, this one is heading in the opposite direction; to consummate one’s own deficiencies in blissful marriage to the queen of slobs, much like King Knapperty.
This is a deliciously odd cocktail. It is certainly unfamiliar territory when in whose songs we encounter symbols of sexual ability and disability allied in one mix. The male voice here is certainly one of the most unappealing to be encountered in the set, perhaps in part because the sex act, or its invitation, is here correlated not with personal appeal, but with base biological maturity. We are unsettled by the fact that the single seductive argument deployed is that of the man’s ability to ejaculate. We are put in mind of the mating displays of animals, whose impressive regalia is triggered, sustained, and wound down in correlation with the hormonal cycle of the animal. But then, do we after all categorise mating displays – the bright feathers and red arses – as those of biological maturity or social appeal? That’s not an easy question to answer in the context of the animal kingdom, and if we admit that we also behave in manners not dissimilar to that place, the song itself becomes a provocative test case for our own understanding of sex. It also becomes very funny.
The notion that folk song is simple is often erroneous, and it usually accommodates just as much wisdom and complexity as it needs to. Unlike songs written to articulate the intelligence of their authors, it rarely accommodates unnecessary mitigations, qualifications, or complications. Rather, folk songs are complex in their own way, and for their own purposes. This song, however, is simple. If a few of the other songs in this set have dwelt on the curiosity of or fallout from partnering, this one deals directly with that theme. In musical terms, the song’s theme of rejection – “no” – serves as a quaint, poetic pedal point for the courtship, revealing itself as such in the final verse, in which it, “no”,  becomes one of acceptance. After the transgression of the previous songs, this one serves as a palate cleanser. A sweet, linear, symmetrical articulation of old-fashioned courtship.


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