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Doo-wop: bubbling in the mouth

September 9, 2009

You know doo-wop – from a strand of rhythm and blues came this sugary mess that spilled all over the streets of northern American cities, around the time that children’s music became the dominant commercial music of America. That’s one way of hearing it. And perhaps only an infantile music could produce that nonsensical phonetic backing-babbling that doo-wop is defined by. And after all, which other musics are identified firstly by what the backing vocals, not the lead vocals, are up to?


The simple pleasures of sounds in the mouth – the musical prompts also come, of course, from harmony groups and from scat singing. In another mood I imagine doo-wop backing singers thinking back to Edward Lear, or forwards to Bob Cobbing who was also, in his way, a doo-wop vocalist.

And perhaps – the thing about me is that a part of me is a concrete poet for whom the concrete hasn’t quite set.

I don’t want to suggest that doo-wop records trade only on the pleasure of re-gargling the unsignifying sounds that bubbled up in our infant mouths, although this is certainly part of the appeal. The pastoral songs found in Elizabethan literature (Shakespeare’s ‘Hey Nonny Nonny’ and Spenser’s ‘Hey, ho, silly sheep!’ are two of the most famous examples) attempt the unlearning of our too-refined language to achieve an idealized return to the land, as a kind of final folksy jig before submitting to our culture’s historically inevitable enlightenment and reformation; and I suppose that the later white teen-oriented doo-wop songs, fraught with their adolescent troubles, seem to tremble on the verge of adulthood, with half a mind to retreat back to the nursery.

Nevertheless, doo-wop’s joy and pain is not (at least not for me) entirely the joy and pain of returning to what was once familiar. A well-executed doo wop record never fails to impress me as something absolutely alien and never-known. Just wait until Arthur Lee Maye’s vocal comes in on The Crowns’ Hey Pretty Girl (below) – what on earth could compel someone to sign like that? Nothing on this earth, as far as I can tell.

Perhaps I find doo-wop alien-sounding because I’ve never been to a drive-in movie, I’ve never cried because someone didn’t turn up on time to drink milkshakes with me; but I suspect it’s also something more fundamentally part of the sound. You see, the doo-wop sound also has an unnerving habit of swooping down from whatever planet it comes from (a place where the very thought of simple things like walking and talking is enough to send a singer into spasms) and landing with its otherworldly sugar-crystal sparkle on absolutely familiar territory. Below is The Robins’ take on Vera Lynn’s World War Two hit, (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover. As far as I’m concerned, there might very well be UFOs flying over the white cliffs of Dover, and the effect couldn’t be any more weird.

Of course, that doo-wop sounds like something from outer space is exactly what Bowie picked up on when he made Aladdin Sane (famously his “Ziggy goes to America” record in which the alien visitor is left to prowl a still stranger land), hence Drive-In Saturday and Prettiest Star. Now what’s gargling and bubbling in the mouth is neither infant spittle nor soda and bubble gum; it’s a chemical element from another planet. At the very crass opposite pole of the glam planet you’ll find humans such as Showaddywaddy and The Rubettes, who even in their role as commercial revivalists managed at a pinch to retain some of the strangeness. And what wouldn’t we give now for our sugariest pop records to sound so unworldly?

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