Our long musical nightmare continues.
ukulele sales, it says here, doubled between 2010 and 2012, and as 2014 hits its stride, interest in the choice of Hawaiians and hippies alike, continues to be strong. This is good news for hipsters on a budget; not so good news for music lovers.
Oh, I’m not saying the ukulele has not brought joy to thousands. Moreover, it is an instrument budding ukuleleists are encouraged to make at home. This gives it a considerable edge over the grand piano. And, granted, the ukulele can sometimes be a force for good.
The ukulele has seen heydays aplenty in the past, sparked by everyone from George Formby to Tiny Tim. Each outbreak of widespread jaunty strumming has, mercifully, been short-lived. A decade into a new century, however, it is becoming clear that would-be musicians are stuck for a new faddish lightweight instrument to tote to their be-ins and courtyard communal gatherings.
How fortunate for them, then, that I am here to help. Here, that is, with a reminder that when it comes to fads, looking forward invariably requires a look to the past. True, pop music has seldom strayed from a firm policy of guitar-bass-keyboards-drums over the course of rock and roll’s 50-plus years. (Give or take a saxophone.) But every now and then, often in a head-scratching flash, a wrench has been thrown into the proceedings. And I’m not talking about the wrenchaphone — though that might be a good place to start.
Starting a craze is not as easy as one would think. And when it comes to the next hipster thing in musical instruments, one has to consider that success depends on a mixture of luck and the ability to instill brief curiosity followed by utter annoyance.
Not so many years ago, every band (especially in Canada) required a violinist. Soon, that morphed into a cellist. (This was bad news for those of us that had put all our money into viola shares.) Throughout, the ukulele was in the wings, awaiting its chance. Soon, folk festivals were not only hosting ukulele stages, but encouraging hippies and hipsters alike to build their own ukuleles, thereby taking the annoyance factor to the next level. (Imagine if, back in the day, people had built their own sitars.) By 2016, ukelele-building is set to become an official sport at the Summer Olympics.
It must be stopped. Now.
Not that enterprising no-ukes crusaders have not tried. We’ve recently seen the return of the theremin (which is cool) and the didgeridoo (which is not). In recent years, some have even tried to bring back the musical saw; though, this would likely provide ambitious touring musicians with new challenges at the border.
Yet, what of such unlikely one-offs as the ocarina, the instrument at the heart of The Troggs’ Wild Thing? What of the telephone famously featured in 1970s by Sugarloaf and ELO? Or, indeed, the sadly neglected stylophone, as heard in Bowie’s Space Oddity? (I especially encourage the return of the stylophone, as I also invested money in one of those.) Instruments normally associated with classical music are fair game, of course. The oboe, for instance, had a good run in the ’80s (Life in a Northern Town, Crazy For You); though, it arguably peaked with Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe. But it’s too soon for another violin/cello revival, and delving into orchestral equipment opens us to the risk of another saxophone craze — or, worse, the flute.
Better, then, to look elsewhere. And, in an attempt to hasten the uke’s return to its island-paradise home, I propose the following portable contenders, each of which is accessible to the average suburban kid in search of a cool new instrument, the better to be the life of the party. Put away that ukulele, pal! Look instead to one of these tried-and-true quirky musical-interlude interlopers from rock and roll’s past.
There’s a lot to like about the glorious proto-punk sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators. The manic vocals of frontman Roky Erickson, for a start. But check out that guy on the electric jug! When it comes to the garage-rock lottery, it’s difficult to imagine a bigger winner than Tommy Hall, rock and roll’s lone professional jug player. It’s a concept so mindblowing, Syd Barrett (music’s most blown mind) paid tribute — sort of — with a Pink Floyd farewell called Jugband Blues. (A song that features kazoo and tin whistle, but no jug, Tommy Hall presumably not having been available for the session.) Wondering what to do with that empty growler you still haven’t returned to your favourite brewery? Wonder no more.
It was Soundgarden, of all people, who dared to bring that Québecois réveillon staple, the spoons, to prominence in the pop music world. Evidently, Chris Cornell was a great admirer of Seattle street-musician Artis the Spoonman, and invited his unlikely musical inspiration to participate in the recording of the track. Probably the best thing Cornell ever did for anyone. And, dare I say, for rock and roll. It’s been 20 years since the Spoonman’s day in the black hole sun. To the kitchen, people!
An instrument so powerful it made Jackyl stars! Plus, band rehearsals can be conducted during home renovations. Ukulele? Meet chainsaw.
OK, so that too might cause problems at the border. But at least a chainsaw commands respect.