Thursday, 6 December 2007

PAVEMENT: No More Kings

Hauntology schmauntology! Talk about all the old Oliver Postgate soundtrack acetates to your heart's content, but for real unimaginable childhood memories at one remove (from a British perspective) I find it hard to beat Schoolhouse Rock, the American children's education series which seems to have run on ABC in the early seventies; brief cartoon sequences with songs contributed by pros like Dave Frishberg, Lynn Ahrens and (mainly) Bob Dorough - so that's where "3 Is The Magic Number" originally came from!

Given that, according to the CD booklet of the 1996 compilation Schoolhouse Rock Rocks!, the entire 41-episode run of the series could be accommodated on four half-hour video cassettes, one must assume that these ran (and probably still run) in syndication for perpetuity, Teletubbies-style; I only saw a few examples while over in Toronto and it quickly became clear why the show, unlike Sesame Street, never made it to these shores; stirring songs like "No More Kings" and "The Shot Heard 'Round The World" describing and unapologetically applauding the 1776 Revolution (cue open-mouthed/slack-jawed Brit viewer) mingle with more straightforward info setpieces like "I'm Just A Bill" or "Verb: That's What's Happening."

Objectively, however, these are marvellous pieces of work; the songs are catchy and ingeniously not straightforward and both audio and visuals do the job of communicating history, procedures and semantics as simply and directly to their audience as possible. So it was no surprise that a generation of indie types who grew up on the show would contribute to the abovementioned compilation, issued to raise money for the Children's Defense Fund, to aid poor/disabled/disadvantaged children who would otherwise have no voice to raise.

Lena has the album on cassette, but while exploring the second-hand shops of our new surroundings a couple of evenings ago I randomly came across it on CD amid all the usual charity shop pabulum. Well, I couldn't just leave it there, could I? And it's a fine compilation indeed; Lou Barlow and his Deluxx Folk Implosion make a splendid job of bringing out the songwriting qualities of "I'm Just A Bill," Ween do "The Shot Heard 'Round The World" in apposite indie Monkees style, Moby enjoys himself resculpting "Verb: That's What's Happening," and "My Hero's Zero" is oddly fitting for the Lemonheads to tackle.

But Pavement's assault on "No More Kings" is the highlight; the original song describes the evolution of America from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the War of Independence via the Boston Tea Party. Malkmus and Co. initially handle it with a yellow crayon playfulness ("do it to me one time" indeed!) at the delight of the New; note the rapping of the guitar over the "they finally knocked on Plymouth Rock" line and Malkmus' woozy slo-mo delivery of "Oh they were missing Mother England," although by the end of the latter verse he is already changing the lyric to read "We've all just got to get together/Talk to call each other on the telephone."

Thereafter the song begins to dissolve into flaccid howls of the song's title, odd interjections of 1983 MTV synths, random slowdowns and speedups; at one point the band even stops to turn over their pages (history books or score manuscripts?) before catching their breath and starting up again, gurgling over the remnants of the tea chests and resolving everything into a chant of "Gonna run things our own way! Gonna run it into the ground!" thereby quietly underlining the irony of how America would go on to develop. It is anarchy and sounds exactly like a bunch of nine-year-olds in the music class attempting to play the song they've just seen on Schoolhouse Rock; childish in the best of ways, and they couldn't be truer to the song's essential emotional core. Now if any American readers need to learn about the peculiar magic of Play School or Rainbow...