Tuesday, 12 February 2008

THE BAND: Rag Mama Rag



Listening to the 1970 section of Pick Of The Pops last Sunday reminded me of the extraordinary occurrences which our singles chart used to allow to happen. Such days have some of us seen, where a wilfully uncommercial song with an opening line of "Lend me your ear while I call you a fool" could make the top five with ease ("Witches' Promise" by Jethro Tull), where a desperate howl of "feel I'm dying, dying" ("Reflections Of My Life" by Marmalade) could be followed, and answered, by "did you think I would leave you dying?" ("Two Little Boys" by Rolf Harris, one of the subtlest of anti-Vietnam hits, even if filtered through the music hall of the nineteenth century). Then there were justified comparisons to gods ("I Can't Get Next To You") juxtaposed with nascent pleas for greatness ("I Want You Back").

But perhaps the most amazing phenomenon was how something like "Rag Mama Rag" could have been released as a single, let alone be allowed anywhere near the Top 20. The shrill carillon of violins which herald and perhaps subjugate the song's intro could be either jug band or Hindu rite, and the gusto-filled story of a woman whose mind seems a frustrating labyrinth, or perhaps acts as an indistinct metaphor, never quite settles for straightforward jollity; its bumps are intentional.

In truth, "Rag Mama Rag" fulfilled the same function at the beginning of the seventies as its implausible counterpart, "Boys Keep Swinging," did at the opposite, or opposing, end of the decade; this too was an experiment where the Band swapped their usual instruments for untried ones; hence Richard Manuel drums deadpan, lead vocalist Levon Helm plucks away energetically at a mandolin and Rick Danko provides the continuo of violins, leaving engineer John Simon to cover the bass part with a tuba into which he had never previously blown - and the tuba is among the hardest of first-try instruments to play convincingly.

Still, the spirit must have been good-naturedly high and sneakily feral since the first take nailed it down; one can tell that Simon is bluffing it somewhat and hoping for the best but the ramshackle blowing actually matches the emotional tenor ("Like an old caboose/Got a tail I need to drag") and Garth Hudson typically holds it all together with his authoritatively playful piano, rolling like a frustrated snake at the wrong end of the scarlet bedspread; the singer wants to rag but she remains reluctant and/or teasing - "I ask about your turtle/And you ask about the weather" - and gets so implacably stressed that getting an involuntary massage from the 4:19 train almost seems preferable, more fulfilling. Nonetheless he is secretly enjoying the toughness of pursuit and concordance, as evinced by the responsive harmonica, playing in unison with voice in the final verse before Hudson's piano breaks up the song's fabric and they sneak into the sleeping bag to go anywhere they like, inventing the spontaneous and mischievous future of Canadian music as they crawl into positions which are none of our damned business.