Feel-good hit of the summer

(illustration: Tomb, from http://www.ffwdweekly.com)

Something happens in the summer. Maybe it’s the heat softening our brains, or maybe it’s the excess of sangria, but whatever the reason, the pop charts tend to fill up with some unlikely hits. Some are just strange, others are flat-out terrible, and a few could serve as proof that humanity is a blight on this Earth. For those who care to remember, here are a handful of the oddest songs ever to go on endless loop at your favourite bar patio.

• “Rock Lobster” — The B52s (1979)

Though it didn’t quite crack the Top 40, The B52s’ first single is too bizarre not to include on this list. “Rock Lobster” is five minutes of pure insanity (seven on the album version), based around a killer surf riff and a bunch of nonsense about marine life. The song ends with 30 seconds of singers Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s fish impressions — including piranha and “bikini whales” — but my personal highlight is when lead vocalist Fred Schneider describes what was found under the dock: “There they saw… a rock. But it wasn’t a rock.” Shame on you for trusting him.

Cultural legacy: “Rock Lobster” paved the way for “Love Shack,” the band’s almost-as-ridiculous 1989 hit, and an appearance in The Flintstones movie as The B.C.52s. Oh, and you can probably safely blame The B52s for 30 years worth of kitschy tiki revivals, so… thanks for that.

• “Ghostbusters” — Ray Parker Jr. (1984)

Sometimes blatant thievery does pay. The producers of Ghostbusters originally wanted a theme song from chart-topping pub rocker Huey Lewis, whose 1983 album, Sports, was proving to be a single-generating machine. When Lewis turned them down, they did the next best thing: They got Ray Parker Jr. to churn out a song that sounds more than an awful lot like Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug.” Naturally, Lewis knew just who to call — his lawyer, who arranged for a settlement so America could enjoy its novelty pop guilt-free.

Cultural legacy: Aside from further lining Huey Lewis’s pockets, the song hasn’t contributed much other than nerd nostalgia. It did crop up again in the new millennium, though, by providing the theme song for one of the most ridiculous fads in hip hop — ghost riding the whip. Look it up.

• “Pepper” — The Butthole Surfers (1996)

Here’s a case where the song isn’t as unlikely as the band performing it. The Butthole Surfers were never meant to have a hit, unless you’re making an awkwardly worded joke about drugs. Nevertheless, the group behind such classic psychedelic freakouts as Hairway to Steven and Locust Abortion Technician managed to ride the alternative wave of the early ’90s into a major label record deal — they even worked with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones on their first Capitol release. “Pepper,” with its Beck-aping beat and lyrics about an oddball cast of characters who were “all in love with dying,” was the band’s first and only hit — which is still more than one would expect for a band that used to hand out zines with pictures of mutilated genitals.

Cultural legacy: For one brief, glorious moment, it seemed like the weirdos might finally win. But then Primitive Radio Gods took over the No. 1 spot, and blandly catchy rock reclaimed its place at the top.

• “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” — Los Del Rio (1996)

There’s only one explanation for the success of “Macarena” and its continued use at awful, awful weddings around the world — people like dances that are simple enough for even the most spastically unco-ordinated out there. And, since line dancing is largely shunned by those outside of Calgary and the American South, “Macarena” fills a much-needed gap. The song spent a solid three months at the top of the Billboard charts, just long enough that it still inspires feelings of dread whenever its opening keyboard riff is in earshot.

Cultural legacy: Aside from its are-you-seriously-still-listening-to-that ubiquity at weddings, “Macarena” also paved the way for 2002’s even worse “Ketchup dance” from “Ketchup Song,” a hit by Spanish trio Las Ketchup. That’s how low we’ve sunk.

• “Summer Girls” — LFO (1999)

Ah, 1999. As the millennium drew to a close (making way for the Willennium, naturally), the world was craving something more sophisticated than the usual pop fare. Luckily, pop trio LFO — the Light Funky Ones, to those in the know — was more than up to the challenge. Enter “Summer Girls,” a song with lyrics that will surely go down in history as the least vacuous ever written. Who could ever match the poetic juxtaposition of “New Kids on the Block had a bunch of hits/ Chinese food makes me sick,” or the heartfelt sentiment in “You’re the best girl that I ever did see/ The great Larry Bird, jersey 33.” I still tear up at the encapsulation of lost love that is “Call you up but what’s the use/ I like Kevin Bacon but I hate Footloose.”

Cultural legacy: If there’s any justice, LFO’s Rich Cronin will be the next poet laureate.

• “Hampster Dance” — Deidre LaCarte (2001)

“Hampster Dance” barely inched its way onto the Top 40 charts, but the very fact that it was a contender is alarming. Canadian art student Deidre started this superhumanly irritating tune on its path to cultural hegemony by creating a Geocities site with four crudely animated hamsters and a sped-up sample from Disney’s Robin Hood cartoon. How that led to an internationally charting single is almost impossible to say, except that it’s a testament to the power of the Internet and people’s endless fascination with things that are both cute and irritating.

Cultural legacy: Though the song has popped up in a few films, including Ice Cube’s Are We There Yet, its biggest legacy is in paving the way for other cartoon irritants. Yep — if it weren’t for “Hampster Dance,” you might never have had to hear a single from a computer-generated frog making motorcycle noises.

One Response to “Feel-good hit of the summer”
  1. Lotika says:

    “Pepper” was one of the best singles that became summer hits! It is just… EPIC! Sad that there are so few exceptions to the rule that only dull pop songs can become real “summer hits”.

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