“Who Needs You Uncle Sam?” – The Orwells do.
Having seen the second performance from The Orwells on Letterman, I have decided that the best way to get a hold on them and their music, is not to do an album review, but is to do an analysis of the two performances, and to ponder: “What does it all mean?” – if in fact, anything.
They performed “Who Needs You” in January and “The Righteous One” in June. Both are singles from their current album, Disgraceland.
Their first appearance goes as should be expected: the band plays tightly with a focused energy, as the singer swans about trying to look effortlessly cool and uninhibited, kind of what you’d expect from someone in mismatched shoes, cheetah print socks and leather jacket/ basket ball jersey combination. It is at the second verse however when singer, Mario Cuomo, drops to the floor eschewing the lyrics and writhes about on his back – like a man being penetrated by the unbidden invisible phallus of rock ‘n’ roll. And why not make yourself the vagina to the penis of rock ‘n’ roll? There have certainly been less noble causes taken up on late night television. And there is definitely no shame in being a vagina – either way; he certainly looks like a cunt.
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Then, during the guitar solo, Cuomo plonks himself down on the couch, normally for interviewees, and proceeds to chew gum while attempting to look louche and carefree. Which is of course a farce, considering how mannered and cringe-worthy these suburbanite’s rock ‘n’ roll shtick is. When the song ends, Letterman trots over sounding like an ecstatic pirate, who’s taken a liking to the new cabin boy: “YARGH, COME ON! YEAH, AH HA. FINALLY, NOW WE’RE GETTING SOMEWHERE!”. He tries to get them to do an encore, joined by bandleader Paul Shaffer shouting “one more time, one more time!”. The Orwells instead just stand there doing nothing, looking confused. As remedy, the house band strikes up an admirably good on-the-spot cover, complete with Shaffer’s mimicking lyrics and pseudo-sexual floor writhing.
So when they returned in June with “The Righteous One”, they were doing so as the lovable rogues, in an atmosphere of gleeful expectation that the punk kids from the suburbs, might do something wild: like not wear pants, burn a bra or, god forbid, criticize the Nixon administration. As should have been expected though, they played the song through, free of improvisation and stunts. They are the good guys now, the beloved ruffians of garage-punk and could do no wrong. So surely, now is no better a time to do something? Something: self-sabotaging, catastrophic and hideously stupid. Why not now make the statement they wanted to, if they ever did?
So when they returned in June, they were doing so as the lovable rogues, in an atmosphere of gleeful expectation that the punk kids from the suburbs might do something “crazy”: like not wear trousers, burn a bra or, god forbid, criticize the Nixon administration. But, as should have been expected, they played the song without incident. They are the good guys now, the beloved ruffians of garage-punk who could do no wrong. So surely, now is no better a time to do something? Something: self-sabotaging, catastrophic and hideously stupid. Why not now make the statement they wanted to, if they ever did?
When the song ends they are once again greeted with joy and adulation. Now of course, Letterman and Shaffer get their encore, in the form of the now infamous “Who Needs You”. The whole performance is itching with the memory of the past one, nervous with the possibility that something might happen. The only resemblance to their previous spontaneity comes when Cuomo sings: “you better change the channel” – hardly a stab to the heart of the corporate machine. However it does boomerang back nicely when Cuomo extends his mic to Shaffer for the last verse, and he bleats the line out. Finally Cuomo sticks the mic down his trousers (the memento every sound man wants), bows his head, and clasps his hands in faux solemn gratitude.
Not exactly the shock and awe that they were perhaps hoping for. After their first performance, they seem perplexed at the positive reaction. Letterman and Shaffer challenge them on their shit and win. So by their second appearance they are doing what they are told, they play the encore when asked and it is all very safe and I imagine there was much backslapping that night.
The problem lies with the idea that a young band could still shock on television. The Orwells weren’t playing to some fusty establishment stick men, who go purple and write to their congressman at the thought of teenage rebellion. The baby-boomers smoked weed before you inhaled oxygen. This is 2014 and it’s hard to shock Mum and Dad now. They grew up through the 60s and 70s and knew, if not were, hippies and punks. It feels like being called a “poo head” by a child. It’s cute and I get where they’re coming from but they’ll have to try harder to really fuck people off. Letterman just wants to “eat them up” and these punks just seem cute now. No longer can a band just appear on TV and ignite uproar – Elvis’s hips have long decomposed. Unless you’re willing to go to prison, blow your brains out, or (god willing) channel the spirit of GG Allin and perform as him incarnate; all you’ll get is some 67-year-old talk show host guffawing and applauding. Because what you just did was what he wanted to do when he was a teenager, to shock his generation and his parents.
So then, what does it all mean? Is rock ‘n’ roll dead and just a meaningless juvenile appropriation of an ephemeral art form? Or is music and showbiz just the same: integrated into one unified source of escapist pleasure: our sense of originality and authenticity laid to waste by the glow of our technology, while we go deaf to the sound of our own echo and suffocate in a vacuum of our own flatulence? Or, have we just run out of ideas? Personally, I think it’s a little bit of all three. Well mostly the last one. Ok, I guess, for argument’s sake, the last one.