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LONDON 978; MARCH 1951



When discussing the seditious jump Stick McGhee made going from Atlantic Records to London in the midst of his contract to the former company, we noted how unfortunate it was that London Records had to pay Atlantic the royalty on any sales the record accrued as a result of this act.

But maybe we shouldn’t feel TOO sorry for London Records because rather than that solid effort being the focus of their interest, it was this rather uncomfortable stab at humor that they determined to be the better bet as the A-side of the release.

So maybe in the end I guess they just got what coming to them… the joke was on them all along.


Showing It In Any Public Place
Humor is a funny thing in music – no, that’s an obvious joke – so let me rephrase it… humor is a tricky thing in music because you’re adding an entirely new element that has to work in addition to the usual components.

Like trying to juggle while surfing or reading a book as you play tennis, there’s too much that can go wrong. If a joke doesn’t land, if the singer isn’t equally good as a comedian and can’t deliver it right an otherwise solid song with a good musical structure, excellent playing and a skilled vocalist goes down in flames.

There’s a reason why novelty records are largely confined to their own niche and don’t fit nearly as well in a playlist. The artists who were legitimate singers in rock who have succeeded consistently while getting laughs is not a very long list.

For all we know Stick McGhee may have been a cut-up in real life, the class clown and the first guy with a snappy retort, but on Oh What A Face, which he did not write by the way, he’s reduced to delivering a series of rude put-downs of a girl, hoping the audience’s tolerance for insult humor is enough to carry the record.

Clearly it is not.

Yet for some reason London Records deemed THIS side as the one to push, thereby sparing us much contemplation as to why the company has failed to make any discernible impact in rock ‘n’ roll so far.

Put Up Her For Sale
Let’s get to the jokes first, since that’s the whole point of this exercise in bad taste, and admit that you might crack a smile for the last two punchlines, which they’d say was proof of its success.

The premise is a very simple one, they’re mocking a girl who is as ugly as sin, using three set-ups and punchlines which get more outrageous as they unfold. The first one is just the lead-in to it and its main task is to get you to drop your sense of decorum right away so the next two stanzas will not be met with gasps or stunned silence at the perceived inappropriateness of their attacks.

To do this they come right out and say how ugly she is, recoiling with horror and laughing, Oh What A Face. So much for subtlety in humor.

The next stanza leads off by placing the girl at a pig farm so you can guess where this is going and though the twist ending, where’s she accidentally sold, is slightly more clever than what you probably expected, the biggest reaction comes for it being unexpected.

That should be enough to tip you off that they’re not going to pull any punches for the last go-round, but in order for it to make an impact after the second one you had to assume they were going to aim higher… or lower as it were… to try and get you to bust a gut laughing at the zinger that concludes it.

I don’t think you’ll be laughing from the fact it’s funny though as much as you’ll be laughing as a natural reaction to their audacity, which might sound the same to the guy on stage who just hears the laughs and treats them all the same, even though in truth they come from two entirely different places.

That’s the thing with insult humor… not the exaggerated games of The Dozens where you trade barbs with somebody on off-limit topics like their wife, girlfriend or mother, but rather where one person picks out someone and goes on and on about their flaws. There’s an uneasiness to that laughter that is almost like the audience is using it as a shield, voicing approval so they’re not singled out next.

It doesn’t require as much craftsmanship, just a choice word or two and then let shock value deliver the rest.

Tragedy Occurred
But since there IS enough shock value to draw a smirk at the last two barbs, at least the first time you hear them, there has to be another reason why this record fails. It’s not the music which features the same great band with Harry Van Walls skittering across the keyboard and Albert King blowing a good sax solo, which leaves… Stick McGhee himself.

He sounds either embarrassed or inebriated, take your pick.

It uses the same kind of rhythmic cadence that a bunch of kids would sing on the playground for their own taunts, which come to think of it is probably where Art Kane, the 4th grader who wrote this, got the idea. But when you listen to kids make up these kinds of songs you realize how flimsy the melody is. It goes up, it goes down, there’s no nuance, no deviations, no anything.

They try and create the kind of loose-knit atmosphere this would benefit from by having the others reply to the Oh What A Face line by repeating it back to him, but in a way that only makes its origins all that much more evident.

Riding from one town to the next between shows, cracking jokes while everyone but the driver is drinking, a song like this might be a good way to pass time and the lack of musicality would hardly be a problem. But this isn’t the backseat of a Buick, it’s the A-side of a record and that sloppy informality is a hindrance.

It wasn’t going to be sniffing an average score even with a more professional delivery, but when the singer seems as if he’s being forced to do this under protest there’s no sense in trying to find many redeeming qualities in it. They obviously didn’t care about it, so why should you?


A Disgrace
For those unfamiliar with the song who expect it to sound awful after reading this might take issue with the criticism after checking it out.

So I’ll admit the first time encountering the song it’s cheeky enough to not be too harsh grading it. Yet each time after that, knowing what was to come, it quickly loses any mild appreciation for the sheer brazenness of the jokes. By the fourth or fifth time through Oh What A Face might just as well be referring to the stone faced reaction to a song built on one crude idea and nothing more.

It’s not offensive because of what they’re saying, but rather it’s offensive because it’s not all that funny and because it’s just not a good song on top of it.

Normally the A and B side designations don’t mean as much as audiences are free to embrace either side if they buy it or play it on a jukebox. The main point of it was for radio play to indicate which one to spin, but since rock ‘n’ roll didn’t have a lot of shows on a lot of stations dedicated to it, suggested A-sides were almost a moot point most of the time.

But not this time, for considering that London Records wound up ensnared in legal trouble over having recorded an already under contract McGhee, you’d hope they’d have the sense to cut a deal that benefited their competitors more than them only if they had a record really worth fighting for.

If they agreed to pay Atlantic Records to keep THIS song on the market I can think of some crude put downs to set to music to describe their stupidity if anyone wants to take a crack at it.


(Visit the Artist page of Stick McGhee for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)