Monday, 5 March 2012

Paul's Incomplete Guide To Classic Pop 1975-79 Part 4

'Surrender' by Cheap Trick (1978)

"Surrender, surrender, but don't give yourself away." Now there's a credo to live by. (More on that later.)
      I’ll get straight to it: Cheap Trick should have been the biggest band in the world. Photogenic front man who was as gifted a vocalist as any in rock. Check. Even more photogenic bass player. Check. ‘Quirky looking’ guitarist who could churn out brilliant power pop at will. Check. An even more quirky looking drummer who played ‘songs’ rather than ‘beats’. Checkmate. Ah, that it were a perfect world…
      One of the main reasons Cheap Trick never achieved the world-straddling success (and, no ‘The Flame’ doesn’t count, thanks for asking) they deserved was their lyrics, even though those very same lyrics were among the group's strongest virtues. The words were just too darkly comic, too snidely cynical, too brilliantly subversive for mass consumption.   
      ‘Surrender’ is Cheap Trick’s best song; and a good encapsulation of what made them great, as well as what made them a difficult sell too.
      Here’s the first verse:

Mother told me, yes she told me, I'd meet girls like you
She also told me, "Stay away you'll never know what you'll catch
Just the other day I heard of a soldier's falling off
Some Indonesian junk that's going round…”

Suffice to say we’re a long way from McCartney’s mull in Kintyre with its comforting mists rolling in from the sea.
      “I heard of a soldier’s falling off, some Indonesian junk that’s going round” can be read (at least) three ways: the most literal interpretation is off an army man falling off an Indonesian boat (boats are known as ‘junks’ around parts of SE Asia); a deeper reading involves some poor bastard on the nod (or ‘falling off’) due to a lethal dose of heroin; the third interpretation concerns a lethal dose of a different kind – a case of venereal disease so extreme that it’s caused some astonishingly unlucky soldier’s penis to fall off (hence the placement of the possessive apostrophe in the lyric above).
      And it’s a hell-ride from there.
      In the second verse the father enters the picture; and he’s quick to assure the kid that Mom knows of what she speaks; that, in fact, she was once in the Women’s Army Corps:

Father says, "Your mother's right, she's really up on things
Before we married, Mommy served in the WACs in the Philippines"
Now, I had heard the WACs recruited old maids for the war
But mommy isn't one of those I've known her all these years…

Here the kid seems to be reticent to believe what he knows deep down to be true: his parents are cooler than he is. He completely overreaches in his attempt to discredit Dad by making himself out to be more worldly than he is; the nonsense about 'old maids' only serves to discredit himself. (An earlier version of the song leaves no doubt as to kid's insecurities in the worldliness stakes, with the preposterous false-bravado of  “Now, I had heard that WACs were dykes, either that, old maids or whores.”)
      Any doubts the preceding verses throw up as to who's cooler are removed once and for all in the Freudian nightmare that is the final verse:

Whatever happened to all this season's losers of the year?
Every time I got to thinking, where'd they disappear?
But when I woke up, Mom and Dad are rolling on the couch
Rolling numbers, rock and rollin', got my KISS records out...

That's one hell of a role reversal. The kid walks in to find that his parents are not only having sex (and are, by extension, debunking the whole 'no sex after marriage' myth), they're also smoking dope and listening to loud stupid rock music. Like a, well, like a pair of kids really.

Now, those choruses:

Mommy's alright, Daddy's alright, they just seem a little weird
Surrender, surrender, but don't give yourself away...

The moral of the parents' 'weird' behavior (as outlined above) is, I think, this: When you become an adult you are joining a world often marked by pain and compromise; but it is possible to retain your youthful exuberance, your childlike wonder, the things that make you you; and never mistake innocence for naivete (the parents here are demonstrably not naive with their talk of death and disease, but they are, I would argue, innocents).
      This is possibly the best, and most honest, song about growing up that I've heard. The parents have 'surrendered' to adulthood; they've had a kid. But they haven't given themselves away.
      And to me, that’s the only way to fall.