"My gift is my song, and this one's for you . . . ." -- Elton John
The crisis in Iran does not have a good beat, and you can't dance to it. But people are working on this. Topical pop has long been a staple of music in America, and yet seldom have quickie composers of instant songs has such rich subject matter as the Ayatollah Khomeini and the animosity his very name engenders.
All you have to do to get your name in lyrics is overthrow a government, hold 50 Americans hostage, and have yourself elected emperor for life.
Soon you may be number five with a bullet, in a manner of speaking.
And so in San Diego, Calif., listeners to KGB-FM have discovered that the old Three Dog Night version of Randy Newman's "Mama Tole Me Not to Come" has been transformed in honor of current events into "ayatollah Not to Come."
In Nashville, WKDF-FM gives big air play to Carl F. Mayfield's recording "Let's Make Islamic Atomic" and its refrain, "Let's not shuck and let's not jive, let's drop what we dropped in '45."
And in Chicago, WLUP deejay Steve Dahl is helping to articulate the popular rage with a new version of the recent hit "My Sharona" now called, of course, "Ayatollah."
Then there's "Khomaniac" by J. W. Thompson, "A Message to Khomeini" by Roger Hallmark and the Thresher Brothers, "Take Your Oil and Shove It" by Bobby Baker and the similarly themed "Take Your Crude and Shove It" by Major Bill Smith and the Americans.
Oh, for the good old days when Jolie sang Irving Berlin's lyrics, "What care I who cares, for the world's affairs, as long as I can sing its popular songs?" Now the world affairs and the popular songs are becoming one again, in the biggest resurgence of what might be called Gripe Rock -- or Rox Populi -- since the gas shortages of 1974 and 1979.
But songs about the Ayatollah are part of another, related tradition, that of taking aim at unreachable foes with ballads rather than bullets. Says David Parker, a pop culture expert at the Library of Congress, "There were all kinds of songs about what people wanted to do to the Kaiser during World War I and what they wanted to do to Adolf Hitler during World War II."
Indeed, one of the things they wanted to do to Hitler was also as American as apple pie, or rather whipped cream pie. It suggested a Bronx cheer be delivered directly to "Der Fuehrer's Face."
Parker, who can sing the lyrics to "Guided Missiles," a tune brought on by the Cuban Missle Crisis ("Guided missiles, aimed at my heart, the enemy is you . . ."), says the Ayatollah has given songwriters an opportunity they havent had in a long times.
"What's great about this situation now is that it's so wonderfully simple and clear," he says. "The enemy wasn't really personalized during Vietnam or Korea, but now, after 20 years of total confusion, people know which guys are wearing the white hats again."
A lot of the Ayatollah Tunes never make the journey from hastily recorded tape to the dubious immortality of a vinyl pressing. KLRD in Dallas resounds with the sounds of "Where Are You Now, Ross Perot?", written in honor of the Texas millionaire who spent $2 million to free two of his employes once held in an Iranian jail. It is not likely they'll be undulating to that one on "Soul Train" or that it will ever see the light at the top of the pop chart.
In fact, the tune was born in a bar and then crudely recorded in a studio. Demand prompted the authors -- station news director Ken Fairchild and Don Mason, and editor at the Dallas Morning News -- to return to the studio a week later with actual professional musicians, and 42,000 singles were soon shipped out of the city.
Many of the other songs never leave the hometowns in which they were born, remaining a kind of colloquial audio graffiti designed to soothe or perhaps arouse the savage breasts of commuters and homebodies.
In Washington, WHFS, WAVA and DC-101 are all featuring a song that so far exists only on tape, a group called Payday's pointed ditty, "We're Going to Kick Your Ass, and Take Your Gas, and Say Ayatollah So." The group also performs the number at its live gigs, and audiences reportedly go right to hog heaven when they hear it. Sometimes they light matches, a tired old counterculture signal of rapt approval.
At WHFS, where the tune is played about six times a day, program director David Einstein declares, "Everybody either laughs at it, or they want to go out and get a gun." He says there have been no complaints.
But some stations have declined to play such songs, a genre that also includes the fearlessly inimitable Root Boy Slim's recording of "The Shah Is Gone," an update of B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" that was actually recorded two days before the Shah left Iran.
Q-107, a spokesman pooh-pooh's the "humorous" tunes because they allegedly "trivialize the situation." At WPGC, a front-running Top 40 outlet, "Message to Khomeini" was played for three or four days before quietly being entombed in the vault.
Other stations prefer to stick with positive if hokey heart-grabbers like Ed Wheeler's "Ring the Bells of Freedom," very big at WMZQ, and a dashed-off update by Bryon McGregor of his mid-'70s flag-waver, "Stand Up, America," on WXRA. The fact that McGregor is Canadian apparently hasn't dimmed the red glare of his rockets.
Not all of today's instant songs are addressed to the Ayatollah. Some are addressed to the White House veritable letters without postage, like "Dear Mr. President" by MAX D. Barnes; "Think I'll Run for President" by Brent Burns and "Peanuts to You" by R.B. Stone.
But Stone placed an ad in the trade journal Billboard this week suggesting deejays refrain from playing his tune at this time because "we need to present a united front and not play politics."
Any minute now they'll be trotting out "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."
What the instant songs can do is sing things people might be chagrined to say. Thus does the Mayfield number lecture the Ayatollah that he has "cornflakes in your rag-head beard and Salems hangin' outta your yippin', yappin' radical mouth" and clumsily opine that "students in our schools and under our golden arches, they deserve a break today for goin' on them marches."
The songwriters try to make up in passion what they lack in savoir faire or even good manners. Few of them expect their songs to go into the Hall of Fame; they're transitory by nature, quick little zaps that are anything but out of character for a country of instant analysis, instant mashed-potatoes, instant fame and is-it-soup-yet?
Even if the songs actually make it onto records, and many won't, they're often done so hurriedly that there's no time to put another tune on the other side. Most record manufacturers know that the songs have at best a one-way ticket to Palookaville and won't bother with them.
"Most major labels won't waste their time with these shots in the wind," says Billboard's Ron Einy. And so the records that do come out tend to be on small labels from companies specializing in country tunes. Country music stations have a long history of treating their listeners' ears to the quick and the dread, to novelty songs and high-octane patriotism.
Still, an apparent broad cross-section of radio listeners is currently having a wonderful time hating the Ayatollah Khomeini. The songs that turn this into entertainment follow in the footsteps of such temporal Americana as "Dig You Later, Hubba Hubba Hubba" in which Perry Como sang, "I got it from a guy who was in the know, It was mighty smoky over Tokyo."
Or "Let's Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser."
Or "Eve of Destruction," the pessimistic ballad that was soon pursued on the rock charts by an instant rebuttal, "The Dawn of Correction."
Some of the wartime songs are, of course, punctuated with now-embarrasing racist defamations, as titles as blunt as "Slap That Dirty Little Jap" would indicate (flip side: "Remember Pearl Harbor"). There is also a call to violence that goes back to the Civil War anthem "Marchin' Through Georgia" in which it is not very delicately advocated that we "hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree."
Apparently an ordinary apple tree was too good for him.
Sometimes the songs could be literal zingers. During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when Chinese militants (as we would call them now) took over a U.S. mission and made missionaries and diplomats their hostages, a nasty number called "The Heathen Chinee" climbed what would have been the charts if there had been any charts then.
Later, armed forces did free those hostages, though whether they sang the song as they did so, no one can say for sure (or, if they can, they haven't bothered).Later the I.W.W. (Wobblies) adopted the tune, and some believe it may have contributed to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
But there is also a dominant strain of relatively benign stick-togetherness, as when Phil Silvers brightened the 1941 musical "Cover Girl" by singing, "Who's complaining? I'm not complaining. You'll see, we'll see this thing through . . . I'll fill myself on artichokes, until that Nazi party chokes, as long as they don't ration my passion for you . . . ."
The Cold War put a chill on topical pop, and the era had to be content with such efforts as Hank Williams (recording "No, No, Joe" -- Stalin, that is -- and Ralph Flanagan and His Orchestra doing "The Red We Want is the Red We Got in the Old Red, White and Blue."
Some of the instant song composers are past masters of the trade. "Red River Dave" McEnery, a radio actor and cowboy singer who claims to have written 52 tunes in one day while handcuffed to a piano in a San Francisco radio station, has just given the world "Song of the U.S. Hostages." This can be added to his previous political commentaries, "Song of the U.S.S. Pueblo," Ballad of Patty Hearst," and "The Ballad of John Wayne."
The instant songs say a lot about a lot of things; about the people's right to grump, about the evanescent nature of popular culture -- and about the responsiveness of radio, and the intimacy with which Americans regard the medium that they can carry with them anywhere and hold as close as Linus's blanket.
It also goes to prove that is somebody really wants to write a lousy song, no power on earth can stop him.