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Fears of a Clown, it's a Knockout, and Jeux Sans Frontieres

eebee's picture

Big surprise! A study by the University of Sheffield relating to children's hospital-ward decorating has determined that most kids don't like clowns, calling them 'scary', according to Yahoo! article, Don't Send in the Clowns.

Well gee, I wonder why? Could it be their creepily deceptive appearance: the fake shoes, outrageous hair, the 'nature says stay away' make-up? Or maybe it's because many children are, thankfully, leery of strange adults expecting them to laugh at something that's not remotely funny?

Clowns aren't funny when they're supposed to be. But to me, they're absolutely side-splitting hilarious when they're doing every day stuff and they think no-one's watching. I remember spying on the Tour to Tanglewood clown during the Saturday post-ride festivities a few years back, as he tramped over to his car on the uneven grass, tried to open the car door with oversized gloves, shoved his head into the car to retrieve his lunch box and soda without knocking his wig off...I was rolling on the floor by this point. And late one night in Germany during Karneval many years ago, while negotiating a tight bend on icy village roads, I came up on two clowns trying like hell to park a car. I almost wrecked.

Along the same funny lines are the old 70s TV shows from Europe "Jeux Sans Frontieres", or "It's a Knockout" - as Peter Gabriel sings "Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games...". Again, this includes normal adults disguised as freaks in big, bouncy get-ups, this time going over various obstacle courses with an inevitable topple. Thanks to the popularity of Youtube for letting me reminisce with a laugh, about the Belgian Kings, and Penguins, and giants. How I wish somebody here in the US would revive that TV show, and I have wondered why it never made it over here. Perhaps somebody tried but the legal fees were prohibitive? Would Americans not be able to laugh at themselves in that way, or wouldn't find it humorous? Perhaps Americans are so competitive, the contestants dressed up as court-jesters would end up in a brawl? Actually, that'd be pretty funny.


timv's picture

Great post! Oddly enough I

Great post! Oddly enough I was totally obsessing over that Peter Gabriel album (the third that he released with the title Peter Gabriel, neatly treading that fine line between clever and stupid) a month or so ago. I listened to it non-stop for at least a week. I've had it since shortly after it was released, one of the few that I bothered to re-buy on CD, and until now never knew that that song referred to a German TV show. So thanks for filling me in.

And it's still an amazingly creepy sounding record many years later, a la David Bowie's Diamond Dogs. He was dropped by Atlantic, his American label, rather than releasing songs like "Lead a Normal Life," the entire lyric of which is:

It's nice here with a view of the trees
Eating with a spoon
They don't give you knives
'Spect you watch those trees
Blowing in the breeze
We want to see you lead a normal life
Or the brilliant psychotic bridge to "No Self Control":
There are always hidden silences
Waiting behind the chair
They come out when the coast is clear
They eat anything that moves
I go shaky at the knees
Lights go out, stars come down
Like a swarm of bees

Ahmet Ertegun was convinced that Peter had gone totally Syd Barrett when he heard the album.

It doesn't have the immaculately clean sound that's so amazing about So, but it definitely has a great, distinctive sound--influenced a lot, it seems, by the SSL mixing console he was using. As the slogan goes, he liked it so much he bought the company (25 or so years later, but still...)

I don't have much to add to your thoughts on clowns but I'm most entertained by the idea that clowns are funnier when they're trying to do normal things in the clown get-ups than when they being clowns and trying to be funny. Brilliant!

Oh, and "Tears of a Clown" is probably my favorite song of all time, not least because Smokey and Stevie knew that it was already way out of fashion when they wrote it. (Led Zeppelin already had two albums out by then!)

eebee's picture

Never know

You never know when others might have similar random thoughts! I used the words "Gone the way of Syd..." in an angry poem once. Too funny.

I was provoked into occasional thought by Peter Gabriel's songs, but only to the point where over 20 years I've had the odd, fleeting thought about him, and concluded, he doesn't want the general public to ever think they know him. At least, that's the solution I can live with after feeling insulted by some of his tracks on "Us"! You've probably also noticed the huge PG influences in 'alternative' music these days (College-radio type).

Clown-spying: way more fun than regular ol' "people-watching".

I didn't know Stevie co-wrote Tears of a Clown! Stevie Wonder is a genius I know too little about. "Uptight" brings me to life no matter how dead I am when I hear it.

Have you heard that old remake of Tears of a Clown, by the Beat (English, that is)? Sorta came out around the same time as Jeux Sans Frontiers.

timv's picture


I have to admit that I haven't been such a faithful fan. I haven't bought anything of his since So, and in fact didn't realize until now that there were two separate albums called Us and Up. I see that the reviews on Us are pretty lukewarm so perhaps you aren't the only one who felt insulted by that one.

But yes, he's made a career as something of a shape-shifter, I suppose not unlike Bowie or Dylan, or Madonna (who apparently now owns his former house where he recorded that third album.)

>"Uptight" brings me to life no matter how dead I am when I hear it.

Another great one there! And although I've never seen it in print anywhere, I'm about as certain as I can be that this song (released May 4, 1966) was written as a reply to the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" (U.S. single released March 13, 1965.) It's pretty well known that his song "Superstition" written six years later was a reply to Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart's "Ain't Superstitious," but this one hits even harder. It's the same tempo and built around the same D/Am7 chord groove, with a horn riff before the verses that one-ups Keith's Maestro Fuzz-Tone guitar line. But where Mick complains about being unhappy despite being a university-educated rock star with cars and clothes and girls and money, the blind black kid (not quite 16 yet!) from the Detroit projects says that everything's great because this one girl loves him. It couldn't be more perfect. (And I've seen setlists online from Stones shows where they played the two songs as a medley, which I love.)

>Have you heard that old remake of Tears of a Clown, by the Beat (English, that is)? Sorta came out around the same time as Jeux Sans Frontiers.

Oh yes, absolutely. When I was a college junior we painted those dancing girls from the cover of I Just Can't Stop It on the walls of our dormitory lounge. Everyone had that album, the U.S. release that included "Tears of a Clown" of course. I already knew reggae and Specials/Madness-style ska, but that record sounded like nothing I'd ever heard, like it really might have come from another planet.

That said, I still prefer Smokey's version of that song, just because. I read somewhere not too long ago about how long he worked on it, doing take after take like Brian Wilson recording "Good Vibrations," and what a nightmare that was for everyone in the studio. But it's a true masterpiece.

eebee's picture

Makes it even better!

No! I didn't know that about Uptight being a reply to No Satisfaction. Now you mention it, I guess the title could well be an insult! It makes sense also to hear that "Supersition" was a reply to something else. Thanks for all this info. And I'm guilty as sin for singing along way too loudly last night to My Cherie Amour in the grocery store. In the midst of such overwhelming excess, that song bought me a hefty dose of 'who gives a crap?'.

It makes me wonder what happened to Stevie Wonder and Elton John. They had a golden touch that sparked electrifying music in their first fifteen years of fame, then it seems like the 80's just did them in.

Drifting slowly back to the subject of mental illness...how about 'Mirror in the Bathroom'? What a depressingly funny song.

And now that you mention the Specials, I have a cassette tape in my car (don't ask - my car is technologically retarded) for my long jaunts, with American Idiot on one side and the Specials Greatest Hits on the other. I recorded the two albums onto one tape by chance, but it makes for a very rebellious hour. For some reason, the Specials' morbid "Do Nothing" ranks up there in my top ten. It comforts me to the point of giddy hysterics at times. If you lived in the UK around 1980 (or see any Mike Leigh movie) you'd see what they're singing about:

I walk along this same old lonely street

Still trying to find, find a reason

Policeman comes and smacks me in the teeth

I don't complain, it's not my function

Nothing ever change, oh no... Nothing ever change

They're just living in a life without meaning

I walk and walk, do nothing

They're just playing in a life without thinking

They talk and talk, say nothing

(Green Day/Boulevard of Broken Dreams: I walk this empty street, on the boulevard of broken dreams, where the city sleeps and I'm the only one and I walk alone.)

I believe Do Nothing was the B-Side to Ghost Town (which my son loves and can be heard at the very beginning of the movie Shaun of the Dead). Terry Hall of the Specials produced Madness and opened the door for the Nutty Boys to begin their successful career. Hot on the heels of punk rock, Madness were defiantly cheerful. It's just a crying shame that the only Madness song ever played in this country is "Our House". Aargh. Paul Weller and the Jam also did a good job of representing the general misery and hopelessness in the UK around '79, '80, '81. If my useless car radio happens to pick up World Cafe somewhere up I-85, and I hear "Town Called Malice", I practically drive off the road with excitement. Rich lyrics. Cram packed!

Good Vibrations! Yes! I'm glad to hear it took them obsessive perfection in the studio to churn that one out - it's simply arresting in all aspects. Weezer play pretty good vocal hommage to Brian & Co.

By the way it's snowing here - maybe we should call it Snotlanta.


timv's picture

Singing Along Way Too Loudly

> singing along way too loudly last night to My Cherie Amour in the grocery store

He had (has?) a remarkable way with songs that might be (and too often have turned out to be) forgettable lounge fodder in lesser hands. I'd add "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," and "Isn't She Lovely" in this category.

> what happened to Stevie Wonder and Elton John

I wonder if they ask that question themselves, or if they personally feel that what they're doing now is every bit the equal? (Great line I just heard in an interiew with Dar WIlliams, a folkie singer-songwriter I'm trying to catch up on, about what it's like listening to her first couple of albums: "It's better to be embarassed by your early work than your later work.")

But you can make a long list of artists who'll probably never recapture their magic. Elvis Costello still puts out quality work, but can he hope to equal My Aim Is True through Imperial Bedroom? Pete Townshend keeps going but "Stardom in Acton" and "Slit Skirts" were the last songs of his to really knock me out of my socks. And Aretha Franklin's voice is a strong as ever, but I'm not holding my breath for more like "Respect," "A Natural Woman," and "Until You Come Back to Me."

I suppose this should be a lesson to those of us who've aspired at one time or another to reach that level. Even the great ones who created some of the best music of all time probably don't really know how they did it or how to do it again, whether it was something that's still in them or a coincidence of circumstances that they just found themselves in. And maybe this has something to do with the self-destructive behavior that so many musicians display. Oh yeah, that plus money, fame, endless years on the road, and being surrounded by countless parasitic sycophants...

I wonder sometimes what might have become of, say, Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix had they lived longer. Would they have gone on to continue building their legends, or would they have turned into two more Neil Diamonds? (Man, "Cherry Cherry," "Sweet Caroline," and "I'm a Believer" for the Monkees; he got off to a red hot start.)

> "Town Called Malice"

I like how Johnny Marr admitted to nicking The Supremes' "Can't Hurry Love" for The Smihs' "The Charming Man," and slagged Paul Weller for not owning up to doing the same with "Town Called Malice." But then you could say the same for Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" and lots of others. Phil Collins (whatever his crimes as a solo artist, his drumming totally makes that Peter Gabriel album) just re-recorded the song and did fine by that too.


eebee's picture

the bomb

"Phil Collins...just re-recorded the song and did fine by that too." Yeah - he was still the cute little funny man then. Most of Europe totally ate up "I Know There's Something Going On", the crisp Russ Ballard song he produced for ABBA's mezzo-soprano brunette, Anni-Frid Lyngstad. To me, this made Phil Collins' later rip off of "Wish You Were Here"'s main melody even more painful ("I Wish it would Rain Down").

Turns out Anni-Frid also collaborated with singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, who was died young in a diving accident in Mexico, 2000. Her death secretly bummed me out. She leaves behind great song titles, like "There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop, Swears He's Elvis", and sang vocals on Ask, by the Smiths, which sounds a lot like A New England, come to think of it. You can hear her harmonizing to "...the bomb...the bomb...".

The first time I heard the name 'Johnny Marr' I thought it odd that someone in a band all the aimless dropouts liked, would know enough French to come up with something that thoughtful ("J'en ai marre" is French for "I'm fed up with it"). But oh boy - if I could ever figure out how to play Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now - I'd be most proud. I can't tell the two guitars apart. Along with Girlfriend In A Coma, it's gotta be one of the most dismally happy songs out there, no doubt responsible for many a Sunday's (Here's Where The Story Ends, and Goodbye) or 10,000 Maniacs song (What's The Matter Here?). I'm sure either you or Blake could pick Heaven Knows up in less than ten minutes on several types of stringed instrument, then I'd have to go kill myself. Apparently Heaven Knows is one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's '500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll'. How on earth any group of individuals would be able to untangle that mess of relevant criteria is beyond me. Perhaps a flow-chart? 

For some reason when I read the name Aretha Franklin, all I could hear was Gladys Knight. Nobody played her version of Heard it Through The Grapevine in the UK, all we ever got was Marvin's strained version, especially after he died. Once I landed stateside and heard Gladys' far superior version, I couldn't believe my ears - I didn't even recognize the song at first. It's definitely one that gets me out of bed. Now that all the fifties & sixties radio stations are dying out, I don't get to hear it much any more.

Elvis is the man. Really. I love his sneaky ABBA tributes on Oliver's Army. Heck Yes!

eebee's picture

Celebrity It's a Knockout - Call out the Guards!

Again, I thank God every day for Youtube. Here's a clip from one of the many charity fundraisers of celebrity It's a Knockout, called Call out the Guards.

I'm not sure exactly what the contestants were supposed to do to win, but it involves running around in ungainly costumes, cannons being fired and footballer Gary Lineker wearing hose.

You can see shots of Cliff Richard ("Devil Woman"), Princess Anne, Prince Edward, and Gary Lineker, whose skirt gets stuck in the cannon. Ahh, they don't make TV like that any more.


Other contestants are one-time 007 George Lazenby, Grand-Prix legend Jackie Stewart, the Duchess of York, and Michael Palin.

It's really hard to imagine any American celebrities willing to make arses out of themselves in this way, and let themselves be laughed at. Maybe this show in England worked because over there you get treated like crap anyway, so what difference does it make?! I'd love to see celebs in the US do something totally silly like this, maybe right before the Oscars. Ditch the perfection.

timv's picture

US Celebs

Compared to, say, Donald Trump's Celebrity Assistant, or VH1's The Surreal Life, or VH1's Celebrity Fit Club, or VH1's Dr. Drew's Celebrity Rehab? Or Dancing With the Stars? (The most digified of the bunch by far, and that's saying a lot.) Although "something totally silly like this" probably isn't the best way to describe these kinds of shows.

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