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Saturday, May 22, 2004

Visit with an old friend

This week, I did just what you'd expect of an aging baby boomer: I picked up a collection of three Time/Life oldies CDs while I was out at Costco. Geezer-ific stuff in there. And I hardly got into the second disk when I hit a show-stopper that I've been repeating over and over.

I had forgotten about it, but now it's back on my charts with a bullet. It's stuck in my head. I'm singing it to my kids. I'm driving the wife crazy with it.

It's "Get a Job" by the Silhouettes.

The story behind this song and the four singers who made it has been told very well, I think, in places such as this and this. Let me just add a few personal observations to what you can already read elsewhere.

"Get a Job" was one of the many vinyl 45 rpm singles that lived in a treasured record box in my bedroom when I was a little kid. As I've recounted here before, many of them were castoffs from my older cousins, who along with their parents were very hip to the rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues scenes. We played these records over and over on primitive "hi fi's" (with "needles" the size of ice pick tips) that did not produce too clear a sound. Moreover, the records themselves were often pressed on some pretty crude equipment, and so what we heard as we danced around our Newark, N.J. fourplex was a very muddy version of what now comes so crisply off the digitally remastered CD. But it was a beautiful sound to us, one we couldn't get enough of despite the limitations of the technology of the time. Hi fi (and soon, stereo) were the miracles of the day, and they were plenty good enough.

I must confess I never understood all the words to "Get a Job." You didn't need to. What mattered most was the chorus. It was the most wonderful nonsense: "Sha na na na / Sha na na na na / Bah-doo" and "Dip dip dip dip dip dip dip dip / Um um um um um um" preceded the bass man's bottom line, "Get a job." (Even there, I see on the internet that people hear it as "yip yip yip" rather than "dip dip dip." Who cares?) That, and a swinging sax break in the middle, had the cousins and their partners reelin' and rockin'.

Rehearing the song 45 years later, I'm even more impressed. The singing, the instrumentation, and the mix all capture the sound of early RNR and R&B perfectly. It sounds as though the four Silhouettes had only one mike to work with -- two at the most -- and you can almost see the bass singer and the tenor stepping forward and back to get in the right position to take the lead at their respective times. Like so many excellent harmony groups of the '50s and '60s, these guys (who had recently switched from gospel) knew their way around a song, and around each other's voices. I am sure they could make glorious music in a storefront church, on a bus, in an alley, or in a dinky, dusty studio in Philadelphia.

The structure of the song, which one of the Silhouettes wrote while in the Army, is beautiful chaos. There's the "sha na na" chorus, which is clearly the backbone of the tune, and that's obviously unorthodox enough on its own. But the rest of the number doesn't fit any typical pattern, either. There's a first verse which sets up the story, but then, after the chorus, a second verse doesn't match the first in either the number of lines or the poetic meter. Indeed, the second verse, which gets repeated later in the song, doesn't have any rhymes in it at all! Then suddenly everything stops, and for a second it seems like a whole new song is starting. The tenor is shout-singing, over nothing but a drum beat and some hand claps. And the lyrics he's got are, like the rest of "Get a Job," totally un-PC:

And then I go back to the house
Hear that woman's mouth

Whereupon the other three voices chime in:

Preachin' and a-cryin'
Tellin' me that I'm lyin' 'bout a jo-o-o-o-o-o-ob

And the bass caps it all off:

That I never could find.

It's incredibly catchy, so much so that they sold a million copies of "Get a Job" in less than a month. Years later, a popular oldies revival group would name itself "Sha Na Na" after the chorus. Heck, back in New Jersey, I knew some guys who named their band the "Bah-Doos."

Thank heaven for technology, which brings this story back around to my wireless headset in 2004. At long last I have figured out what the lead is blurting out in the first line of the song. You just get used to all the "sha na na'ing" going on when he cuts in with a syncopated blast that crams what seems like a whole verse into less than five beats (I believe it's just over a single bar, although I'm no musician). He says: "Every morning about this time she get me out of my bed a-cryin', Get a job." It's delivered in under five seconds, and it's so disarming, you just want to dance even harder. One of the great rock moments of all time. And that's just the first line.

In sum, "Get a Job" is hysterical fun. If you're too young to remember this one, raid your grandparents' music collection and check it out. If it's lying around in your own collection and you haven't played it in a while, you know what to do.


Comments (4)

I have fond memories of this song too. My brother and sister and I used to dance around to it. However, this was in the 80s. "Get a Job" is on the Stand By Me soundtrack, one of my favorite movies as a kid. That movie soundtrack launched me into an oldies phase that has since petered out. But isn't it funny that hearing this song makes me nostalgic too...but for the 80s?

one of my dad's favorite songs! Up there with "Surfin Bird" for him. I love it, too :)

I remember it well. My sister had it in her pink, vinyl 45 RPM tote case. The other one that got a big kick out of was "Purple People Eater".

Reading this was almost as good as listening to the song itself.


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