In the news · Lyrics · Music · Notes from West London

Queen, Sparks, 10cc: Moet, kimonos and lasagne

Our 9-year-old daughter is learning the words to the old Queen song “Killer Queen” at her Friday evening children’s theatre group. They have changed one of the lines, from “Let them eat cake, she says / Just like Marie Antoinette” to “Let them eat cake, she says / Shopping on the internet”. The opening line is unchanged: “She keeps Moet et Chandon / in her pretty cabinet”.

When the song came out I was a bit older than our daughter is now and it was the first time that I’d heard of Marie Antoinette or Moet et Chandon. A class-mate called Mike explained it. He didn’t know what they were singing about either and asked his dad. Moet et Chandon was a kind of champagne, Marie Antoinette was Queen of France, executed during the French Revolution. (The French Revolution might also have been a new concept to me at the time.) This morning I told my daughter a little about that event, comparing it to the overnight news from Turkey of the attempted military coup, and trying to describe the difference between a “Revolution” and a “coup”. Some close friends are due to travel to Turkey on holiday on Monday so the news has more relevance to her than it would have had for me at the same age.

Queen, Sparks and 10cc were the three bands whose lyrics introduced me to more new words and phrases in the mid-70s than any other acts.

I bought the Sparks album “Kimono My House” (which included their biggest hit, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us”), not knowing what a kimono was, or how to pronounce it. I pronounced it “kimmer-no” rather than “kim-OH-no”. And I didn’t get the joke either. “Kimono my house”: it sounds like “Come on over my house”. Now I see. The album’s cover photo features two Japanese girls in kimonos, but that visual reference was lost on me too. “Amateur Hour”, one of the other singles on that album, begins with the lines “The lawns grow plush in the hinterland / It’s the perfect little setting for the one-night stands”. Hinterland? Nope, that meant nothing to my 11-year-old ears. One night stand? Nope.

Last night I caught “I’m not in love: The Story of 10cc” on BBC4 again (it was also shown late last year) and was reminded of how many of their references were new to me when I first heard them. I’d never heard of Dow Jones before hearing their single “Wall Street Shuffle”, and had only the vaguest idea of what Wall Street was about. I’d never eaten lasagne or parmesan cheese when “Life is a minestrone” was released (“Life is a minestrone / served up with parmesan cheese / Death is a cold lasagne / suspended in deep freeze”). The European locations mentioned in the opening verse were just names to me, names of places that I wouldn’t see with my own eyes until I was in my 20s: “I’m leaning on the Tower of Pisa / Had an eyeful of the Tower in France”. (I got the Eyeful / Eiffel gag though.) Last summer we visited both Paris and Pisa on our summer holidays, so our children have seen both landmarks at a younger age than I was when the song was released. (They were 8 and 10 at the time.) We also spent a few nights in an apartment on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, so they have walked the very street where Thursday night’s atrocity took place, 84 people killed by a truck driven at high speed into the crowds celebrating Bastille Day.

Unfamiliar references in hit songs still catch me out, not so frequently perhaps, but enough to reveal chunks of ignorance in my cultural knowledge. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tears of a clown” mentions Pagliacci: “Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid”. I was singing along to an old Motown tape in the car in the mid-80s with no idea who or what he was singing about. An old school-friend explained it to me: Pagliacci was the clown in an opera which he knew the name of and I didn’t. I still don’t. I could look it up and pretend I knew all along but that would be wrong. Pagliacci: some clown in an opera I’ve never seen. That’s as much as I know.

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