Thursday, May 10, 2007

Stan Ridgway's "Overlords" and "Piledriver" Are The Same Song

Fred Roggin and Tracy Simers were about to talk to Harvey Levin about Paris Hilton, and you know that I can't listen to "get out of the water" Harvey Levin, so I quickly switched to my latest mix CD and played Stan Ridgway's "Overlords" over and over.

"Overlords," for those who don't know, is from Ridgway's album Partyball, which came out around the time my nearly 16 year old daughter was born. (I know this because many of her morning feedings were given to the background music of "Jack Talked Like a Man on Fire.")

The song "Overlords" itself is told by one of Ridgway's usual working stiffs, a "deeper in debt" guy in some intergalactic penal colony who's into Baal worship (tattoos, cuts, and scars) and is, as usual, confused (gonna steal the keys to a jeep and then take a walk).

On the surface, "Piledriver" (from The Big Heat) sounds like a very different song. Instead of Imperial Galactic Stormtroopers managing the slaves, you have Imperial County construction foremen managing a runaway machine. Instead of the clang of the hammer, you have the "Ring of Fire" horns ripped off from Johnny Cash (Ridgway, of course, is familiar with the June Carter opus). "Piledriver" is comedy, "Overlords" tragedy.

Yet they're still the same song, despite the musical and lyrical differences. In both cases, the workers are subject to mechanized things outside of their direct control, and while they like to think that they can correct the situation, they can't.

Incidentally, here's what Samuel J. Umland says about the two songs (in part of an excellent essay on Ridgway:

The Big Heat proved Ridgway to be a master storyteller. The songs range from sleazy entrepeneurial greed ("Can't Stop the Show," "Salesman"), to profit-driven environmental irresponsibility ("Piledriver"), to urban violence ("The Big Heat," "Drive She Said," "Twisted"), to a soldier in Vietnam lost on a patrol ("Camouflage")....

When WOV recorded "Ring of Fire" years ago, they dropped the horns. The Mexican horn riff from "Ring of Fire" returned virtually intact, however, years later when Ridgway recorded his marvellous "Piledriver" (on The Big Heat). And so when I say I hear "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" in "Lonely Town," I mean, to be precise, that I hear Cash's rendition of "Ghost Riders" in Ridgway's "Lonely Town." In fact, I hear much of Cash's album Silver in Mosquitos, and I say this knowing that it is entirely possible that Ridgway has never heard Silver....

Indicting the very culture which sustains him--this pure product of America--the album is by turns introspective, confessional, and at times full of barely restrained fury. Vigilantism under the guise of the law is attacked in "Roadblock" in which "some idiot kids from school ate dirty snow cones colored red white and blue," while a science fiction scenario of a dystopian future is imagined in "The Overlords," one of the few songs in his oeuvre in which he forays into funk.

Frankly, the clangs in "Overlords" don' me as funky. Which is why the University of Nebraska at Kearney will never hire me.


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