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The Manos, the Hands of Fate of pop singles
July 4, 2014 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Think's "(Things Get a Little Easier) Once You Understand" has been called the worst hit song of all time.

Written by Lou Stallman and well known children's composer Bobby Susser, Think's single reached number 23 on the charts and sold 1.4 million copies. It was later interpolated by Biz Markie and sampled by 4Hero.

The Bridge, a Christian psychedelic band, did an amazingly unhinged cover in 1972. And here's a duo called Cotton Candy doing a cover version at a bar in Arlington in December 2013.
posted by vathek (75 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was introduced to the agony of this after-school special in musical form by the best radio show in America, Crap From the Past, the host of which takes great delight in torturing his audience with this kind of dreck (in between the genuinely great obscurities he also highlights.)
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:18 PM on July 4 [5 favorites]


This song is so taunting! I listened to the whole thing and heard a lot of conflict between teenagers and their parents, but I still don't understand what the thing is that I'm supposed to understand which will make things easier.
posted by threeants at 3:23 PM on July 4 [5 favorites]


also, the last 30 seconds-ish are both so dark and comically maudlin at the same time that it almost seems avant-garde.
posted by threeants at 3:24 PM on July 4 [4 favorites]


Sounds like something the Brady kids would have recorded on a bad day.

I'd never heard it before. I'm not sure "thanks" is the appropriate sentiment, but it was interesting anyway..
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:27 PM on July 4


I know that I've heard this on 'FMU, but their playlist search is not giving me any results.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 3:31 PM on July 4


The dad voice sounds kinda like Master Shake.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 3:31 PM on July 4 [2 favorites]


Here's the B-side (for completionists only).
posted by effbot at 3:32 PM on July 4


I still don't understand what the thing is that I'm supposed to understand which will make things easier.

I know! The parents are terrible jerks, but maybe it would have saved Robert Cook, age 17 if he had listened to his father's advice? Perhaps, as Cleanth Brooks says, "there are better reasons than that of rhetorical vainglory that have induced poet after poet to choose ambiguity and paradox rather than plain, discursive simplicity."
posted by vathek at 3:34 PM on July 4 [3 favorites]


Are we sure this is worse than Lil Markie's Diary of an Unborn Child? (Trigger warning: insane pro-life children's song.)
posted by DirtyOldTown at 3:36 PM on July 4 [4 favorites]


I still don't understand what the thing is that I'm supposed to understand which will make things easier.

As the Mr Cook clearly explains: "If you can't figure that out for youself, you're stupid!"
posted by mazola at 3:38 PM on July 4 [2 favorites]


but I still don't understand what the thing is that I'm supposed to understand which will make things easier

It's because phrases like that could be seen as the inverse of a Zen koan - instead of an idea that may reveal a realization of something new upon examination, it is a pithy wrapped package of empathy presented as a gift that actually contains nothing besides packing peanuts, but is wrapped with care and comes with a nice card. It may be a well-intentioned gift, but there is nothing inside it, and the only value in it is the fact that is was offered. It's not unlike when you lose your keys and hear the cliche "it's always in the last place you look" - of course it will be in the last place you look - it's not like you will keep looking after you find them. Both of these are factually true statements, but are worthless when it comes to actually helping solve the problem at hand.
posted by chambers at 3:39 PM on July 4 [8 favorites]


Are we sure this is worse than Red Sovine's Faith in Santa? (Trigger warning: little Billy gets his Christmas wish!)
posted by mazola at 3:46 PM on July 4 [3 favorites]


Just listened to that, mazola. I recognized it early on, but I listened to it again anyways. Nothing is worse than Red Sovine.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:14 PM on July 4


So does that make this the (Things Get A Little Easier) Once You Understand of movie soundtracks?
posted by dannyboybell at 4:18 PM on July 4


I have no idea what I just listened too but I sincerely wish I could unlisten to ot.
posted by Faintdreams at 4:21 PM on July 4


Technically spoken word, but it hit #10: Victor Lundberg, "An Open Letter to My Teenage Son"
posted by evilcolonel at 4:54 PM on July 4 [4 favorites]


Lots of horrible hit songs out there, but only one that I know of is a jingoistic defense of a convicted war criminal.
posted by TedW at 5:25 PM on July 4 [5 favorites]


It's bad, but it's no In The Year 2525.


Futurama version.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:45 PM on July 4 [1 favorite]


Lots of horrible hit songs out there, but only one that I know of is a jingoistic defense of a convicted war criminal.


I don't care if he's alive or dead, this song makes me want to find Terry Nelson and punch him in the junk.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:49 PM on July 4 [4 favorites]


this is bad, but i have grave doubts that it's as bad as as charlene - or sgt barry sandler

(that lil markie song is vile, but it wasn't a hit)

and who can forget the up with people theme song? not a hit but very hard to avoid back then
posted by pyramid termite at 5:54 PM on July 4 [4 favorites]


What did I just...?
posted by salishsea at 6:03 PM on July 4


And here's a duo called Cotton Candy doing a cover version at a bar in Arlington in December 2013.

Galaxy Hut! Forgot about that place - I saw the Mendoza Line there in the summer of 2000.
posted by univac at 6:06 PM on July 4


The early 70s were full of awful schmaltz. I'd nominate these two gems from tearjerk king David Geddes.

Run Joey Run. This has more in common with the dead boyfriend songs of the early 60s.

The Last Game Of The Season (Blind Man In The Bleachers) There's just no explaining this one.
posted by Jamesonian at 7:25 PM on July 4 [2 favorites]


Oh. My. Lordie. The Bridge are the Shaggs of Christian pop.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:46 PM on July 4


You guys! It comes with a sad youtube comment!

Just found my 1974 diary, I was 14. Was written several time's in there, this song. Glad I found it. Thanks for the memory. Looking at it and it is 40 yrs ago, I was a pretty messed up teen. BUT I made it thanks to my parent's (back then "hell no"), whom I miss so very much!! A response 2 yrs ago, holy shit, folks told their kid to shoot her dog???? WTF, never heard of such crap. Now a days I can believe it. My mom was so catholic, I rebelled at 16 and never went back. But her Lord has her now. 
(link)

on preview: oh dang there are a bunch of sad youtube comments up on there.

(tldr on sad youtube)
posted by pmv at 7:47 PM on July 4


i really prefer the five stairsteps over all of this

(we need something good)
posted by pyramid termite at 8:25 PM on July 4


I don't know...for me it's maybe a tie with this song (though it could just be the music video that makes it so terribad).
posted by polywomp at 8:52 PM on July 4


Well, technically, the phrase is supposed to be "they're in the last place you think to look" but it gets mangled to the redundant version quite often.
posted by destro at 11:37 PM on July 4


I'd forgotten about "I've Never Been to Me," but God help me that is one of the most awful songs of all time.
posted by blucevalo at 11:58 PM on July 4


God help me that is one of the most awful songs of all time

I agree, but there's something heroic about the bloodymindedness behind its steely and shameless usurpation of the throne of a certain special brand of kitsch. It's a dizzying alp that dares any aspirant to climb further, which is very damn far indeed.
posted by Wolof at 12:48 AM on July 5


Is "I've never been to me" include the line, "I've MAAAAAAAADE LOOOOOVE TO KIIIIIIIIINGS"? Because I remember being with my dad in his pickup when I was about 13 when that song came on, and I was cringing terribly because I knew that lyric was coming up and there is something really embarrassing listening to that song with one's dad.
posted by angrycat at 4:21 AM on July 5 [1 favorite]


It's a dizzying alp that dares any aspirant to climb further

Fluffy dares.
posted by flabdablet at 5:22 AM on July 5 [3 favorites]


I swear I don't remember this song at all and I was 14 that year, so it's not like I wasn't listening to the radio. Upon listening to it (the first 30 seconds was all I could manage), I can't be sure I just didn't block it from my memory on purpose.
posted by tommasz at 7:02 AM on July 5


that's funny, tommasz, because i was that age then, and i can't seem to remember whether i heard it either

time for therapy

"show us on this doll where the song touched you"

"oh, my, your ears? no wonder you've blocked it from your mind - we're here to help you remember and process this"

*whimpers*
posted by pyramid termite at 7:29 AM on July 5 [1 favorite]


angrycat: yes. The line in that Charlene dud is:

I've been undressed by kings
and I've seen some things
That a woman ain't s'posed to see


Like what? The secret man handshake?
posted by porn in the woods at 9:18 AM on July 5 [1 favorite]


In another decade or so, we'll be having this same conversation again but about Everybody's Free To Wear Sunscreen.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:33 AM on July 5


TheWhiteSkull: "It's bad, but it's no In The Year 2525."

My counter-argument is that
1) 2525 has more than one line of lyrics
2) The emotional throughline of 2525 is expressed through the lyrics and music, rather than through tacked-on melodrama
3) Personally I like that Zager and Evans fit science fiction ideas into a popular song. Test-tube children, thought pills, the withering of our arms and legs from disuse? Good stuff.
posted by RobotHero at 9:47 AM on July 5 [4 favorites]


I thought about listening to the song in the post but after reading the comments I decided to watch Prescilla Queen of the Desert instead. I'm confident I made the right choice.
posted by shelleycat at 10:17 AM on July 5 [2 favorites]


kid606 also has a tribute to this song...
posted by ennui.bz at 10:44 AM on July 5 [1 favorite]


Lest we forget, Dear Mister Jesus hit #61 on the Billboard charts in 1987.
posted by item at 11:15 AM on July 5


So, what kind of sense can we make out of this song?

1. This song easily has one thing over Manos: The Hands of Fate. The song actually charted, at 23, and sold over a million copies. Harold Warren's movie was obscure until Mystery Science Theater picked it up.

2. Sometimes ambiguity in a message piece is a positive thing. The song doesn't make it easy to know which side its on, the parents or the youth (of that era). I would interpret the lyrics as meaning: Things like inter-generational strife get a little easier once you understand that life is fleeting. The song chooses to omit the last part because it's trying to show, through the overlaid vignettes, rather than tell directly, because the finiteness of life is something we know without knowing, something we've all been told but few of us act like we understand. Or, alternatively, it doesn't get easier, and we're not told what there is to understand because there's nothing to understand.

3. The song, and other works from the era, does illustrate something very well, and that's how much parents of that time desperately feared for their children. They saw great social upheaval and their kids turning into something they didn't recognize. The hypothetical parent at the end who finds out his son has died would, himself, probably be dead by now. The tensions expressed in the arguments are still with us, but culturally, we're more used to them now.

4. Lest it seem like I'm defending the song.... well, it's not really a song, is it? It's more of a spoken word piece with a repetitive musical backing. It's more of a message (whatever that message is) than something you'd listen to. If you have any empathy at all you'd not want to hear it more than once, so it's not suited to radio play. The ambiguity doesn't really support the piece; the listener is trying to figure out which side, the parents or the kids, throughout, that the song "is on." If it's on the kids', the message becomes "Love us while we're here, because we might not be for long."

If it's on the parents', it's a bit more reprehensible, because it's basically adult appropriating of young voices in the chorus for their message, and the argument becomes stay home and do what we tell you or you're gonna DIE. The thing that pushes it towards the later interpretation is the revelation that the death is from an overdose, which was the big bugaboo at the time over drugs. If that is the intended reading, and there's good reason to suspect it is, then the song is nothing more than a long apology for authority, and the lone voice singing at the end isn't supposed to be the fading voice of the departed, but basically, the mocking words of the songwriter talking directly to the listener. Which, yeah, is awful.
posted by JHarris at 1:17 PM on July 5 [2 favorites]


*sings*

"things get a little easier once you don't give a fuck
things get a little easier once you don't give a fuck ...
(repeat endlessly)"

---

The thing that pushes it towards the later interpretation is the revelation that the death is from an overdose, which was the big bugaboo at the time over drugs.

of course, a teenager was a lot more likely to die in vietnam than to overdose - but that was alright, i guess
posted by pyramid termite at 2:58 PM on July 5 [3 favorites]


In another decade or so, we'll be having this same conversation again but about Everybody's Free To Wear Sunscreen .

nah, we'll be discussing this wonderful anti-dope song
posted by pyramid termite at 3:05 PM on July 5


I've been undressed by kings
and I've seen some things
That a woman ain't s'posed to see

Like what? The secret man handshake?


The way men fight with farts. It's not dignified; it's best women didn't know.
posted by psoas at 3:27 PM on July 5


I remember this one.You see, boys and girls we used to have something called a generation gap. The purpose of the song was to make the old folks feel guilty for yelling at us all the time.

There was a piece of dreck called Honey that was even worse than this....
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:59 PM on July 5


Honey
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:00 PM on July 5


look, i was trying to be nice and not mention that awful awful song, but nooooo ...
posted by pyramid termite at 6:26 PM on July 5


so here's teddy bear

you asked for it
posted by pyramid termite at 6:32 PM on July 5 [2 favorites]


This was stuck in my head this morning for no good reason I can think of. You're welcome.
posted by evilDoug at 9:40 PM on July 5


Watching Scotty Grow.

So there.
posted by Pudhoho at 11:14 PM on July 5


Lest we forget, Dear Mister Jesus hit #61 on the Billboard charts in 1987.

item, you beat me to it!

Instead, I'll submit Johnny Get Angry.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:58 PM on July 5


There was a piece of dreck called Honey that was even worse than this....
Tom Smith has a short parody.
posted by Shmuel510 at 3:05 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


Watching Scotty Grow

I'd forgotten all about that song (and the one St. Alia of the Bunnies linked as well). Bobby Goldsboro was quite the 70's schlockmeister. But now I know where Charlie Pierce gets his tag line for posts about Scott Walker.
posted by TedW at 3:52 AM on July 6


Honey

Worth it for the crash helmet alone.
posted by flabdablet at 7:43 AM on July 6


Ogden Edsl's oeuvre spent a while on high rotation on 3XY when I wor a wee lad:

Dead Puppies Aren't Much Fun
Kinko the Kid Loving Clown

Both of those are obviously trying to be awful, which takes the shine off them a little compared to something like The Shaggs, who did not achieve high rotation - or any rotation, as far as I can recall - on XY. Neither did Tom Lehrer, arguably Ogden Edsl's spiritual guide from an earlier generation.

Barnes and Barnes did, though. I still have my copy of Fish Heads on fish-shaped vinyl. Never have been able to decide whether those two were aiming for awful or High Concept.
posted by flabdablet at 8:20 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


Oh noooo, it's all coming back... here's what that fish shaped vinyl has on the B side.
posted by flabdablet at 8:28 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


And of course the Legendary Stardust Cowboy got more than his fair share of airplay too.
posted by flabdablet at 8:50 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


Don't forget Clint Holmes - Playground in My Mind
posted by porn in the woods at 10:00 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


Dear porn in the woods,

That song.

I was doing okay in this thread up until that.

You broke me. Fuck you.

Sincerely and Affectionately,
benito.strauss
posted by benito.strauss at 10:22 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


There is only one cure for what ails benito.strauss, and it is Shatner.
posted by flabdablet at 10:41 AM on July 6


Actually, I had to resort to my favorite nuclear-powered ear plunger.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:52 AM on July 6


"I've Never Been To Me" is a much better song if you assume it's from the point of view of an international jet-setting porn star.

Or maybe that makes it even worse.
posted by Sara C. at 11:30 AM on July 6


Yeah, Playground is weapons-grade noxious. I'd recommend readers skip that YT link, and kick back with Shawn Mullins' Lullaby instead.
posted by porn in the woods at 11:31 AM on July 6


If you haven't seen the related AskMe, you might want to check it out.
posted by Shmuel510 at 12:38 PM on July 6


This thread is starting to edge towards classic status, or at least it would be if I had any power to make such proclamations.
posted by JHarris at 1:02 PM on July 6


JHarris, that's an interesting interpretation of the song. I ruminated on the song for a while (too long, really), and these are my conclusions, which are partially in reply to yours.

WFMU has an upload of the album this comes from. Much of the album (every track labeled "Encounter") are seemingly real recordings of encounter groups between groups of parents and children. I tend to that this kind of fuzzy-edged encounter group empathy is the sort of understanding that the song wants to suggest: if I really listened to you with an ear for the sincere emotional underpinnings of what you say, even when you say the wrong thing it won't alienate me, and somehow because I am not alienated by you I will not fall victim to social ills. This seems to be the general message of the album (or at least the half or so I just listened to), though it also tends to suggest that children should generally defer to their elders and need to be treated with a firm hand.

The parents come off terribly in the first part. The mother's "I don't like the kind of people that live in that neighborhood," the father's ridiculously assholish response to his son buying a guitar - are these really moments where we're meant to see the children having a failed learning experience? In most cases, the parents express more reasonable concerns but undercut them by being verbally abusive.

Then the overdose happens, and the listener is, like, shit, they were right, this never would have been the case if Robert had been a choir boy instead.

The real question, though, is whether the song lays blame on the parents for molding a son who would overdose. I tend to think this is what the song says when you look at it in the context of the album. The parents in the vignettes are constantly shutting down every conversation. If the son can't figure out why his dad wants to talk to him about hard work, his dad doesn't tell him why but instead just calls him stupid. What they really need to do is encounter their children rather than just exercising authority over them.

Parents know important things like "don't do drugs" and "work hard," but they need to express them in a way that shows that they forbid drugs out of sincere concern and not arbitrary tyranny. The problem is that the song seems to assume that, with the possible exception of their bizarre rejection of leisure time, the parents are self-evidently correct about the appropriate way to live one's life, so for the teenagers to reject or question the idea that, say, they need to come home at a reasonable hour is a problem that would be solved if the teenagers understood. This is why we don't need a set of vignettes in which children are the ones who are coming off as the party that refuses to extend any understanding. For a child, "misunderstanding" is taking drugs, where for a parent it's an attitude.

So, it's an inventive touch in that the song carries two messages with it – one, a message for the parents that their strictures didn't prevent their child from overdosing; two, a message for children that disobeying their parents is a path to the morgue. However, the actual message is disturbingly authoritarian. If parents would only express themselves reasonably, children will understand that parents place strict limits on their autonomy out of love, and will then accept those limits and not overdose.

However, the song is really unsuccessful at delivering that message. Unless you're really trying to gain value from the song, the ambiguity is repulsive, not thought provoking, because on one side you have abuse and on the other you have overdosing. And, even in the context of the album, the terms for which children sacrifice their autonomy seem grotesquely overstated. It's some quasi-Hobbesian shit: agree to obey the sovereign in exchange for self-preservation, but of course it's pure hysteria to think that adolescent autonomy is always directed toward an early grave, as the song seems to imply (though more plausible in its particular cultural moment, sure). If the message is that the two groups need to encounter one another, as the context in the album suggests, the song totally fails because there's no sense of what a successful parent-child relationship could look like. It's no surprise that one of the worst songs ever, because so culturally repulsive as well as musically asinine, would also be interesting to analyze, but I think to recuperate it as being about life's transience or non-meaning gives it too much credit.
posted by vathek at 2:44 PM on July 6 [4 favorites]


Open Letter to the Older Generation -- Dick Clark
posted by mazola at 6:34 PM on July 6


Well reasoned, vathek.
posted by JHarris at 7:24 PM on July 6


Thinking about this thread keeps waking up horrible teenage experiences that I had, until now, quite successfully repressed.
posted by flabdablet at 5:42 AM on July 7


Thinking about this thread keeps waking up horrible teenage experiences yt that I had, until now, quite successfully repressed.

Ah, "Seasons in the Sun." Want seven more versions, from the Jacques Brel original to the inevitable Me First and the Gimme Gimmes cover? Coverville is there.
posted by Shmuel510 at 8:19 AM on July 7 [1 favorite]


Holy shit, Kurt Cobain dredged that glurge out of his own memory hole in 1993?

Suddenly certain subsequent events make more sense. An earworm like that will grind a man down.
posted by flabdablet at 11:01 AM on July 7 [1 favorite]


How wrong would it be for me to play covers of "Seasons In The Sun" in my office all day?

Like, would I get fired?
posted by Sara C. at 12:01 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


what floor is your office on? do the windows open?
posted by pyramid termite at 1:39 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Also, The Bran Flakes did a Cover/Remix/Somethin' of this, which is where I knew it. I think their version mixes in real samples along with new performances of the same lines. Some of the voices from the original I recognize (I've had this Bran Flakes album forever -- highly recommended!), but some on the Bran Flakes one sound a bit more over the top.

(full disclosure: one of the Bran Flakes is a friend-of-a-friend... but I was a fan of them before I knew that...8)
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 10:08 AM on July 9


Pudhoho: "Watching Scotty Grow yt ."

The Dead Milkmen responded with "Watching Scotty Die."
posted by Chrysostom at 8:40 PM on July 24


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