A TRIBUTE TO SAM THE SHAM AND THE PHARAOHS
VARIOUS ARTISTS (NORTON RECORDS)
OK, we’re maybe a little tired of tribute records. Who hasn’t been toasted yet? Bubble gum’s a bit underrepresented: the 1910 Fruitgum Company, the Cowsills, the Bay City Rollers are still virgin territory. How ’bout a Barry White tribute? It’s gotta be in the works. We’ll have a Bono tribute (Sonny, that is) right in time for the candidate’s congressional push. But are you rushing out to grab Garth Brooks taking on the Kabuki kings of the Bronx on Kiss My Ass? Probably not.
So why do these things keep popping out? There must be an audience of some sort, or the examples wouldn’t keep multiplying, right? It’s true that tributes put a slight curve on straight nostalgia, validating it. And maybe tributes are more honest than the Stray Cats’ version of Eddie Cochran or Galaxie 500’s homage to the Velvet Underground. But I think most tributes get made because they’re fun to do. The recording artist can kneel in slavish idolatry of the original work, make fun of it, deconstruct it, or react in some combination of the above. And what’s to lose? It ain’t your song and it ain’t even your album–an important distinction between contributing to a tribute album and covering a song on an album of otherwise original work. Whatever the approach, an artist recording a tribute cut really can’t lose. His or her persona is hardly at stake.
The whole equation gets a little skewed, though, when the object of tribute never gave a shit either. Consider Turban Renewal, Norton Records’ tribute to Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Notorious for their strip club Norteno and their garage classic “Wooly Bully,” Sam and his berobed cohorts flourished in that brief window of opportunity when the most primitively conceived, recorded, and executed music ever was denting the airwaves, music that makes anything popular today sound slick, no matter how hard it tries not to. But whereas much of the garage effluvia of the time seemed powered almost exclusively by blue-balled, pimply louts barking in passive aggression from beneath greasy bangs, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs leered and winked from tinny AM radio speakers like adults. The lyrics of “Wooly Bully” were, after those of perennial enigma “Louie Louie,” the most debated of their time. Not in an analytic sense, of course; just in terms of what the words actually were. And they were almost certainly as nasty as they wanted to be. If “Louie Louie” was a Rorschach inkblot, “Wooly Bully” was a Hustler centerfold. Boyz II Men, dig? Although nothing the band subsequently cut measures up to that song’s single-entendre bluntness, even a song as seemingly innocuous as “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” comes across as salacious piped through the hoary mouthpiece of Domingo “Sam” Samudio.
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs charted half a dozen songs back before I Am Curious Yellow got its first legal screening, and they recorded enough material to allow Norton to compile two discs of Turban Renewal. Norton itself is a fairly perverse enterprise, run by Billy Miller and Miriam Linna, who also put out Kicks magazine, inhabit the band A-Bones, and spend spare hours pissing off whomever they please. Luddite and contrary by nature (the clerk who sold me the collection insisted the vinyl version has two extra cuts), Miller/Linna are a perfect match for the Sham. They play with the notion of what is good, worthy, lasting in pop music the way Sam Samudio and his Pharaohs, a Chicano/cracker mix who recorded in Memphis, played at being Egyptian. And played at being a pop aggregation when they were in fact a gutbucket, kick-ass R & B band from Dallas. And played out the happenstance of their initial hit as far as their leash would let them.
The idea of a tribute to an open counterfeit is just about reason enough to lend this an ear. There’s something very American about scam artists–they predate Huck Finn’s Duke and Dauphin, for sure. And while Turban Renewal is not quite as heady as Kramer’s genius CD tribute to the Rutles, let’s face it–nothing could be. That tribute to a parody of the Beatles was hard-core conceptual art, an endgame. Turban Renewal’s relationship to inauthenticity is more, well . . . authentic. There’s stuff here–the Lyres’ “Ring Dang Doo,” Handsome Dick Manitoba’s “Ju Ju Hand,” Los Chiflados Del Ritmo’s “The Hair on My Chinny Chin Chin,” Hasil Adkins’s incomprehensible take on “Wooly Bully,” for starters–that proves the original intention behind these songs (as gimmicks to sell records) don’t mean squat once the recording light’s on in a studio full of only marginally controllable musicians. It didn’t then, it doesn’t now. Let it rock, see what you got.
The beauty and continued attraction of music like that on Turban Renewal is that it boils the ineffable restlessness at the heart of all decent rock music down to something so elemental, stupid, and true.
I don’t know what it is
Or what it might do
But I’ve got to find me
A ring dang doo
When last heard from, Sam Samudio was street preaching in Memphis, returned to the scene of the crime, still searching for that ring dang doo, giving tribute. Whatta fakir. Forever in with the out crowd.