Not Guilty: Making a Case for Microphone Hair Music

I’ve always hated the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’, especially in regards to music.  Why on Earth should you feel guilty about what music you’re listening to?  If you like something, you like it.  Who’s there to make you feel guilty, anyway?  In my view, if you feel the need to apologise for your musical taste, then you’ve betrayed the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, which was all about doing what makes you feel good regardless of what other people might think, and should therefore be denied access to your ears.

Having said that, the Guilty Pleasures series of CDs, in which MOR radio hits of the 70s are collected and presented for reassessment, are truly enlightening.  They’re full of  little gems that have previously been placed outside the boundaries of good taste.  If they’re not necessarily ‘better’ than more critically accepted music of the period, they’re certainly more likable.  I’d be quite happy if every copy of Never Mind the Bollocks was erased tomorrow, but if ‘Afternoon Delight’ by the Starlight Vocal Band disappeared from the face of the planet, I’d be genuinely sad.

Amongst all this reheated fondue, I believe I have uncovered a sub-genre that I like to call ‘Microphone Hair Music’.  This is music made by singer/songwriter types who played the piano (sometimes switching to the electric variety), and wrote songs laced with wry humour about Seventies-style adult relationships and general life observations (ditties about sandwiches occur with some frequency).  Oh, and the practitioners would have big hair, either naturally cork-screwed or artificially permed, so that it resembled the foam covers on the ends of the microphones that they sang into.

There are two strains of Microphone Hair Music, the British and the American.  Principle practitioners in the UK were Gilbert O’Sullivan and Leo Sayer, who ironically only made Microphone Hair Music whilst sporting short hair and dressed as a clown.  When he finally gained genuine microphone hair he changed musical style and went disco, a genre for which the hair was not suited.  His styles of hair and music never acheived synchronicity. Come to think of it, I’m not sure he ever even played the piano.  This genre classification is already becoming unstuck. Moving on…

In America, the style was epitomised by Dean Friedman (of ‘Lucky Stars’ fame) and Rupert Holmes, who had a novelty hit with ‘Escape (the Pina Colada Song)’, and who never achieved a full head of microphone hair, but you can tell from photos that he was thinking about it.

Now, it’s easy to dismiss Microphone Hair music practitioners as annoyingly and knowingly cute, bordering on smug, and their music does often come close to crossing that line.  But there’s more to it than that.  Once you get past the big hit singles, many of their more subtle songs are full of surprises and depth.  Gilbert O’Sullivan, for instance, penned lyrics as poignant as:

On Sunday next if the weather holds, we’ll have that game
But I bagsy-being-in-goal, not because I’m good
Or because I think I should, it’s just that well at
My age I think standing still would really suit me best
Do we all agree?
Hands up those who do hands up those who don’t
I see well in that case…
(From ‘We Will’)

Dean Friedman’s Well Well Said the Rocking Chair album, meanwhile, contains the unsettling ‘Let Down Your Hair’, a song about the aftermath of the killing spree of the Son of Sam.

I suppose why I think this is all rather important (or as important as these things get) is to do with the concept of ‘cool’, which as I see it, has been used to refer to two different and opposing things.  Firstly, there’s the cool of supreme individuality.  This is when someone does things exactly the way they want to, and their single-mindedness and lack of concern for the opinions of others leaves an impression on all who encounter it.  Elvis is a prime example of this.  Before stardom hit, Elvis was considered by his peers to be weird, an eccentric.  If his timing had been only slightly different, he could easily have ended up the trailer park loony once his looks had gone.  But he was doing the right thing at the right time, so his weirdness resonated across the world and became a blueprint for others to follow, making him a legend.

The other type of cool is one where a blueprint such as that established by Elvis is actually followed.  It is all about doing one thing but not the other – wearing the right clothes, speaking the right way, doing things the way someone else is already doing them.  Most youth cults (i.e. Mod) function along these lines.  Why anybody would want to sacrifice their individuality in this way has always been a mystery to me, but each to their own.

But if you’re a musician, and you’re attempting to be cool in the second sense, how interesting is what you’re doing ever going to be?  How can you make any sort of creative statement of worth if you’re always looking over your shoulder, making sure you’re operating within accepted boundaries?  Answer, you can’t really, which is why most guitar music these days is tedious beyond comprehension.

Microphone Hair Music-makers, however, knew they weren’t cool in any conventional sense, so they could go where others could not.  Dean Friedman once wrote a song called ‘McDonald’s Girl’ in which a man has a crush on the fifteen-year old girl who serves him at said fast food restaurant.  A cool musician could never write this song, not because they wouldn’t want to admit to having urges for an underage girl, but because they wouldn’t want to be thought to eat in McDonald’s.  Nevertheless, the song says more about people’s everyday life in its opening couplet than a band like the Kooks (are they still going?) manage to say in their entire miserable career.

So, I urge you, do not dismiss Microphone Hair Music.  It’s not perfect, it’s not even always good, but in its own way, it tells the truth, as it sees it.  Below are some examples for your inspection:

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