Day Thirty-Seven: "Dog Eat Dog" from Polka Party!
When Robin Thicke and producer/writer/singer Pharrell Williams were successfully sued by Marvin Gaye’s estate for ripping off Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” for their smash composition “Blurred Lines”, Al was one of hundreds of musicians to publicly state that even though Thicke might be a disgusting garbage monster of a human being, it nevertheless set a chilling and dangerous precedent for an artist to be able to successfully sue another artist for essentially borrowing the “feel” and “vibe” of a song as opposed to more concrete musical elements.
Over 200 performers signed an amicus brief essentially arguing that while everyone agrees that Robin Thicke is a sleazy, dishonest, disreputable, creepy total douchebag with repulsive facial hair who seems like a complete tool, he still shouldn’t be forced to give back millions of the dollars he made from “Blurred Lines” for such legally threadbare and alarming reasons.
Just about everyone outside the American legal system believes that while you can’t say enough terrible things about that gross Robin Thicke pervert, artists should be able to make music inspired loosely by the work of great artists without those great artists turning around and suing them.
Al, being a mensch, has refrained from publicly calling Thicke a deplorable dirtbag skirt-chasing, pill-popping total creepazoid, probably because he appreciates Thicke giving him permission to parody “Blurred Lines” for “Word Crimes”, one of his most popular and buzzed about recent hits. But Al has a more self-interested reason to support Thicke in his legal travails despite obviously being completely disgusted and repulsed by Thicke as a person.
In a 2015 interview, a cautious Al reflected, “I really think that Robin Thicke and Pharrell got a raw deal. ‘Blurred Lines’ was inspired by Marvin Gaye. I’d go as far to say a Marvin Gaye pastiche.”
As we know well by now, pastiche occupies a very special, very central place in Al’s life and career. I would argue that pastiche is only slightly less essential to Al’s career than parody. Indeed, many of my favorite Al songs are pastiches like “Dare To Be Stupid”, “One More Minute” and “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV.”
The essence of an Al pastiche is that it sounds and feels (and if there’s a video, then it also looks) uncannily like the work of the artist it’s paying tribute to. So if Al were to do a Marvin Gaye pastiche it might sound a lot like “Blurred Lines” and considering the nature of Al’s career, he’d be in a very bad place financially and legally if the musical heroes he paid reverent tribute to by recording loving homages that sound and feel like their world all behaved like Marvin Gaye’s estate and sued him for making songs that deliberately sound like the work of other artists.
I think of Al’s pastiches as the ultimate homage. They’re even more flattering than parodies because in parodies Al just provides new lyrics (and the occasional sonic flourish, sometimes provided by the magical hands of “Musical” Mike Kieffer) to pre-existing compositions.
For his pastiches, Al does something much more ambitious, elaborate and meticulous. He takes apart the music and image of his favorite artists and then puts them back together to create something in their image that’s still recognizably his own. Al gets all Seth Brundle mixing his own DNA with the DNA of the artists he’s paying tribute to.
In “Dog Eat Dog” that means combining the ineffable essence of Al with the essence of The Talking Heads and particularly their eccentric and charismatic frontman/head weirdo, David Byrne. The result is one of the purest and most loving homage in Al’s discography as Al pays homage to an act he seemingly feels just as connected to emotionally as Devo or The B-52s or Sparks.
David Byrne and Al both have a unique way of seeing the world, a quality common both to geniuses and the mentally ill. “Dog Eat Dog” is no exception. When musicians make songs about office life the emphasis is generally on the soul-crushing drudgery of the 9 to 5 grind and how it transforms formerly passionate human beings into dead-eyed, mouth-breathing automatons.
“Dog Eat Dog” takes an antithetical tact. The narrator is one of Al’s insane over-enthusiasts. But instead of living for cable television, or pasteurized lunch meat or potatoes, he’s driven to a state of near-ecstasy by the trappings of office life.
In most pop songs, office life is a form of spiritual death and the antithesis of the liberating power of rock and roll. In “Dog Eat Dog”, life isn’t worth living unless it’s lived inside the comfy, comforting walls of an office. “Dog Eat Dog” is rooted in the overall sound and vibe of The Talking Heads but musically at least it’s more specifically based on the nervous, coked-out groove of “Cities” for its verses and the more triumphant, ascendant chorus of “And She Was” for its own chorus. Then there’s an entire section rooted in the existential panic of “Once In A Lifetime” when the narrator observes, with acid trip clarity/confusion, “Sometimes I tell myself this is not my beautiful stapler! Sometimes I tell myself, this is not my beautiful chair!”
Dog Eat Dog” does not pay tribute to one specific song so much as it does a fairly broad cross section of the band’s work. Al’s delivery as the demented office aficionado is rooted in a loving recreation of both Byrne’s stylized, traumatized angular croon and the talk-shout-yell combination he sometimes favors. The lyrics presage Office Space in their bleakly absurdist take on the joys and absurdity of life among wage slaves.
Al’s songs frequently revolve people with insane obsessions like foil and Ed McMahon but it’s worth noting that “Dare To Be Stupid” depicts settling down, raising a family and joining the PTA and “Dog Eat Dog” depicts being invested in your job, both qualities generally seen as favorable and normal and healthy and widespread in our society, as being just as crazy as anything in Al’s discography.
Al made a surprising number of mistakes on Polka Party!, more of the commercial than creative variety, but on this loving tribute to one of the all-time greats, he and his band did just about everything right.
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