Tag Archives: cultural studies

Short film of reading from Shakin’ All Over

In this ten-minute video, I read from the final section of my new book, Shakin’ all Over: Popular Music and Disability.  It’s a brief conclusion, of sorts, section entitled ‘Shaking’s all over’.

SAO box of books… Well, I have volunteered myself to disability studies to contribute to this important task, from my existing research field in cultural and popular music studies. The fresh dialogue here and elsewhere between disability studies and popular music can only enrich both.

In A History of Disability, Henri-Jacques Stiker writes in passing of the idea of ‘social contagion’, that the love of difference (let us not even stretch love, but talk more modestly of simply the tolerance by the currently non-disabled of those with disabilities) could be socially contagious. What about cultural contagion? Stiker continues: ‘there is only one recourse beyond the ethical imperative, and that is to make it part of our culture’. Sheila Riddell and Nick Watson put it more straightforwardly: ‘[t]he struggle for social justice, then, involves a quest for cultural recognition as well as economic redistribution’.

One of the aims of Shakin’ All Over has been to map the sonic history and tracks of that quest for cultural recognition, to discover that cultural expressions and explorations of disability have been the already heard of pop since its foundations were both established and shaken on day and night one, whenever they were….

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Shakin’ All Over, number 1. A dead heat! There are two no. 1s! Neil Young (with Joni Mitchell), ‘Helpless’ (1970), and Ian Dury & the Blockheads, ‘Hey, hey, take me away’ (1980)

SAO book covers hb & pbAstonishing. Two number 1s, who’d have thought it. So the Top Ten disability songs is actually 11. Has it ever happened before, in the history of the pop charts?  And at the very moment the book is actually published.

A pair of what we might call polio songs, surely a compelling challenge to what Marc Shell, in his terrific 2005 book Polio and its Aftermath, has termed the ‘the paralysis of culture’ that surrounds polio survivors, making instead a culture from paralysis. Each draws on childhood memories of disability experience, one very movingly, the other very angrily. Young and Dury have many, many songs of disability between them.


Polio fucked up my body a little bit. The left-hand side got a little screwed. Feels different from the right. If I close my eyes, my left side, I really don’t know where it is—but over the years I’ve discovered that almost one hundred per cent for sure it’s gonna be very close to my right side … probably to the left. Neil Young

In Canada in 1951, really quite extraordinarily given their musical futures, both Joni Mitchell (aged nine years) and Neil Young (aged five) contracted poliomyelitis; Mitchell has said that ‘Neil and I have a lot in common: Canadian; Scorpios; polio in the same epidemic, struck the same parts of our body’.

In Christopher J. Rutty’s view, the 1970 Young song ‘Helpless’ contains his childhood memories of the experience of the disease. The song focuses on the moment, location and aftermath—both immediate and long-term—of the boy’s contraction of the virus—and also of the girl’s, when we bear in mind a famous performance of ‘Helpless’ such as Young’s in The Last Waltz film of the star-studded 1976 concert organised by The Band. Here, Joni Mitchell features on backing vocals, the two Canadian polios on the same stage singing the same song about a shared past. (Mitchell’s intriguing reference of disability culture is occasionally seen elsewhere, in, for example, the framed self-portrait she used as the cover for her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo, where she presents herself as Vincent van Gogh, complete with bandaged ear.)

We are in a very specific geographical and temporal place: ‘a town in north Ontario’, remembering the singer’s own childhood: ‘All my changes were there’ (Young 1970). The song title is also a kind of single word chorus, and is repeated in groups of four by backing singers, including the fade-out at the song’s end. Such a repeated state of helplessness captures the family moment, which is one of disease, uncertainty, dread, as well as perhaps some social shame, since, as Young sings, ‘The chains are locked and tied across the door’. Standard procedure by medical authorities to polio outbreaks in Canada and elsewhere meant that Young would be isolated in hospital, while his family were subject to quarantine at home, his father remembering: ‘I was the only one … allowed out…, and only to buy groceries. The white quarantine sign greeted me every time I returned to the house … the words on the sign “Poliomyelitis. Infantile Paralysis”’.

‘Hey, hey, take me away’

Being in that place [Chailey residential school for disabled children] is one of the reasons I talk the way I talk. Before that I talked not quite BBC. A third of the kids there were funny in the head as well as being disabled.… The situation was that from within you got very strong, but also you got coarsened.… There was a lot of behaviour that just don’t happen in the outside world. Later you pretend to be arty about it but when I was there, I was just there, it was real. Thinkin’ about it now, I realise it was fuckin’ heavy. It was like a hospital in one way, like a school in another way, and like a prison in another way. Ian Dury

Dury got it two years earlier, in a 1949 epidemic in England, aged seven. It is highly likely that his most compelling and harrowing song about the institutionalisation of disabled people, ‘Hey, hey, take me away’, from the 1980 album ironically entitled Laughter, draws on his experiences of life at Chailey. I think the song title and repeated phrase in Dury’s song—a one-line chorus, a plea—is a jokey reference to the 1966 summer novelty hit by Napoleon XIV about mental breakdown and the lunatic asylum, ‘They’re coming to take me away, ha-haaa!’, which is also echoed in each song’s lyrics’s dactylic rhythm. But Dury’s ‘take me away’ is an act of liberation rather than confinement: he wants to be taken away from the place rather than being taken to it.

Hey, hey, take me away / I hate waking up in this place / There’s nutters in here who whistle and cheer / When they’re watching a one-legged race / And a one-legged prefect gets me in bed / Makes me play with his dick / One-legged horn and he’s shouting the odds / Driving me bloody well sick.

On the record Dury’s opening vocal scream and Davey Payne’s saxophone harmonics are reprised from earlier songs like ‘Dance of the screamers’ for the supply of emotional intensity and disturbance, but there is so much more in this one short (under two-and-a-half minutes) song—as well as a clear distantiation from other disabled people (‘I hate the untouchable caste’). Lyrically, co-writer Mickey Gallagher remembers it from the recording sessions as ‘the song that shocked everybody’. It covers masturbation, adventures of escape, sexual abuse, physical violence by carers, physical violence between children, the fear of and disgust at the disabled body or mind, self-loathing, suicide, the yearning to be ‘normal’.… Dury’s delivery moves between spoken word, angry and rushed shouting and swearing, and a pathetic sobbing that is sometimes a whisper. Gallagher heard in this crying Dury’s familiar ‘best acting voice, which he probably developed as a boy in those institutions, to get people on his side’.

The editing of the voice tracks is extraordinary and sometimes brutal, and contributes powerfully to the song’s confusion, discomfort and fright: one can hear the joins, sense the edifice, feel the effort needed to hold it together. Some of Dury’s words are spliced out half-way through, odd sentences make no sense, he runs out of time towards the end as the pre-recorded music runs away from him, he misses a cue and speeds his words both to catch up and to fit the remaining bars. In its reflexivity the recording process is laid bare, of course, but more importantly the listener is disrupted and disturbed. Such ‘formal deviation’ within the finished product of a pop song is noteworthy, not least as, as Joseph Straus puts it,  ‘[f]ormal deviations, which are dealt with harshly in real life when manifested as bodily deformities, may be prized within art;… in musical forms, the “deformations” are often the most highly valued’.

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Shakin’ All Over, number 5: Kata Kolbert, ‘Live your life’

SAO cover lo res… a bright girl with multi-coloured hair extensions called Kata Kolbert tried to break through [in the 1980s pop scene in Britain]. Her debut single ‘Live your life’ on her own Nevermore label had cool song-writing and soft vocals that invited comparison with Nico and Kate Bush. The only drawback was that, restricted to a wheelchair with severe arthritis, Kolbert was unable to promote it in the acceptable way. Her wheelchair was not sexy. While trucking her demo tape around record companies, she was met with both uncomfortable comments and blank rejection. ‘I couldn’t be a singer in a wheelchair in my own terms’, she said. ‘They wanted me to be a brave struggling cripple in a nice long dress.’ — Lucy O’Brien, She-Bop II


… So, some other versions of the real in disability pop, it seems, we do not desire—and in particular we do not want female pop singers in wheelchairs. Never heard of Kata Kolbert, or ‘Live your life’? Precisely. In her relative obscurity and pop failure, despite what O’Brien sees as her high promise, Kata Kolbert stands, sits as a symbol of the enduring masculinist imperative of the pop industry and media, the gatekeepers of which help a few disabled men up the steps to the golden stage, but try to keep the women off, or in the wings or the shadows, or (like 1930s singer Connie Boswell, who remains the one extraordinary exception) with their physical disability veiled. The press release for that 1987 single, ‘Live your life’, situates Kolbert’s story within the pop industry, in an awkward mixture of accusatory and plaintive:

  • Kata Kolbert has her first single out now. This is it…. She is wheelchair bound with arthritis, and was turned down by all the major record companies because of this, DESPITE her opera trained voice. She formed Nevermore to put out her own records….
  • Kata cannot play live more than once a month. It’s taken her eight years to get this far. She does not have the money for a concerted publicity campaign. All she asks is for a chance to be heard.
  • Is that too much to ask?

Kata Kolbert, 1987 single cover, 'Live your life'If the feminist English novelist Virginia Woolf—still writing on one side of the Atlantic when Boswell was beginning to sing solo on the other—could declare in the early twentieth century that she could not tell ‘the truth about my own experiences as a body’ (followed by a universalising addendum: ‘I doubt that any woman has solved it yet’), it is the case in popular music even in the early twenty-first century that we still can only tell (some of) the truth about men’s disabled bodies. How surprised should we be at such exclusions and silences? Even (even?) academics cannot hide their distaste for or discomfort with certain corporeal categories, as the cripping of, for instance, theoretical lacunae lays bare. Disability scholars have argued that ‘recent body theory has never confronted the disabled body…. [D]isability is as much a nightmare for the discourse of theory as for ableist society’, argues Tobin Siebers. Susan Wendell agrees: ‘In most postmodern cultural theorizing about the body, there is no recognition of—and, as far as I can see, no room for recognizing—the hard physical realities that are faced by people with disabilities’. Kolbert may not have made it on to the leading British charts television programme of her times, Top of the Pops—though, as the earlier experience of singer Robert Wyatt illustrates [read the book!], that could be a mixed achievement for a wheelchair user. Let alone a girl—but surely she is due more than the odd melancholy paragraph in popular music studies such as O’Brien’s or mine, a shade in a skirt in a chair to confirm the gender and disability limits of the industry….

[Note: I think Kata Kolbert is today writer, poet, performer Penny Pepper, who also blogs at Penny Pepper: writer, activist, disabled, passionate. I’ve written to her for confirmation, but will remove this if I’m wrong! I haven’t been able to locate a version of ‘Live your life’ online yet.]

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