Wednesday, January 27, 2016


I love a squeezebox, me, and have for as long as I recall, and certainly as long as I have been addicted to music. I don't care whether a concertina, a melodeon, an accordion, piano- or otherwise, a bandoneon or whatever, and it can be from within folk, tex-mex/conjunto, zydeco/cajun, country or even just slipped into good old rock and roll. But I fear I may be an odd boy in this perversion, the majority of my chums placing these pre-cursors to the synthesiser* low in their pecking orders, arguably down near the bagpipe and the banjo, both of which I also adore. So where do I begin?

Lets's set the scene: I think my favourite ever use of these delightful instruments is within this stonking cajun version of Chuck Berry's 'Promised Land':

This belter of a song rattles along quite tidily under its conventional rockabilly steam until lifted twice, a middle eight and at the end, by the glorious surge of louisiana provided by Belton Richard, a lesser known name than that of Johnny Allan, the singer, but a man who has put out a fair bit of swamp-pop in his own name, before and subsequently.(In fact, so good a solo is it that it reappears, note for note, in this, by Los Lobos, their David Hidalgo being no slouch on the instrument either.)

But what was that I said about *pre-cursors to the synthesiser? What tosh, you say, how can you compare primitive bellows with the majesty of, um, say, Gary Numan's chosen? Let me explain, with reference to economies of scale and a journey into the mysteries of the Morris dance. These folk dances of old england were traditionally led by pipe and tabor, the simultaneous one hand on a whistle, another on a drum, with fiddle later being employed as well or instead. The melodeon, a button accordion, could provide a much greater swell of noise and range, thus being able to replace a larger team of musicians on lesser instrumentation. Maybe mellotron is a better example than synth, but it's my theory, and I'm sticking to it.

I could and I won't pontificate for hours as to the joy of squeeze, but that may not bring any converts, so how about a few more practitioners of merit wider than their genre might suggest.

Gotan Project are a Paris based collective of French and South American musicians dedicated to, largely, the tango. By imaginative use of electronic breaks and beats they endeavour to bring this dance and it's attendant culture into a 21st century setting. I think it works.

Still in France, there is of course a longstanding Parisian cafe culture built around cheesy chansons. This guy, Yann Tiersen, somehow explodes that. Oft dismissed as a mere soundtrack auteur, his repertoire is much wider. Accomplished on many instruments, I hope you will agree he gives the bellows a hell of a kicking in this burst above.

If they are still going, the Felice Brothers offer a delightfully ragged take on a ramshackle Americana that smacks of the subway busking sessions they began by playing. Based originally around the 3 Felices, now but 2 are still playing together, including James, who plays the accordion on this track, to brother Ian's singing.

As a final thought, I scribble recreationally on message board, the Afterword, a lifeboat for the aficionados of late lost music mag, (the) 'Word', and I am pleased there are other odd boys there; even the occasional odd woman. Here was a string about accordions you may enjoy.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Accordion: Cabbage Rolls And Coffee

[purchase The Last Polka on VHS]

I’m old enough to remember seeing The Lawrence Welk Show on TV, featuring polka music which, of course, highlighted the accordion. Not that I ever watched it—but in those days, to change the channel, you had to turn a dial and pass through each channel, so sometimes I would see a snippet of the show which looked like it was from another time. It just seemed so incongruous that during the rock era, there was a show featuring polka music, on television, and that there were people who actually watched it. The concept just was, to my mind, farcical.

So, when Eugene Levy and John Candy at SCTV created the Shmenge Brothers, a pair of “Leutonian” musicians, one of whom (Stan) played the accordion, I got the joke.

I’m also old enough to remember when Saturday Night Live was a subversive, counterculture program that quickly became mainstream entertainment. And then discovering the lower budget, more anarchic SCTV, although it never seemed to be on at any regular time. I think that, at least initially, the fact that SCTV flew under the radar allowed it the freedom to display a more subtle and weird comedic sensibility than SNL. The premise of the show—that it all related to a fictional TV station/network, also gave the show a narrow focus, yet allowed it the freedom to do wide ranging parodies. And it is hard to argue that the SCTV cast members haven’t had incredible influence on comedy—we’re talking John Candy, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Harold Ramis, Dave Thomas, Robin Duke, Joe Flaherty, and, of course, Martin Short, among others.

The Shmenge Brothers were just one of these parodies, and like so many of their skits, the humor was subtle and character based. Candy apparently based the characters on Gaby Haas, a Czechoslovakian native who had a polka-based show based in Edmonton—meaning that there was actually more than one polka-based TV show on the air. The brothers appeared on a few episodes of SCTV, starting in 1982 and ending in 1983, with an ill-fated attempt to cash in on the “New Wave” and music videos. Their retirement was chronicled in an hour-long mockumentary called The Last Polka, based, of course, on The Last Waltz. The clip above, of the Shmenges and the Happy Wanderers playing their “classic” “Cabbage Rolls And Coffee,” comes from the film. They also performed this song on Late Night With David Letterman and at Comic Relief.

Part of the humor of the sketch is the fact that polka music, and the accordion, was at that time considered a joke in itself. Of course, the accordion, and its related instruments, has a respected place in the music of many countries and cultures.  And as the roots music movement spread, more and more musicians proudly feature a squeezebox, so that when, say, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, picks up his accordion, no one laughs.

One last admission—for a brief time in my childhood, I tried to learn to play the accordion. It didn’t take.