The Electric Six and the Elusive, Enduring Cachinnation
by Chris Willie Williams
There are countless songs that have made me laugh in my rock-geek career, from Fannypack's naughty double-dutch chant “Cameltoe” to Bill Callahan's somewhat more sophisticated “Eid Ma Clack Shaw,” whose final verse cleverly yanks the rug out from under the truly affecting lyrics preceding it. But it's rare to find a song that continues to make me laugh no matter how many times I revisit it. Racking my brain for this essay, I was only able to think of two such songs:
1. The Replacements' delicious attack on flight attendants, “Waitress in the Sky,” which consistently cracks me up with its unmotivated viciousness (“Struttin' up the aisle/Big deal, you get to fly/You ain't nothin' but a waitress in the sky”).
2. Fergus & Geronimo's “Roman Numerals,” which is a similarly unmotivated list of phenomena that use the titular characters, precisely selected for maximum funniness (“Super Bowl sweatshirts” is my favorite).
However, Detroit rockers the Electric Six almost always elicit audible titters, guffaws, and/or chortles from me, even through dozens of listens. Their mouthy frontman/lyricist, Dick Valentine, has a deep and abiding love for absurdity: the absurdity of rock cliches, which he happily embodies (and which earned the Six their audience, on early gems like “Gay Bar” and “Dance Commander”), but also absurdity in general.
Take this FAQ entry posted on the band's website on April 6, 2005, months after their second album, Señor Smoke, had been available in the UK, but also months away from its US release:
“Q. When will Señor Smoke be released in the USA?
“A. Soon. Sometime in 2005. Say, that reminds me. Try this. Get a calculator. Okay. Now type in the number 2005. Finished? Okay, now flip the calculator over. What does it say? It says 'soon'! Isn't that neat? Yes, 'soon' the record will be released in the USA! That's the easiest way to remember it!”
Beyond their stellar energy and songwriting, it's this hearty commitment to ridiculousness that keeps me coming back to the Electric Six, and I am often rewarded with terrific gags that I hadn't noticed for years. Take “Devil Nights,” a deep cut from Señor Smoke:
I've listened to the album dozens of times since its 2005 release, but the track (and album, for that matter) is such a galleon full of hilarious booty that I only recently picked up on how truly brilliant it is.
I should start by noting that the song is one of the Six's homages to '80s glam metal, particularly that genre's constant half-assed invocation of the Devil (e.g., Grim Reaper's 1983 “See You in Hell” is required viewing, because mercy me it is the stupidest thing alive). It's admittedly an easy target for parody: Calvin & Hobbes easily eviscerated it back in 1992. But in addition to writing a song every bit as catchy as you could hope, the Electric Six broadside the style in a manner distinct from how, say, Ween or Trey Parker and Matt Stone would.
For one thing, Valentine persistently emphasizes the second syllable in the word “devil,” pronouncing it “ill” (as in “bill,” “thrill,” or... well, the word “ill”) instead of “uhl” (as in “dull” or “null”), the way a kid from metro Detroit would actually pronounce it. Why? Because everything Valentine sings, he pushes with full rock-star braggadocio. (Feel free to check out this performance of “Devil Nights” from the excellent live film Absolute Treasure, which Valentine prefaces with a prime example of his shit-eating tomfoolery; one of the funniest pieces of stage banter I've ever heard.)
What makes “Devil Nights” a canny upending of hair metal's obsession with partying with Old Scratch is that Valentine makes spending the night with the Devil sound like a total chore. Sure, you may be “Drinking all the drinks in the Devil limousine,” but that requires “Handing over your last dollar just to make the Devil scene.” Later, you're “Rolling up into the club just to drop the Devil mixes/Branding all the young girls with triple sixes.” So essentially, you're the Devil's street team, being the annoying one at the club who's doling out the swag no one asked for.
So the song is funny in the abstract. However, the specific moment that always makes me chuckle is the chorus, which finds Valentine bellowing, “You owe me money!” in a weirdly triumphant manner. Think of Ol' Dirty Bastard's (also very funny) “Got Your Money,” whose chorus finds vocalist Kelis assuring ODB that he will be made whole, so that Dirty can spend the rest of the song swaggering in his inimitable, unfathomable way. Now listen to the opposite, with Valentine victoriously pumping his fist to declare that his remuneration is doubtful.
It's such an outstanding oddball refrain that it took me over a decade to realize that the line preceding “You owe me money” is “Sure as the sun's gonna rise tonight...” At which point I completely ceded my brain function to laughter: it's such a perfectly, meticulously dumb line, and I somehow missed it for over ten years because I was laughing at everything else in this pile of preposterousness! And that, my friends, is why I love and will always defend the Electric Six.
And also they covered Roxette's “The Look.”