LINER NOTES: HA!
As with many other Liner Notes, the "HA!" theme came about from a couple songs I ended up not using: the Beach Boys' "Little Pad" and Oschino and Meek Mill's "Laughin' At 'Em." The Beach Boys cut is like most of Smiley Smile in that it feels tender, melancholy and damaged, which is probably why the laughter always stuck out as sounding alternately refreshing and sad. "Laughin' At 'Em" is an emotional departure for being a track of pure confidence and aggression. The combination of the two was enough to set me on a path of exploring laughter in pop.
The "Okeh Laughing Record" is an excellent starting point because it gives both context for the acceptability of laughter in music, as well as a bizarre reference point for how far we have come. The record was a "hit" in the early '20s--mind you, at a time when phonograms were only beginning to take hold in households. Add the fact that the recording industry was in its nascent stages at the time and the lack of an existing culture of purchasing and playing a recording at home for leisure, and this record becomes evermore fascinating. Over two-minutes of cheap vaudvellian humor--someone trying to start a song, but becoming overcome with fits of laughter instead--"The Okeh Laughing Record" is a marvel for delivering numerous novel ideas at the time: voice, music, and the combination of the two into a joke. This must have been the equivalent of the Pink Floyd light show at the Observatory at the time.
The fact that the record was a hit and spawned numerous knockoff recordings or "covers" (Nate noted that he knew the bit from a Looney Tunes cartoon; gotta look into that) is not so much of a concern here. Instead, it's interesting to see how laughter becomes incorporated into popular recordings. Charles Penrose's "Laughing Policeman" is a great example of a straightforward incorporation, where the laughter is both a part of the song's description of the protagonist, as well as a rhythmic device in the chorus. It's also fucking annoying by today's standards, but interesting to think how this might have been funny at one point.
Unsurprisingly, musicians soon tapped into the idea of laughter as an expression of both joy and pathos. Paul Evans' "Happy Go-Lucky Me" is a quintessential example of deep sadness masked with kids'-cough-syrup-sweet optimism. The hiccup of his "huh-ha" before every "happy go-lucky me" sounds so choked and forced, the listener can see the tears through which Evans must have sang.
Perhaps this is the bias of LINER NOTES, but it seems that every worthwhile musician quickly turns meta with any musical device, as we hear in Morrissey's "We Hate It..." While Moz deadpans the silly chorus, he lets the punchy power chords and shiny '90s production provide the ironic counterpoint. I mean, really, is the line between this and Kanye's brassy "Can't Tell Me Nothing" that long? Hardly. No surprise then that current media darling/punching bag Chief Keef is "Laughing to the Bank" in such a despondent way. Laughter in both cases is increasingly stripped of meaning and just turned into a device to color a song.
A fine counterpoint to this use is spontaneous or "real" laughter, accidentally caught on tape. On paper, Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" can seem like a timeless critique of urban over/underdevelopment, but it's those last seconds where Joni reaches down an octave to "put up a parking lot," then punctuates it with a breezy, soprano giggle that reshape the tone and meaning of the song. It sounds like an accident, but, regardless, it is a quality unique to that moment alone that fundamentally changes that recording.
Little surprise then that these varied uses of laughter find their way in numerous songs of several pop iconoclasts: The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Before the end, the Fab Four could actually find hilarity in the simple act of recording, as with the Anthology 2 version of "And Your Bird Can Sing." More often than not, laughter was yet another instrument or sound to provide commentary within a song, as with George Harrison's insistence on closing "Within You, Without You" with a laugh track. And then the group perhaps had both purposes in mind when tossing in a sample "ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha" in "Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da." Dylan, on the other hand, seems to simply enjoy the rhythmic (and sometimes melodic) serendipity of spontaneous laughter. One man's flubbed take, is Dylan's accidental gold discovery. So, it is with his "115th Dream," "All I Really Want To Do," "Ballad Of A Thin Man," "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," etc. His more recent chuckles, as heard on "My Wife's Home Town" and "It's All Good" are like all his contemporary vocals: creaking croaks that come off more cryptic and infectious, but at least the master seems to be having a good time.
Which is perhaps the quality I enjoy most about this theme. Music recording is as much a performance as playing live. I mean performance in the sense of wearing a mask. However, laughter is recognized as a peek behind the mask, a chink in the armor, an opportunity to drop the facade. Thank goodness for the artists that embrace these moments.