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Dropping Names, Cutting Tapes: Beastie Boys – “Johnny Ryall”

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Monday, Jan 16, 2012
With “Johnny Ryall”, the Beastie Boys manage to challenge the audience’s ideas of what it has come to expect from hip-hop. The Beasties were no longer just rappers--they were crafters of one of the 1980s’ great short stories.
cover art

Beastie Boys

Paul's Boutique

(Capitol; US: 25 Jul 1989; UK: Import)

On “Shake Your Rump”, the Beastie Boys proved that they could have as much fun as the next rap group whilst moving the genre in a more complex, intelligent direction. As stimulating as the disparate samples and multifarious cultural allusions are on this track, the Beasties still lock themselves securely into the “frat-rap” zone. Thematically, “Shake Your Rump” does little to move beyond the bravado-laced, dance-centric focus of Ill Communication (1986). With the following cut from Paul’s Boutique, though, the Beastie Boys manage to challenge the audience’s ideas of what they have come to expect from hip-hop. The Beasties were no longer just rappers—they were crafters of one of the 1980s’ great short stories. 

“Johnny Ryall” spins the sensory detail-rich tale of a homeless New York man who claims to have once been a great rockabilly musician. There’s a Mark Twain-like quality to the credulousness with which the speaker seems to accept the far-fetched facts of Johnny’s former life. Even though Ryall finds his home on the streets, “he’s no bum” because he “used to have teeth all filled with gold”. He had a “platinum voice” and claims to have written the song “Blue Suede Shoes”. He is referred to as the “leader of the homeless” and wears classy hand-me-down clothing. At the same time, Johnny is an alcoholic who “goes to sleep by falling down on his face” and has to “go upstate” to “get [his] head together” .
The Beasties paint a picture of Ryall as a man to be both respected and pitied. Although the song has a light, humorous quality to it, we understand that Johnny’s story is ultimately tragic.  We find out that he’s “washing windows on the Bowery at quarter to four / ‘Cause he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more”. The allusion to the Bob Dylan song “Maggie’s Farm” suggests that Ryall is a nonconformist, one who got tired of the day-to-day drudgery of working life, and essentially dropped out of society. The final, abrupt line, “Elvis shaved his head when he went into the Army”, reinforces this notion as well. We would expect the Beasties to follow up this pronouncement about the King with additional information to relate it back to Ryall, but all we get is “that’s right, his name is Johnny”, It seems that the group is comparing Elvis—a legend of rock ‘n’ roll and a symbol of rebellion to many, who eventually conformed to society’s expectations—with Ryall, whose career difficulties in his post-musician era led to his homelessness.

Musically, the tune has one of the most notably sparse textures on all of Paul’s Boutique. The lead guitar samples from David Bromberg’s “Sharon” replicate the kind of licks Ryall would have played as a rockabilly musician. The groove is relatively slow and lilting, replicating the way Johnny Ryall might stumble down the street. With references to such pop-culture icons as Carl Perkins, Donald Trump, New York mayor Ed Koch, and Wonder Bread, “Johnny Ryall” can be read as a story of failed dreams in 1980s America. Pretty deep for a bunch of boys who were singing about getting “arrested at the Mardi Gras for jumping on a float” in the previous tune.

Previous entries:

* “To All the Girls”/“Shake Your Rump”

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