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

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.

Beastie Boys

Paul's Boutique

Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 1989-07-25
UK Release Date: 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"

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.