Notes, Hoaxes, and Jokes: Silkworm's 'Lifestyle' - "Treat the New Guy Right"
Lifestyle's third track charges into town in search of a wife. A wild weekend and a chorus of unrivalled joy follow.
If "Slave Wages" was not an international hit, not number one across the globe, and not the overground smash and instigator of novelty dance crazes it should have been, then "Treat the New Guy Right" was also not the follow-up single that knocked it from the top of the charts and began its own unbroken 20-week run of domination. All of which is not to mourn Lifestyle's lack of commercial success, for fretting of that kind frankly is for the birds and bands who make music with cash as their primary motivation, but rather to point up that Lifestyle is perhaps the Silkworm album where that lack of commercial success is so acutely inexplicable, with "Slave Wages" and "Treat the New Guy Right" two of the songs most central to the enigma. The two songs are very different, but one thing they do share is that over-powering ear-burrowing quality which typifies the best pop music. And in that regard, if there is one particular chorus which a first time listener of Lifestyle is likely to find herself singing or rather shouting as the needle hits the run-off groove, it is more than likely to be that of "Treat the New Guy Right".
Lifestyle began with an Andy Cohen song "Contempt", which was then followed by Tim Midyett's "Slave Wages". Now "Treat the New Guy Right" takes us back to Andy. Sometimes when two distinctive songwriters trade album tracks like this, it can feel to the listener like a competition. Take, for example, almost any Beatles album where Lennon and McCartney bat songwriting duties back and forth. The clear impression is that each is trying to outdo the other. At other times swapping songwriters track by track can feel like all out war. For example, Hüsker Dü's Warehouse: Songs and Stories is a great album, but the fairly rigid alternation between Mould and Hart compositions with their attendant differences quickly starts to feel like a process of aggression, each track spurred into existence by the antagonism of its predecessor. By contrast there is no sense of authorial rivalry within Lifestyle or the Silkworm discography in general for that matter. Andy and Tim's songs complement rather than contend with one another. Silkworm albums have a knack of weaving their two entirely individual sets of songs together to form a satisfying gestalt.
One reason for this homogeneity, even as Tim and Andy swap songs, and tone and subject matter change accordingly, is that every song seems to have been given full attention with none neglected or privileged over another, for example, in terms of arrangements, writing, and so on. It seems obvious that this should be the case if a band is trying to make a good record, but in reality the common good is occasionally forgotten. Sometimes songs are not realised to their full potential, albums may be front loaded with the strongest material, or man hours may be poured into the 'hit' or particular favoured tracks to the detriment of others and the album as a whole. It can even be the case that an individual's less than complimentary feelings towards his band mate's song can end up on tape. The Beatles' "Paperback Writer" is a famous example where the other Beatles provide their own kind of commentary on the originality of McCartney's melody. If it sounds like they're laughing and singing "Frère Jacques" instead of "Paperback Writer" on the backing vocal, then it's because they are. Again though, there is no sense of sabotage or favouritism on Lifestyle. Every song is given its due.
The experience of the band is also a factor in creating a sense of unity between the songs. By the time of Lifestyle these three skilled musicians had played together for so long that the interplay and understanding within the ensemble had become finely tuned. This kind of refined chemistry and intuition brought nuance to their music. More than just the band's 'sound', these subtleties and shadings run throughout Lifestyle from front to back, a thread which draws apparently disparate songs together, encoding them with a kind of common DNA. The result is that despite obvious differences of form and content the acoustic melancholy of Andy Cohen's "Roots" feels like a relative to the booming stomp of Tim Midyett's "Yr Web", as if the two songs were different chapters of the same novella.
Of course clever track sequencing fosters a sense of continuity too. As noted in last week's blog "Slave Wages", the first three tracks on Lifestyle form a kind of triptych wherein each track accelerates into the next. The album opens at mid-pace with "Contempt" and then switches up gears through "Slave Wages" before hurtling into "Treat the New Guy Right", a tale of a wild love affair, a song with the rev-o-meter in the red from the start.
If "Slave Wages" was a series a deft twists and turns, each more compelling than the last, then by contrast "Treat the New Guy Right" is a charging bully of a song. Built around a descending "ooga-chucka ooga-chucka" bass line, it bolts off the line and steamrolls the listener. Lyrically the song is as direct as its music. After a short intro — the baseline and Michael Dahlqvist's drums locked together and punctuated by chimes from Andy's guitar — we are immediately in medias res. "He came into town that night / Found himself in a bright light / That followed him around / As he searched for a wife." If "Contempt" was an Andy Cohen re-imagining of a classic movie, then "Treat the New Guy Right" is an original 20th Century Cohen production. It is a classic movie set-up. The lone stranger appears in town. There's a needle-scratch from the jukebox as the locals stop to stare at the interloper in their midst.
A strange thing happens on those third and fourth lines ("That followed him around / As he searched for a wife"). A female voice joins in. It wouldn't be correct to call it a backing vocal because it's as prominent as Andy's lead, and significantly there isn't anything secondary about it. It pops in and out of the track, joining on some lines and not others, and completely transforms, not just the aesthetic of the track, but its meaning. It happens to be the voice of Heather Whinna, Lifestyle's producer. The next lines, leading into the chorus: "Alone like a wandering Jew / She asked, "Who will protect me from you?" / It was only then they were playing the fools." And while Andy himself played the female part in "Contempt", here he has help from Heather who joins and gives voice to that middle line "Who will protect me from you?". It's a brilliant conceit. This is a movie after all, so a full cast is required.
Up to this point the song has been intriguing, the dramatic lyrics about a dangerous stranger and the woman who might be falling for him, that baseline, the insistence of the drums, and Heather's vocals which brighten everything. Then a twinkling line from Brett Grossman's piano signals a change, the start of the chorus, a movement which is the sonic equivalent of falling headfirst off a cliff. Michael's bass drum suddenly pounds its way to the front and Tim's bass line dances. It's an enormous release of tension. What was surging in the verse suddenly becomes celebratory in the chorus, which is as direct and completely enigmatic as anything in rock.
Four lines long, it begins: "When you run into the night / AIN'T YOU EVER BEEN ALONE IN YOUR LIFE?" The first line is Heather and Andy. The second line (the capitalisation is mine) is everyone, Heather, Andy, the rest of the band, and the rest of the world it seems, such is the effect of all these voices singing at full capacity. Andy has a skill for composing lyrics drenched in dark humour as we'll see elsewhere in this series. The characters he creates are often archly cynical. Here though the appeal is earnest. It is not just a cry for sympathy, as in pity or commiseration. It is greater than that. It is an exhortation of solidarity. Everyone sings the line because loneliness unites us all. And the song in its melody, its metre, and its rabble-rousing choral arrangement demands that the listener joins in and becomes one of the choir. In doing so, "Treat the New Guy Right" doesn't just convey its subject, the notion of solidarity, but inspires it and enacts it, uniting the voices on the record with those of its audience. It is a perfect combination of content and form. It is also an enormous hook.
What could follow it? The final two lines of the chorus: "Motorhead is coming for you / You gotta treat the new guy right". The point of this series is to explore the album, to celebrate everything about Lifestyle, not to try and explain lyrics, but if it were, then this would be the point where we would move skip onwards to the next verse and hope no-one noticed that anything had been omitted. For who or what is a Motorhead? Is it some local gearhead lunk chasing our hero through town? That would seem possible, but it's perhaps more fun to imagine that Lemmy is on the rampage and for some largely unaccountable reason has you in his sights. The abstruse terminology is another reminder that Andy is a singular songwriter with regard to his subject matter and references, and that if it was predictable and straightforward, then it wouldn't be Silkworm.
The second and final verse expands on the fervid love affair which was sparked in the first. Our heroes skip town and jump on a plane: "Nothing could happen so fast / Like in the old days / When the atom got smashed / On the flight to Reno / There's no living in the past / Sheets are red because the bed is on fire / When the plane touched down / It blew a tire / That was just the start of a wild weekend." Casual and skilled pathetic fallacy aside,what's interesting is that Heather joins on the first three lines and the last. Somehow this topping and tailing, her framing of the verse, perhaps combined with the "Ain't you ever been alone in your life?" line in the chorus, brings clarity or at least suggests a reason why it is that Heather's vocal adds so much to the song. Her voice is very pretty but, as noted above, her contribution feels like something beyond aesthetics. It doesn't just add polish or brightness to the track. The tone in her voice helps spark everything to life.
Greil Marcus noted the difference between Elvis Costello's version of his song "All This Useless Beauty" and the cover of the song by the band Lush. Elvis was always a classicist, a studious record lover, and this is reflected in his performance:
"Costello sings the song as a tragedy: a beautiful tragedy. The irony burns off as he goes on: the words, taken slowly, carefully, as if something in them, or him, might break, seem to shake in his throat on the choruses." (Stars Don't Stand Still in the Sky, 1999, pg. 18)
With his care and attention and the inflections of all the voices of rock and roll's history in his, Elvis' version of the song belongs on a gallery wall. By contrast, as Marcus points out, Lush were a far younger band, led by two women, and their version of the same song is strikingly different.
"There's no pose, no preening; what they do with the song makes Costello seem like an actor. Like that moment in Human League's "Don't You Want Me" when the female singer comes in, earnestly telling her story in a manner so naturalistic it's an effort to remind yourself that she's singing, what Lush create with "All This Useless Beauty" is the shock of realism." (Stars Don't Stand Still in the Sky, 1999, pg. 19)
With Heather's vocals added to the mix, tonally "Treat the New Guy Right" is like having both versions of "All This Useless Beauty" playing at the same time. Andy is not a classicist like Elvis. It's hard to imagine Andy unironically belting out "She" for the soundtrack to a rom-com, unless it was set perhaps during the Battle of Alesia, or the Siege of Leningrad, or some other suitably Andy-ish scenario. However the contrast is the same as described by Marcus. On "Treat the New Guy Right" Andy is rocking out, and what Heather brings is that "shock of realism". The naturalism of her delivery jolts the song, enhancing the vibrancy in both the lyrics and the playing. It is also entirely suitable that a song with a genuine chorus featuring many voices and with solidarity as its main subject should also have multiple, distinctive tones in its verses.
Another ecstatic double chorus, a short guitar break, some sparkling chords from Brett Grossman, and done. In and out in just over two and half unforgettable minutes. We started this post by commenting on the bizarre lack of commercial success enjoyed by Lifestyle. One listen to "Treat the New Guy Right" underscores how pointless it is to try and unravel that mystery. Mass popularity is surely nice. No-one deserves gold swimming pools and cars filled with champagne more than the creators of this classic song. But a platinum disc is no indicator of the value of something to our culture. It represents a number in a ledger or a point on a sales graph, and nothing more. The fact is that the legacy of a song like "Treat the New Guy Right" is richer than all that noise, and much more than can be summed up adequately here. A song that lifts the listener's spirit and provokes spontaneous singing like “Treat the New Guy Right" will always have its day and will outlast all of us.