Notes, Hoaxes, and Jokes: Silkworm's 'Lifestyle' - "Ooh La La"
Lifestyle's penultimate track eases the pace and finds fresh nuance and depth in a rock classic, as Silkworm offer their take on the Faces' "Ooh La La".
Lifestyle's tenth track, "Dead Air" represented the final of the album's hard-charging ultra-compact pop dynamos. Like "Slave Wages", "Treat the New Guy Right", and "Raging Bull" — a catalogue of wonders sharing multiple songwriters but all cut from the same cloth — "Dead Air" created its own world of characters and places, and condensed this multitude into a couple of minutes of electrifying, inventive, and deceptively intricate rock and roll. The song zipped the listener from Nashville to Paris, pondering the meaning of it all and offering libations to Hank and Jim. After this whistle-stop tour of the weird and the regretful, Lifestyle's penultimate track, the more downbeat and gentile "Ooh La La", which is the subject of this week's blog entry, begins the process of easing the pace of proceedings and ultimately winding the album to a close. It is as if "Dead Air" is such a rollicking storm of humour and sadness, and propelled along with such force by Tim Midyett's high-torque riffing, that it takes the braking distance provided by not one but two tracks to slow Lifestyle to a stationary conclusion.
"Ooh La La" is a cover of the title track of the Faces' 1973 album. Written by the two Ronnies, Lane and Wood, the song is arguably as iconic in UK culture as their namesakes' (comedy duo Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett) "Four Candles" sketch. It may seem ridiculous to draw a comparison between the two, but both bear claim to a similar kind of status. They are examples of artefacts which seem to have always been present and familiar, and are now so deeply imprinted on the collective memory that at this point they are almost like folk music.
"Ooh La La" is atypical of the Faces' discography in more than a few ways. Most notably it is a rare example of a Ronnie Wood lead vocal. Usually, of course, those duties fell to Rod Stewart. Secondly, the Faces were a ferocious rock band. On a track like "Pool Hall Richard", for example, one of many perfect Faces songs, it feels as if all needles are in the red, as if the band are pushing everything, their equipment, themselves, the listener's speakers, to the point of some kind of ecstatic booze-fuelled disaster. By contrast though "Ooh La La" is relatively sedate. It is built on big, multi-tracked acoustic strums. It skips rather than stomps along. It is bright and brisk and all quite cheerful, sir.
As might be expected with such an iconic track, the song has been covered many times. Most of these versions overwhelmingly replicate the spirit of the original. They play around with the edges of the song, but seem unable to resist the central dancing melody of the chorus. They especially fall into line around the "when I was stronger" line where they cannot help but echo Ronnie Woods' performance. For example, covers by Manchester Orchestra and Tim Timebomb and Friends offer both a quiet acoustic take and a ska version of the song, but even the former which strives for a sense of solemnity ends up sounding quite chipper in spite of itself.
Another problem which both of those versions have is how ill-fitting the lyrics are to their respective bands. "Ooh La La" is a grandson's recounting of the advice given to him by his granddad, which can be broadly summed up thus: Beware women! They're predators! And they'll get you! With its now archaic reference to "can-can" dancers and "women's ways", "Ooh La La" is very much a product of its time and place. Its man-of-the-world, dude philosophy is incongruous to the prim AOR of Manchester Orchestra, and any even vague lyrical nod to the Moulin Rouge sounds utterly daft when voiced by a bunch of ageing punks skanking it up.
In the last decade or so the song has become ubiquitous as a staple of TV advertising campaigns, shilling for everything from mobile phones to sofas, the UK National Lottery, supermarkets, and most recently beer. Pairing "Ooh La La" with that last item would seem to be so appropriate that it is almost surprising that it took the advertising world so long to make the connection because although, as noted, it stands apart from The Faces' discography in many ways, in one key respect it is completely typical. The Faces had a reputation as a gang of hard drinking, partying, womanising rapscallions. Their raucous, rip-roaring music speaks to this in a way which 40 years later makes the listener wonder how they were able to play at all since it is hard to imagine a single moment of the day when they didn't have a blonde under each arm and a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a fag in the other. The only potential problem with getting the band to sell your beer is that they might just neck the lot instead. The Faces were geezers, by the British definition of the word, and it is this spirit which is captured in their original version of "Ooh La La". The song is a wink and a nod and slap on the back. It's The same again, John. Doubles this time!. Solid gold geezers. Most cover versions do not know how to deal with this aspect of the song. However this is exactly what makes it so ideal for Silkworm.
Andy Cohen takes lead vocals on the unique version of "Ooh La La" which appears on Lifestyle and, in theme and tone, Wood and Lane's song is so close to some of Andy's own compositions that without prior knowledge of the Faces and without checking the credits on the sleeve notes it would be easy to assume that he had written it himself. In our blog entry on Lifestyle's seventh track "That's Entertainment" we saw how Andy created a narrator who, relishing his Lothario status, loved cracking jokes as much as he did breaking hearts. It is a voice which recurs elsewhere in the Silkworm discography, perhaps appearing to best effect in the track "Beyond Repair" from the 1998 album Blueblood, Lifestyle's's immediate predecessor. Not only does it begin "I've been around the world / I've seen a million girls / And I've been touched by every one of them", but just under halfway through in lines which with a bit of rearrangement for the purposes of metre would be a perfect addendum to "Ooh La La" it notes "In Havana the ladies will help ya / Improve your Spanish at the Tropicana / For just as long as the pesos hold out". It is fair to say that Andy is well practised to tackle a song like "Ooh La La".
Musically Silkworm rearrange the track. Gone from the original are the jaunty acoustic guitars and in their place comes full-bore 'Worm: Tim playing the instantly identifiable main riff on bass, plating it with heavy metallic edges; Michael Dahlquist on drums, alternately sneaking along and detonating all manner of TNT as the song progresses; and Andy on electric guitar, filling in the gaps and dropping in a rasping solo. The track is bigger and far more dramatic than the original. Where The Faces' version was a happy romp, this is something more majestic.The Silkworm version seems grander and several beats slower. The notion that there is a significant difference in tempo would seem to be supported by the fact that it is just over twenty seconds longer than the original. However, play the tracks side by side and they do mostly keep pace with one another. The 20 seconds is actually gained because of an extra repeat of the chorus which Silkworm include after the instrumental section which runs roughly from the one and half minute to two minute marks. The Faces head straight out of the instrumental into the next verse ("When you want her lips / You get a cheek"), whereas the dynamics which the band have freshly fashioned for the song seem to dictate that this would not work for the Silkworm version.
Silkworm pick their way through the verses, the ear of the listener guided by Tim's bass. However when they arrive at the chorus, Tim, Michael, and Andy all come in at once on the first beat ("I wish…"), and the track explodes. There is a visceral rush of energy. Straightaway Michael heightens the effect. Suddenly there seems to be space in the track, and he fills it with massive whooshing crashes. The contrast he creates between the seismic shockwaves of his bass drum and the shimmer of his hi-hat somehow seems to emphasise the enormity of the punishment he is dealing to the snare in between, the sound of which conjures up images of upstrokes several feet higher than could feasibly be possible. His drum track itself is a mini, compact lesson in dynamics. And so rather than scale downwards at the end of the instrumental section, Silkworm reach up and offer a repeat of their hair-raising version of the chorus. In The Faces version there is not a particularly great shift in dynamics from verse to chorus. Double-tracked vocals alter the texture of the song, but nothing more than that. However with Silkworm the difference is so vast that if they had down-shifted at the end of the instrumental into another verse, it is easy to imagine the deadening effect this would have had on the track.
The consequence of all this — the weird time-warping effect which Silkworm achieve, whereby the song appears to be slower than it is; the extra heft given by their fully electric reworking of the track; and the unique combination of Michael, Andy, and Tim as players — is to instill the song with a pathos which is lacking from the original. Not only that but they manage to retain a touch of the geezer-ishness of the Faces' version. While the three elements listed above create the perfect environment for this balance, key above all else is Andy's vocal. When he sings about the backstage at the can-can he does it credibly. He sells it. And when he sings the chorus he hits it at what must be the very limits of his lungs. The combination of his tone and the force in his voice suggests a knowingness, and an even balance of wit and regret. This is jack-the-lad all grown up. In this sense Silkworm explore the lyrics with a subtlety and eye for contrast which is missing from other versions of the song. If the original looks back on the carnal encounters of its younger days with champagne-tinted sunglasses, then the Silkworm version remembers not just the fun, but every sticky, humiliating moment that went with it.
Silkworm recorded a number of cover versions. An early single combined their take on Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" on one side with the Comsat Angels' "Our Secret" on the other. There was even an EP of covers, 2003's excellent "You are Dignified". The interpretation of "Ooh La La" contained on Lifestyle bears comparison with any of them. In many ways it is an example of an ideal cover version. It takes the essence of the original and locates previously unrecognised nuances in the song, giving voice to what was before silent. It is not slavish, nor is it flippant or ironic. It becomes a Silkworm song.
"Ooh La La" also functions perfectly within the context of the album. After the wild rushes and rocking snarls contained on side B of Lifestyle, "Ooh La La" applies the brakes. While it rocks hard in those choruses, the song offers pause. The narrator of "Ooh La La" stops, literally to take perspective, looking back on his life to consider what could have gone differently. On our journey through Lifestyle we have been to so many places and seen so many strange things. "Ooh La La" stands still and looks back. It suggests we take a deep breath. It prepares us for landing.