Reviewed: Songs Cycled by Van Dyke Parks

Revolution in the head.

Songs Cycled (Bella Union)
Van Dyke Parks

In 1968, Warner Brothers took out a fullpage ad in Billboard for Van Dyke Parks’s album Song Cycle, which read: “How we lost $35,509.50 on ‘The Album Of The Year’ (Dammit)”. Two weeks later, it ran another, offering two new copies of the doomed disc in exchange for one used one, for a nominal fee of one cent. The ads were by the maverick copywriter Stan Cornyn, who’d worked out that the less a record sold, the cooler it became – but Parks was always a non-commercial proposition. He is best known for facilitating Brian Wilson’s baroque dreams (and nightmares) as the lyricist for the Beach Boys’ unfinished Smile album. As an LA session man and producer, he spent time in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and worked with Randy Newman, Tim Buckley and Phil Ochs, among many others.

His solo work – classical, cabaret, Cal-pop, calypso – was always too esoteric for mainstream tastes: he’s the sort of musician who calls Ry Cooder a “Trinidadian” and doesn’t think that needs any explanation. But in 2013 we love all that stuff and, at 70, Parks is busier than he was at 45, bussed to festivals across the globe to talk with aphoristic economy on royalties, rights and the globalisation of rock like a kind of musical Mark Twain.

He provides unusual angles on the people he has worked with (“Harry Nilsson had detergent depth – tell him the date you were born and he’d tell you what day of the week it was”) and he genuinely believes that the casualties of rock’n’roll (Hendrix, Joplin and so on) “died in their efforts to bring music into a political potency” – which is both quaint and inspiring, depending on how you look at it. Recently, the 25-year-old LA dance producer Skrillex contacted him for a collaboration, declaring that they would “destroy the world together”. Naturally, Parks was sold.

His first solo album in 24 years is a collection of five original tracks, some new versions of old songs and some traditional material, with a title that says: “Here I am, as weird as I always was and maybe for the last time.” It arrives in a very different world from what faced its Sixties namesake: a post-Spotify landscape in which the kind of act that gets on Radio 2 might well play part of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals on steel pans (as Parks does on “Aquarium”) – or a titillating country song about a girl named after a herbal tea used in the homoeopathic treatment of chlamydia (“Sassafras”) – and not be considered dilettantish for doing so.

With its combination of pastoral grace and unexpected warps of key signature, Parks’s work as an orchestral arranger always sat well in psychedelia but he’s in essence a classical musician in the school of Gershwin and Bern - stein, with a bit of his former teacher Aaron Copland thrown in. Songs Cycled features several strange mini-musicals of the mind, the most chilling of which is “Wall Street”, a love song about 9/11 “jumpers” who leap hand in hand from the towers, “two flaming birds on fire”, and plummet to the pavement, leaving “no trace of their embrace”. He wrote it not long after the attacks as a response to the US government’s apparent efforts to erase the suiciders from the collective memory – though he couldn’t really release it at the time, having condemned Neil Young for writing a song called “Let’s Roll” about Flight 93. (“A Canadian citizen making a dime on the United States, calling them to war, is the height of stupidity,” he maintained recently.)

“Dreaming of Paris” is apparently a comment on the US bombing of Baghdad, though it must be the only song on the subject to include a mention of crème brûlée. Parks’s metaphors and internal rhymes (“It’s déjà vu, I’m tellin’ you”) tie his songs up in pretty bows, giving the impression that they are nothing but momentary escapes from real life. Given the brow-furrowing exegesis required to draw out their political meaning, it’s sometimes hard to buy his central idea that there is “nothing more precious than the song form to revolutionise popular thought”.

Then again, the notion that protest might be couched in light-hearted music is convincing – that’s the basis of his beloved calypso, after all – and the overall effect of these fleet-footed tunes is indeed one of powerful unease, especially in the tonguetrammelling, Tom Lehrer-style rhymes of “Black Gold”, which is all about the 2002 Prestige oil spill.

Parks attacks his work with a belief in the motivational power of music that seems unusual in this day and age. In his sleeve notes, he writes: “I am a rusty nail just waiting to be hammered down by an intolerant bastard with no room for what isn’t rockin’ or casually elite.” The only thing he’s got wrong is that there’s no one who wants to hammer him down.

Van Dyke Parks with Chad Kimball in 2005. Photo: Getty Images.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

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Scream Queens: a melting pot of visual references to teen movies and horror films

The TV show’s parodic tone is mirrored in its knowing references to classics of the genres.

The American series Scream Queens is a strange beast: part college drama, part horror, part black comedy, it follows teenagers at a sorority house as a disguised serial killer begins a murderous rampage on campus, picking off a handful of characters each episode. The result: a parade of mean girls in prom dresses, covered in blood and guts. The makers of the show are keen to pay homage to the classics that have influenced them, and many viewers have pointed out deaths that reference major horror films: whether it’s freezing to death in a maze à la The Shining, getting a Hellraiser-esque makeover, or being hacked to tiny pieces in the style of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But the show takes its teenage dream aesthetic just as seriously, and frequently acknowledges and subverts the tropes and quirks of the high school movie genre, from implicit nods to direct parodies.


Heathers (1988) is an obvious source for Scream Queens: following two outsiders as they systematically murder the most popular kids in school, it’s sardonic, garish and brutally violent. Sorority head Chanel forces her minions to call themselves Chanel #2, Chanel #3, and so on, an overt reference to Heathers's three queen bees (all called Heather). The makers of Scream Queens also repeatedly play with the film’s opening croquet scene in the show’s first episode.

The Craft

Only witches and ritual murderers are that into candles. The teen witch aesthetic of The Craft (1996) continually seeps in to the show, even if it’s at odds with the usual sugary-sweet palette.


It’s hard to think of pretty blonde girls in prom dresses covered in blood without thinking of Carrie (1976). The opening scene of Scream Queens sees a girl in a trance-like state with bloodied hands walking through a pastel party. But in Scream Queens, no one’s that bothered: “I am not missing 'Waterfalls' for this. 'Waterfalls' is my jam.”

Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl (2007-2012) spawned a thousand glossy, bitchy children, and Scream Queens could be its slightly unhinged niece. Chanel #1's silky, preppy wardrobe calls to mind some of Blair's pristine outfits (even if she'd never be seen dead in a pink faux fur jacket), and the sorority house, with its sweeping staircases, soft carpets and luxurious flower arrangements, is strikingly similar to the Waldorf’s apartment. One of the most obvious references to the show is Mrs Bean, Chanel’s maid, who follows in the footsteps of Blair’s maid Dorota, (right down to the old-fashioned uniform). While Blair grows incredibly close with Dorota (she’s maid-of-honour at her wedding), Chanel burns Mrs Bean’s face of in a deep-fat fryer. Lovely.

Mean Girls

Makeovers, hazing, and neck braces: there are several obligatory references to cultural touchstone Mean Girls (2004), including matching pink outfits and vengeful collages

The Powerpuff Girls

What happens when you mix sugar, spice, and all things nice with a mysterious and explosive chemical? Either the Powerpuff Girls, or the Chanels.

Now hear Anna discussing Scream Queens on the New Statesman’s pop culture podcast, SRSLY.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.