On Status Quo's "Down Down".
On the day after Nelson Mandela marked 20 years since his release from prison, the two frontmen of a British rock group who broke the
anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa were at Buckingham Palace to receive OBEs and limp handshakes from the Queen. That the monarchy has an interest in maintaining the status quo goes without saying; it's perhaps more of a surprise that royalty should wish to honour Status Quo the band.
Because, apart from the questionable politics (they were one of a handful of groups who took money to perform at the South African luxury resort Sun City during the 1980s), we all know Status Quo are rubbish, don't we? In fact, "rubbish" is too strong a word. Quo, who have been churning out bluesy rock since the late 1960s (after a very brief foray into psychedelia), are one of those bands of whom you could say that having either an overt liking or an outright hatred for their music marks one out as a bit of a tosser. Having scored many minor hits but only one number-one single in their five-decade career, they have become a byword for mediocrity, not to mention uncool. The band even sued Radio 1 in 1996, accusing it of having banned Quo singles from its playlist as part of an attempt to attract a younger audience.
But we devotees of the art of listening know how such context can deceive the ears. So (if you're embarrassed, let's say it's for research purposes), we shall exhume their lone number one, the 1974 hit "Down Down". You know how it goes: duh-duh-der-der-duh-duh-der-der-duh-duh-der-duh-BA-BA-BAA, as many of their tunes do. It's a version of the standard 12-bar blues riff, delivered in sloppy 1970s style. The drummer can't keep time, speeding up excitedly when he gets to the end of each section. The lyrics are a standard rock mix of nonsense ("Get down, deeper and down") and paranoia ("I want all the world to see/To see you're laughing/And you're laughing at me"), sung with double-tracked vocals. Double-tracking is a recording technique in which a vocal line is duplicated in order to create a "fuller" sound. Used to excess as it is here, however, the voice sounds as if it is being delivered through a long cardboard tube.
Uninspiring stuff, you might think. Yet every now and then you'll find a song that amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Regular readers of this column will already be familiar with the glam-rock stomp and how its traces are still to be found on the likes of Dizzee Rascal's "Dirtee Cash". Here, we find its cousin, the pub-rock drone: the result, intentional or not, of a song being so monotonous, its arrangement so minimal, that the listener experiences it as a cheer-inducing, fuzzy embrace.
If grown-up inhibitions shield you from this effect, find a child (any will do), play them this song and watch as they do that weird child-dance: head lolling, eyes rolling, torso twisting, arms hanging limply by their side. The late John Peel understood the mysteries of pop better than most and, as a result, was fond of dropping "Down Down" into his DJ set at hip nightclubs to prove his point.
Peel aside, Status Quo's output has remained off-limits to Radio 1 since the mid-90s. Yet the same buzz-saw burr underpins a significant proportion of the music chosen for air. The technology might have changed - pop acts are now more likely to achieve the effect with modulated synth patterns than overdriven guitars - but the principles of the sound are the same: akin to a motorbike revving, or a washing machine reaching the top of its spin cycle. Just listen to 3Oh!3, the Colorado-based group who have two singles in the top 20 (one featuring Ke$ha and the other Katy Perry). It exposes one of pop music's great lies. While the accompanying images bombard you with youth and vitality and the promise of exciting sex, the underlying sounds are often little more than the decades-old residue of a sweaty, blokey thrash.
As for the Quo themselves? Here's their guitarist, Rick Parfitt, on his OBE: "When you hear of our troops dying in Afghanistan, you can look at yourself and think 'do I deserve this?' - but you have been chosen for this and should accept it with honour." Truly, they remain a corner of the British empire on which the sun will never set.