July 2009

Arts & Letters

The pretendies

By Paul Kelly
Elvis Presley in 'Jailhouse Rock', 1957. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc./Library of Congress
The art of the spoken interlude

The spoken interlude has a long history in popular song. And takes a fair bit of nerve to pull off. The singer must step out from behind melody’s curtain and act. Elvis’s famous talking bit in ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ stretches Shakespeare’s actor-on-the-stage-of-life metaphor to breaking point. In later years even Elvis lost his nerve when reciting these bombastic lines. You can hear him on a live recording falter halfway through, giggle, then lapse into gibberish in a classic example of The Pretendies – the scourge of all performing artists.

The Pretendies – a term first coined, to my knowledge, by the songwriter–guitarist Spencer P Jones in the back of the band Tarago after a gig in Geelong – can strike any time. One minute you’re putting a song over to the crowd, totally inside what you’re doing, everything meshing; then suddenly you’re adrift, floating above yourself and wondering what on Earth you’re doing. You feel like a complete fake, and the thought runs through your head: What made me think I could get away with this?

Anything can set The Pretendies off. Maybe a fluffed line or chord that jars you out of the moment. Looking at a pretty woman in the audience or glimpsing someone in the front row who reminds you of somebody you went to school with. You may be just a fraction over-tired. Or over-confident, perhaps having done a great show the night before. Without warning you’ve lost control of what you’re doing – like the kid on a bike who’s riding with no hands and going along fine until he calls out, “Look at me, Mum!”

The Pretendies can shudder through a band. You can almost see them ripple across the stage. The guitarist and the drummer sense that the singer’s got the metaphysical wobbles; everyone keeps their head down, not daring to look each other in the eye as they attempt to right the listing ship.

Elvis, though, on that night, once he takes his turn, doesn’t bother trying to come back. He’s broken right through the veil of illusion, exposed the working of the hitherto-unseen gears – and he’s taking the audience with him. It’s painful and thrilling to listen to. He sounds pilled off his head. Unmoored.

Circumventing the perils of the talking bit is mainly a simple matter of wheel alignment: you need to have the axles of sincerity and slyness in perfect counterweight. Too much overblown feeling on the one side, or too much smirk on the other, and you’re swerving all over the road. Lou Reed steers this course beautifully in ‘I Found A Reason’. You have to keep both hands firmly on the wheel to get away with a line like “I’ve walked down life’s lonely highways hand in hand with myself.”

The cadences of southern American speech are particularly suited to the spoken interlude. Old-time preaching straddles song and prose and goes naturally with country music’s solid pillars of sentiment, morality and religion. The Louvin Brothers serve it up straight in ‘Satan Is Real’ with not a whiff of The Pretendies. Likewise, Red Simpson in ‘Roll, Truck, Roll’, his tale of a trucker missing home, says:

Mama said little Danny’s not doing too good in school

Said he keeps talkin’ about his daddy that he hardly knows

Teacher said that he just sits at his desk and draws the pictures of trucks

I guess I know what that means and what it shows 

Delivered without a shred of irony. And rightly so.

Rose Maddox and Buck Owens get a little more playful – talking back and forth to each other – on ‘Mental Cruelty’, despite the seriousness of the subject matter. Rose speaks in rhyme but Buck doesn’t. Many years later, on ‘Far Away Eyes’, Mick Jagger imitated Rose’s vowel-bending drawl, with his tongue firmly in his cheek. His reference to driving through Bakersfield, Buck’s hometown, listening to the gospel music station, is a sly wink to the aficionados.

The talking bit can turn a song into a nightmare – ‘The Leader of the Pack’, for example – or a dream. In ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’, Tom Jones wakes on the morning of his execution to realise he’ll never again touch the gold hair of Mary or kiss her cherry lips. The padre and the hangman are coming for him at daybreak. With the bleak spoken reality breaking in on his pastoral vision, this is the talking bit at its finest and most dramatic.

It’s not for everyone, though. You have to be a believer or, at least, prepared to suspend enough belief to allow the tears to flow and the goose bumps to pimple. There are those who are appalled or sneer. Others fancify their sneer by calling the talking bit “wonderful kitsch”.

The beauty and fascination of being human is the capacity to experience opposing emotions at once – to be cynical and moved in concert (crying during a schmaltzy movie) or to feel blessed and ridiculous simultaneously (sex!) – and to be able to float above them both, observing, testing out the one then the other, dancing the devilish dance of The Pretendies.

Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly is an Australian musician. His books include the memoir How To Make Gravy and the poetry anthology Love Is Strong as Death.


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