Monday, December 13, 2010

Horse Outside vs. Frank Kelly's Christmas Countdown

Whatever they do when they take those bags off their heads, whatever paths their future lives may take, the Rubberbandits will never mine so rich a strain of inspiration, or resonate with so many people, as they have this Christmas with Horse Outside.

If that sounds a little limiting, it’s not. Most people don’t achieve in a lifetime of creation what the Rubberbandits have achieved in the three minutes and fifty-one seconds of Horse Outside.

The difference between their weekly output on late night TV and Horse Outside is the difference between water and whiskey. The bridesmaid is impossibly glamorous, the chief Rubberbandit dances like Michael Jackson, the lyrics are equally piquant and hilarious and the whole thing is carried off with such brio that you’re just swept away.

Listening to Horse Outside and hearing talk of a Christmas No 1 brought An Spailpín back to another Christmas record of the past. Frank Kelly wrote a parody of The Twelve Days of Christmas in 1983 that was a big hit at the time and even saw him make an appearance on Top of the Pops.

The idea was that Gobnait O’Lunacy, Kelly’s everyman character stretching back to his days on Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, is writing thank-you notes to his girlfriend, Nuala. Nuala sends the gifts mentioned in the song to Gobnait and his mother on each of the twelve days and Gobnait replies, each letter growing more exasperated as the wildlife grows more difficult to control in the house.

Kelly’s Christmas Countdown is much more gentle than the Rubberbandits’ Horse Outside. Gobnait lives with his mother and his girlfriend’s name is Nuala. If Gobnait bought a horse, he would use cash money, rather than a bag of yokes and the barter system.

While the Rubberbandits swear the house down Kelly limits himself to parliamentary language, but it works well for him “You have scandalised my mother, you dirty Jezebel ... listen, slurry-head!” “Slurry-head” remains one of An Spailpín’s favourite insults – although, sadly, your correspondent is much more likely to chose the Rubberbandit vocabulary when exasperated, having gone to the town school.

It’s a mistake to read too much meaning into novelty songs. Joyce got away with it for Finnegan’s Wake but he was an exceptional case. That said, it’s undeniable that each song holds a mirror up to its age and society.

Frank Kelly’s song is set in an Ireland that’s before the fall of the church, with poverty, middle-aged men living with their mothers and the that small-town-as-the-universe feel. Horse Outside is recognisably today, with people who don’t really care what’s going on so long as they can get wasted and have a good time. Celtic Tiger in excelsis.

Horse Outside is a much more vital song than the Christmas Countdown – it makes you want to get up and dance. But the fundamental engine of the song is what the Rubberbandit advises his rivals in love to do with their Mitsubishis, their Honda Civics and their Su-ba-ru. Good fun to make gang signs to and roar out when you’re twisted at the office party. But fundamentally cheap and a little bit nasty.

Again, it’s only a song. But what’s kind of sad is that there isn’t a counterbalance in the culture to the coarseness of it. The old-world civility of people who write thank-you notes, whose girlfriends are called Nuala but will never top Mammy in their boy’s affections.

There was a lot of repression and sadness in that Ireland, and lost potential and torn social fabrics. But it’s hard to think the Rubberbandits, inspired though they are, are progress.