20b. The Simpsons Sing the Blues

Look at all those idiots

An office full of morons, a factory full of fools

  • Released Tuesday 4 December 1990
  • Produced by John Boylan, Michael Jackson, Jazzy Jeff and Bryan Loren

Two weeks after Do the Bartman, its long-playing parent appeared. Everything about The Simpsons Sing the Blues smacked of a rushed job flung together in lunch breaks and late nights. The front cover looked like it had been knocked up in less time than it took to play the entire album. Fully half of the 10 tracks were cover versions with little or nothing added. Another comprised a reworking of a scrap of a song from an episode in season one. This left just four genuine originals – only two of which merited repeated listens.

Yet faced with 40 minutes of brazenly mediocre material fronted by history’s least repentant TV family, the world chose to ignore the former and embrace the latter. Over one million copies of the album were sold in America in just seven days. It made the top 10 in Canada, New Zealand and the UK and the top 30 in Australia and Sweden. But it never reached number one in any of the major English-speaking countries. Perhaps not everyone was smitten with the album’s spiky packaging and brash roster of celebrity cameos.

Of all the tie-in tat and no-frills spin-offs to have been squeezed out of the Fox merchandising tract these past 25 years, The Simpsons Sing the Blues is perhaps the least suited to a nit-picking retrospective. But here goes anyway:

1. Do the Bartman
There’s not much more to add, except to say this is the full-length version, meaning every unsubtle gimmick and clunky in-joke (“Eat your heart out, Michael!”) drags on for a good two minutes longer than it should. 3

2. School Day
And bang: straight to the filler. You have to admire the producers’ nerve. It’s only track two and already no one gives a toss. This version of Chuck Berry’s 1957 stomper is performed so absolutely straight and sounds so utterly soulless that, for a good minute or so, you wonder if there isn’t some sly, counter-intuitive pranking going on. Is it all a big wind-up? Is someone about to interrupt the song and, fanfared with a tried-and-trusted comedy vinyl scratch sound, junk the entire farrago on the grounds of it being thunderously boring? But then one minute becomes two minutes, and you realise no, this is all there is, there’s no more to the song than meets the ear, and that it is indeed thunderously boring. Everything is on synthesisers, even the saxophones. Nancy Cartwright sounds weedy and embarrassed. Not even the presence on vocals of David Johansen from the New York Dolls lifts proceedings. The entire song has heavy legs. After four minutes of advancing next to nowhere, it flops disconsolately into a fade-out. 2

3. Born Under a Bad Sign
Another cover. This time Dan Castellaneta is on vocals, singing as Homer, but once more doing it completely straight and shorn of all comic depth. It’s not a particularly bad version of this swaggering Booker T Jones/William Bell blues, but there’s nothing to distinguish it either. It’s also out of character for Homer: yes, he’s often hard-done-by in the TV series, but he’s most definitely not (at least at this point in the show’s history) a deadbeat. BB King pops in to drop off the few spare guitar licks he had left over from guesting with U2. Castellaneta improvises a little over the fade-out (“I should have some kind of name… Blind Lemon Simpson… Blind Lemon Lime Homer…”). A few more minutes pass. 3

4. Moanin’ Lisa Blues
Based on a few throwaway lines of verse from an episode in season one, this workmanlike shuffle is a step up from what came before. But it’s hampered by a piece of particularly inept sequencing, being the third song in a row to be based on a 12-bar blues. Lisa’s vocals, although sung with sincerity by Yeardley Smith, start to grate after we’ve been through the same chord changes for the 10th time. The incongruity of an eight-year-old “moaning” with the conviction of a 70-something is where the humour is meant to lie, but the end result is more enervating than amusing. Joe Walsh on guitar and John Sebastian on harmonica turn in decent cameos, but by this point in the album you’d be forgiven for wanting to chuck Lisa’s saxophone into the deepest recess of Springfield Gorge. Happily, things are about to look up… 4

5. Deep, Deep Trouble
Finally: a decent song. And not just that: a great song, a fantastically clever and witty confection that sounds as fresh and exciting as it did in 1990. Hearing this after the previous four tracks is like opening the biggest of windows in the stuffiest of rooms. Deep, Deep Trouble has everything that is so desperately missing from Do the Bartman: lightness of touch, clever wordplay, sparkling production and infectious charm. It’s impossible to condemn this song for anything, even its chirpy swingbeat rhythm that was so huge in 1990 (think of Bobby Brown’s Every Little Step) before becoming so passé in 1991. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince do a marvellous job, expertly weaving samples and scratches in and out of the backing track while pitching the lyrics just right. No trace of Bart the brat here:

This is my thanks after working my butt off?
Homer revs the motor and they all start to putt off.
Soaked to the bone, standing in a puddle,
No one needs to tell me I’m in deep, deep trouble.

Nancy Cartwright delivers the rap with aplomb. It’s her best performance on the album; for once she sounds like she’s enjoying stumping up her contributions to what must have felt at best a chore, at worst the thin end of a Murdoch-sized wedge. She even gets to do a proper punchline:

There’s a little epilogue to my tale of sadness:
I was dragged down the street by his royal dadness.
We rounded the corner and came to a stop,
Threw me inside Jake’s Barber Shop.
I said: Please sir, just a little off the top.
Dude shaved me bare, gave me a lollipop.
So on my head, there’s nothing but stubble.
Man, I hate being in deep, deep trouble.

Despite all its datestamping beats and stylistic idiosyncrasies, Deep, Deep Trouble succeeds ultimately because it has character and humour of an utterly unselfish and organic kind. The polar opposite of Do the Bartman, it’s a song without pretence or bluster, created and produced for all the right reasons. 9

6. God Bless the Child
“No synthetic sound,” Lisa whines at the beginning of this, “I want all live musicians.” Cue much disgruntled shuffling from the “band”, before some synthesisers kick in regardless, and we plunge into a capable but bland version of a tune first made famous by Billie Holiday in 1941. The arrangement is note perfect, but Lisa’s voice is just too reedy to bring any substance to the performance. Bleeding Gums Murphy’s interjections – “Well that was lovely, Miss Lisa” – come over as patronising, and the pair’s ensuing saxophone duet quickly becomes boring. More asphalt than heartfelt. 4

7. I Love to See You Smile
Dr John’s piano tinkles away dolefully in the background while Homer and Marge ham their way through this instantly forgettable rendition of Randy Newman’s laboured ode to domestic hoo-ha. Forget filler; we’re now dealing with tired, end-of-the-pier karaoke. 1

8. Springfield Soul Stew
The Ringo track. Julie Kavner grunts her way through a leaden version of Memphis Soul Stew by King Curtis, identical note-for-note save for all mentions of Memphis which have been crossed out and replaced with Springfield. And that’s it. At least it’s shorter than Octopus’s Garden. 2

9. Look At All Those Idiots
“Smithers! Turn on the surveillance monitors! Ooh, it’s worse than I thought!” Salvation. The best track on the album without question. Over a thumping funk beat and rollocking backing, Harry Shearer delivers a tour de force as both Mr Burns and Smithers, the former ranting and howling a toe-tapping recitation on the inferiority of his workforce:

I know it shouldn’t vex me, I shouldn’t take it hard
I should ignore their capering with a kingly disregard, but
Look at all those idiots! Look at all those boobs!
An office full of morons, a factory full of fools!
It is any wonder that I’m singing,
Singing the blues?

It’s no surprise that two of the show’s best writers – Jeff Martin and Sam Simon – penned the lyrics; this is the one and only time the album comes close to matching the virtuoso wit and commanding energy of the TV series, and where the humour shines because, not despite, of the architecture of the song.

They make personal phone calls on company time;
They Xerox their buttocks, and guess who pays the dime?
Their blatant thievery wounds me, their ingratitude astounds!
I long to lure them to my home and then release the hounds!

You can tell the writers are still in that first flush of excitement at realising just what comic potential there is to be mined from this flustering tyrant. The song even pulls off that tricky gag of having its protagonists appear at odds with the format in which they find themselves:

“What happened? Where are the instruments?”
“I believe they call this a breakdown, sir”
“I can’t have any breakdowns here! What if there was an inspector around?

And perhaps best of all:

“Take me home, sir.”
“I’m trying!”

This and Deep, Deep Trouble are the only tracks worth repeated listening; and this is the only one likely to make you laugh loudly and richly.

“Why are they still playing? They’re not still on salary are they?”

A perfect 10.

10. Sibling Rivalry
After all that, the album’s finale could only be something of an anti-climax. Unfortunately it’s even worse: it’s a total anti-climax. Sibling Rivalry is a nauseating we-love-each-other-really duet by Bart and Lisa, full of the sort of over-egged flourishes and artless gear-changes that garland the worst kind of musical theatre. It shifts tempo about six times, limps from ballad to R’n’B to rock and back again, and there’s even a fully-fledged “stage chorus” who keep interrupting with tart observations and tricksy rhymes. It’s a model example of what happens when James L Brooks’ penchant for crude sentimentality is left unchecked and instead explodes in a great schmaltzy seepage all over your ears. Ugh. The last words of the song, and of the album, are shudderingly trite: “A brother and a sister, we will always be this close.” 0

Verdict: 38%
Half the planet woke up on Christmas Day 1990 to find this album in their stocking. The other half watched 12 months later as it clogged up the bargain bins and second-hand shops. A grisly time capsule from when The Simpsons was shrugging off the last of its growing pains, …Sing the Blues deserves to be put back in the cold ground along with other misconceived projects from the era of the first President Bush, such as the new world order and hot tea in cans. Just make sure before internment that Deep, Deep Trouble and Look At All Those Idiots are saved for the ages.

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