The Harmonettes - "Shame, Shame, Shame"

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The recent Numero Group compilation Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up is pretty fantastic, the kind of thing most dug-from-the-crates collections miss, rarities worth knowing and in some cases treasuring. The songs on it are all from Belize, in South America, and they alternate between and combine R&B, calypso, funk, and reggae; all titles are ’70s vintage. The one that gets me, though, is the Harmonettes’ cover version of Shirley (and Company)’s 1975 hit “Shame, Shame, Shame,” which joins a unique pop-historical list of stuff that gets everything wrong but, as a result, gets everything right. (Others: Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, an attempt, Dylan has said, to sound capture a sound like Gordon Lightfoot’s; Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” David Byrne’s attempt to writing an Alice Cooper song; Prince’s “Forever in My Life,” from Sign ‘O’ the Times, in which the singer mistimed his backing-vocal overdubs and liked the results so much he kept them.)

Shirley (and Company)’s original is one of the most striking records of its time, in part because the groove is so irresistible--a chugging, funkified Bo Diddley beat that, at 1:14, at the top of the second chorus, reemphasizes itself when the drummer says fuck it to the tintinnabulating eighth notes he’s playing on the hi-hat and leans on the in-and-out figure that typifies its genre. (Hearing the song go from funky R&B to full-on disco is still a revelation, like watching an apple fall on Newton’s head; even if it’s a recreation, that’s still an Apple and it still hit Newton in the head.) The other thing that’s fascinating about S&C’s “SSS” is that the production is horrible--muddy, ad hoc, weirdly balanced (Jesus Alvarez’s screaming entrance is about a level and a half louder than anything else in the recording), and the vocal microphones seem to have been purchased from a pawn shop--a lot of the words Shirley Goodman is singing are swallowed up. All of this just adds to the record’s house-party effect.

Down in Belize, the Harmonettes seem to be having a great time playing the song. The Cult Cargo liner notes describe it as a “raw funk” version of S&C’s “slick disco” track, but it’s the exact opposite--the Harmonettes replace the cheap production and loose feel of the original with super-tight ensemble work and ultra-clean engineering. It’s faster, too, like they’re showing off how well they’ve got it down by pushing the tempo. The garage-band sound is thickened--there’s organ here, and instead of a house party, it feels more like a well-heeled hotel lounge. They keep S&C’s joviality completely intact, however. And their version compares quite favorably.

There’s just one problem--the Harmonettes’ singer seems to have misheard at least a third of the song’s lyrics:

Original: “I want you to feel it, too.”
Harmonettes: “I want you to feel the tempo.”

Original: “I’m gonna have my say/I’m going to every discotheque/I’m gonna dance, dance, dance, ooh/Till they make the dance say shame, shame, shame.”
Harmonettes: “I’m going to have my say/I’m going to ancient deesco dance/I’m gonna dance, dance, dance, ooh/If we make the chance--shame, shame shame.”

Original: “Got my sunroof down/Got my diamond in the back/So put on your shaky wig baby/If you don’t then I ain’t coming back.”
Harmonettes: “Got my salmon down/Got my diamond in the back/Pull off your [something or other] . . . do it, band!”

Original: If you don’t want to go/Remember one monkey don’t stop no show/My body needs action/Ain’t gonna blow.”
Harmonettes: If you don’t want to go/Remember one monkey don’t wear no shirt/My body needs action/Ain’t got no clothes.”

What’s remarkable about this isn’t just that Shirley’s melisma and awful mic placement made the words hard to understand--I had to look a few of those lines up myself. It’s that several of the Harmonettes’ substitutions sound absolutely nothing like what she was singing. Goodman enunciates “One monkey don’t stop no show” very clearly; it’s not a line you could mistake for any other, much less “One monkey don’t wear no shirt”--emphasis the Harmonettes’, by the way; the singer leans into the wrong lines like he’s sealing a bet.

The remake is also enunciated clearly--calypsonian tradition emphasizes this, and calypso figures heavily into Cult Cargo's overall sound, even here. By applying this kind of uprightness to the song, the Harmonettes accomplish something rather amazing: They make one of the most gleefully trashy records ever made even trashier.