I’ll never forget the first time I heard Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room.” It was 1974 and I was almost 10 years old. My cool teenage cousins were blasting the 8-track from upstairs and air-guitaring all the licks. Predictably in awe, I was further taken aback by the song’s first vocal, which wasn’t sung but spoken instead.
Spoken? Lyrics weren’t supposed to be spoken. What was this?
The lead singer started getting to know me (or so I imagined). “Hey, how you doing out there? Ya ever seem to have one of those days…” Holy cow! I felt like he was personally addressing me. How cool! And then when the singer was ready for the rest of the song, he growled “Well, let me tell you about it!!” and then belted out the remaining vocals.
How awesome, I thought; are there other songs like this? I needed to find out. Who knew how many more singers wanted to chat with me, one on one?
My first stop? My mother’s record collection. She was a rabid Tom Jones fan and played his records in our living room. It was there that I heard “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” Having grown up on tearjerkers like “Seasons In The Sun” and “Billy Don’t Be A Hero,” I was immediately manipulated by Jones’ delivery, shedding a tear as Tom solemnly intoned the doomed man’s plight: “Then I awake and look around me / at 4 gray walls that surround me…” I was rendered helpless, a total mess, but I knew that the Spoken Word Interlude (or SWI, for short) was a thing of beauty. More, please!
Needless to say, not every SWI would ascend the mountain top like TJ’s did, but upon hearing Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” at my Aunt Dottie’s house after Thanksgiving dinner, I had a new favorite entry in my genre. Displaying the same woodenness that defined his movie acting, Elvis bloodlessly wonders if… we’d like to hear him talk over the backing track. But as much as I cringe hearing it today, it used to give me goosebumps.
Elvis would leave us in 1977, the same year another formative SWI entered my world, namely, Kiss’ “Christine 16.” At the time, I was in the thrall of the cock-rocking quartet, despite being a 13-year-old Catholic schoolboy. At the time, I thought it was cool that the almost 30-something Gene Simmons was spitting his lusty rap from a muscle car outside the school of a girl half his age. Despite the song’s pervy content, I can still recite this SWI word for word today… “I’VE GOT TO HAVE YOU!” (PS – I need a shower now).
As I got older, two things happened: my musical tastes matured, and I discovered mind-altering drugs. Why does this matter? Because rock stars love drugs too, and it seemed like the only thing that singers like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Burdon ever wanted to do was TALK. How else to explain Mr. Mojo Risin’s psychodrama recitation, which lengthened The Doors’ “The End” to a 20-minute showstopper? As an encore, Morrison opened the title track of 1969’s “The Soft Parade” with an eerie sermon presaging a Jim Jones-style preacher reminiscing about what life was like “back there in seminary school.”
Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” is a sonic gem and some of the most effortless SWI-ing. Hendrix nearly shout-talks all the lyrics anyway, but it’s the two trippy speeches that bookend the jazzy solo where Jimi drops some stoned wisdom. It sounds like something he might impart while passing a joint your way.
The actual words reek of the hippie madness that made every Dennis Hopper line in Easy Rider sound ridiculously stilted. A line like “White collared conservative flashing down the street/Pointing their plastic finger at me” might sound clownish coming from anyone else, but it works like magic here.
I stumbled upon things like War’s “Spill The Wine,” featuring Eric Burdon dreaming that he “was in a Hollywood movie.” The ex-Animals frontman can hardly believe his luck as he readily admits to being “an overfed long-haired leaping gnome.” One of the funniest spoken word interludes ever.
Similar to “Spill The Wine” was Donovan’s “Atlantis” which doesn’t even clock its first actual singing until a full 1 minute and 48 seconds into the song. On both cuts, only the choruses are sung; all other lyrics are spoken word.
Sub-genres would emerge. For instance, take the SWI as a song-opening gambit, which has yielded some huge chart results. Start with The Shangri-Las #1 early ‘60s hit, “Leader of the Pack,” hit the late 70s for Meatloaf and “You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth,” then enjoy Prince’s 80s chart-topping “Let’s Go Crazy.” A more obscure instance can be found on David Bowie’s “Andy Warhol,” which lets us in on some in-studio pre-song hijinks before the proceedings start in earnest.
As the years went by, my interest in SWIs came out of the shadows, as some of the biggest-selling songs began to fully lean in. Michael Jackson tapped Vincent Price for the bone-chilling voiceover in “Thriller.” SWIs would appear in megahits by stars like Britney Spears (“Oops! I Did It Again”), Living Colour (“Cult of Personality”), Metallica (“Enter Sandman”), Pink Floyd (“Another Brick In The Wall”). I mean, “How can you have any pudding if ya don’t eat yer meat?!?”
After a lifetime of this dizzying pursuit, I find that the most iconic SWI is Meatloaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” with Phil Rizzuto’s unforgettable play-by-play. And so, this is the one I choose to “talk” us out on…
Photo: Tom Jones, 2018 (Ralph_PH via Wikimedia Commons)