Saturday, August 21, 2010

August 21: Wesley Willis, "Rock N Roll McDonald's"

Artist: Wesley Willis
Song: "Rock N Roll McDonald's"
Album: Greatest Hits
Year: 1995

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While a majority of musicians that achieve any type of widespread recognition do so by a somewhat consistent path, it is often those performers that find success in their own way that prove to be the most unique and intriguing musicians in history.  Though there are many stories of a rise to fame that does not include playing very small shows and sending endless demos to record labels, there are few artists who found success in a similar manner to Chicago's Wesley Willis.  Falling somewhere between a novelty act and punk rock, Willis spent many years busking on the streets of Chicago, playing his strange, yet unignorable songs which once heard, can never be forgotten.  While Willis was a confirmed schizophrenic, and this illness comes across in some of his songs, the bizarre nature of his musical creations makes his sickness a side note, and there is truly nothing else in music history that even remotely compares to Wesley Willis.  Gaining notoriety after artists like Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan saw his street act, Willis was eventually signed to a few record labels where he released more than a thirty albums throughout the in just under three years.  Sadly, Willis passed away on August 21, 2003, but he had already given the world such a wealth of material that he will clearly never be forgotten.  It was on his 1995 record, Greatest Hits, that Wesley Willis recorded what stands as his defining song, the strange yet captivating, "Rock N Roll McDonald's."

Once he was no longer playing on the streets of Chicago and was able to be in a studio setting, Wesley Willis added a few members to his band, and yet the original essence that made him s magnetic still comes through clearly in his songs.  Though these other musicians are present, one can easily hear the song completely stripped down, hearing nothing other than Willis and his synthesizer.  Most often playing a Technics KN model, the bubbly sound and mood it conveys is where the music of Wesley Willis tends to border on a novelty sound.  Playing looped progressions with a tone that in many ways defines the era of the synthesizer, it is within this aspect of the music that the songs of Wesley Willis defy all description and become so unique that they are beyond the ability to be compared to anything else in music history.  On "Rock N Roll McDonald's," the musical arrangement has an extremely sweet and poppy feel, and drummer Todd McDonald provides a steady rhythm throughout, but is careful not to get in the way of Willis' playing.  The instrument that adds the most depth on "Rock N Roll McDonald's" is the bass work of Dave Nooks, and it is his contribution that gives the song a great sense of movement.  Though "Rock N Roll McDonald's" is certainly nothing that will blow away a listener musically, it is so unique and simple that it stands in a musical league all its own.

While one can try and make the case that the music is so odd that it is the aspect that defines the songs of Wesley Willis, there is simply no arguing that it is the singing and lyrics on his songs that make them so unforgettable.  For the most part, Willis' singing consists of rap-style spoken word along side his strange yelling at seemingly random parts of the song.  Though perhaps unintentional, it is this brutally raw and unaltered vocal delivery style that gives his songs an unquestionable authenticity, and it also makes many of them impossible not to sing along with.  However, while the singing may seem a bit off-kilter, the lyrics which Willis sings on all his songs seem to bounce back and forth between serious and utterly absurd musings, furthering the intrigue of his music.  On "Rock N Roll McDonald's," Willis is in fact referring to a very specific place, as the most famous McDonald's, dubbed "Rock and Roll McDonald's," is located in Chicago.  As Willis' song opens, he throws the strange line of, " is a good place to listen to the music...people flock here to get down to the rock music..."  It is musings like these that make one wonder whether he is being serious or taking underhanded shots at the greasy-burger haven.  Willis' intentions become more clear in the songs' final verse, as he rips into the company stating, "...McDonald's hamburgers are the worst, they are worse than Burger King..."  While these lyrics were not going to change the world, there remains an aspect of the manner with which Willis delivers the words that makes them both catchy and memorable.

Though the subject matter of Willis' songs ranged greatly, from stories of his delusions from his mental illness to songs about his friends to completely unexplainable songs like, "I Whupped Batman's Ass." However, there is one common bond that runs through nearly every one of his recordings, as he ends each song with the phrase, "Rock over London, rock on Chicago" and then follows it with an ad slogan from a well known brand.  None of these "ads" were asked for by companies, and this strange, unexplainable element adds yet another level of intrigue to the recorded catalog of the late Wesley Willis.  Though his songs may come off as novelty songs or simply silly, when one looks deeper into the music of Willis, it is impossible to deny that there is a certain level of genius at play throughout his catalog.  From his unique synthesizer orchestrations to his choices in subject matter to the distinctive way with which he ended his song, there are few artists in history that have made music that is as individual as that of Wesley Willis.  Furthermore, the conviction and emotion with which he delivers every word lends a sense of authenticity to his music that is rarely rivaled in even the most raw and straghtforward musicians in history.  While it is perhaps a bit difficult to get past the "silly" sound of his music, one cannot deny the genius of Wesley Willis, and everything that makes him so extraordinary can be heard in his 1995 song,"Rock N Roll McDonald's."

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