Friday, September 16, 2011

September 16: The Coasters, "Yakety Yak"

Artist: The Coasters
Song: "Yakety Yak"
Album: Yakety Yak (single)
Year: 1958

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While there are many different musical approaches that can be quite challenging to combine, few seem to be more difficult than when a band attempts to inject a sense of humor into their music.  Regardless of the style of music being played, it is nearly impossible for such efforts to not come off as a "novelty" or be regarded as some lesser musical achievement due to the inherent humor in the song.  Though a handful of bands have been able to make careers out of making silly songs with a decent musical backing, there are virtually no artists from any point in history that have been able to make both humorous recordings, as well as more serious musical efforts.  Within this small group of such acts, there may be no other as impressive or successful as The Coasters, and while many may not know their name, a number of their singles remain the most unforgettable in all of music history.  Emerging from the r&b and "doo wop" culture of the early 1950's, the quartet found a way to be both entertaining, as well as musically stunning simultaneously, and it was their relationship with the legendary team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller that yielded almost every one of their most successful songs.  While the group had a number of high-charting singles, there is no song for which they are better known than their iconic 1958 single, "Yakety Yak."

One of the biggest hurdles one must overcome when looking at "Yakety Yak" is the fact that over the past few decades, the song has become so well-known that it is difficult to hear it with "fresh ears" and appreciate the musical accomplishment in a vacuum.  But once one can remove the song from all of the cultural moments in which it has been used, there is no question that "Yakety Yak" is one of the finest moments in music history.  The arrangement over which the vocals are placed is brilliantly constructed, and within it, one can hear a number of different influences interacting in a completely unique manner.  The way that the instrumentation seems to slide all across the track is what gives "Yakety Yak" it's signature whimsical mood, and this is certainly one of the most distinctive saxophone progressions ever recorded.  The fact that it is slightly over-blown gives the saxophone a bit of a distorted, almost dirty sound, and this reality is where the songs' "everyman" roots reside.  The bouncing, exceptionally upbeat piano adds even more to this mood, and one can hear influences of early jazz, ragtime, and an almost vaudevillian undertone that makes the mood on "Yakety Yak" truly unparalleled.  The "walking" bassline serves as an ideal finishing touch on the song, and few recordings in history have managed to be as upbeat and yet musically sound as one can experience on "Yakety Yak."

However, while the music on "Yakety Yak" certainly set the tone for the song, it is the vocals and lyrics which have pushed the song to the iconic status that it holds to this day.  Almost every single line in "Yakety Yak" is performed by multiple members of The Coasters, and it is the wide array of ways that they mix their voices which further sets the song apart from the work of their peers.  Their talent level is unquestionable, and these harmonies stand as some of the finest in history.  The fact of the matter is, while the music over which they is in fantastic, one could easily remove the instrumentation, and the song would still stand as a powerful, a-capella number.  It is in this reality where The Coasters completely avoid being labeled as "just" a novelty act, as one cannot deny their superb vocal expertise, and yet at the same time, there is a pure, almost "everyman" feeling within their singing.  This is highlighted by the Leiber/Stoller words which they sing, and there are few people on the planet that cannot easily relate to "Yakety Yak."  Whether it is the frustration of youth or older people who are fed up with their jobs, the song is still as applicable in modern times as it was more than half a century ago.  Furthermore, the vocals from each member of The Coasters is just as enjoyable as it ever was, and there are few songs that define the term "timeless" as perfectly as one finds in every aspect of "Yakety Yak."

Truth be told, it is impossible to cite all of the covers of "Yakety Yak" that have been made over the years, though one can cement the legacy of the song in the fact that the band Sha-Na-Na performed their own take on the track at the legendary Woodstock Music And Arts Fair in 1969.  "Yakety Yak" has also been featured in  wide array of films over the decades, and there was also a television show that was created with the same name, roughly based on the lyrics of the song.  Taking all of this into account, though the lyrics may be somewhat silly in comparison, there is no arguing that "Yakety Yak" has become something far larger than such a simple title, and this feat has rarely been achieved elsewhere in music history.  The fact that the vocals and overall mood of the song is able to slightly overshadow the whimsical nature of the track is that "difference," and it is this fact that enables the song to fit in perfectly with the rest of the groups' catalog.  This was all quite clear when "Yakety Yak" was first released, as it quickly climbed the charts, taking the top spot for a short time, and it remains one of the most enduring songs form the entire decade.  Whether it is the upbeat, bouncing musical arrangement, the vibrant, beautiful vocals, or the brilliantly penned lyrics, there has simply never been another recording quite like The Coasters' unforgettable 1958 single, "Yakety Yak."

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