8 June 2022

Penny Lane - Unemployment/ [Same Both Sides]

Stupendously strange and quirky novelty disc about rural US poverty

Label: Ford
Year of Release: 1971

The thing about crate-digging is that you occasionally turn up an obscurity which has no real monetary value and also (arguably) a less than modest amount of artistic merit, but its existence becomes an unsolvable puzzle. Why was it released (or never properly released)? Is there a joke here you're missing? Why has the artist and everyone involved with the record disappeared into a unGoogleable black hole? And is it really your job to unknot all these complexities in the first place?

This record is a classic example of this syndrome. "Unemployment" was seemingly only ever put out as a double-sided promo copy then never given an official release. It's a rather grating novelty record sang in a southern twang by a slightly unhinged sounding woman which is backed by puffing flutes, bar-room piano riffs and drumbeats which are just slightly on the wrong side of funky. It appears to be a surreal lyrical exploration of rural poverty, filled with dead dogs, drowning horses and venomous snakes, but it lacks enough of a comedy hook to be a successful novelty record and is far too deliberately disjointed to pass as a serious one.

My best guess is that Penny Lane was a comedy character at the time - and I would guess had nothing to do with the groupie Pennie Lane from around the same period - and this was an attempt at spinning their jokes into a successful 45. It's common enough for novelty comedy records to be utterly baffling when shorn of their cultural context, and this one has spun my head several times around while I've tried to make sense of it.

Ford was a long-lived independent label based in New York which was a division of the Sherman Ford, Jr production company. It tended to focus on the middle-of-the-road aspects of the market, popping out lots of easy listening and country records and nothing much for the kids to wig out to. It ran from 1958 before packing up in 1974, and the rest of its catalogue offers few clues. 

Inevitably, Googling this calls up endless results about historical unemployment rates in Liverpool rather than the matter in hand. Of course it does. What a baffling little disc. If anyone wants to put me out of my misery, though, please be my guest.

If the preview below isn't working properly, please go right to the source.


Pinverarity said...

Per Record World (November 7, 1970), Penny was a "girl singer with one of the year's most unusual novelty songs." She evidently played drums and Al Clark wrote the song & played keyboards.

Quoth RW, "the group (with an added bass player) has been playing club dates and ski resorts in the Connecticut area for some time," adding in a burst of hallucinatory exuberance that they "have hopes that 'Unemployment' will be given national exposure."

"Penny, who affects a voice she says is like 'Shirley Temple's brother' on the record, feels that kids will like the record for its bizarre lyric content. She confided that her vices are few in that she doesn't drink but always carries around a good supply of bubblegum and candy." [ed: WTAF?]

Let this tantalize: "Ford and Penny are working on a big promotional push which will include a 26 scene film to with [sic] the two minute, fifty second record."

There's even a b/w picture of Penny in what look like silver go-go boots!

23 Daves said...

"Sherman Ford flipped". Very interesting!
Thanks for digging this one up. What a weird situation.