Sunday, September 7, 2008

Tonio K. -- "The Funky Western Civilization" (1978)

Where do you start with one of the most cult-like outrageous musical figures of the 70's, maybe ever? Guaranteed that most people who read this blog will have no idea who Tonio K. is, although he went on to write a bunch of 90's pop hits and lyrics for Burt Bacharach. Not kidding.

But let's rewind to late 1978, my college senior year, when I was a music writer for The Buffalo Evening News. The college paper, The Spectrum, solicited all of the local music critics for their top 10 albums of the year, and I noted a handful of votes for Tonio K.'s Life In The Foodchain.

I didn't know what that was, so requested a copy from Epic Records, and it arrived shortly in the mail on green vinyl. Being a rabid album credit reader, I noted a number of names I've seen many times before, like producer Rob Fraboni and guitarists Earl Slick, Albert Lee and Dick Dale.

Now granted, it took me about two or three spins to appreciate Life In The Foodchain. Accompanied by ragged tearing rock, Mr. K.'s voice was what you would call "an acquired taste." But first you had to get through the tons of lyrics of what can best be described as nine over-the-top satirical and misanthropic tales, of ecology gone wild (the title song), amorous vampires ("How Come I Can't See You In My Mirror?") to probably one of the most vicious (and hilarious) put down songs ever recorded ("H-A-T-R-E-D").

"The Funky Western Civilization" is about as close as what passed for a hit from that album. Hard-charging power chords and drums that careened into a genuinely funky James Brown chorus with horns, this was Tonio K.'s ironic very dance-able paean to society looking the other way in the face of self-destruction. Heavy satire to a dance beat.

Chicken-picked electric guitars give way to an R&B down on the farm screaming solo workout, and then, you what is probably the only musical cameo appearance in history by Joan Of Arc. Yes, that's what I said. Joan of Arc. In French. Why wait -- you've got read all the lyrics to appreciate this and believe me, there's more here than the entire Billboard Top 100 today put together:

Come on everybody
Get on your feet
Get with the beat
There's a brand new dance craze
Sweeping the nation
and it's called the funky... western... civilization.

Well there's a riot in the courthouse, there's a fire in the street
There's a sinner bein' trampled by a thousand pious feet.
There's a baby every minute bein' born without a chance
Now don't that make you want to jump right up and start to dance?

Let's do the funky
The funky western civilization
It's really spunky
It's just like summertime vacation .
You just grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there.

They put Jesus on a cross, they put a hole in JFK,
They put Hitler in the driver's seat and looked the other way.
Now they've got poison in the water and the whole world in a trance,
But just because we're hypnotized, that don't mean we can't dance.

We've got the funky
The funky western civilization
It's really spunky
It's just like summertime vacation.
You just drag your partner through the dirt
Leave him in a world of hurt.

You get down
Get funky
Get western
(own up to it boys and girls)
And if you try real hard... maybe you can even get, you know, kinda civilized!

Joan Of Arc: Mesdames et messieurs, bon soir. This is Joan of Arc. Tonio has asked me to personally deliver a rather special message. He say he just cannot get enough of my 15th-century wisdom. He say he loves it when I talk with him like this. And after many a Saturday night of doing ze Funky Western Civilization together, I know for a fact he agrees with me when i say
[in French: You can bullshit the baker and get the buns,
You can back out of every deal except one!]

This is the funky
The funky western civilization
It's oh, so very spunky
It's just like summertime vacation
All's you gotta do is find some little kid somewhere
And throw him way up in the air
(never mind the parents)
Yes it's a funky
A funky western civilization
And it may seem kinda skunky, you know
But it's hitting every nation (all across the universe)
That's 'cause all's you gotta do is grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there!

What did I tell you? And who is Tonio K. anyway, with the Franz Kafka moniker? Rumors circulated that was a former member of Buddy Holly's band The Crickets. Not really true -- he played in a band with those former members in the early 70's on a couple of albums. Wikipedia has a whole bio on the guy (real name: Steve Krikorian), who went hopping from record label to record label after Life In The Foodchain... understandable, given the unconventional nature of his work compared to the corporate rock of the 80's. And the biggest irony of them all is that he co-wrote one of 1993's biggest adult contemporary hits, Vanessa Williams' "Love Is."

Unfortunately, Tonio K. never made a video for his insane cult classic, but somebody has made one for him. Check it out and if you can, download the song for your collection.


Anonymous said...

I love this album. I still dig it out for a listen every once in a while. it's a little know fact that Tanya Tucker covered one of the tracks on the "Love Among the Ruins" side.

mooster said...

One of my favorites from the late seventies, as is the follow-up, Amerika. I guess it's just me, but I couldn't figure out why he didn't make it big. Surely others out there loved a smart ass as much as I! It was a happy day when someone finally released these two classics on CD, as I only had them on cassettes, which wore out many years ago.

Anonymous said...

just a great album