Saturday, 5 February 2011

Ian Hunter - Once Bitten Twice Shy (1975/ No. 14/ 10 weeks/ CBS)

It starts with the voice -


It sounds London, wracked, hoarse - like a debauched Michael Caine. (This sloppiness implies a certain emotional honesty as well as seediness, and because Mott the Hoople were a good few years before punk, the prole styling sounds a good deal fresher and more original to a present-day listener)

And then there are some lolloping drums and a Keef Richards riff. It sounds quite simple and uncluttered, almost minimal - all the more space to fill in with the story, then!

'Once Bitten Twice Shy' must be the most scuzzy and sordid single that I'll discuss in this column, an epic tale of lust gone wrong. The story of a "little girl" and a rock singer "A hummin' and a strummin' all over God's world", with the tenor of the relationship between the two parties is established from their first meeting;

"Yew didn't know what rock 'n' roll WUZ!
until yew met a drummer on a Grey-haind BUS!
I got there in the nick - of - time
before he got his hands across yawr state li-hi-hi-ne!"

(from out of nowhere a ragtimey piano tinkles)

You realise that the singer arrived in the nick of time not to save her honour but to get in there first. Despite the ostensible innocence of the girl, her propensity to get into trouble runs in her family;

"Yew didn't know how rock n' roll LOOKED!
until yew cawt your sista with a guy from the GROOP!
half-way home in the parking lot
by the look in her eyes she was givin' what she got..."

As you might expect, the affair is a bloody mess, the singer's haplessness and the girl's deceit a terrible combination;

"Woman yaw a MESS gonna die in yaw SLEEP!
all the blood on my AMP and my Les Paul's BEAT!
I can't leave yew home cos you're runnin' ahrahnd -
My bes' frend told me yaw the best TRICK in town"

Now that things have reached this nadir, the seedy singer takes to moralising;

"Yew didn't know that rock n' roll BURNED!
so yew bought a candle and yew loved and yew learned -
Yew got the rhythm, yew got the speed
mamma's little baby likes it short and sweet!"

This - you get the impression - rather ill-earned streak of male moralising is then lethally undercut by the final verse's reversal;

"I didn't know ya got a rock n' roll RECID!
until I saw yaw picture on anuva guy's JACKIT!
Yew told ME I was the only one -
and look at yew now - well, it's dark as it's dumb..."

Not only has she taken him for a fool and gone, she's now more of a success than he's ever been. I've only now realised that when I listen to this song, I imagine the jailbait siren femme fatale as being the same composite woman as Zola's Nana! You don't like her, but you know what the singer sees in her.

The music of this tale is fantastically structured - essentially, it gets louder and louder over five minutes, and Hunter's cry of "Once bitten twice SHY, babe!" gets more and more fed up and self pitying after each verse. It's the drums and riff that hold the thing together. Right at the back of the mix there's a ticking metronomic woodblock thing that you barely notice, but which gives the recording its sense of space and poise, and cues in explosions of guitar solos, backing vocals etc. This technique is particularly pronounced in the middle-eight, which sounds like 'Connection' by Elastica, only 19 years too early)

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