Sieger on Songs: The Joyous Wit of The Roches » Urban Milwaukee
John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Joyous Wit of The Roches

Maggie Roche is gone, but sweetly-sung classics like “Hammond Song” live on.

By - Jan 27th, 2017 04:43 pm
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The Roches. Photo courtesy of 429 Records.

The Roches. Photo courtesy of 429 Records.

There are so many writers in pop music who will never be accused of having wit. Maggie Roche was not among that tedious group when she died last Saturday of breast cancer. A sparkling writer whose soft irony did battle with the mundane slights we encounter every day, her songs bring to mind the off-kilter cartoonist, Roz Chast. Maggie would be unique if you ignore the fact her two sisters totally shared her vision.

Those sibs, Suzzy and Terre, made the mad triangle of fun we call The Roches. They had more than fifteen minutes of some level of fame and are well known to people who love music, but less so to those who tend to stay near the middle of the dial.

Who cares? Once you discover the joy they bring, you have joined a small happy cult. The optimist in me would would like to say that someday that cult will include everyone, but optimism is in short supply right now. And miniaturists, which is what the Roches truly are, rarely dominate the airwaves. The trio did boast one thing that was certainly not miniature, something that should be required of all pop stars: Voices.

If you picture a gleaming spire of pipes rising from a church organ to the highest part of the cathedral, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Roche’s voices emanating from them. They were blessed with remarkably pure sopranos and a sense of pitch that required no corrective software. With these fine pipes they were able to do things in the pop field usually associated with highbrow area of music.

Music producers know one way to strengthen weaker vocals is to chorus them by adding more tracks. It works well to compensate for pitchiness and glorifies slight differences.

The result is different when the Roches sing in unison. The trio’s pitch and tone are close to identical, so you get a different sound. It’s very architectural and precise. That may sound dry and unemotional, but it stirs something deep within. It is awe inspiring in the way other grand human creations like bridges and tower are. The contrast with their scaled down conversational lyrics shouldn’t be as good as it is. But in their well known “Hammond Song,” like so many of their numbers, it works beautifully. The lyrics are dry and hilarious, at least to me. But you sense the concern expressed for someone about to make a bad choice.

If you go down to Hammond
You’ll never come back
In my opinion you’re
On the wrong track
We’ll always love you but
That’s not the point

If you go with that fella
Forget about us
As far as I’m concerned
That would be just
Throwing yourself away
Not even trying
Come on you’re lying to me

Well, I went down to Hammond
I did as I pleased
I ain’t the only one
Who’s got this disease

Why don’t you face the fact
You old upstart
We fall apart

You’d be okay if you’d
Just stay in school
Don’t be a fool

Do your eyes have an answer
To this song of mine?
They say we meet again
On down the line

Where is on down the line
How far away?
Tell me I’m okay

If you go down to Hammond
You’ll never come back

© Margaret A Roche

You don’t need long words or obvious cleverness to be smart. You might even want to be generous and disappear into a character, so it’s more about the song and not you and your talent. I think that’s what’s going on here. It feels like we’re listening through a cracked door to a conversation we’re not meant hear. I love the last little bit, the way it comments on itself in real time: “They say we meet again on down the line. Where is on down the line? How far away?” A light touch can be more fatal than a bludgeoning. Falling out of favor with a crew this smart would feel like a permanent demotion.

At one point this group was the record company’s pet project. Paul Simon “discovered” The Roches and had them sing on one of his records. But with no sales to speak of, they remained comfortably somewhere in the pack. They’ve expressed no regrets about not conquering the world that I’ve heard. A sense of scale is a wonderful thing. Look for that life skill to fall further out of favor as the country around us gets more Trumplicated. The arts will be snorted at and defunded. Many of us will miss the winsome humor and good natured honesty expressed by Maggie and her lively sisters. They were a sunny day in January.

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