#85 – “Purple Toupee” (1988)

L.K.: Another big one!
A.S.: Yes, and a damn near perfect song, too. The idea behind the song is wonderful enough on its own, lampooning revivals of eras that the revivalists were barely alive for.  Reminds me of an awful lot of what I hear going on today…
L.K.: The difference is that John Linnell wasn’t trying to be “ironic” with it, he was essentially presenting it as-is.
A.S.: Well, he was lampooning the whole thing.
L.K.: And for as much as people mock the lyrics of TMBG for being pointlessly silly, here there’s a real point behind the silliness in that the narrator himself is totally clueless. Linnell is making fun of people’s obsessions with reviving shallow versions of their childhood, but the in-thing now is to make fun of it but then secretly still be really obsessed with it. That’s why I said he’s not doing the shitty “ironic” thing. He’s just pointing it out for the ultimately silly thing it is.
A.S.: Ooh, okay, yeah I dunno if people would even make fun of that sort of thing these days.  People just keep trying to recreate the past, and it’s almost always inferior.
L.K.: I mean, I enjoy the aesthetics of Mad Men and I enjoy the interesting characters in it, but it’s this total shallow, one-dimensional recreation of the 60s, so I do have a problem with it in that way. People are torn between going “look how stupid everybody was back then” and “look how much better everything was back then”; nobody seems to realize that you can’t have it both ways and that everything is always more complicated than any revival could ever even attempt to show.
A.S.: And “Purple Toupee” is the Johns’ way of expressing that.  Not very directly, but the message is definitely there.
L.K.: Yeah, I’d say it’s definitely indirect in that it’s probably easier for most people to go “look at this wacky song”. The radical genre shift at the end doesn’t really help it seem less goofy though. (“The purple brigade is marching from the grave…”)
A.S.: I was just going to bring up how the lyrical content of chorus/coda don’t really help matters much, since they’re significantly more nonsensical than the verses Weirdly enough, the re-appropriation of ’60s culture made its way into conversation last night. I was at a bar with a friend last night, and we were the only people there – aside from this one dude doing a live DJ mix, blasting out the place for an audience of nobody, which was really bizarre on its own. And then at one point he plays a trance remix/cover/whatever of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco”.
L.K.: …Why?
A.S.: I have no idea.  It was really odd.  I mean, I guess I could see that song get reappropriated as an anthem for the gay movement. But either way, we started talking about people’s’ tendencies to romanticize the past and confuse history, so I brought up “Purple Toupee” and she said, “Oh, like ‘Raspberry Beret’?” So I guess the song works!
L.K.: Ah, and here’s where the Prince connection comes in again…
A.S.: Although certainly in a much more critical light than their much more uh, reverent cover of “1999”.
L.K.: “Sky was all purpleraaaaaAAAHHHHH”
A.S.: “Purple Toupee” of course being a combination of “Purple Rain” and “Raspberry Beret” and having to do with Prince’s mid-80s retrophilia.
L.K.: Prince is another one of those weird cultural figureheads TMBG have a low-key obsession with, but then again, I think everybody is sort of fascinated by Prince to some degree.
A.S.: Oh absolutely.  I know I am.  I mean for god’s sake, just LOOK AT HIM.
L.K.: You know, speaking of “Purple Toupee” and its relationships to other songs, this is a case where Linnell unintentionally plagiarised a chord progression from himself decades later. Just listen to the chorus of this song back to back with the chorus of “Experimental Film” from 2004’s The Spine. They’re virtually identical.
A.S.: See, I think people tend to overstate that comparison.  The melodic contours of the songs are pretty similar, but the chords underneath are pretty different.  “Purple Toupee” has that awesome secondary dominant stuff going on, whereas “Experimental Film” stays diatonic throughout.
L.K.: Eh, nah, I mean I never would’ve noticed that the chords were the same from just listening to the songs, but then my dad pointed out the chords and actually pasted the two choruses together in SONAR, so that the similarity was really obvious. I wish I still had that recording somewhere, but I haven’t been able to find it since 2005 or 2006 or whenever my dad made it… Of course the other thing that was really obvious was how much fuller the song from 2004 sounded compared to the one from 1988. The mixes for the early TMBG albums always sound really fragile and weird to me.
A.S.: They do, but I’m fond of that sound.  There’s still enough going on here that the song doesn’t sound empty at all.  And really, “Purple Toupee” to my ears sounds like one of the fuller tracks on Lincoln.
L.K.: Oh yeah, I mean, apparently the albums were mastered/mixed very well, but it’s just a stylistic choice that might not have aged that well depending on who you ask.
A.S.: Which we’ve gone over a bit. Although at the same time it doesn’t sound nearly as full as that version on Live From NYC
L.K.: Oh, I love the Live NYC version. This is one of those songs that really benefits from a horn section live. They have played it horn-less live, but it always seems to be lacking something that way…
A.S.: The horns really bring out the melody in the chorus that seems to get drowned otherwise. And then there’s the Dial-A-Song version, which is a weird sketch of what the song would eventually become.
L.K.: The lyrical differences are really odd. I guess it’s a good thing it evolved into its current form.
A.S.: “Down in the ground is where I found / A popular revolution / Purple’s the shade that brightens in the grave.”
L.K.: Prince and the Revolution? Who knows…
A.S.: That’s what I’m thinkin’. And yeah, it kind of feels like a jumbled mishmash of the final song, chopped and screwed.
L.K.: For most of John Linnell’s more enduringly successful numbers, the music seems to have settled into place long before the lyrics were finalized, and this is no exception. The structure of the song would get reordered, but I mean, the verse and chorus are still there.
A.S.: What a melody, too. Hey, this one’s got a music video, eh?
L.K.: It sure does! Kind of a weird video though in that the Johns aren’t even in most of it.
A.S.: Huh?
L.K.: There’s all those amusement park sections!
A.S.: That’s gotta be maybe 20% of it.  The rest is nothing but Johns.
L.K.: Those were shot with the assumption that later they would go back and shoot some stuff with the Johns in that location at Coney Island too, but it never happened, so there’s this weird sort of disconnect between what the two parts of the video really have to do with each other. Also by this point TMBG was getting more concerned with their music videos seeming formulaic and too similar to each other.
A.S.: Maybe that’s why this one never really caught on, unlike “Don’t Let’s Start” or “Ana Ng”.
L.K.: To be fair, most of their videos usually are just centered around the Johns jumping and spazzing and dancing around.
A.S.: Which, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’d prefer that to most other things, really, as I think we noted in our “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” discussion.
L.K.: There’s not really too much else going on in the “Purple Toupee” video though, compared to the more interesting shooting locations of the other ones.
A.S.:  It’s still entertaining enough.  And three music videos from an independent record in the 1980s is quite a lot, too. Unless you’re The Residents.
L.K.: They had a good director to work with though, and they knew how to do things fairly cheaply and still make it onto MTV, so why not run with it?
A.S.: Indeed. Six videos after two indie albums… which is the same number of official music videos they’d end up making between 1990 and 2011.
L.K.: Fun fact: John Linnell says the part towards the end of the video with John Flansburgh standing against a neon green background reminds him of the cover to Get Happy!! by Elvis Costello & the Attractions.
A.S.: Yes!  The whole second chorus is pretty reminiscent of that.
L.K.: What do you mean?
A.S.: In the music video, the shifting color schemes with the two of them.  Reminiscent of the Get Happy!! album art.
L.K.: Ah.
A.S.: I guess one more item is on the docket for “Purple Toupee” – the “lost” EP.
L.K.: Well wait, what about the legendary 8-track?
A.S.: I guess that might fall under this category too.  Just weird non-release releases of this song as a single.
L.K.: Yeah, this was the single that wasn’t really a single. It would be kind of hilarious to have a Purple Toupee 8-Track though, even if it actually contained Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, or Cheech & Chong. To Bar/None’s credit though, they did send out a CD single of the song along with the 8-tracks.
A.S.: Done as a laugh in response the declining vinyl sales.  I wonder what they would have said if someone where to tell them that 25 years later, people would be buying a shitload of vinyl again. But do you have any idea why the EP was never released?
L.K.: No clue. You’d probably have to ask the record label.
A.S.: Yeah.  It’s strange given that it had a track listing with B-sides and so forth, and the song itself certainly had serious single potential. I think we’ve covered our ground here.  This song, guys… Oh wait, unlike my misinformed assumption on “Vancouver”, this song actually has a Flansbridge.
L.K.: Is it a bridge, officially though? It’s a weird transitional section to an ending that is totally different from the rest of the song.
A.S.: If we use “bridge” as an almost literal term here, then yes, in that it connects one body of the song to another.
L.K.: I’m still stuck in the 1930s; I don’t know how to evaluate rock song structure. Modern song structure, rather, since rock was even more formulaic than popular music in its earlier days.
A.S.: Yeah, and this song’s structure isn’t terribly normal anyway (part of what makes it so good), but I’d say that’s a bridge.
L.K.: Let’s call it a bridge and call it a day then.
A.S.: First, more shameless plug time, because I only did this once before, but hey hey guys, I made an album and released it a couple of weeks ago, and you can listen to it/download it here.  The songs are still basically demo quality, made for free with whatever equipment I had lying around, but please give it a listen, and if you want, let us know whatcha think.

And here’s “Raspberry Beret”, which I can’t believe Prince hasn’t removed from YouTube yet:

3 Responses to “#85 – “Purple Toupee” (1988)”
  1. Kate says:

    Purple Toupee! Hooray! Oddly enough, this is my current favorite music video (my first favorite was a Don’t Let’s Start obsession, followed by The Guitar). I love it because of the spazzy dancing and I guess how the Johns look in the video. (Flansburgh during the Flansbridge is awesome.) But I really, really love it because of the colors! I don’t know, just… colors! It looks really cool with the overlapping shades and stuff. But anyway, I’m gonna stop being inarticulate now. Love this song!

    • Nathan says:

      My favorite part of this video is at the end, when Flans puts down his guitar, smiles, picks it up again, and walks off. Why did he put it down for just a few seconds? We don’t know!

  2. I always thought it was weird that they went with a different director for “Purple Toupee” considering that Adam Bernstein is AWESOME and also that they went back to him right after. That and, I dunno, the “PT” video is just kinda boring, or at least as boring as their videos got… well, maybe not “Snail Shell”. That one’s kinda lame too.

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