The Non-Fiction Section: Off the Charts

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August 16, 2012 by abbyo

One of my favorite public radio features is “The Annoying Music Show.” It’s pretty much exactly what the title describes. The host, Jim Nayder, goes through his extensive collection of strange, awful and irritating records and picks the strangest, most awful and irritating tracks to subject the audience to, stuff like this:

It’s pretty excellent stuff, and all of it makes you question exactly what kind of person could write a song like “My Bathroom is a Private Kind of Place” without either being a delusional maniac, or suffering from crippling depression.

“Off the Charts” is a documentary that takes you inside the mind of the unique characters that write the kinds of songs that show up on “The Annoying Music Show.” They’re called song poems, music created by small companies that solicit lyrics from amateur songwriters. These would-be Alan Menkens and Randy Newmen send their songs to these companies with the promise of having them recorded, and possibly made into hit singles by big-time artists. Kind of like the vanity label that introduced the world to “Friday” and Rebecca Black.

Now, when most people see an ad like the ones featured in “Off the Charts” in the back of a music magazine, or a poetry journal, they can pretty much tell on sight that it’s not legit. But not everyone comes to that conclusion. Predictably, the people who don’t see song-poem production companies for the scam they are tend to be a little…odd. Like this guy:

Admittedly, Caglar Juan Singletary is by far the weirdest of the songwriters profiled in “Off the Charts.” But believe it or not, the song, “Nonviolent Taekwondo Troopers,” isn’t the weirdest song. This movie is chock-full of strange tunes and quotable lyrics that would make any tumblr addict tremble with ironic joy. For example:

-“If anyone knows why I smell so/ please send me a letter, I’d like to know!”

-“Come with me/Be my shark!”

-“The T.V. is my shepherd/My spiritual life doth want/it maketh me sit and do nothing/it restoreth my desire for worldly pleasures.

-Another Singletary song in which he describes Annie Oakley as “Rifle Nice.”

The documentary is brief (it runs about an hour), and doesn’t do much other than profile the songwriters and the song-poem companies that publish the work. But when you have characters this nuts, you don’t really need a storyline. Even the folks who put these words to music have something oddly compelling about them. One of the best characters “Off the Charts” introduces us to is Gene Merlino, the self-proclaimed “king of demo singers.” He’s got a good voice, and a decent ear for composition, but Merlino is a complete jerk to the musicians he works with. One recording session, in which he berates the session guitarist, is painful to watch. Merlino (and the other profiled song poem singers) seem to realize they’re recording horrible songs that will never be true classics, but they don’t really act like swindlers. It would appear they think they’re really giving voice to the voiceless through their work. For one thing, Merlino keeps repeating that he never changes the lyrics he’s sent, even if they don’t rhyme. Others, like producer/singer/publisher David Fox (his stage name), legitimately want to make the song sound as good as it can. In a weird way, these guys are as deluded as the people they’re soliciting.

But to fully experience “Off the Charts,” you have to get it in DVD form, because as interesting as the documentary is, what really makes it fun are the extras. There’s a full half-hour infomercial for a song poem company that looks to have been shot in the late 70s, and features live performances of some of the songs. There’s also a longer recording of one of the documentary’s subjects as he and his son go on the road performing his songs (which include the impressively-titled “Chicken Insurrection”). The film itself is only a taste of what’s on offer here. It’s a fun diversion into a crazy world of musical folk art that doesn’t go far below the surface, but only because there’s plenty of surface to explore.

 

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