On The Dial: Like a Version

Boomer by the Cannon River
"I don't wanna work…" – Photo by Randy Stern

The best way to describe our commute from our workplaces was best summed up Gordon Sumner – the guy we know as Sting. In his last studio album with The Police, the bassist penned these following words:

"Another working day has ended
Only the rush hour hell to face
Packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes
Contestants in a suicidal race."

Pretty bleak and disturbing, isn't it. Sometimes, it is true. We are crammed in buses, trains, and trams after a shift that may or may not be rewarding to the soul. Our highways are packed with cars – some of which may be listening to this song, called "Synchronicity II." This song may also be wafting into the headphones and earbuds of those packed in buses, trains, and trams around the same time and duration.

While this single from The Police's final original work, aptly called Synchronicity, paints a bleak image of work, let me offer up a brighter one. One that might not go well with your bank account or your chain of command at your job.

This is where Todd Rundgren comes in. The guitarist offers an escape of the humdrum of life in a single song. You probably heard it once or a few times. I’m sure you heard it many times at Green Bay Packers games at Lambeau Field.

The song? "Bang on the Drum All Day."

It was a quirky song for the time, considering how New Wave was becoming the driver for both radio and MTV. Rundgren thought he would fashion the song in one of the hot genres of the time – Ska.

Coming out of post-punk Britain, the Ska/Two-Tone revival was coming up through the early 1980s. This was when you had Madness, The Specials, and the Selecter were leading the charge of this genre. It made sense, since Rundgren released it in 1983.

It was clearly a message to those who faced a tough economy at the time that perhaps if work was not available to you, or if you are sick of working for "the man, if you had a drum – or a drum set – play that instead. Sounds somewhat reasonable, right? Maybe it was not the right advice for college graduates and other seeking work during a recession, but it gave them a bit of release from the stress of surviving life.

I rarely heard Rundgren’s original version on the radio at the time of its release. My first listen to that song would come two years later.

The version I am more aware of was played religiously in the mid-1980s on KROQ, the seminal New Wave station in Pasadena, California. The artist was a group called Bad Manners from the UK. This group was completely Ska/Two-Tone, instead of a famed guitarist playing the song in a Ska style. Compared to Rundgren's 1983 single, there was more percussion – timbales, specifically – that accented Bad Manners' recording.

To give some context to this recording, Bad Manners had a single played two years earlier on KROQ, called "That'll Do Nicely." The song was part of a Ska/Two-Tone revival and caught the group’s attention across the Atlantic.

On the Bad Manners' version, you had the vocals of Buster Bloodvessel taking the Rundgren song into a different vibe. Comparing the two versions, Bad Manners was livelier and featured more of Bloodvessel's voice than of Rundgren and his "chorus."

The big difference between the two recording was the percussion on the Bad Manners' track. If you want to convey the message of the song, add the timables, cowbells, and even a low conga groove. I think all I heard on the Bad Manners’ version was the timbales and cowbells.

There was a mention of conga drums, however. There was a vocal interplay in-between two choruses about two-thirds into the song that had Bloodvessel and another band member that was just scatting of a few words in a call-and-response. Then, the other vocalist offered a suggestion of a "conga drum!" Bloodvessel responded with "exactly!" That is if you sort of try to decipher exactly what they were saying…

While the Bad Manners version is livelier, you hear the Rundgren recording a whole lot more across many platforms. And, with all due respect, it is quite boring. You do have a lively organ driving the music, but not much otherwise. If you’re encouraging someone to not go to work and bang on a drum all day, why isn't the drum track more prominent? Where is the other percussion?

It seems that the song should be called "Bang On The Organ All Day."

I have the utmost respect for Rundgren. I hoped he would be inducted to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame by now. Then again, I could start going into an Eddie Trunk-like rant about who should be in inducted into Cleveland's center for popular music history or not.

It is still a testament to the rock guitarist that his jaunty, Ska-ish tune from 1983 is available by itself on both Apple and Google music platforms for download and streaming. If you try to find the Bad Manners version, then you would have to dig deep. Then, you will run into a six-minute medley track with two other Bad Manners songs that feature their version of the song.

Why am I focusing on a single song? I have to admit to one thing – it gave me permission to pursue an interest and execute it. I am not a musician, but I really wanted a conga drum for a very long time. A few years after listening to the song on KROQ, I finally got my first drum. I had my excuse to bang – ahem, play, stroke, pluck – on something on those days when I don’t want to work.

Four drums later, Boomer still reminds me of this song. He also reminds me that is still the Bad Manners' version – and not Todd Rundgren's – that is the one of the reasons why I have a drum.

You can mark this as one of the many reasons why we listen to the radio – or, any device or app through our car audio system.

DISCLAIMERS: Lyrics for "Synchronicity II" are courtesy of Sting and The Police. Also, the title was inspired by a series on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's national Triple J radio station.

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