Monday, April 1, 2013

Zager & Evans’ “Mr. Turnkey”: the awesomest sophomore slump of the '60s

I’ve never really understood the widespread animosity toward Zager & Evans’ “In the Year 2525.” It was a small-label single by a couple of guys from Nebraska that came from out of nowhere to top the charts in 1969. Almost immediately thereafter it became a fixture on those “worst song ever” lists people never tire of publishing. Personally, I appreciate it for being one of the weirdest damn songs ever to hit it big on the Billboard charts. How can you not have at least a little love for a pop song that’s nothing but sci-fi speculation about mankind’s trajectory over the next seven (seven!) millennia?


What I find most interesting about “In the Year 2525,” though, is the way Zager & Evans opted to capitalize on their success. Their follow-up single “Mr. Turnkey,” released later in 1969, is the folksy, first-person confession of a Wichita Falls rapist who commits suicide by crucifying himself in his jail cell. Seriously. That’s not only something they wrote and recorded, it’s a song they thought the American people would want to hear crackling over the airwaves on their transistor radios. It’s as though the duo surveyed the unexpected success of “In the Year 2525” and said, “Well heck, if it’s grim, dystopian, non-commercial dirges they want, they ain’t seen nothing yet!”


It isn’t just the subject matter that makes “Mr. Turnkey” so fascinating. The tune is actually fairly catchy, which only accents the lunacy of the lyrical choices. I’ll give Z&E this much: their rapist comes off legitimately creepy. “I need a woman and I ain’t gettin’ far / I never was the kinda man a woman looked for,” he mopily self-assesses before bemoaning that his victim “led me on” with her “flirtin’ eyes.” Of all the similes one could apply to a comely lass at a bar, Zager & Evans went with “She was lovelier than oil rights.” Yes, oil rights, that eternal standard-bearer of feminine beauty. Perhaps that was intended as some sort of comment on capitalism? Environmentalism? I guess you could make an argument about the whole thing being a metaphor for the rape of the land, but I can’t imagine why you’d bother.

And then there’s the crucifixion sequence. Everybody knows that the awesomeness of a bad lyric is directly proportional to the passion with which it’s delivered. Zager & Evans sing the hell out of “I’ve nailed my left wrist to your wall / I’m a-goin’ home” and “I’m cryin’ / Hangin’ here dyin’.” Sadly, pop audiences inexplicably failed to embrace rape and self-mutilation and Zager and Evans quickly faded into obscurity. (“Mr. Turnkey” did briefly crack the Hot 100 in Australia, which seems appropriate for some reason.)


Through the miracle of YouTube, I’ve been digging into the Zager & Evans catalog. Their other material isn’t quite as bananas as “Mr. Turnkey” or “In the Year 2525,” but there’s still plenty of weirdness to go around. In between standard ‘60s stuff (the bleeding-heart call to action of “Help One Man Today,” the sardonic hippie gobbledygook of “Little Kids” and “I Am”), you get the insanely melodramatic anti-war ballad “Fred,” the ironic, horn-laced hate anthem “Taxi Man”  and the queasily specific love hymn “Less Than Tomorrow.” All of these are of a piece with Zager & Evans’ unique brand of madness.

It’s easy to see why the pair never scored another hit, but it’s inspiring to know that this stuff existed in the first place. Like the best worst art, it’s steeped in sincerity and completely of its time and place. “You ain’t never seen nothin’ like this before,” the rapist assures the titular Mr. Turnkey. I certainly ain’t never heard nothin’ like it before or since, but I’m delighted that I’ve gotten to know “Mr. Turnkey” in all its deranged glory.

15 comments:

  1. I love science fiction, so I've always had a soft spot for 2525.

    I want to find the song Tunrkey, as I do like weirdness. One might want to compare Turnkey with Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy."

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Reginald Ludwig" is another jewel by Z&E. I actually have a Z&E poster hanging on my wall as I type this (I bought it on eBay). I'm 27 years old, making me the youngest fan of this band, probably.

    ReplyDelete
  3. By the way, I also thought they were saying "Oil Rights" at first, but after repeated listening, I think they may in fact be saying "oil lights", as in lamps, which makes a LITTLE more sense, but only a little. Also, I prefer the album version of Mr. Turnkey, which has more Moog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oil lights, eh? That would be just weird, as opposed to utterly inexplicable. I've seen it quoted as "oil rights" elsewhere, but in-depth analysis of "Mr. Turnkey" is shockingly sparse.

      Now I definitely need to track down the album. More Moog is good Moog.

      Delete
    2. I can hook you up, what is your email address?

      Delete
    3. Well, that's right kindly of you. irabrooker [at] gmail. Much obliged!

      Delete
    4. See below for a definitive answer on the "oil rights" controversy.

      Delete
  4. I am Rick Evans, writer and lead singer of all material recorded by Zager & Evans on RCA. LEGAL: "In the Year 2525" music & lyrics written and owned by Richard (Rick) S. Evans U.S ©1968 #Eu-47617 All Rights Reserved. Publisher: Zerlad Music, owned by Evans. Verify: BMI.com (Broadcast Music, Inc.)

    In "Mr. Turnkey" written by Rick Evans, it's "oil rights."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well heck, thanks for the clarification!

      Delete
  5. Oh my God, I cannot believe this just happened. RICK! THANKS!!!!

    "Rick....wake up!"

    Ira, I will send you an email.

    ReplyDelete
  6. My wife noted that this reminds her of some of those old songs from the Kingston Trio, many which were about the guy fleeing the law after murders. and Zager and Evans seems to also come from this musical tradition.

    ReplyDelete
  7. They had great had great harmony but never could match "In the Year 2525". Sometimes it's just not good having your first song go so big. Look at Don McLean....American Pie was huge. So0ngs that followed never could hit #1.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I have enjoyed Zager & Evans since I first spun a copy of their album that I bought in a box of LPs. The voice of Rick Evans has such an odd quality of Burl Ives and Richard Harris rolled together. I later acquired a copy of "Mr. Turnkey" and it is quite a unique song to experience. The lyrics "lovelier than oil rights" do jump out at you but maybe they were meant to. Morrissey often uses the same odd out of place phrasing as an accentuating point in the lyrics. It is definitely worth listening to and I don't think any other song has ever covered that ground before or since.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I feel weird commenting on a years-old thread, but I was thinking about this song today, and since Mr. Evans was kind enough to clarify that phrasing, I wanted to say that I get what he was going for: that this guy was so awkward and unfamiliar with women that he could only dehumanize and relate them to something he knew; to him women were, quite literally, commodities. Ira, thank you all these years later for this fantastic post.

    ReplyDelete