Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Herman's Hermits' "I'm Henry VIII, I Am"

For far too long, acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, and Gerry and the Pacemakers have been the face of the so-called "British Invasion." Sure, these bands had some nice tunes and good ideas. But none of them were anywhere near as brilliant as Herman's Hermits, who faithfully drew inspiration from the music and illustrious history of the British people to create one of the 1960s' most powerful and intellectually engaging hit singles, "I'm Henry VIII, I Am," their sixth U.S. hit single, in 1965.

Rarely has a pop tune been so directly engaged with the intellectual legacy of the West. Sure, The Beatles had songs that some classically-trained music reviewers in the 1960s said bore echoes of classical masters such as Frederic Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven. But they had nothing on Herman's Hermits. Sure, "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am" was originally written and recorded in 1910 by British music hall legend Harry Champion. But the Hermits--Peter Noone, Karl Green, Barry Whitwam, Derek Leckenby, and Keith Hopwood--were clearly in command of their song selection and knew that this supposedly simple classic tune was anything but. In fact, the track tackles some of the headiest notions in Western Philosophy.

Philosophers will readily admit that the opening lyric, "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am," is a direct critique of Rene Descartes' dictum first described in Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641), translated into English as "I think, therefore I am." Herman's Hermits' implicit joking reply is "I think, therefore I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am." This interpretation reveals an understanding of the ideas of Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who posited in Scienza Nuova (1725) that history essentially repeats itself, or that it is a cyclical force. Herman's Hermits' brilliant revision of the original tune erases all but the chorus, and repeats it three times during the one minute and forty-nine secord duration of the recording. This insistence on repetition is validated when lead singer Peter Noone seemingly tosses off the line "Second verse, same as the first." Consequently, the apparent primary joke of the song--that Henry the Eighth does not refer to the scandalous and oft-married British monarch who reigned from 1509 to 1547 but to a man named Henry who is married to a woman who has married seven other Henrys before him--is merely secondary. History even repeats itself in the lyric's narrative.

HAS YOUR MIND BEEN BLOWN OR WHAT? When The Beatles were singing silly tunes like "Drive My Car" and The Rolling Stones were claiming that "Time is on My Side" (which is, of course, a total non sequitur, since time is an abstract concept and therefore outside the purview of geometry), Herman's Hermits were grappling with the giants of Western philosophy, essentially refuting Cartesian thought whilst insisting on the Viconian cycle. They also applied the aesthetic of Gertrude Stein in her experimental novel The Making of Americans (1925) to help them realize the self-reflexivity of repetition in popular music. Long before pretentious music snobs lauded songs like The Fall's "Repetition," Flipper's "Brainwash," Laurie Anderson's "O Superman," or Lil Wayne's "A Milli," Herman's Hermits' proved themselves to be amongst the most precocious and brilliant group of musicians of all repeated time.

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