This is a Voice @ The Wellcome Collection

If you are in London before the end of July, it’s worth catching the Wellcome Collection‘s exhibition This is a Voice:

You’ll know David Toop, composer of the Wellcome Collection voice video, from his time with the Flying Lizards. He’s not the man with the teapot:

Nothing is quite what it seems in Money (That’s What I Want). The bass drum is the sound of a bass guitar being hit with a stick, the snare drum was recorded in three different rooms, the piano had rubber toys and telephone directories thrown into it and Deborah Evans-Strickland ‘can’t’ sing:

Deborah doesn’t sing, but when you hear her ‘ordinary’ speaking voice in the interview, it’s clear that she’s bending it to suit the Flying Lizards songIn some ways she’s taken the song back to its original Barrett Strong Motown roots.

Deborah says here that the Beatles version of Money was her starting point. Here it is:

There’s an art to speaking a well-known song in an unusual, illogical pattern. It’s a fight. The version you know, the ‘right’ version, keeps pulling you back to itself. Try it: try to speak the words of Happy or Sitting on the Dock of the Bayor another famous song, and you’ll find your intonation bending to fit your memory. Your intonation will become slightly musical; it will dance a little.

Deborah manages to avoid all that. Her posh English voice makes the surprise of her delivery all the stronger. We’re used to having ‘correct’ English defined by our upper classes, so we’re torn when we hear Deborah. We follow her intonation, because she’s posh, but we come crashing up against our own knowledge of English because she’s wrong. And the comedy lives in the gap between our expectation and her reality. Like this:

Most of Deborah’s audience, having the Beatles version playing in their memories, activated by the drum intro, will find the sound of Deborah unsettling, but the look of her intriguing. She’s a clever choice. A working class Deborah would have had quite a different comedic effect on her audience:

We ‘read’ the voices that speak and sing to us. We decide whether to trust them – and we trust the ‘salt of the earth’ Cockney cab driver in a different way to the posh debutante. We identify Deborah, from her accent, as belonging to the upper class, so we’re conditioned to pay her attention. The Cockney accent, whether you’ve lived in London or not, evokes a “cor blimey guvnor” jolly, unthreateningly down-to- earth Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, Michael Caine in The Italian Job. It’s a ‘safe’ accent much used by modern British politicians and celebrities:

Which makes me think of the mockney Britpop voices of the 1990s. But that’s a whole other post.

By the way: If you’d like to hear David Toop‘s voice, he speaks about sound here and wrote about sound, from Debussy through Satie to Hendrix, in his book Ocean of Sound. He’s professor of audio culture and improvisation at the London College of Communication. A voice worth hearing.

© Sing Better English, 2016


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