tremble clef

Monday, August 21, 2006

Nik Kershaw, "Wide Boy" (1984)

He was a classmate, for a while a very good friend, as fanatical about music as I was (a worshipper of Bananarama in particular), and he was convinced he knew the answer to the riddle.

Or rather, "The Riddle." That was of course the song Nik Kershaw released in 1984 to tease his second album of the same name. Just earlier that year Mr. "Missing A C" Kershaw had made a splash with four very successful singles off his debut album: "Wouldn't It Be Good," "I Won't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" (which, by the way, better lends itself to the predictable blowjob joke that tends more to be made about Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" -- spread the word), "Dancing Girls," and title track "Human Racing." But now his star was at an all-time high, partly because he wasted no time putting out the follow-up, but mostly because, to accompany the release, Nik claimed that the song was in fact a riddle, and the clues to its solution were in the lyric. There may even have been a Smash Hits contest, albeit only a half-serious one, in which readers were invited to send in their best (i.e., most absurd) answers.

Fifteen, twenty years on, Nik would admit that there is no solution. But we didn't know it then. I wasn't that interested in either the answer or Nik; I was more of a Howard Jones fan myself. (In my circles, in the tradition of "Bee Gees, or ABBA?" "Culture Club, or Duran?", you were one or the other, but certainly not both, at least not until you got older and found it in yourself to shun these media-created rivalries and embrace all acts for their great music.) I liked "The Riddle" fine, although my favorite Nik Kershaw song is probably "Wide Boy." It has the muscularity of "Wouldn't It Be Good" (oh, those guitar licks), paired with a lyric that wasn't actually nonsensical (a "wide boy" is a bit of hustler, who crudely flashes his bling around) but still managed to sound gloriously stupid ("exceed, excess! exceed, excess!" "oh me, oh my, oh me, oh my!" Plus, I used to think that he was singing, "with your cemetery teeth" in the middle eight, which for some reason the official website leaves out. The supposed real phrase, "symmetry teeth," is ungrammatical, but at least a little less befuddling).

But here was my friend, with what he was convinced was The Answer. "The solution to the riddle," he announced dramatically, when a group of us finally convinced him to give it up, "is...the record itself." How meta. "See," he continued, "when you put the record on and play it, it goes around and around. That's what the 'hole in the ground' is -- the hole in the record!"

"Yeah, but who's the old man of Aran?"

"It's Nik Kershaw himself! The album has his picture in the middle, on the record label. So, when you play it, Nik starts spinning! In fact, when you look at the album cover, there's another clue -- there's a tree in the background, and who is actually standing 'near the tree'? Nik! Of course! It couldn't be clearer."

Hmmm. Hmmm.

"And you know what the 'beacon' refers to?"

"Yeah, why is he going on about meat?"

"That's 'bacon,' you moron. This is 'beacon.' When you put on the record, the little knob on your turntable will stick up through the hole. It looks like a beacon, doesn't it?"

Lighthouses are usually taller than a quarter-inch turntable spindle, but by this time he had gotten us excited enough to be grudgingly convinced. You should write in to someone somewhere with your answer, we told my friend, and do remember us when you're rich and famous as the world's foremost solver of pop music riddles. And for a while he and I continued to listen to, and vigorously discuss, music. A few years later we quarreled over nothing, then we went to the same school but different faculties, and more time passed, and the frost hardened. At least I think that's why we drifted apart and haven't seen or spoken to each other in decades. That development's not entirely puzzling, but, like so many riddles, its solution -- he was stubborn, I was pettier, and time leaves such foolish people and their friendships behind -- was right in front of our faces if we could stand to see it.


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