NFB Listens To Number Ones: “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)” – Scatman John

I think I will frame this review in the form of a debate question: This house contends that “Scatman” is a notable song only insofar as its novelty value. Leave aside the Eurodance music that surrounds it for a minute, which is fairly basic at best, and really think about how this ended up at number one in Ireland for two weeks in 1995. If this was some younger white guy or girl scatting, and making a music video that makes them look like Sutler from V For Vendetta, I have a feeling that it would have vanished into oblivion long before the chance of a big record deal was on the table. But instead it’s this 53-year-old American guy with a cute mustache and a very strong “fun uncle” energy, and suddenly we’re all going “Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop”. I mean, if you had never heard of this one you’d presumably be wondering what the hell is going on with those first 30 seconds, which sounds like a crazy person is in front of the mike.

I’m pretty sure this is the only number one scat song in chart history, and it’s hard to argue the point that’s it’s because of how weirdly kitsch the whole thing was. Scatman John – real name John Larkin – has a really fascinating life story, moving from LA to Berlin in 1990 to advance a jazz pianist career after a childhood marked with trauma owing to a speaking disorder. Larkin used scat to help get past that, but only belatedly introduced it to his musical career, for fear of his lisp returning and becoming a figure of fun. But when RCA found footage of him performing the act in jazz clubs, a smart producer realised there was gold in them there hills. It was only a small vein of gold though. The follow-up “Scatman’s World” was quite successful too, but after that the novelty had worn off. Larkin found some success in Japan with additional albums, but had been written off as a two-hit wonder by the time of his death from lung cancer just four years after “Scatman” was released.

How to evaluate this one? The scatting is quite proficient, if you’re into that sort of spoken-word lyricism and nonsense-sounds: one can appreciate the skill that Larkin has even if it’s not really my cup of tea. It’s merged well with the Eurobeats and techno, but they are, as stated, unexceptional. It’s undeniably very catchy, but it’s very hard to get away from the idea that the whole thing is just a joke that we’re all in on, this oddly likable guy able to make the weird sounds in a pleasing manner, so why not make him number one?. The annals of music are littered with failed novelty singles, but the odd success keeps them coming at a steady rate: “Scatman” is one of the very best examples, and probably inspired the likes of Bob The Builder and The Teletubbies to the same heights.

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