31 May 1998

A Brief History of Token Idiocy in Popular Music

This article was originally written by Chris Chapman in 1995. While I have paraphrased the majority of it - because I don't have a copy - you should get the general gist of it. In addition, I have added a few other details. The reason that this is being re-aired, is because I happen to like the concept of a token idiot. If you can't deal with that, go to this nice interesting site.

You have to love Pay TV. Since we got Foxtel, household conversations have devolved to the point that it is now a matter of life and death what happened to Herr Flick of the Gestapo when the Christmas pudding he confiscated from Café Rene exploded. Was Peter Davison a better Doctor than Colin Baker? Who is stupider - Homer Simpson, or Herman Munster? How would Mr Kotter deal with colour gangs and concealed weapons? Why did Kimberley try to get everyone lobotomised?

But lately, the conversation has turned back to life's more pressing matters, as we try to go into rehab for our shocking TV addiction. Like what caused the evolution of Token Idiocy?

1. The Village Idiot

The village idiot in the medieval and middle ages was the source of all this.

But the envelope was very small, and there was not much of a way to express themselves without going beyond their role. Consequently, some of them became court jesters, town criers and clowns in circuses.

And some went on to study the viola.

2. Idiots in Classical Music

Classical music is seen as something of a victory for idiots everywhere. When the chamber orchestra was invented, violists found themselves the butt of all jokes from everyone else. Yet they thrived and multiplied, and when chamber orchestras evolved into symphony orchestras, the violist became the viola section.

Evolution? No, just bandwagon jumping. By now, the token idiot's role had surpassed that of participant to hanger-on, and when the orchestra needed a silly little man out the front to wave a stick, who did they get?

The conductor - history's most lauded token idiot.

But with the twentieth century approaching, token idiots needed a change. So where did they go.

3. Vaudeville

Vaudeville. Just the name conjures up thoughts of people dressed up in baby clothes on a stage in a music hall playing the ukulele. Idiots. Every single one.

While popular music was going through fads and phases, Vaudeville nurtured true idiocy. Trad jazz, Berlin cabaret, the "Charleston", blues, big-band swing and be-bop were the diets of the popular music consumer through the early part of this century, but on Vaudeville, nothing upset the role of the seriously idiotic.

With the collapse of Vaudeville, token idiots were left with nowhere to go but popular music, which had in the mean time taken a small dose of swing blended with a measure and a half of the blues and chased this down with some country and some folk to form Rock and Roll.

4. Rock and Roll

In the sixties, token idiots found their niche when Ringo Starr replaced Pete Best in the Beatles. A good reliable drummer, Ringo had the frivolity down pat and his place in the annals of history will never be disputed. The Beach Boys had Mike Love, who did his part very well and provided a much needed foil to the drug-addled vanity of Brian Wilson

But it was the Stones who took the concept of a token idiot to an apotheosis. Brian Jones is lauded quite rightfully for his part in raising the concept of a token idiot above that of a curiosity. Jones is seen by token idiots everywhere as being the one to kick start the musical revolution that made everyone who was forming a band say: "I want a token idiot in my band."

Throughout the rest of the sixties and seventies, everyone experimented with token idiots:

  • Frank Zappa had a whole band of them;
  • Parliament/Funkadelic had one as their main creative force;
  • The Doors had Jimbo;
  • Roxy Music had Eno; and
  • Sid Vicious - token idiot and sometime bassplayer with the Sex Pistols

In the eighties, they fell out of favour, descending into the morass that was Cock Rock. All bands had to have a pouting, preening and spandex-clad lead guitarist and singer. No one epitomised this more than David Lee Roth and Eddie van Halen, who at the end of the day were frustrated token idiots.

Outside of Cock Rock, idiots were relegated to the drumming stool. That was, until Public Enemy and the Happy Mondays came along.

The Happy Mondays had Bez - a very silly man with a very silly name. All Bez did was play the maracas and dance around a lot, and while his band mates were being credited with "Vocals", "Guitars", or "Keyboards and Programming", his name actually went up as "Bez - Token Idiocy".

Public Enemy went one step further with their contribution - Flavor Flav and the S1W. Flav danced around the stage like a madman, while the S1W - four uniformed security guys - did the standing at attention thing interspersed with the odd choreographed martial arts moves. For a short time, they also had Professor Griff, but his mix of anti-semitism and token idiocy didn't quite gel and he was eventually ejected from the band.

Today, the token idiot is still thriving.

TISM, an Australian band feel it necessary to take the stage with no less than three token idiots, including a poet. And there is a band called Pavement from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who have this guy by the name of Bob Nastanovich. And need I mention the Prodigy - who have two totally excellent idiots in Keith and Leroy.

So, does your band need a token idiot?

That question should read - can your band afford to be without one.