The Power of Pong

Frank Black – Whatever Happened to Pong? from Teenager of the Year

In his recent razing of the Pixies’ EP-2, the best thing Jayson Greene had to say was that one track could pass as a lesser track from Teenager of the Year.  Which got me to thinking about that album and its fantastic opening track, Whatever Happened to Pong?, because why dwell on the subpar present output of Black (Blue Hexe from EP-2 sounds like ACDC doing modern rock, which isn’t the worst thing but not up to the band’s abilities) when I can revisit the positive of his back catalog.

Like his work with the Pixies, this song has those elements that are Black’s hallmarks:  slow/fast/slow combos, idiosyncratic subject matter (the game of Pong),  catchy chorus,  great guitar work, and wrapping it all up in under 3 minutes (it’s a punk approved 1:34 long).

Black fools you in the first 25 seconds of the song that this might be a bit of a slow song, with buttery female backing vocals sliding in behind  midtempo drums and guitar riff.  That builds to a crescendo that overflows into a wave of harmonica and sped up guitar, cymbals and snare.  Things really then get manic in the chorus where Black does the best vocal impersonation of a game of Pong as he shouts  “To the side to the side to the paddle the paddle / To the paddle the paddle the side to the side / To the side to the side to the paddle the paddle /Pong /
Ball in the machine” as the drum and guitars keep pace with him.

The first verse makes you think there will be some narrative to the song as he sings about hustling guys “more used to the playing of cards” at bars playing Pong.  But, as his wont, Black doesn’t really work well with narrative songwriting, and he bounces to the theme of reminiscence of youth when he sings about how people are “singing a popular song” but that he still believes “in the excellent joy of the Pong”, and then ricochets to a nonsensical last verse that throws in reference to H.G. Wells and Kong (of the Donkey variety I believe).

And as quickly as the ball in Pong could slip past your pixelated paddle, the song is over.

A totally Frank Black video to go with the song:

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