A new court case aims to settle who holds proprietorship over the most defining example of rock ‘n’ roll onomatopoeia in pop history
Decades after Barry Mann had a hit single with “Who Put the Bomp,” a tongue-in-cheek ditty he wrote with Gerry Goffin, he slammed a cease-and-desist order on the band Le Tigre for a track they released over twenty years ago, “Deceptacon,” which repurposes a couple of lines from the Mann-Goffin song.
In response, Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman have filed a lawsuit against Mann, claiming, among other things, that the phrases “bomp-bah-bomp-bah-bomp” and “rama lama ding dong” don’t belong to Mann, since he took them from other songs (probably it was Goffin who did the taking, being the lyricist of the team). The lawsuit also states that “Deceptacon” has “a new meaning that is directly at odds with and a clear criticism of the message of ‘Bomp.’”
I’m going to take their word on that, even though I don’t explicitly hear a “clear criticism of the message of ‘Bomp,’” or know what that criticism would sound like. If you don’t know the original source, in brief: Mann (and Goffin) would like to extend appreciation to the person (a man, they’re guessing, although since Mann is married to lyricist Cynthia Weil, you’d think he’d be more open-minded) who put the bomp in the bomp-bah-bomp-bah-bomp and the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong. Those phrases and similar others have had a romantic effect on his girlfriend (his “baby,” to be precise), and he’s happy about that.
It’s all goofy, with the underlying message that these silly songs can, in their way, have sentimental resonance, despite the mockery of comedians who’d joke, “Can you imagine years from now, married couples hearing” [rock song title] “and saying, ‘Darling, they’re playing our song’?” (For further proof of how dumb that condescension was, see Jesse Winchester sing ”Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding” on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle TV show, bringing Costello and Neko Case to tears.)
VIDEO: Jesse Winchester, Neko Case and Elvis Costello perform “Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding”
Le Tigre does, briefly, play around with the melody and lyrics of “Who Put the Bomp”; that’s clear enough. But Hanna and Fateman have a point. “Who Put the Bomp” itself is an example of musical collage, a song that refers to other songs and depends on our recognition of those songs. It came out in 1961, in the midst of a group-harmony renaissance. There were the records directly referred to in the Mann-Goffin song: “Blue Moon” by the Marcels and “Rama Lama Ding Dong” by the Edsels, as well as Jan & Dean’s “bomp-bah-bomp, dip-dah-dip” version of “Heart and Soul,” the Regents’ “Barbara Ann,” and the Velvets’ “Tonight (Could Be the Night)” (many actual “doo wops” in that one), and others. Mann and Goffin were tapping into that pop moment, but you don’t see the authors of “Rama Lama Ding Dong” or “Pony Time” (“boogety-boogety-boogety-boogety-shoo”) credited on the “Who Put the Bomp” record label.
Note that Mann and Goffin don’t even ask who wrote the bomp (in the case of “Blue Moon,” that would be Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart collecting the royalties on the Marcels’ smash), the way the Monotones asked who wrote the Book of Love, but who put the bomp, who put the ram. That could be the arranger of the session in the Marcels’ case, or the Marcels themselves. You could imagine a song about how a girl was seduced by “Blue Moon” (“I heard somebody whisper, ‘Please adore me’”), but “Who Put the Bomp” isn’t that song. It’s about the allure of gibberish. “Every word went right into her heart,” Mann sings, but they’re words without meaning. And then, in 1999, Le Tigre wonders who took the bomp, and the ram, quite properly (I’d argue) continuing the decades-old dialogue that rock ‘n’ roll has with itself.
AUDIO: Frankie Lymon “I Put The Bomp”
“Who Put the Bomp” was already part of that discussion in the early ’60s. Within months of its release, Frankie Lymon, one of rock’n’roll’s first teen stars, issued “I Put the Bomp,” figuring he had as much right as anyone. Jan and Dean—follow me here—did their own version of “Who Put the Bomp,” wherein they took credit for the whole bomp-bah-bomp, dip-dah-dip-dah-dip construction, and they had a solid case, not only based on their deconstructed “Heart and Soul,” but on “Jennie Lee,” an earlier single by Jan and Arnie, in which the bom-bom-bah-bah-bah-boms were an homage to the bouncing gyrations of a stripper named Jennie Lee (and Kathleen Hanna did some stripping to pay for college!). Songwriters Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein (two-thirds of the Strangeloves) had a single “We’re the Guys Who Drive Your Baby Wild,” where they sing “Now it can be told, with a million records sold,” that you can put the blame on them. There were versions in Spanish (“Quien puso el bomp” by Los Teen Tops) and French (“Bomp Bomp” by Richard Anthony).
Jump cut to the ‘70s, and Greg Shaw starts a rock magazine called Who Put the Bomp, and “Rama Lama Ding Dong” gets incorporated into a song from Grease, and rock revivalists Showaddywaddy do a cover of “Who Put the Bomp.” And U.K. pub-rockers Ducks Deluxe had a few thoughts on the subject. After asking, “Who put the bomp back into rock’n’roll?,” they quickly had an answer: “Daddy Put the Bomp” (mom provided the jive, but that’s a whole other matter). It’s a basic part of rock vocabulary, and all honor to Mann and Goffin for coming up with it.
Mann hears “Deceptacon” and decides (unilaterally, since Gerry Goffin isn’t around to weigh in) that what Le Tigre have done is violate his copyrighted composition. One could argue that the estate of the Edsels’ George “Wydell” Jones Jr., the author of “Rama Lama Ding Dong,” could have used some of the “Who Put the Bomp” money for the number of times Mann and his backing group the Halos sang his hook. In their lawsuit, Le Tigre’s attorneys point out that the Mann and Goffin copied the “vocables or song titles…from Black doo-wop groups active during the late 1950s and early 1960s.” (The Marcels were a biracial group, for the record.)
So owns the bomp, really? What cultural and economic reparations are owed? I guess we’ll find out.
VIDEO: Barry Mann “Who Put The Bomp”
AUDIO: Le Tigre “Deceptacon”