Shazaam, the Buggles and a big black crow


FRIDAY, JANUARY 6, 2017

A delightfully batty story broke over Christmas. In the New Statesman, Amelia Tait wrote about how hundreds of online commentators are convinced they’ve seen a Nineties movie called Shazaam, starring the American comedian Sinbad as a hapless genie. But unless you believe in the “Mandela Effect” – and don’t look it up until you’re equipped for a long sortie down the rabbit-hole – there is simply no evidence that the film has ever existed.

The article got a lot of traction on social media, and has been taken up by Slate, Vox and Snopes, among others. And it’s a story that hit my resonant frequency, because I’ve lately been dealing with my very own Shazaam.

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In the early Eighties I was fascinated by a Japanese-language version of Video Killed the Radio Star, which for some reason was on heavy rotation at Swansea Sound, the local independent radio station.

This definitely wasn’t a delusion caused by too many thumps to the head playing British Bulldogs or a surfeit of McCowan’s Wham bars. Thirty-five years on, the bloody thing was still lodged in my head. I could clearly recall the stilted, ill-fitting lyrics of the chorus (“Dee-ta-mah-kee a-ta-gracoh-boh-nah”). The clincher was that my friend Justin – who now operates the excellent When Is Bins blog – remembered the track, too.

One problem: it didn’t and doesn’t exist. Having raked through every nook of the internet, neither of us could find a scrap of evidence for any such recording. There have been several Japanese cover versions of the Buggles’ song, but none of them matched what we remembered.

A couple of weeks ago, he cracked it. It wasn’t Japanese (although I’ll still swear that the announcer said it was). It was French. And as soon as that misconception was cleared up, YouTube delivered in spades.

The artist was a certain Ringo, a major star in the francophonie who sometimes performed under his full stage name of Ringo Willy Cat. (His wife, also part of the French pop aristocracy, went under her own mononym: Sheila. In 1980, she sold five million copies of the disco smash Spacer as part of Sheila & B. Devotion.)

In Ringo’s hands, Video Killed the Radio Star had become Qui est ce Grand Corbeau Noir (“Who’s this black raven?”). The phonetic babble I remembered from the chorus was actually “Dites-moi qui est ce grand corbeau noir”. As with many French cover versions, the lyrics bear scant resemblance to the original ones.

Fair enough. But why was it on Swansea Sound all the time? Again, I’m indebted to Justin for an answer. Until 1988, British radio stations were limited in the amount of mainstream recorded music they could play each week by the “needle time” agreement with the Musicians’ Union and Phonographic Performance Ltd.

In the case of BBC Radio, the shortfall could be made up by such things as house orchestras, Peel Sessions and material from its own internal record label, Radioplay. Cash-strapped Independent Local Radio stations – restricted to just nine hours of records a day – had to rely on more rough and ready solutions, such as making their jingles longer, ratcheting up the chat quotient, and using imported foreign recordings that were outside the MU/PPL agreement. Merci bien, Monsieur Willy Cat.

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Busting that particular Shazaam, and at least proving there was a kernel of truth inside the error, should be a satisfying feeling. But it isn’t – rather the opposite, in fact. And it’s not the only time over the past month that the internet has taken a hammer to what I’d thought were cast-iron memories.

Two more examples. The first involves another tune, James Galway’s theme to the Eighties children’s TV series Brendon Chase. Hearing it hotwires a nostalgia centre in my brain, because I connect it with the clunky old Sony Trinitron set at our family home in Gwent Gardens on which I watched it each week. I could still plot out the whole of that living room on squared paper. Yet according to IMDB, the series was first broadcast on New Year’s Eve, 1980 – long after we’d moved out and left the set behind. I never saw it on that telly.

The second is a more recent scene: I’m at my first job in journalism, at a London press agency, and talking about something I’ve found on a new website called the Huffington Post. Our editor, the late Jonathan Ashby, says: “You know what that is, don’t you?” and tells me that it’s the plaything of an American politico, Arianna Huffington.

I can readily conjure up his voice, unmistakeable to anyone who worked for him. But Wikipedia tells me that whoever was speaking to me, it wasn’t him – and it was at least five years later. The Huffington Post started up in May 2005. I left the agency in early 2000, and saw Ashby only once more after that, at a party that summer in Islington (an occasion memorable in retrospect for the appearance of his latest recruit, a young reporter named Amy Winehouse).

Those memories and many like them are so vivid that I would happily have stood up in a court and affirmed every small detail. This was what happened. Yes, I’m sure. I remember it. You know, I’m often impressing friends with my memory of schoolteachers, the Eighties, old adverts and crap like that. And then prosecuting counsel would pounce. But the song wasn’t Japanese, was it? You didn’t see that programme when you said, did you? You never had that conversation with your editor, did you? How can we believe anything you’ve told us?

Having an all-powerful debunking engine at everyone’s fingertips is enough to drive anyone paranoid, and journalists doubly so. You end up half-wondering whether you’d exist if there were no online record. Benjamin Franklin quipped that he didn’t get up until he’d checked the obituaries in the morning paper for his own name. Today, it’s quicker to use Google. And who reads newspapers any more?

Shazaam may not be real, but we’re never going to get that genie back into the bottle. And yet, for all the resources of the internet – some 1,131 million web pages at the moment, apparently – there is one question to which I still can’t find an answer. Who the hell was that black raven?

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