There was a time, back in the late 90s/early 00s, when I was enough of a square that I would eagerly await each new installment in the "Now That's What I Call Music!" series. Totally uncool, I know, but I was a young teenager living off a meagre allowance, and they were an easy route to owning a good portion of the latest chart hits without having to invest in a wad of CD singles, and maybe, if I was lucky, I would also discover something new which had slipped under my own personal radar while I was at it. Now 44, which came out just before the dawn of the new millennium, was the best-selling "Now!" release of all-time, a title it still retains to this day (yes, they are still going, although I personally bowed out at Now 49). I was all over Now 44 back in the day. Now 45, by comparison, was the disappointing follow-up; even at the time, I thought the selection of songs was so much naffer and I didn't get nearly as much replay value out of Now 45. The release was defined by the overwhelming flavour of watery vanilla pop (with hindsight, Now 44 wasn't much better, but at least it didn't contain anything nearly as shuddersome as "See Ya!" by Atomic Kitten). If this was the taste of what the brave new millennium had to offer then frankly it was a bit of a letdown (but then the year 2000 was like that in general - for all the hype leading up to it I honestly can't recall a year in my own living memory more dispiritingly dull).
There was, however, one track of interest on Now 45. Lurking close to the end of the compilation, at track no. 19 on disc two, was this strange little dance tune by Cuban Boys called "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia". Hands down, that had to be the coolest song title I'd ever heard (and it still is). The song itself? It consisted largely of a looped sample of what sounded like one of the Chipmunks yodeling. Sounds pretty diabolical, right? Well, if you played right through to the end of the track, thinking this was nothing more than an inane children's party song, you were in for one heck of a nasty surprise. OH GOD, THE ENDING! I cannot describe just how unbelievably unsettling and incongruous it sounded tucked away amid a sea of bland and innocuous early 00s pop. I can only imagine the shock waves it caused among families who bought the compilation thinking that it would provide safe listening material for long Easter holiday road trips.
It would be easily to mistake "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" for a mindless novelty dance single designed to cash in on the flavour of the month; that flavour being a bunch of dumb dancing hamster graphics we were all totally enamored with at the dawn of the new millennium. The "Hampster Dance" (yeah, that misspelling drives me nuts too) was an internet phenomenon from back when people were still in the process of really getting accustomed to the wonders of the web. Born from an act of sibling rivalry in 1998, when Canadian art student Deidre LaCarte was looking to outdo her sister's personal website for internet hits, it featured multiple GIFs of cartoon hamsters dancing to a seven-second loop of a chipmunkese sample of "Whistle Stop" by Roger Miller (better known as the opening song to Disney's 1973 film Robin Hood). It offered no useful purpose beyond kitschy novelty, but as we were quickly to learn, novelty alone can take you a heck of a long way on the world wide web, and by early 2000 the popularity of the site had suddenly exploded. For a whole generation of web novices, this was our introduction to the internet meme, when it became fashionable to flood the inboxes of everyone we knew with links to the thing. "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" was a product of this warped, hamster-obsessed madness, using that sped-up seven-second sample of "Whistle Stop" as the starting point for the weirdest of dance numbers. (Please note that "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" is not to be confused with "The Hampsterdance Song" by Hampton The Hampster, the website's official spin-off single, which came later in July 2000, and which really was a mindless novelty cash-in). The song garnered quite a cult following when it debuted on John Peel's show on BBC Radio 1 in April 1999 and became a hotly-requested tune among his listeners thereafter. When a single was finally released by EMI on 13th December 1999, it peaked at no. 4 in the UK singles chart. Cliff Richard, whose single "The Millennium Prayer" was competing with "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" for the much-coveted Christmas No. 1 spot (back when the UK actually cared about such things), apparently dismissed it as "awful", but then who was he to be throwing stones? He was responsible for "The Millennium Prayer", for eff's sake! (In the end they both lost. Christmas No. 1 for that year went to "I Have a Dream" by Irish boy band Westlife.)
Still, Cliff wasn't alone in his sentiments, and really that's not surprising. The high-pitched yodeling of that modified "Whistle Stop" sample was always going to prove a bit much for some ears, and I suspect that many listeners who purchased Now 45 reflexively pressed the skip button five seconds into the track and went straight to Robbie Williams' latest "It's Only Us". Their loss entirely. They never experienced the delights of that spine-chilling twist ending. If "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" had consisted of nothing but the "Whistle Stop" sample looped for over three minutes, then the naysayers might have a point. What makes it such an alluring oddity is everything else going on amid all the looping - the bizarre samples of dialogue interspersed throughout the song. I've been fascinated with those samples ever since I was a teenager back in 2000; with hindsight, it may even have marked the initial shifting of my musical tastes from the radio-friendly pop the "Now!" albums subsisted on to stranger, more disorientating electronica with tiny, bizarre details I could fixate on. Since I Left You by The Avalanches was still a number of months away, and within that time I'm sure that "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" did a lot to whet my appetite for its monumental weirdness. Some of the samples used here are funny, some are odd, some are utterly skin-crawling, particularly that one at the very end that really caught me off-guard the first time I heard it. Here's what we hear as the music fades out:
"And this is your Uncle Don saying goodnight. Goodnight, little kids, goodnight! (Pauses) We're off? Good, well that oughta hold the little bastards!"
Uncle Don's reckless use of the word "bastards" was the major source of contention when the single was initially released without a Parental Advisory sticker (this was later redressed, although Now 45 carried no such warning) but what I always found downright sinister about the ending was the exaggerated cheerfulness of his sign-off coupled just how rapidly it descended into all-out bitterness. The origins of this particular piece of dialogue are easy enough to trace (to a point). "Uncle Don" was a US children's radio show that aired on WOR radio between 1928 and 1947 and was hosted by the eponymous Uncle Don, or Don Carney (real name Howard Rice). Anyone who's even vaguely aware of Uncle Don's existence has no doubt encountered the story that he was heard uttering "That oughta hold the little bastards!" at the end of one fateful broadcast, mistakenly believing that he was off the air. This dubious but highly prevalent piece of radio lore has been attributed to multiple children's radio personalities, although Uncle Don is the name unfortunate enough to have gotten predominantly stuck with it, despite there being no solid evidence that such an incident ever occurred, either on Uncle Don's show or anyone else's. Jan Harold Brunvand discussed this story in his 1986 book The Mexican Pet, while Snopes provides a very in-depth coverage of the legend in this article, which concludes by noting the injustice that, "the "little bastards" rumor may not have ruined Don Carney's career, but it certainly has unfairly sullied his reputation for nearly seventy years now."
This apocryphal story was, of course, the inspiration for a plot point in The Simpsons episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled" of Season 4, in which Gabbo is caught calling his audience "little S.O.B.s" when he assumes that the camera is no longer rolling. The official episode guide book The Simpsons: A Complete Guide To Our Favorite Family, published in 1997, acknowledges the reference but misleadingly describes it as if it were indeed a real-life event:
"Gabbo's line, "That oughta hold the little S.O.B.s," spoken after the camera has been turned off (a gaffe repeated by Kent Brockman) is taken from a 1950s kiddie show in which the host asked, "Are we off the air?" and then said, "That ought to hold the little S.O.B.s for another week." He did not know he was still on the air and was summarily dismissed."
That A Complete Guide fails to provide any more specific details than "a 1950s kiddie show" should be a big enough tip-off that the story is of dubious authenticity (not that specificity is any guarantee of authenticity, but still, there is some decidedly dodgy phrasing going on in the above paragraph). Also, 1950s? I guess that's an example of a legend evolving over time and being adapted to the childhood memories of a whole new generation. Disappointingly, the guys on the DVD commentary for "Krusty Gets Kancelled" also seem to be under the impression that it's a true story, and they do specify the presenter as Uncle Don. Sullying the good name of an innocent children's radio host? That is a Bozo no-no.
What made the legend, specifically its association with Don Carney, all the more prevalent, was the inclusion of a supposedly "authentic" recording of the gaffe in a collection compiled by radio producer Kermit Schafer as part of his Pardon My Blooper! record series. Although Schafer presented all of the recordings in his compilations as genuine, many of them were actually staged recreations of on-air gaffes where no recording of the actual event existed (possibly because it never happened at all, as is the case here). If anyone in this scenario deserves to be called a bastard or S.O.B., it's Schafer. The Wikipedia page for "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" claims that the dialogue heard at the end of the song is a direct sample of Schafer's recreation of the fabricated incident, but here's the weird thing - it doesn't match the recording that appears on Kermit Schafer's record Pardon My Blooper! Volume 1 from 1954. The dialogue isn't exactly word-for-word, and there are other differences too - notably, that in that version "Uncle Don" is audibly moving away from the mic as he says the offending statement, whereas here it's loud, clear and totally unabashed. It is, however, the exact same recording included in the above Snopes article. So...did Kermit Schafer create two different versions of the same incident? Did he decide that the original version featured on Pardon My Blooper! Volume 1 simply wasn't funny enough and decide to redo it? I actually find that quite plausible - the version sampled on "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia" does sound like it was purposely designed to play up the humour value of the scenario (at the expense of its credibility as an actual on-air gaffe); the "bastards" bit is spoken as loudly and as clearly as everything else in the recording, so you can't possibly miss it, and the faux Uncle Don's abrupt descent from kindliness to contempt is so much nastier and more abrasive in this version. What I'd like to know is where this second version came from - Schafer released sheaves of compilations of these alleged on-air bloopers, and I'm not sure if I really have the patience to trawl through them all. The only other possibility is that Schafer has nothing to do with this particular recreation and Snopes and Wikipedia have both got it wrong, in which case where does this sample originate? In any case, any help would be greatly appreciated.
That goes for pretty much every other sample in the song too. There are many of them, but the page on Wikipedia currently lists only one other source: the line "Don't be too happy...after some months of this you'll be smacking your lips at the thought of salt beef", which it notes as being from "the 1950s dramatization of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth". Not overly specific on Wikipedia's part, but the sample does indeed come from the 1959 feature film Journey To The Center of the Earth directed by Henry Levin, and is said by Arlene Dahl's character during the scene when the exploration team happens upon an underground valley of giant mushrooms.
The others though? I don't know. I've tried googling a bunch of them but only ever get led back to "Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia". "Nobody makes love like Robert Lee Anderson"? Who on earth is Robert Lee Anderson? (Admittedly, I don't know if that's even an accurate transcription of the sample in question, as I've relied a lot on what lyrics sites reckon are the correct words. Back in 2000 I always heard that particular piece of dialogue as "Nobody makes love like that, Julie-Anne", which is certainly funnier.) There's the possibility that some of these audio samples aren't authentic originals but recreations in order to circumvent licensing issues. Heck, some of them may even be entirely original pieces of audio created specially for use in the song and, if so, that I'm just going on a wild goose chase here, but nevertheless I dream of one day compiling a comprehensive list of where everything in this song came from, if only to serve as a monument to my obsession and insatiable curiosity. I'm calling it The Cognoscenti Vs. Intelligentsia Project, and it won't succeed without either a lot luck on my part or a lot of help, so if you do happen to know the origin of any of the unidentified samples within, be a dear and share that knowledge with me.
Anyway, I've babbled about this song for long enough; it's probably time I embedded the music video. Enjoy the creepy animatronic hamster:
PS: Despite my criticisms of it here, reading through the track list of Now 45 on Discogs I got a surprising - and disturbing - case of the nostalgias (which was still not enough to redeem that Atomic Kitten song, mind). I also forgot that "Imagine" by John Lennon was on there (having been re-released in December 1999) - it wasn't all bad then, though it might say something about the state of the then-current popular music scene that it took the presence of an old classic to give the release a whiff of respectability. I did have to smile upon remembering that Precious Brats feat. Kevin and Perry was also included, although god knows why - watching that movie back in 2000 was one heck of an awkward experience.