Al Wilson: The Snake/Getting Ready For Tomorrow (Soul City SCR767, 1968)

DJ Gunga's copy of Al Wilson's
The Snake – 1968 Soul City release

Why I did by this record?  Al Wilson is a singer who knew a bit about performing; indeed, the man considered himself to be a performer and not a singer. Wilson was bright, flashy, psych-pop style with an emotive way of phrasing.  His would sing/speak lyrics in a melodramatic fashion without going over the top.  This record puts those talents at the forefront.  Soul City recordings leaned more L.A. go-go and pop than Detroit or Chicago or Southern soul.  That is the influence of label head Johnny Rivers.  Wilson’s performing style and Rivers’ pop sensibilities were a good mix for this track.

For comparison, reference the original Oscar Brown Jr. performance from 1963.  Oscar really hams it up.  He turns the parable about love and relationships into a campy novelty song.  The Al Wilson version replaces the orchestra with a rock band and horn section, emphasizing the beat to make the song dance-able.  But it keeps the big sound.  There are horns.  Lots of horns.  Background singers are surprisingly forward in the mix, complete with requisite “ssssnake” hisses.  It is a Johnny Rivers production from the 1960s, meaning the song will be poppy and a bit campy.  Wilson uses Brown’s performance as a template and dials it back a few notches.

The lyrics are what makes this song notable.  The song is a parable about romance.  Specifically, a warning to women not to be seduced by men who appear flashy and seductive yet vulnerable.  Per the cautionary tale of “The Snake”, if you get taken in by the snake’s charms, you will end up getting bit in the end.

Yes, it is pop.  Yes, it is corny.  But “The Snake” is still a fluffy fun floor-filler.  The song’s reputation has gone up and down over the years.  While it was a Top 30 hit in the U.S., it made more of a lasing impression in the U.K. Northern/Modern Soul scenes.  And even in those scenes the song is debated as a being a great Northern Soul anthem or a overplayed piece of trashy pop music.  More recently in the U.S. the song came back in the limelight when used in the 2016 presidential campaign as a xenophobic parable, twisting a  pop song with a Grimm Fairytale motif into a sinister warning about Mexicans and Syrians and anyone who is not white and European.  The irony here is that a song recorded by a man who emigrated from rural Mississippi to California in an effort to escape violent oppression and seek opportunity to support his family ends up being used to promote violent oppression and squashing of opportunity.  For modern times, it begs the question:  just who is the snake?  The mere fact that we have to ask that question makes it clear what the answer is.  Beware the reptile with the shiny, silky sheen who begs you to accept him.

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