If you’re a regular reader here at The Clock, you may recall a post from back in June discussing strange topics for hit songs. Perhaps you thought I was joking when mentioning mining disasters and mining disasters with cannibalism, but oh no, my friends. My sense of humor may skew dark, but my jests don’t usually run towards the consumption of human flesh.
The most well-known hit song about mining disasters is, of course, the straightforwardly titled “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” released by the Bee Gees in 1967. But lost to the mists of time is a little ditty from 1971 about three miners trapped beneath the earth: the unnamed, guilt-ridden narrator; the instigator, Joe; and poor, doomed, delicious “Timothy.”
Let’s tell the tale.
Long-time readers might remember Rupert “Yes, I like piña coladas” Holmes. Ten years before making love at midnight and getting caught in the rain, Holmes earned his living hustling around the music scene in New York, booking session work around town, singing lead and writing songs for studio bands, arranging charts for high school marching bands, and even composing a jingle for a shampoo commercial.
A friend who worked as a sound engineer at Scepter Records had discovered a group called The Buoys and convinced his employers to release a one-off single, and he asked Holmes to write it. There was only one catch: the label would not spend any money on promotion. So Holmes came up with a novel solution — he would write a song with the express intention of getting it banned by radio.
Now, a single with no promotion will usually not sell, because nobody knows about it. A single with no promotion and no radio play might as well … well, it might as well be trapped in a mine. But Holmes hoped the attendant publicity of receiving a ban would at least draw some attention to The Buoys and maybe secure them a better record deal next time. Why not? With no promotion help the song wasn’t going to get heard anyway…
Holmes could have chosen sex or drugs for his lyrics, the two subjects most apt to find rejection by radio at the time, but why take the easy way when you can take the weird way?
A combination of influences led to the creation of “Timothy.” Holmes was at home, working on an arrangement of “Sixteen Tons” (a song about miners) for another artist, while also watching a cooking show. That show reminded him of a movie he had seen the previous week which alluded to cannibalism. Holmes wrote the song quickly and thought to himself, “Mining disaster plus cannibalism. Yeah, this’ll get banned.” And he was correct. But what he didn’t count on was how catchy the song proved to be, with a driving beat, dramatic production, and a fine performance by The Buoys.
Radio stations liked “Timothy” and began to play it — until they actually paid attention to the subject matter — and then, just as Holmes had expected, they pulled the record off the air. Unexpectedly, the record-buying teens loved the song and began calling up DJs to demand they play it. For every station that banned “Timothy,” another took advantage by adding it to their playlist. And the kids kept buying the record.
To everyone’s great surprise, “Timothy” reached the Top 20 in the spring of 1971. The Buoys did, indeed, receive a new record deal, but found no further success, while Holmes went on to write hit songs and award-winning musicals.
So dig in … to “Timothy.”