A Brief History of the Chicken Dance

It’s silly, it’s catchy, and it’s everywhere. A fun little jig with simple moves that can be learned in under a minute, "The Chicken Dance" is a staple at school parties, bar mitzvahs, and Oktoberfest celebrations. The story of this avian shimmy began with its melody, which was penned more than 60 years ago by a Swiss musician named Werner Thomas.

Back in the 1950s, Thomas earned his daily bread playing the accordion at Swiss holiday resorts. As he revealed in this German-language interview, the tune first popped into his head in 1955 or so. Thomas spent the next few years revising his melody—and coming up with a dance to go with it. The quirky routine he ultimately devised was inspired not by chickens but rather by skiers.

Even back in the 1950s, Switzerland was world-famous for its ski resorts, many of which Thomas frequented. While watching vacationers zip down the slopes with wild abandon, Thomas couldn’t help but note their resemblance to a certain water bird. Skiers, he said, use certain hand movements that—at least to him—evoked “the beak of a duck.” Other gestures utilized by the winter sports enthusiasts reminded Thomas of flapping wings and waddling feet. He then adapted these into a playful series of movements he called “Der Ententanz” or “The Duck Dance.”

The next major development in the song’s history came in the early 1970s, when Belgian music producer Louis Julien van Rijmenant heard Thomas playing it at a hotel in Davos, Switzerland. In 1973, Rijmenant collaborated with a band called Bobby Setter's Cash & Carry to publish the song as a single. Titled “Tchip, Tchip,” this version of the tune was created via synthesizer—a fact that caught Thomas totally off-guard when he first heard their cover.

“The synthesizer was a completely new instrument for me,” Thomas said. Although he initially didn’t approve of this electronic take on his song, he soon came around to liking it. And he wasn’t alone: Within a year, Rijmenant’s “Tchip, Tchip” record sold over 1 million copies in Europe.

Despite the tune’s popularity, Thomas’s accompanying dance wouldn’t become widely known until the Dutch band De Electronica released a new cover of “Tchip, Tchip” in 1980. Their version—which the group called “De Vogeltjesdans,” or “Dance Little Bird”—spent a respectable 29 weeks on the Dutch charts, where it peaked at number eight. At concerts and in TV appearances (one of which you can watch below), De Electronica reunited the melody with the original, duck-like movements that Thomas had devised more than two decades earlier.

By then, the melody had already crossed the Atlantic. Credit for bringing it stateside belongs to music producer Stanley Mills. His first exposure to Thomas’s masterpiece came at a 1972 convention in Cannes, France. Mills immediately liked the tune and purchased its American distribution rights. Like De Electronica, he called his version “Dance Little Bird.” Although the song is now an omnipresent force at dance parties across the country, it didn’t find its American audience right away. Mills attempted to make “Dance Little Bird” more marketable by commissioning original English lyrics, which have since faded into obscurity. (The chorus went as follows: “Hey you’re in the swing / You’re cluckin’ like a bird / You’re flapping your wings / Don’t you feel absurd?”) Although Mills convinced several polka bands to include “Dance Little Bird” on their albums, none of them managed to turn it into a hit.

Still, you can’t keep a good tune down. Mills says that in the 1980s, instrumental versions of “Dance Little Bird” slowly developed a following in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Austin, and other cities with large polka-loving communities. “People started dancing to it at weddings and bar mitzvahs and the local dance bands began to play it,” Mills said. “A few local polka groups recorded it and sold it out of the back of [their trucks].”

Unbeknownst to Mills at the time, the song acquired a new name at this point in its history. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when American audiences started calling it “The Chicken Dance,” but a festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma may well be responsible. At the city’s 1981 Oktoberfest, a German band decided to play “Dance Little Bird” and taught the crowd how to do Thomas’s Duck Dance. Since visual aids are always helpful, the event organizers scoured the greater Tulsa area in search of a duck costume before the party got started. None could be found, but a local TV station was able to loan them a chicken suit—and the rest is history.

One day in 1994, Mills got a call from a company that was looking to create a dance party compilation record. The caller asked if he could include a song called “The Chicken Dance.”

“I don’t own anything called ‘The Chicken Dance,’” Mills replied.

“Yes you do, I’ll play it over the phone,” said the stranger.

“When he did that,” Mills later recalled, “I realized it was my song. It got that name all by itself.” The resulting compilation record—titled Turn Up the Music—was a resounding success. Ever since, "The Chicken Dance" has been a real cash cow for Mills.

As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2001, “His ‘Chicken Dance’ income from television commercials alone surged from a pittance at the start of the 1990s to approximately $7000 in 1995, and then to more than $50,000 [in 2000].”

“It’s doing very well,” Mills said at the time, “but I’m not a millionaire because of it.”

Since then, “The Chicken Dance” has pecked its way into the cultural mainstream, livening up everything from parties to sporting events. Although many artists come to hate their biggest hit, Thomas still appreciates the song’s success. As the accordionist notes in the aforementioned interview, whenever he sees “The Chicken Dance” on television, he can rest secure in the knowledge that his next beer has been paid for.

This story has been update for 2019.

London Calling: The Clash Is the Subject of a New Exhibition at the Museum of London

Paul Simonon's Fender Precision bass, which he smashed onstage at New York City's Palladium on September 21, 1979.
Paul Simonon's Fender Precision bass, which he smashed onstage at New York City's Palladium on September 21, 1979.
© The Clash

On September 21, 1979, when British punk legends The Clash tried to amp up the crowd at The Palladium in New York, security guards pushed fans back into their seats.

According to guitar-makers Fender, this frustrated Clash bassist Paul Simonon so much that he smashed his cherished Fender Precision bass on the stage, creating possibly the most famous rock ’n’ roll photo opportunity of all time—which would also serve as the cover art for the Clash's groundbreaking third album, London Calling.

preliminary sketch of the clash's london calling cover album art
A preliminary sketch by Ray Lowry for the London Calling cover artwork.
© Samuel Lowry

To celebrate this December’s 40th anniversary of its release, the Museum of London has curated a free exhibition that features many of the band’s belongings, images, music, and even Simonon’s surprisingly well-preserved broken bass.

It’s not the only iconic instrument on display—you can also see Mick Jones’s 1950s Gibson ES-295, which he used to record the album and the music video for its titular track, and Joe Strummer’s white 1950s Fender Esquire from the same era. And, if you look closely at Topper Headon’s drumsticks, you’ll notice that they’re stamped with the words “Topper’s Boppers.” According to NME, it’s the only item of Headon’s that’s still around from the London Calling days.

topper headon's drumsticks from the clash
Topper Headon's drumsticks.
© The Clash

The exhibit also includes sketches from artist Ray Lowry that depict scenes from the London Calling tour, photos taken by Pennie Smith (who snapped the London Calling cover image), a doodle-heavy track listing for the four-sided double album written by Jones, and many other items.

the clash at london calling video shoot
The Clash at the London Calling music video shoot along the River Thames.
© Pennie Smith

mick jones's track listing for the london calling album
Mick Jones's handwritten track listing for the album.
© The Clash

And, of course, any rock ’n’ roll display wouldn’t be complete without at least one leather jacket—the Museum of London is showcasing Simonon’s jacket from the late '70s.

Paul Simonon's leather jacket
Paul Simonon's leather jacket.
© The Clash

If you’re a little farther than a train ride away from London, there’s time to make some travel plans: The exhibit is open until April 19, 2020.

[h/t NME]

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Tevarak/iStock via Getty Images
Tevarak/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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