Please Don’t Go Topless Mother – The Social Commentary Songs Of Bennie Hess

The novelty 1970s social commentary tracks of the rockabilly country pioneer.

In 1972, country music singer, record producer and Show Land Records label head Bennie Hess – no relation to David and the man behind the minor 1958 hit Wild Hog Hop – was looking for a new gimmick in a world of rapidly shifting tastes that had left his rockabilly sound far behind. He found it in a series of vaguely timely novelty records that appeared over the next few years, covering everything from topless dancing – which seems to have been something of an obsession for him in ’72 – through to the Iran hostage crisis in 1980.

In 1972, Hess tackled the world of topless go-go dancing – something that was probably already rather old-hat by that time – on a pair of contradictory singles. The most infamous – if only because it is rediscovered on YouTube every few years by strippers and sex workers who are understandably aghast at its ‘slut-shaming’ message – is Please Don’t Go Topless Mother. Performed by Hess’ young son Troy (who Hess either wanted to make a star or saw as cheap labour, recording several tracks with him), this is a plaintive request from an embarrassed child for his mother to get a more respectable job than topless go-go dancing, and was written as a bit of a joke by Ron Hellard, a songwriter who knocked it out in about ten minutes and was suitably aghast when it came back to haunt him online decades later (“the best thing you can say about the record was that it was round” he would later comment). The whole thing is a parody rather than a serious record – but of course, it’s the sort of thing that people will end up taking rather more seriously than was intended.

To show that there was no major moral campaign at work with this record, the same year also saw the release of Villa of the Nude, written by Hess himself in this case. Performed by Julie Young, this was a shameless knock-off of Harper Valley PTA with the narrator telling a story of stuck-up prudes looking down on topless dancers, only to be put in their place. It’s hardly in the same league as Jeannie C. Riley’s classic track but it is considerably less judgemental than the younger Hess’ single. They do make a nice pair, however.

A year later, Hess himself recorded Attempted Assassination of George Wallace, a fairly self-explanatory cash-in on the shooting of the Presidential hopeful and staunch segregationist. He performs this low-rent, stripped-down country number as if musical styles and recording techniques had not changed since the 1950s, which is oddly admirable.

Seven years later, Hess was back with another ‘of the moment’ song – Don’t Bow Down to Iran, a somewhat discordant demand that America stops being wussy about the whole Iranian hostage situation. This track is a tad more wearing than the George Wallace song, with lyrics that don’t always work in time with the music. It’s rather harder work than the other songs.

Hess also recorded The Elvis Presley Boogie, a track that has no release year on the label though we can probably make an educated guess that it wasn’t too long after Presley’s death in 1977. Hess claims to be one of the first people to have spotted Elvis’ talents – and given that he’s been recording since the late 1940s, perhaps he was. This is a rather bouncier track than most of his other recordings.

All the Show Land releases were rather limited in number – if a single saw more than a thousand copies pressed, that would be exceptional. They were, even at the time, rather specialist in appeal, existing in some curious netherworld where musical production styles had never moved on from the 1950s. This sort of maudlin country and perky rockabilly defied fashion trends and the fickle tastes of the public, heard only by a handful of enthusiasts at the time and even now on the very fringe of what might considered ‘cult’ listening. The only way stuff like this tends to be heard today is on those ‘Lux and Ivy’ opportunist compilations of songs The Cramps taught us (or would’ve taught us, perhaps) or when someone stumbles upon them – as has been the case with Troy’s topless protest – while looking for something else.

Bennie Hess died in 1984 and the record label passed onto Troy, who has renamed it SPADE Records. He really ought to put together a new collection of these original Show Land recordings as a box set. If you are reading this, Troy, feel free to discuss it with us!


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