October 25, 2010


The True Meaning of "Na Na Na"

The tall, bald, frilly-shirted villain in My Chemical Romance's video for "Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)" isn't just a character actor: he's MCR singer Gerard Way's favorite writer. Grant Morrison is best known as a comic book writer, one of the most interesting ones currently operating. He's currently writing a brilliant, totally deranged Batman & Robin series — hence, maybe, the line in MCR's song about "remember when you were a madman/thought you was Batman."

Way has talked about how Morrison's work has been a huge influence on his own; there are obvious echoes of Morrison's '90s-era Doom Patrol in the comic book Way has been writing for the past few years, The Umbrella Academy. And now Way's comics are starting to share ideas with his music — the forthcoming MCR album, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, shares its title with a yet-unpublished comic book Way has been working on with artist Becky Cloonan.

Morrison, for that matter, has played around with pop music; he was one of the singer-guitarists in a late-'80s band called the Fauves. The foundational work of his comics, though, is a series he wrote in the '90s, The Invisibles, which featured a character known as King Mob who was very much like Morrison himself in some ways — even Morrison's outfit in the "Na Na Na" video seems to allude to the look of King Mob. The Invisibles is full of sequences about the power of words: secret words with lost letters of the alphabet, simple words like "pop" that can make things explode. And one of the crucial sequences in The Invisibles concerns a drug called Key 17 (or, later, Key 23), which causes people to perceive words as the things they represent.

This brings us around to the original video for "Na Na Na." It's billed as a "lyric video," but it's not the sort of words-only setup of, say, Cee-Lo's "F**k You": almost every line is illustrated with an image that connects to it in at least a symbolic way. The exceptions are the "Batman" line (well, one has to get permission to show Batman...) and, of course, the "na na na na na na na" business. But what would someone who'd followed the trail of Morrisoniana in the filmed video, tracked down some Key 17 and ingested it make of the "Na Na Na" part?

To find out, we have to go back in time to the most famous string of "na na na"s in pop music. Not Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)," although that's a good try--there are only ever eight "na"s in a row there. The trophy goes to the chorus of Wilson Pickett's version of "Land of 1000 Dances," a #1 R&B hit from 1966. The chain of dances Pickett namedrops are just decoration: the 19-"na" refrain is where the action is. (Pickett, in fact, added his own bit of nonsense to it. The Muscle Shoals band backing him up couldn't quite nail the timing of the introduction, until producer Jerry Wexler had an idea: Pickett could just sing the count-off — one two three, one two three. )

Pickett's singing a 1962 song by Chris Kenner, a local hit in New Orleans that never made much of an impact anywhere else. But if you track down Kenner's original version, you'll notice something curious about it: the "na na na" business is nowhere to be found in it. That came from an interim version: Cannibal and the Headhunters' 1965 cover of "Land of 1000 Dances," a minor hit for them. They'd been playing the song at a dance in East L.A., and singer Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia couldn't remember the words; when he started singing nonsense syllables, the rest of the band joined in, and the crowd went nuts. From then on, "na na na na na" was a part of the song forever.

So what's everybody shutting-up-and-singing when Gerard Way yells "shut up and sing it with me"? Nonsense, maybe. But every word refers, somehow, to something, even when it's a word that refers to a lost memory. When "na na na na na" flashes across a screen, it's a detonator for a thousand invisible dances.