|Released October 1967|
|Genre Psychedelic pop|
|Label Liberty Records
BGO Records (Reissue)|
Writer(s) Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes
Producer(s) Gerry Bron, Lyn Birkbeck
"Death Cab for Cutie" is a song composed by Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes and performed by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. It was included on their 1967 album Gorilla.
Innes' initial inspiration for the song was the title of an old American pulp fiction crime magazine he had encountered. Stanshall's primary contribution was to shape "Death Cab For Cutie" as a parody of Elvis Presley (notably his 1957 hit "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear"), and he sang it as such, with undertones of 1950's Doo-wop. In the style of several early teenage tragedy songs, such as "Teen Angel", it tells a story of youthful angst: "Cutie" who goes out on the town against her lover's wishes. "Last night Cutie caught a cab, uhuh-huh..." She is killed when the taxicab she is in runs a red light and crashes. Stanshall, as lead singer, details Cutie's doomed journey to the sound of a honky-tonk piano and surging saxophones, while the Bonzo chorus warns: "Baby, don't do it..." Stanshall repeats the refrain in true Presley hip-wriggling style: "Someone's going to MAKE... you pay your fare."
The song became one of the Bonzo Dog Band's better known numbers when it was featured in the Beatles 1967 television film Magical Mystery Tour. Performed in a stage routine by the Bonzos, it accompanied a striptease act, performed by Jan Carson of the Raymond Revuebar, who was enthusiastically ogled by club customers including John Lennon and George Harrison. Paul McCartney had coaxed Stanshall into wearing a pink chiffon scarf to look more "trendy".
The Bonzo Dog Band performed the song in a 1967 episode of the children's TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set, in which the band is gushingly introduced by Michael Palin (who gets the title wrong). The band, called the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band at the time, appeared regularly on the show - a so-called children's programme which featured Palin, Eric Idle and other later-famous comedians.
Alex Chilton of Big Star covered the song live on WLYX Memphis in 1975. The song is also referenced on the 1984 Culture Club album Waking Up with the House on Fire, in the song "Crime Time", which is a throwback to the early rock 'n' roll sound. The indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie were named after the song.
While Innes claims the title came from an American pulp fiction magazine, the phrase may have been coined by Richard Hoggart in his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, which discussed British popular culture and was a pioneering work in the cultural studies field. The term appears in Chapter 8, "The Newer Mass Art: Sex in Shiny Packets", under part C: "Sex and Violence Novels". Hoggart provides a list of "imitations" of the "terse, periodic titles" of these novels, including "Sweetie, Take It Hot"; "The Lady Takes a Dive"; "Aim Low, Angel"; "Sweetheart, Curves Can Kill"; and "Death-Cab for Cutie".
Going further back, a 1949 detective pulp fiction novel by Hank Janson (the pen-name of English author Stephen Daniel Frances) was published in the UK with the title "Slay-Ride for Cutie".
Ben Gibbard used the title of the song as the name of the rock band he founded in 1997. "I would absolutely go back and give it [the band] a more obvious name," he reflected in 2011; "Thank God for Wikipedia. At least now, people don’t have to ask me where the fucking name came from every interview."