The coronavirus pandemic is changing the way we work, play, live, die, and—perhaps most importantly—listen to fairground organs. Carnivals, trolley parks, promenades, bathing resorts, pleasure islands, and dance halls are shuttered, and for the first time in living memory, spring is arriving accompanied only by the horrible sound of birdsong, instead of the tootling, crashing mechanical cacophony Americans traditionally use to mark the changing seasons. With no vaccine in sight, and abject failures of leadership on every level, it’s unclear when—or if—we’ll be able to return to our normal way of life. It’s even conceivable that our children and grandchildren might never have the opportunity to live next door to a merry-go-round that is only programmed to play one song, that quintessential American experience so memorably immortalized by Manhattan physician Francis Foerster in 1904:
It is actually grewsome. It begins at 1 p.m. and continues till 1 a.m., that sole tune, without break or variation. It starts with the first movement of the horses in a sound like the wailing of an infant at midnight. As the thing gathers speed it breaks to the shriek of a locomotive. Then in succession it gives the dulcet imitation of an Indian death song, a menagerie on a stampede, and a country school at recess, and ends with a swan song that makes your hair rise.
We can all agree that no price is too high to pay in order to preserve and protect our way of life, particularly the part of our way of life that revolves around treating our neighbors to deafeningly loud carousel music. But don’t panic: You don’t have to build your own fairground organ to hear a realistic mechanical reproduction of a realistic mechanical reproduction of a late 19th century marching band—all you need is the internet and an extremely loud stereo system. Below, we’ve collected 10 essential fairground organ videos that will allow you to recreate the thrills, the chills, and the smells of the fairground, even in the middle of a pandemic. If you’re feeling particularly heroic, put your speakers on your windowsill or balcony to show your support for essential workers and raise the spirits of your entire neighborhood! Here are 10 of the best fairground organ videos to help you and your neighbors get through quarantine.
“Entrance of the Gladiators”
In any other year, beginning a fairground organ recital with Julius Fučík’s circus classic would be an unforgivable cliché, but 2020 has taught us all that sometimes the old ways are best. And no recording of a fairground organ performing “Entrance of the Gladiators” does more to highlight the arrhythmic thumps and crashes of a fairground organ percussion section than this lurching woodblock-forward arrangement.
“Take On Me”
When you’re blasting fairground organ music from your windows, you owe it to your neighbors to let them know right off the bat that they aren’t being forced to listen to one of those old-fashioned, stuffy fairground organ concerts—they’re being forced to listen to one of those new, exciting fairground organ concerts, the kind that includes pop songs from the 1980s!
“Colonel Bogey March”
There are as many recordings of fairground organs playing the Colonel Bogey March as there are stars in the sky, and they’re all stunning. But whether it’s a quirk of the recording or a particularly beautiful arrangement, the tinny, off-tempo drums that come in at 0:09 in this video truly embody the glory of the fairground organ like nothing else. Easily the greatest performance of the Colonel Bogey March since Johnny 5 whistled it in Short Circuit!
If you’ve always wondered why David Bowie only rarely arranged his songs for fairground organs, we hope this performance of “Space Oddity” clears things up.
“Rock Around the Clock”/“The Loco-Motion”
If there’s one thing Bill Haley and His Comets got wrong back in 1954, it was playing “Rock Around the Clock” over a nimble rockabilly shuffle instead of reimagining it as a joyless dirge. If there’s another thing they got wrong, it was having all the instruments in tune with each other. This recording corrects both mistakes and includes an unlistenable version of “The Loco-Motion”!
“The Phantom of the Opera”
Andrew Lloyd Webber and fairground organs: two terrible tastes that taste terrible together.*
As wonderful as fairground organs are, they sometimes lack the intimacy of a live performance, where the audience can see a musician in the ecstasy of creation. For that, you need a barrel organ! Here’s a rollicking barrel organ performance of “Bad” that will make you forget all about Leaving Neverland.
“The Blue Danube”
Commercially released professional recordings of fairground organs are hard to find these days, for some reason, but this gorgeous stereo recording of “The Blue Danube” from 1970s Fairground Fantasia in Stereo is a welcome return to the lost era of album rock.
You’re goddamned right someone arranged Smash Mouth’s “All Star” for an 81-key Marenghi fairground organ! It’s unclear if the credit should go to the arrangement or Charles Marenghi, but this organ has the worst-sounding drum rolls ever produced by man or machine.
“The Stars and Stripes Forever”
It’s not a fairground organ concert without blustery hoopla, and there’s no hoopla more blustery than John Philip Sousa. Whether you’re trying to teach your neighbors a little something about patriotism, trying to teach your neighbors a little something about being kind to their web-footed friends, or trying to get yourself arrested over noise complaints, this recording of a fairground organ playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is all you need!
Even in times of great adversity, Americans have always managed to come together around our universally beloved fairground organs, band organs, photoplayers, and coin-operated automatic banjo machines. And that’s how our great nation will face this new challenge: together, apart, with lots and lots of fairground organ music.
Correction, May 4, 2020: This post originally misspelled Andrew Lloyd Webber’s last name.