Music

Johnny Cash’s ‘Chicken in Black’ Music Video is Seriously Bizarre

 

The career decline that made Johnny Cash’s latter-day resurgence with American Recordings all the more rewarding reached its nadir in 1984. That year, the singer released “Chicken in Black.” It’s a bizarre single and music video centered around a three-way brain transplant. No kidding.

Over 30 years later, the song and its accompanying video still leaves fans scratching their heads. To be fair, it’s not without its charms. The story itself and Cash’s high-pitched impersonation of an old lady is reminiscent of prior Frankenstein’s monster-inspired tale “One Piece at a Time.”

Plus, there may be some commentary about the life of a country star buried under all of that chicken you-know-what. Is the doctor a record label big-wig, telling Cash he’s too old before replacing him with a knock-off? Does the chicken reflect attitudes that anyone or anything could do Cash’s gig, given the right marketing stragegy? Should the startled public’s inability to view the Manhattan Flash as anything more than Johnny Cash guilt fans out of typecasting their favorites? More credibly, is the one-liner about taxable income a nod to various country stars’ run-ins with the IRS?

A popular rumor states that Cash recorded the song to spite Columbia Records, hastening the end of his recording contract. Columbia dropped Cash from its roster in 1986, ending a 26-year working relationship. In his 2013 biography Johnny Cash: The Life, writer Robert Hilburn disputes these claims. He wrote that Columbia first approached Cash with the song, looking to capitalize on the “Boy Named Sue” singer’s adaptability to comedic surrealism.

In a live recording from an Anaheim date in 1984, Cash introduces his forthcoming single as “Brain Transplant.” The crowd, presumably there to hear the hits, laugh at the main punchlines and offer a warm round of applause at song’s end. It gives reason to think that fans weren’t too confused right out of the gate. And then the video debuted. Footage of Cash decked out in his Manhattan Flash outfit aired during his televised 1984 Christmas special. Waylon Jennings allegedly told Cash that he looked like a fool in the video, prompting the Man in Black to demand that his label stop promoting the song.

If Cash was trolling his record company, he at least picked a good producer and songwriter to pull off an actual heist. Billy Sherrill sat in the producer’s chair, while underrated funny man Gary Gentry (“I Sold All of Tom T.’s Songs Last Night,” “S.O.B. (Same Old Boy)“) wrote the lyrics.

“Chicken in Black” Lyrics

For two long years my head hurt bad
So the doctor checked me and he shook his head
He said, “I’m sorry to tell you but your body’s outlived your brain”
He said, “I know this doctor in New York son
And he’ll fix you up right with a brand new one”
So the head doctor met me when I stepped down off the train
He said, “We had this bank robber killed last night
His body’s shot but his brain’s alright
I’ll give you a transplant boy, and it’ll be okay”
I got the new brain in and I was feeling great
I went right back to Nashville with no headache
But something strange happened when I walked in the bank one day

I said “Stick ’em up everybody, I’m robbing this place
Drop all of your money in my guitar case
Don’t nobody move and don’t nobody reach for that door
A lady said, “Why, you’re Johnny Cash!”
I said, “No ma’am, I’m the Manhattan Flash
And I am the best bank robber in New York”

Now the other night, Roy Acuff called me
He said, “John, I’d like for you to do the Opry”
So I went out on the stage, but I couldn’t sing
I got into half a verse of ’bout Walk The Line
And something snapped in that head of mine
I yelled, “Stick ’em up! Gimme your money, watches and rings”
Well I called New York and talked to that brain quack
I said, “Doc, I’ve got to have my old brain back”
He said, “I’m sorry there Mr. Cash, but I can’t do that”
He said, “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday
He singing your songs and making lots of money
And I got him signed to a ten year recording contract”

Now friends, if you see me walking down the street
Remember what your see ain’t necessarily me
And if I try to hold you up, don’t blame it on mine
But when you got ten bucks that you can blow
You ought to catch that Johnny Chicken Show
He’s done fairs and concerts dates all across the line

I said “Stick ’em up everybody, I’m robbing this place
Drop all of your money in my guitar case
Don’t nobody move and don’t nobody reach for that door
A lady said, “Why, you’re Johnny Cash!”
I said, “No ma’am, I’m the Manhattan Flash
And I am the best bank robber in New York”

Well, I don’t pay any income tax
You don’t pay tax on money you steal
But you ought to catch that Johnny Chicken Show
Chicken In Black
Mmmmm…

WATCH: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Johnny Cash

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Johnny Cash’s ‘Chicken in Black’ Music Video is Seriously Bizarre