À propos orchestral humour, Stewart Lee does a typically labyrinthine riff giving the old sardine joke his signature going-over:
Loath as I am to spoil the fun, in the WAM biz where people used to employ me, this story is famously attributed to the brilliant percussionist and all-round piss-artist Gary Kettel.
A hooliganesque Cockney, Gary was What They Call “a breath of fresh air” in the staid orchestral scene. During Boulez’s golden years at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducting many challenging works, he much admired Gary’s musicianship, and they formed a charming and unlikely bond.
The version handed down to posterity in the orchestral biz (which beyond Gary’s own recollections has some further effective, if fanciful, detail) goes like this:
Once (this must have been in the mid-70s) he was on tour in South America with the London Sinfonietta, doing the, um, challenging Eight Songs for a Mad King.
So Gary’s at this fancy British Council reception after the gig in Buenos Aires or somewhere, getting quietly pissed in a corner on his own, and this posh bird comes up to him and goes,
“I say, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced—weren’t you playing in the concert? I did so enjoy your delightful rendition of that charming work!” [that’s a nice touch, by the way, if you know the piece, but that’s not important right now]. “Do please remind me,” she goes on, “what was it you were playing?”
“Oh, I fool around a bit on the drums, luv,” goes Gary—”So wot you doin’ ‘ere then?”
“I’m here with my husband.” she replies loftily.
Gary goes on, chummily, “An’ wot does your old man do then, darlin’?”
“My husband’s in oil!” she exclaims, proudly.
Gary goes, “What is he, a fuckin’ sardine?”
I like the details here. And the punchline is a good instance of the importance of the word “fuckin’ ”—not least for rhythm and euphony. The story also reflects musos’ own delight in “deviating from behavioural norms”.
Keen as I am on the ancestry of texts (my book ch.11), just as one does in exploring the relation and transmission of Daoist texts (well, I say “one”…), I wonder: Gary’s not sure, but could he have heard it from Tom O’Connor, or did they both get it from someone else, and so on (zzz)?
The Tom O’Connor version is less personal and less funny—which is precisely what makes it a suitable victim for Stew to mangle, a banal ground-bass lying prone for his endless florid divisions, a Goldberg variations from hell…
For further detail, see How I escaped my certain fate, pp.257–69—by now tuned into the De Selby footnotes in The third policeman, (and here), you will find further verbose and erudite annotations there too.