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|Single by The Buoys|
|from the album The Buoys|
|B-side||"It Feels Good"|
"Timothy" is a song written by Rupert Holmes and recorded by the Buoys in 1971, presenting the unnerving story of three men trapped in a collapsed mine, two of whom apparently resort to cannibalism against the third (the eponymous character Timothy). The song managed to reach the Billboard Top 40 chart on April 17, 1971, remaining on the chart for eight weeks, peaking at #17, as listed in The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits by Joel Whitburn.
According to his own account, Holmes and a colleague had discovered the Buoys and convinced Scepter Records to sign them to a one-single contract. Since the deal did not call for the label to promote the single, the band would have to find some other way to get themselves and their song noticed. Holmes suggested a novel solution to this problem: to purposefully record a song likely to be banned, thus generating publicity for the Buoys under the time-honored axiom that "there's no such thing as bad publicity".
Holmes has cited the country song "Sixteen Tons" (a song about the hard life of a coal miner) and the 1959 film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play Suddenly, Last Summer (which also contains allusions to cannibalism) as inspirations for "Timothy." He decided to combine the themes of those two works into a ballad of three miners trapped by a cave-in, sung in the first person from the perspective of one of the miners. By the time they're rescued, only two of them remain. Although the fate of the missing man, Timothy, is never explicitly revealed, it is strongly implied by the fact that the two survivors, once hungry and with no access to food, show no sign of hunger when they're rescued. Indeed, the singer's "stomach was full as it could be". To make the song appealing to listeners, Holmes disguised the borderline-gruesome lyrics to a degree by juxtaposing them against a light, bouncy melody with heavy emphasis on brass and string accompaniment.
Although not an official member of the band, Holmes did play piano on this song in addition to writing it.
"Timothy" attracted little attention when it was first released, in large part because Scepter Records did not promote the record. Soon, however, it became popular among young listeners who were able to deduce Timothy's fate from the lyrics. Only as the song became more frequently requested did radio stations begin to take note of the song and its unsettling subject matter. Then, just as Holmes and the Buoys had expected, the song started getting banned.
Under normal circumstances, a radio ban would be considered the "kiss of death" for a single's prospects on the Billboard music charts, which at that time were based heavily on radio airplay. Yet "Timothy" had already attracted such a great following that as some radio stations banned the song, competing stations would pick it up to meet the demand. As a result, instead of dropping off as expected, the song continued slowly moving up the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Once they realized they had a hit record on their hands, Scepter Records executives tried to claim that Timothy was really a mule, not a person, in order to get radio stations that had banned the song to reconsider. When asked about this claim, however, Holmes refused to play along with the Scepter executives. Even so, "Timothy" kept climbing the chart, finally peaking at #17. Holmes' entrepreneurial approach to songwriting had worked better than he, the Buoys, or Scepter Records ever expected. To appease the stations that banned the song, Scepter created two promotional singles with the original version on the A-sides and one of two differently edited versions on the B-sides. One edit revises the lyric "My stomach was full as it could be" to "Both of us fine as we could be". The second version includes the "stomach" lyric but bleeps out the word "hell" in the second verse. The record labels (in black and white for promotional issues) indicate these versions under the song title as "Revised Lyric" (SDR-12275) and "Edited, Bleeped Out" (SDJ-12275), respectively. There is no known version of the song with both edits in the same mix.
The success of "Timothy" and its writer's methods may have worked too well for the Buoys' sake. Although Scepter did re-sign the band to record an album, they were left with the problem of how to follow up on a hit song as unusual as "Timothy". Ultimately the Buoys proved unable to duplicate that feat, although they did manage one more minor hit with "Give Up Your Guns" (also co-written by Holmes) before disbanding. Meanwhile Holmes himself continued his career as a songwriter and, by the end of the decade, also as a successful recording artist in his own right, best known for the #1 single "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" in late 1979.
References in popular culture
"Timothy" was mentioned prominently in humorist Dave Barry's bad song survey as one of the worst songs of all time.
In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring Monster A Go-Go, Crow and Servo are discussing Rupert Holmes's Piña Colada Song, and Joel Robinson asserts that, as a pop songwriter, Rupert Holmes always wrote about contemporary popular trends. The robots retort by citing "Timothy" ("That was about cannibalism. When was that popular?"), but Joel assures the robots that it is a "well-known fact that Timothy was a duck."