The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
Serious issues call for serious songs
While the vast majority of pop, rock and country songs are concerned with matters of the heart and libido, people do get serious about other things from time to time.
The 1960s being a time of great change and when relatively young people began to have a voice, that is also the period when songs with a message started to hit the charts. Before that we might have had Pete Seeger getting intense about something, but he wasn’t getting into the Top 40 with it.
The man who really made pop grow up was Bob Dylan, who set about making us aware of racial inequality (The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll) and also wider political issues. With The Times They Are a-Changing he didn’t get too specific, but he was addressing the world at large and politicians in particular.
This sort of thing struck a chord with John Lennon and just as the Beatles’ output was maturing musically, so he began to write about subjects other than girls and drugs.
Like Dylan, he didn’t focus on one thing he wanted sorted out, but made it clear that people were watching what was going on in the world. Revolution, the B-side of Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude, took a scattergun approach that sprayed venom at not just the establishment but the activists who were going about things in what he felt was the wrong way.
More focused was Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction, which, with its disturbing message of impending doom delivered in the singer’s charmless growl, put the mockers on many a thoughtless, carefree party if anybody took the trouble to think about what he was saying.
McGuire didn’t write the song, though. It was written by P. F. Sloan, a talented if peripheral figure on the California music scene who also worked with such political lightweights as The Searchers, the Mamas and the Papas and Herman’s Hermits.
An altogether more mellow, if equally intense, hit in the late 60s was Marvin Gaye’s Abraham Martin and John, in which Motown temporarily abandoned its fixation with boy-girl relationships to look at some of the great people who had been cut down before they had finished their good works: anti-slavery President Abraham Lincoln, the recently-murdered Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and his also recently blown-away brother Bobby.
Nuclear apocalypse was on the agenda as early as 1961 with a well-known song by the little-known Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson. Morning Dew was a chilling tale of a world when it was too late, the bombs having trashed the planet. The song was picked up later in the decade by the Grateful Dead in the US and the Jeff Beck Group in the UK, its undemanding chord structure also making it a popular choice for amateur bands who wanted to spend half an hour playing the same song.
Crosby Still and Nash ploughed the same lyrical furrow with Wooden Ships, bringing a nasty splash of reality to their otherwise happily hippie first album.
The 70s didn’t seem to care about such things, or so pop history would suggest, but there was the odd speck of blight on the hedonistic fruit, such as Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes’ Wake Up Everybody and Marvin Gaye again with What’s Going On. Marvin may well have been thinking this years later when he was shot and killed by his dad.
Then the UK’s Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark saw fit to build a song around the name of the USAF bomber that dropped its load on Hiroshima in 1945. Enola Gay, you should have stayed at home yesterday, they lamented.
Themes of saving the planet abounded in the 1980s and 90s, as Do They Know It’s Christmas and We Are the World drew attention to the plight of starving millions in drought-ravaged Africa, with superstars drawn into the studios to sing just a few words and maybe join in the chorus.
Sensible and serious don’t add up to sexy, as the earnest, politically-aware British singer Billy Bragg admitted many years after his 80s-90s heyday when he conceded that, while he had fondly imagined his songs about unions and working men were the standout tracks in his repertoire, he eventually realized that people preferred the love songs.
Meanwhile, Sting’s career took a dramatic turn to the left when he became interested not only in global nuclear safety (“I hope the Russians love their children too”) but also the destruction of the rainforest. We found out about a hole in the ozone layer, which probably 99.9% of us had never even heard of, and while aerosol manufacturers frantically looked for ways of making things go tschhhhhh without using harmful chemicals, the former Police singer found himself on chat shows being obliged to be a grownup.
And that’s not what it’s all about, is it? Rock’n’roll is about blue suede shoes and “my baby done this and that”. But somebody’s “baby” flew the Enola Gay and the men who killed the Kennedys and Martin Luther King had girlfriends in their past too.