The wisdom of pop songs – Mr and Mrs

The idea of singing to a real person – or perhaps inventing a person and singing to them – but not in a boy-girl-I-love-you way can be effective. Anything that brings realism to art tends to give it credibility. In the case of pop music it can add a touch of originality by shifting the listener’s perspective.

Take, for example, Outkast’s Ms Jackson. He’s sorry, the singer is, for hurting Ms Jackson’s daughter, and I have always had this mental picture of him in Ms Jackson’s kitchen, having gone round there to apologise. The popular video actually shows her driving round to have it out with him, curlers in her hair and all. That’s one reason I would rather just listen to a song, rather than watch the video, because the visuals are just someone else’s interpretation.

I’m not putting that video up because I would like you to use your imagination.

The music borrows from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, the section known as The Bridal Chorus (and colloquially as Here Comes The Bride), which imparts a certain romantic air, and the song has a catchy hook; in fact you could say it consists largely of the hook, even if he does wander off down a lane of incomprehensible soulbrutha chuntering (and when I first  read the lyrics I had less sympathy for the guy because he’s whingeing – although some people might think he has a point. For me, finally watching the video was like wandering innocently into the wrong part of town and being confronted by gangsters).

Having set up in my own mind the image of being in the woman’s house, there is also the possibility that Ms Jackson is an attractive woman in her own right and that our penitent hero has noticed this. It wouldn’t be the first time a boy has fancied his girlfriend’s mother.

Again, the video takes a different view, casting Ms Jackson as the kind of old dragon no cool rapper would be interested in. So, sadly, the more I look into this song, the less it seems to be what I originally imagined, and would still like to imagine. Quite a moving little pop experience, though, if you keep other people’s images out of your head.

A similar kettle of fish (sorry, what a vile expression) exists in the very different Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter, as sung in 1965 by Herman’s Hermits. Either despite or because of its self-consciously Manchester accent, this was a big hit in the USA, but it wasn’t originally released as a single in the UK. They loved our regional accents in the States, lapping up the Beatles’ pronunciation (thur instead of there and so on), and Davy Jones flew the Mancunian flag in The Monkees. Even now Americans talk of how they love a “British” accent, whatever that is.

This is one Mrs Brown’s lovely daughter: Polly Brown of Pickettywitch. Looks a bit Sheryl Crowish, doesn’t she?

The original version of Mrs Brown had been recorded a couple of years earlier by the actor Tom Courtenay for a TV play.

And even that isn’t the most interesting thing about the song, because you’ll never guess who wrote it. And I mean never, because without  some monstrous clues and guidance, surely no one would get anywhere near it.

Trevor Peacock.

Who? Not the stuttering villager in The Vicar of Dibley?

Yes, him.

And, as Barry Norman used to say, why not? Young people desperate to get into the entertainment field will try anything, and clearly Trevor had all-round talent.

Despite the accent giving it a slightly comic feel, the song is a poignant little thing. Again, the singer is addressing the mother, but in this case it’s the girl who has dumped him and he’s saying “tell her that I’m well and feeling fine” while secretly hoping Mrs Brown will shake her daughter by the shoulders and tell her not to be so stupid because he’s a nice boy and he’s crazy about her.

In the mid 70s Billy Paul brought us Me And Mrs Jones, about an extramarital affair which he wants to keep secret but has no intention of ending. It’s the sort of love song that requires us to either ignore or forgive the circumstances and just concentrate on the genuine love that’s going on there.

Brazenly borrowing the title, Amy Winehouse gave us a very different story on a track from her miraculously good album Back to Black. It’s hard to work out what she is really trying to tell us, but she and Mr Jones are apparently getting it on. Listeners of a sensitive disposition should prepare themselves at the start of every verse for the invented word “f***ery”, which can be translated as mischief, stupidity, treachery and probably many other things. She’s having a go at her man for making her miss the Slick Rick gig and thinking  that she didn’t love him when she did. And she’s not going to put him on the guest list for her own gig because he has had a lot of other women.

But is Mr Jones the object of her affections as well as her tirade? As is so often the case, we can’t be sure, because it’s just a pop song, with words being thrown at a vague subject and the main requirement being to fit the lines and rhyme where necessary rather than to make a cohesive story.

Jones is a popular name in songs, even cropping up in the Bee Gees’ highly unusual New York Mining Disaster 1941. “Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones?” one trapped miner says to another, presumably showing him a little black and white photograph. The song is nothing short of a triumph of craft over subject matter and shows the inventive side the Gibb brothers exercised before discovering that smartly tailored disco music and gimmicky falsetto singing could make them a thousand times more money.

Paul Simon hit a seam of pure gold when fashioning a song out of the 1967 film The Graduate. Anne Bancroft’s simmering older woman, Mrs Robinson, inspired Simon to one of his most enduring successes and to his credit he did it without resorting to sexual fantasizing, delving into her mind rather than her underwear to explore what made her as she was. Many years later George Michael would use Mrs. R’s “Would you like me to seduce you?” line in Too Funky.

The ultimate “cougar” before the term was even coined. Anne Bancroft seduces a generation

For me, though, even that brilliant musical psychoanalysis  is eclipsed by Simon’s song about an architect. So Long Frank Lloyd Wright is a beautiful piece of wistfulness reflecting on a friendship between two men. And it’s not even based on fact. Legend has it that Art Garfunkel challenged Simon to write a song and gave him the most unlikely subject matter, which the master turned into a hypnotic three minutes that makes the listener feel sad about something that not only they didn’t experience, but never happened.

So, with all due respect to the millions of songs that take liberties with our willingness to believe, once in a while somebody creates a song that is the equal of any poem by any celebrated man of words of any era.

It’s not just the song, of course: that is just the framework on which the layers of sound are added through  spellbinding production, and if you or I had a go at this one open-mic night there would be precious little magic in the air. But the recording as issued on the album Bridge Over Troubled Water is one that I would be very tempted to put in a time capsule for future generations or people from another planet to marvel at.

 

The wisdom of pop songs – O Caroline by Matching Mole

The way it goes in writing this blog is that sometimes I’m enjoying it so much and the ideas are coming so thick and fast that something slips through the net. And so it is that in this case I must apologise not just to you but to myself for omitting this beautiful, haunting song by Robert Wyatt.

Wyatt, for those who may have missed him throughout his long but low-key career, started out as the drummer with The Soft Machine, a jazz-rock band that emerged from Canterbury, England, in the late 1960s. Why is the city worth mentioning? Because it spawned a host of talent around that time and there was a cohesion to it all: musically sophisticated, jazzy and with an understated English eccentricity about the lyrics.

Names? Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield and the North among many. As for musicians, in addition to Wyatt, there was Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen of Gong fame and Dave Stewart (not the Eurythmics one, but he had a couple of surprising hits with Barbara Gaskin). Those are the people you might have heard of, the tip of an iceberg of people who are musicians but not potential celebrities. If, like me, you spent a lot of time hanging around in record shops after school, you will recognize names such as Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper, David Sinclair, Pip Pyle, Pye Hastings and Elton Dean.

Some of them are dead now, while others have made a career out of it without necessarily making much money.

As for Robert Wyatt, he overcame the adversity of being paralysed from the waist down after falling out of a fourth floor window at a party and has continued making music. His guileless, angelic voice has given a new twist to such pop hits as I’m a Believer and Yesterday Man, while his version of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding gave the anti-war song (about building ships for the Falklands conflict) a poignant edge quite different from Costello’s own treatment.

This Caroline song is by Wyatt’s band Matching Mole (a literal French translation and wilful mispronounciation of Soft Machine). Listen to the first line: “David (Sinclair)’s on piano and I may play on a drum”, which leads into his reiteration to Caroline of his love and devotion, and the fact that they once expected to marry, but clearly things have changed. That girlfriend was Caroline Coon, an artist who briefly managed The Clash and who was also celebrated in The Stranglers song London Lady.

How did this song fail to be a hit when released as a single? Maybe it is possible for a record to be too good, too sophisticated to succeed.

The wisdom of pop songs – Caroline

With a sizeable part of the pop music canon devoted to songs about girls, their names inevitably crop up as the lovesick boys profess their undying devotion. And one name crops up a lot: Caroline. It’s not as if the world was full of Carolines, and it doesn’t rhyme with many things, but songwriters seem to like it.

So off we go on a journey that starts with Neil Diamond, whose Caroline of choice was apparently sweet (and he rhymes it with “inclined). So was Status Quo’s muse shortly afterwards, if a muse is somebody who inspires you to “really wanna make ya”).

The Beach Boys had already used the name for one of Brian Wilson’s trademark heartache ballads Caroline No, about a girl who has grown up too fast and left the boy trailing in her wake. It happens, Brian. But there’ll be another one along in a minute.

Former Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone’s breathy 1971 ode, Caroline Goodbye, was about a real girl who people of a certain age will know. Caroline Munro was Blunstone’s girlfriend, an aspiring actress who entranced a generation of  young men with her TV commercial appearances as the Lamb’s Navy Rum girl before graduating to film, notably in the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.

Around the same time Lou Reed, under the influence of David Bowie but just before his breakthrough Transformer album, recorded Caroline Says, a prototype of Reed’s strange era when he attempted to be camp and which heralded songs such as Satellite of Love.

In the early 1990s an American heavy rock band called Concrete Blonde had an album called Bloodletting and from it issued the single Caroline, with vocals by Johnette Napolitano (a woman) and the most fluid guitar work in rock history by half man, half octopus James Mankey.

And then there was the late, lamented Kirsty MacColl, destined to be killed by a powerboat while swimming in Mexico. With MacColl’s knack of sounding like the rather naughty girl next door, her Caroline song deals with not wanting to see her friend because she feels guilty, having just  pinched her boyfriend.

Fleetwood Mac’s contribution comes on 1987’sTango In The Night. Caroline here is both “crazy” and “lazy”, which is nothing more than lazy writing, with Lindsey Buckingham having stumbled upon the art of sometimes making a hit through production rather than songwriting.

By coincidence, former Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, many years after his introduction by Peter Green, had his own C-song, a typically dreamy piece of work by a man who was by all accounts (and presumably still is) intense and serious. If you’re heard His Fleetwood mac song Dragonfly you will recognize this one as being his.

In 2007 a slightly oddball English girl, Kate Nash, had a surprise hit with Caroline’s a Victim, which is refreshingly raw in the era of computer-smooth pop.

So that’s plenty of Carolines and it doesn’t even take into account the Carolinas ( James Taylor) and Caroles of this world (Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, Al Stewart on Modern Times, Neil Sedaka singing about Carole King and so on).

Not a bad tally for a name that originally, according to some sources, meant a follower of King Charles an certainly owes its start in life to versions of that male name (Karel in German, Karol in other languages). It just has a ring to it, I suppose, and like most things about pop songs, you shouldn’t think about it too much anyway.

The wisdom of pop songs – The thrill of the foreign lover

Foreigners. How exotic they seem, just because we don’t know much about their culture and their country. We romanticize their urban squalor when it is no more attractive than a council estate in Grimsby. We think they know things we don’t – about love, sex, food, wine, football, all the simple pleasures of life.

And English-speaking songwriters enshrine these thoughts in three-minute paeans (a work that praises or honours its subject, according to my phone’s Merriam Webster dictionary).

So let’s hear it for the foreign boys and girls who have moved our lyricists and tunesmiths in the pop music era.

Beginning with… The Girl From Ipanema, of course. This was actually written by the celebrated Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and originally had lyrics in Portuguese before Norman Gimbel gave it some English language words. And it was made famous in 1962 by Astrud Gilberto, a Brazilian songbird who made up for the fact that she couldn’t sing her way out of a paper bag by exuding a charmingly off-key vulnerability.

So it’s not really about a foreign girl after all, because it was written and sung by Brazilians about one of their own. But it was so popular with British and American singers that it sounds like a gringo’s song of adoration for the exotic beauty who’s on her way to the beach – and not the pebbles of Brighton or the fish-and-chips  aroma of Blackpool, but what we fondly imagine to be a beautiful, pristine expanse of sand populated by sparsely clad totty of Ms Gilberto’s ilk.

This leads naturally, if unfortunately, to the disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris, who recently did time for sex offences. In 1968 he had a minor hit in the UK with the utterly Ipanema- style Fijian Girl, who was “undulating by”, if you please. Don’t you undulate at me, young lady, or I’ll put you over my knee.

Meanwhile in the southern USA, country singer Marty Robbins brought us a tale of ill-starred love as a man in El Paso falls for a Mexican barmaid, his passion for whom leads him to shoot a cowboy she’s flirting with and go on the run, to eventually be shot dead himself as he flees the law. See, just because a woman makes a good chilli con carne doesn’t mean she’s not trouble.

The Beatles made passing reference to Ukraine girls and Moscow girls in Back in the USSR, Paul McCartney’s affectionate riposte to the Beach Boys’ glib assessment of various geographical groups of American girls, Back in the USA.

In 1970 Canadian band the Guess Who sang scathingly about an American Woman they wanted nothing to do with, and whether this was really about American politics and business rather than a woman doesn’t actually matter. It’s a solid, catchy bit of pop rock with a nice guitar riff, and that’s all we’re concerned with here.

Getting back to the Americas, Neil Young seems to have a bit of an obsession with that region’s past, and in 1979 on the stupendous album Rust Never Sleeps he fantasised about a native American beauty, Pocahontas, who famously married an Englishman.

Staying on that side of the Atlantic, British folk-rockers Stackridge brought us a panoramic piece of whimsy in The Road to Venezuela, which conjures up a South American atmosphere without ever getting very specific. There’s pampas grass, llamas and a millionairess involved but the singer doesn’t end up with her. It’s just a breezy, acoustic guitar-driven few minutes that seems to take you somewhere but doesn’t really, which after all is kind of pop music’s job.

A little-known  gem from 1994 is British band The Auteurs’ New French Girlfriend, which again creates an appealing feeling without completing the story. French girls are lovely and he’s got one on tap – that’s the deal here.

So, with all the thousands of Polish and Latvian girls in the UK, plus Latinos and heaven knows who in the US, it seems the local guys are happy with the home-grown talent. But of course a few years in your adopted country makes you part foreign and part local, as Bruce Springsteen shows us all over his album The Wild The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, with songs such as Incident on 57th Street, in which Spanish Johnny woos Puerto Rican Jane, while another Latin lovely, Rosalita, gets a song all to herself.

Confessions of an expat – One night stand

For the itinerant musician, or a traveller who can play, the open mic night can be the key to acceptance in a new community. You get up and do your thing – it’s only about three songs so you wheel out your hits and don’t have to worry about pacing a set. Give ‘em the good stuff and leave the rest to their imagination.

I used to run one of these in Grand Turk. Some weeks it was just me and the drummer who used to bring his djembe every week even though I had never actually invited him to. And there was also the local masseuse who would sing two or three to my guitar accompaniment. Bringing someone else on for a few minutes breaks it up a bit, particularly when most of the audience have seen you before several times.

Other weeks there would be holidaymakers who wanted to strut their stuff. As the host, to be honest, you want them to be quite good but not that good. Not good enough that the crowd notices they’re better than you. Unless it’s an actual star, a professional.

So, Thursday night at a bar in Coronado, Panama. The host, a singer-guitarist,  is about my age, which means he plays the same sort of stuff: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and any song of the 60s and 70s that sounds okay with one voice and an acoustic.

Based on my experience, I amble up and tell him I’d like to do a few, and I’m surprised when he refers me to a list of 10-minute slots between 7 and 9. They will all, he tells me, be taken. I put myself down for 8pm and sit down to listen to the cast of thousands.

He’s right: there are all sorts of people there and many of them want to play – or at least sing, because there is a karaoke option.

The host does his stuff, more relaxed and mumbly than is advisable in my opinion, and he’s wearing headphones, which probably makes him sound good in his own ears but doesn’t tell him what it really sounds like in the room. And then from a group of young teenagers, two girls get up and do Gimme Gimme Gimme by Abba. Then one sits down and the other gives us an Edith Piaf song, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regrets) complete with the French singer’s piercing, tremulous vocal styling. Impressive, certainly, but where did she learn this and why? I discover later that a local singing teacher gets all her girls to do it.

There’s a 60-something visiting Canadian woman who has obviously sung before, and in the absence of a musician who knows her material, does it acapella, slapping her thigh by way of percussion as she belts out Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz.

Then there are two teenage boys, one a nifty guitarist, who give us Stairway to Heaven (up to but not including the solo) followed by something 21st century that I don’t know. It occurs to me that the performers (who are getting younger as the evening draws on) are going to find themselves doing the closing slot when they may not be up to it. For this reason (I think) I go up and change my time to 8:50, so I’m closing the show.

This move is welcomed by a woman putting her young son’s name on and clearly nervous about the headline spot. She accepts my earlier one gladly and her eight-year old makes what may well  be his public debut in the safety of 8pm to 10 past.

Finally I get up, hoping the guitar is decent, which it is, and the sound balance is okay too. I’ve written down five song titles but reject two as I’m up there. Suddenly, without my trusty repertoire list, I can’t think what to do, but pick one that I like playing and  it goes okay anyway.

After a lifetime of gigs, many  requiring me to take sole responsibility, I’m still slightly nervous about doing ten minutes at an open mic. As ever,  I’m buzzing with adrenalin afterwards and unable to sleep, so I stay up late, drinking rum and listening to music.

As you get older, you have to keep testing yourself, making sure you’ve still got it. You can’t bow to youth just because it’s young people. The older stuff is still valid and the kids have to earn their place. After all, why does Mick Jagger keep doing it? It’s not like he needed the money.

The wisdom of pop songs – The nature of love

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

It’s all very well the world’s songwriters basing their work on being in love, but there is a rather basic matter to be sorted out beforehand. To quote Howard Jones, “What is lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ove anyway?” We can disregard the next bit, “Does anybody love anybody anyway?” because it’s a nice line and he had a song to finish.

But the first part is a question that has been asked many times, from Foreigner’s whingeing “I want to know what love is” to Haddaway’s Trinidadian-German inquiry that comes just before “Baby don’t hurt me”.

So we know that whatever love is, it’s potentially hazardous.

Michael Jackson pointed out the difference between falling in love and being in love on his 1979 album Off The Wall. He can’t take any credit for such an incisive thought, though, because It’s The Falling In Love was written by Carol Bayer Sayer and David Foster.  Bayer Sager was well qualified to express an opinion, having been married to a record producer, had a relationship with the composer Marvin Hamlisch and spent most of the 1980s married to Burt Bacharach before ending up with a former chairman of Warner Brothers. She’s a pretty nifty lyricist – or knows people who are – as we can see by her quirky solo hit You’re Moving Out Today, co-written by Bette Midler and Bruce Roberts. Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t it infuriating when you can’t tell who did what?

Meanwhile, back at the concept, what is love? Is it that intense longing that comes at the start or is that just a form of lust and therefore doesn’t count? It’s certainly a confusing element, as the Partridge Family’s David Cassidy  demonstrated via I Think I Love You. You think? You only think? Come back when you’re sure. In fact the singer is not trying to make progress into a girl’s clothing by this  cautious expression of emotion: he’s afraid of suffering “a love there is no cure for”. Or rather the songwriter Tony Romeo was. That was his big moment, although he wrote other hits including Lou Christie’s I’m Gonna Make You Mine.

The Detroit Spinners didn’t seem to be afraid in their 1973 hit Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, written by Melvin and Mervin Steals (unless someone is winding me up about those names). They were just The Spinners in their native America, but in the UK we had a famous folk group of that name, so they were obliged to amend theirs.

Falling in love is the easy bit, as anyone who has been around that particular block knows. Falling in love only takes a minute, to quote Tavares before the disgraced English pop jack-of-all-trades Jonathan King grabbed himself a local hit with his own version.

In 1967 Diana Ross and the Supremes had given voice to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s (keep falling) In and Out of Love, a sort of sung expression of the old saying that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.

It’s sustaining it that’s the hard part, staying in love while life goes on around you, and the young can’t write about that because they haven’t experienced it yet. Therefore it falls to a slightly older crowd to bring it to us. Country music is a good source of such ageing wisdom, as evidenced by Shania Twain’s 1997 crossover hit You’re Still The One, co-written by her husband and producer Mutt Lange. Sadly, he is probably not still the one in real life, because he screwed the whole thing up by having an affair with Twain’s best friend and they divorced in 2010.

Billie Jo Spears spoke for a generation of still-in-love and still lusty women with 1975’s Blanket on the Ground, in which she proposes sacrificing a some of her precious  bedding to have a nostalgic romp in the dirt with her husband. Didn’t they have sleeping bags in her one-horse town?

A very different take on the subject comes from Jamaican singer-producer Sean Paul, who is breathtakingly frank when he tells his lover:

Blessings loving from the start but you know we had to part
That’s the way I give my love
I’m still in love with you
But a man gotta do what a man gotta do

And he’s not talking about having to go off to war or some other mitigating circumstance. It’s a track from his second album Dutty Rock, dutty being the Caribbean form of dirty.

But we can’t leave the subject on that note, so let’s turn to Al Green, with his typically chirpy Still in Love With You and Thin Lizzy with a very different song of the same name.

This love business is a marathon, not a sprint.

 

 

 

 

Just a song

In 1969 short-lived supergroup Blind Faith released their first and only album. Keyboards and vocals: Steve Winwood, formerly of Traffic and the Spencer Davis Group. Unique voice, very soulful but liable to crack and skid off the note. He would later become the organist of a parish church in England when he wasn’t busy touring and recording. Guitarist: Eric Clapton, still with years of drug and alcohol problems ahead of him, not to mention a hugely successful solo career. He wrote this song. Drummer: Ginger Baker. Like Clapton, he was formerly in Cream, and is my favourite rock drummer. Bass: Ric Grech, formerly of Family. I don’t know why they called themselves Blind Faith or how they managed to smuggle such an obviously Christian song onto an album of blistering rock and soul. I certainly didn’t think about it at the time.

Like many addicts, Clapton’s search for the something-missing took him down a variety of blind alleys and it wasn’t until he cleaned up for good in 1987 that he became serious about God. Although he doesn’t make a big thing of it in public, he has been quoted as saying this:

I had found a place to turn to… From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do.

The Blind Faith album cover was controversial and was prohibited in the US. According to the art director who came up with the idea, there was not supposed to be anything erotic or suggestive about it, but they certainly wouldn’t get away with it now.

The wisdom of pop songs – Fire

Pop music being about youth and excitement a lot of the time, it’s not surprising that fire crops up. Not in the literal sense, that is, but as an indication of emotion.

One that did purport to be about the real thing was 1968’s Fire by  The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, a rabble-rouser if ever there was one, and appealing to teenagers even now. Sadly for Arthur, he burned brightly for a very short time and that was his only hit, although he has recorded plenty of music over the years and is apparently still at it. Incidentally, his band originally contained keyboardist Vincent Crane, who went on to form Atomic Rooster, into which drummer Carl Palmer later followed him before becoming part of Emerson Lake and Palmer.

Brown toured with Jimi Hendrix and managed to get thrown off the tour for safety reasons, in spite of Hendrix’s own predilection for squirting lighter fluid on his guitar and setting fire to it. And of course Hendrix had his own song called Fire, in which he urged the object of his affections to let him stand next to her “fire”. A figure of speech, no doubt.

Jerry Lee Lewis’s contribution to the theme came merely as part of an exclamation, goodness gracious, Great Balls of Fire, again as a result of an incendiary woman.

The Rolling Stones were also just playing with words when they wrote and recorded Play With Fire, a warning by the singer to a girl not to mess with him.

Deep Purple’s perennial favourite, Smoke on the Water, was about a real incident when Montreux Casino burned down after a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. As the song tells us, “some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground”. This mattered to Deep Purple because, for whatever reason, they had intended to record an album in the casino, using the Rolling Stones’s mobile recording equipment.

And so was born a guitar riff that sounds easier to play than it really is, as fledgling rockers have been finding out for almost 50 years.

Many years later, Saturday Night Fever included Disco Inferno, in which the writers (no, not the BeeGees) imagined a blaze, so hot was the atmosphere in this particular palais de dance.

The Pointer Sisters, during their 1980s heyday, claimed to burst into flames courtesy of a kiss, although science has for centuries failed to prove or disprove the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion.

Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire is supposedly an attempt to absolve his rock’n’roll generation of the blame for the world’s ills – although it sounds more as if he’s just enjoying a bit of a reminisce and trying to make it sound like a rock song.

Possibly the most gentle fire song is Jose Feliciano’s acoustic guitar-powered version of Light My Fire, which was written by the Doors and recorded by them with a rampant organ… err, a  driving, organ-based accompaniment.

Self-indulgent as ever, I must mention The Fire by one of New York’s new wave bands of the 70s, Television. A dead-slow, basically nonsensical but emotional-sounding piece of poignant fantasy, I won’t bother you with a track to listen to, but if you ever come across their second album, Adventure, it’s on there. And tell them I sent you.

One that has always made me quite angry is The Prodigy’s firestarter, a vile and puerile piece of vitriol that makes me want to go round their house and lob a Molotov cocktail into the shed, if they think it’s so damn funny. It’s only a pop song, of course, but does this add to the beauty of human existence?

Current world favourite Adele mixed her metaphors with reckless abandon on Set Fire To The Rain, but then she could sing the Koran  in Greek and it would be a hit.

On one final note of self-indulgence, I give you Etta James (real name Jamesetta Hawkins – that’s what it says on Wikipedia, anyway), perpetual   bridesmaid in the pantheon of female soul singers. Well known in certain circles in the 1960s with songs such as I Just Want To Make Love To You, she faded badly before re-emerging in 1986 with an album called Seven Year Itch, on which she breaks your heart one minute and rocks like a bitch the next on tracks like Jump Into My  Fire.

Just a song

I don’t think Stephen Stills, best known as part of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, is religious, but he wasn’t afraid of mentioning Jesus on this song, which sounds like a love song for a Christian girl. Incidentally, the Dallas Taylor whose name appears on the cover was not the Christian musician of that name. He was a drummer who played on both CSN and Deja Vu, had problems with alcohol and drugs, had a liver transplant, started working with young addicts and died last year, aged 66.

The wisdom of pop songs – The greatest pop song ever

dusty 1

You know that old thing where someone asks you what your five favourite songs are? It’s very difficult to answer, and even more difficult when you refine the rules. Does that mean five songs or five versions? Could you therefore nominate Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Spirit, Patti Smith and The Rolling Stones?

What the question really means is which five songs would you take to a desert island if five was all you could have. Even then, it’s pretty hard to decide. For me the list would change every day.

But as a song lover, a student of – and dabbler in – the craft of songwriting, I recently came to this conclusion: the best pop song ever written is I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten, as recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1968.

And why do I state this so clearly? Because it’s a masterpiece of construction, instrumentation and production – with the obvious added bonus of being sung by one of the great pop voices.

The song was written by Clive Westlake, not a well-known name, but The Hollies had a hit with his Here I Go Again and his lesser-known material was recorded by, among others, Elvis Presley, Petula Clark and Tom Jones.

Westlake was a classically trained musician (Royal Academy of Music), which accounts for the majestic intro on grand piano. But it is piano played with verve, with joy, with key-shattering gusto. This owes a lot to the producer and pianist, who I’m assuming was John Franz, Dusty’s usual producer and a renowned pianist (although my internet search failed to come up with anything concrete). If you listen to live versions, the pianist is playing the same notes but it just doesn’t have the oomph, the magic.

dusty 2
This wasn’t my idea. Bloody photographers.

Then we come to the construction, to describe which I have to get slightly technical on yo ass. Pop songs tend to go verse verse chorus verse chorus, possibly with a different bit in the middle which is often eight bars long and therefore known as a middle eight.

But look at this.

It isn’t the way that you look
And it isn’t the way that you talk
It isn’t the things that you say or do
Make me want you so

It has nothing to do with the wine
Or the music that’s flooding my mind
But never before have I been so sure
You’re the someone I dreamed I would find

It’s the way you make me feel
The moment I am close to you
It’s a feeling so unreal
Somehow I can’t believe it’s true
The pounding I feel in my heart
The hoping that we’ll never part
I can’t believe this is really happening to me

I close my eyes and count to ten
And when I open them you’re still here
I close my eyes and count again
I can’t believe it but you’re still here

We were strangers a moment ago
With a few dreams but nothing to show
The world was a place with a frown on its face
And tomorrow was just, I don’t know

But the way you make me feel
The moment I am close to you
Makes today seem so unreal
Somehow I can’t believe it’s true
Tomorrow, will you still be here?
Tomorrow will come but I fear
That what is happening to me is only a dream

I close my eyes and count to ten
And when I open them you’re still here
I close my eyes and count again
I can’t believe it but you’re still here
I close my eyes and count to ten
And when I open them, you’re still here

Two verses  (It isn’t the way… etc.) and what comes after them is the chorus: “It’s the way you make me feel…”

But then what happens? We get the “I close my eyes…” section, which is a kind of second chorus. The first would have been enough to make it a hit, but here you’ve got your ice cream with chocolate sauce and then some raspberry stuff on top. You’ve got your McDonalds fries with ketchup and mayonnaise. But this is the best one: you’ve got  your tequila with orange juice, which is nice, but then grenadine as well, making it a tequila sunrise and extra special.

So that’s the technical aspect. But that counts for very little unless the song just sounds and feels great. And it does.

It makes me glad to be alive.

Specifically it makes me glad to be alive in the pop era. William Shakespeare, Queen Victoria and even Marilyn Monroe might have had eventful lives and enjoyed many things, but they were gone by the time Clive Westlake and Dusty Springfield brought us their masterpiece.

Sir Winston Churchill missed it by a couple of years.

Billy Wells, the gong striker for Rank films, checked out with just months to go.

And Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at around the time the record was released in the UK.

And here it is. Pity about the dress, eh, ladies?