The wisdom of pop songs – Songs about occupations

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

Writing a song that’s more than just a close-up of a relationship can require a bit of scene-setting, and just occasionally we get to find out what somebody does for a living.

One of my favourites in this category is Glen Campbell’s 1968 song Wichita Lineman, in which the narrator tells us straight off:

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searching in the sun for another overload

It was written by Jimmy Webb, who was also the man behind By The Time I Get to Phoenix and Macarthur Park, which tells you he put more detail and imagination into his lyrics than most writers.

A lineman is someone who maintains and repairs overhead power lines or telephone lines, and in a rural area that must be lonely work, stuck up a pole in the back of beyond. This is a love song, or rather a song of love and loneliness – it’s certainly not happy, but he’s not complaining about his job, just his personal life.

By contrast, Lee Dorsey’s Working in the Coal Mine, written by Allen Toussaint and originally a hit in 1966, is all about how he’s stuck in this dirty, dangerous job and is too tired to have fun.

One of Paul Simon’s most intriguing lyrics is from the Bridge Over Troubled Water album. So Long Frank Lloyd Wright is about a famous architect, or rather it uses his name. It’s written as to an old friend recently deceased and is daringly close to being a love song. One theory is that Art Garfunkel, who had studied architecture, challenged his master-songwriter partner to write about this man, whom Simon had never heard of. Whatever the truth may be, it’s a beautiful, haunting, wistful piece of music that transcends it subject matter.

Also from the Sixties, as are all the songs so far, is Tim Hardin’s If I Were  A Carpenter, which examines a relationship and speculates if it would have worked if things had been different. It must be uncomfortable listening for any gold-digging woman who has hooked up with a rich man purely for his money. With the roles reversed, he a humble craftsman and she a posh woman, would the attraction have been there?

If gambling can be said to be a career – and professionals do exist – it has certainly been dealt with in song. Most famously, there is Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. Written by country tunesmith Don Schlitz in the mid 70s, it didn’t reach the global public until Rogers’ version in 1978. It’s about meeting a gambler on a train, and he can’t have been on a good streak because he has to bum a cigarette and a swig of whiskey before he imparts some wisdom about knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em and so on, and then quietly dies.

Less successful but equally catchy was I’m a Gambler, by Lace, which got a lot of airplay in the UK in 1969 but didn’t make the charts. This was written by one of the unsung heroes of the golden era of British pop, Pete Dello, who among other things was the leader of Honeybus and wrote their smash I Can’t Let Maggie Go as well as Do I Still Figure In Your Life. I’m a Gambler was reissued four years later, under a new artist name, Red Herring, but still failed to set the world alight.

Incidentally, Madonna’s song of the same title is nothing like Dello’s little gem. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with actual gambling either; it’s just Her Royal Highness showing she can talk tough just like a man.

Doctors feature quite heavily as far as being mentioned in song titles is concerned, but closer inspection reveals precious little in the way of detail about surgery, stethoscopes and so on. The Beatles’ Doctor Robert, for instance, is about a drug dealer, while Jackson Browne’s Doctor My Eyes is an imaginary conversation with a medic about the patient’s love life.

The Beatles’ Paul McCartney picked an unlikely object of love and lust in Lovely Rita, where he sings the praises of a traffic warden, even if he does say that her uniform and the bag across her shoulder “made her look a little like a military man”.

Steely Dan’s Doctor Wu is just a playful piece of imagery associated with a… well, it’s very obscure and probably about nothing.

Waitresses get a fair bit of coverage, but again, without detail about the intricacies of carrying plates and clearing tables. Bruce Springsteen mentions one in Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park), but only as part a confession to his girlfriend, with the assertion that he’s not seeing this waitress anymore because she’s gone off him.

The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me bitches about how the singer rescued the girl from her menial life and now she’s dumped him.

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

Well guess what, tough guy? You can’t help people and expect them to spend the rest of their life devoted to you because of it.

Being a pop star, of course, is itself a job, and unsurprisingly the world is full of songs about this, from The Byrds’s So You Wanna Be A Rock’n’Roll Star to Abba’s Thank You For The Music. Along the way there is Superstar, written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett and recorded by, among others, Rita Coolidge and The Carpenters, each time with the big-voiced girl mooning about the guitarist she wants but can’t have.

Barry Manilow’s monster hit I Write The Songs was actually penned by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. It was featured on an album by The Captain and Tennille and as a single by David Cassidy.

Teachers – now there’s a goldmine for us. A lot of the songs are a bit un-PC in this day and age, from Lulu’s To Sir With Love to The Police’s Don’t Stand So Close To Me, but the student’s crush on the the man standing at the front is a recurring fact of life. Lulu’s question, “What can I give you in return?” is unmitigated, inflammatory flirting requiring a cold bath and a dose of bromide in the teacher’s tea.

So, plenty to choose from but nothing about dentists, chiropractors or roadsweepers. But hang on, gentlemen of the streets: there’s King of the Road, Roger Miller’s early 60s classic about being a poor drifter doing what he can to survive.

Ah, but, two hours of pushin’ broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room

Nothing about estate agents, chefs or bloggers, but maybe there’s hope for all of us.

 

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The wisdom of pop songs – Sing a song of Britain

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

 

Songs about British towns

In spite of having an international reputation for arrogance, the British are a very self-effacing lot. We routinely make fun of our own limitations: the food is no good, the weather is awful, the football teams haven’t won a major tournament since England had Sir Walter Raleigh in goal.

Perhaps the only thing we will claim in our favour is that when it comes to pop music we wrote the book. From the Beatles to Ed Sheeran and Adele, we are the champions.

And yet even in that there is one perceived weakness: our place names don’t work in songs. While Americans love to sing about their home town, be it New York or Baton Rouge, the British can’t do it with the same aplomb.

But I beg to differ. And here, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present documentary, recorded evidence.

Starting at the biggest, the capital has been celebrated in song many times. From ELO’s Last Train to London to Blur’s London Loves, from the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset to Ian Dury’s Billericay Dickie and Plaistow Patricia, not forgetting Morrissey’s Dagenham Dave, our metropolitan placenames are scattered through our music like double decker buses in a blizzard.

It is tempting to think of Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning as being written during an early trip to civilization, but unfortunately there is an area of that name in New York, and she lived there at the time. Similarly, any reference to the Chelsea Hotel  means the famous one in New York, where, among other things, Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001: A space odyssey, Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon to death and Leonard Cohen reputedly received oral favours from Janis Joplin. How do we know that? Because he wrote about it in a song called Chelsea Hotel.

But it’s not just London. South coast, anyone? The Beatles’ Ballad of John and Yoko starts with “Standing on the docks at Southampton.”

The New Vaudeville Band’s Winchester Cathedral might not be rock’s finest hour, but it was a typically witty celebration of Britishness.

Liverpool? Home of the Beatles, and they celebrated places within it, such as Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields.

Then there’s Kimberley Rew’s brilliant contribution to The Bangles’  repertoire, Going Down to Liverpool.

Gerry and the Pacemakers, Liverpool lads that they were, sang about the local river in Ferry Cross the Mersey.

Blackburn? John Lennon in A Day in the Life: four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.

And Blackburn’s big neighbor, Manchester, home of the Hollies, Stone Roses and the Smiths: the latter acknowledged the dark side of the city  in Morrissey’s song about the Moors Murders, Dig a Shallow Grave. “Oh Manchester, so much to answer for…”

Up to Scotland, and in addition to such patriotic fervor as The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith, no less a force than Abba gave it a mention in Supertrouper, their song about the loneliness of touring.

I was sick and tired of everything
When I called you last night from Glasgow

Paul McCartney had happier memories of the city in Helen Wheels.

Glasgow town never brought me down
When I was heading out on the road

As for Newcastle, where the population is as regionally self-aware as any in the country, although the town itself doesn’t seem to lend itself to lyrical status, proud Geordie Jimmy Nail sang about the Tyne in Big River, while Lindisfarne had used the city and even its accent to their advantage in Fog On The Tyne.

Also in that part of the world, The Shadows had a song in the early 60s called Stars Fell on Stockton, which probably sounds more glamorous to those who have never been there than to a Teessider.

Paul McCartney ticks off another couple of towns in Old Siam Sir

She waited round in Walthamstow
Skated round in Scarborough

And talking of the Yorkshire coastal resort, Simon and Garfunkel did a tremendous job on the old folk song Scarborough Fair.

Yorkshire singer-songwriter Michael Chapman’s postcards of Scarborough wasn’t just a song but an album title.

The most famous northern resort of them all has been referred to several times, from Jethro Tull’s Going up the ‘Pool to Graham Nash’s mention of his birth and early childhood in Military Madness:

In an upstairs room in Blackpool
By the side of the Northern Sea
The army had my father
And my mother was having me

Back down south, Athlete sang fondly about Dungeness, a town more famous for its power station than anything else, while Blur’s Damon Albarn sang about throwing yourself off a national landmark in Clover Over Dover. And in Tracy Jacks he had the hero getting on “the first train to Walton”, which could be several places but is probably Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex.

And finally, my own beautiful little lump in the English Channel, Guernsey, might not be an obvious contender here, but check out Steely Dan’s Showbiz Kids (first line after the intro):

After closing time
At the Guernsey Fair
I detect the El Supremo
In the room at the top of the stair

Probably a Stateside Guernsey, but still… Jersey is constantly being name checked when what people really mean is New Jersey, old stomping ground of, among others, Bruce Springsteen.

The list must go on and one, but you get my point, I’m sure. Engerland swings like a pendulum do, as an American once observed.

 

 

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – It’s hard being young

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
teen 1
So you’re a teenager, eh? Can I see some ID please?

Young love manifests itself in song all the time and varies over the decades only by dint of the apparent level of innocence. When teenagers were first labelled as such in the 1950s they hit the world like a new species, and yet they seem, in retrospect, pathetically grateful to be acknowledged.

Teenager in Love, a 1959 hit for Dion and the Belmonts, sounds as if the title was written first and the song built around it (more of which next week), but like many a ditty featuring teenagers, it was written by professional songwriters well past puberty – in this case Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (Save the Last Dance for Me, Sweets for my Sweet, Suspicion et al).

Too Young was a hit in 1951 in the US for Nat ‘King’ Cole and in the UK by Jimmy Young, both of whom seemed too old rather than too young to be bleating about this.

They try to tell us we’re too young
Too young to really be in love

It has always been the teenager’s most cherished wish to be accepted as an adult and allowed to do ‘adult’ things, while refusing to get out of bed before midday and have a shower unless they have a date with the love of their embryonic life.

Longing for the day when all will be enabled has resulted in some beautiful songs, and none is more poignant t hanRuby and the Romantics’ highly emotional yet controlled Our Day Will Come, with its primitive, surging organ (the musical instrument, that is). Such is the majesty of the song that it has been recorded by scores of artists since, such as Bobby Darin, Brenda Lee, The Supremes, Fontella Bass, Isaac Hayes, The Carpenters, Dionne Warwick, K D Lang, Christina Aguilera and Amy Winehouse.

You can listen to it via the link at the end.

Ruby
Hey Ruby! Give the guys the slip and meet me round the back, okay?

Puppy Love, written in 1960 by Paul Anka and recorded by him and others including Donny Osmond, falls on the mawkish side of the fence, but that didn’t bother millions of youngsters who moped tearfully around their bedrooms, hopelessly in love with some dork at school.

The magic age is 16, which coincidentally is the age of consent in many places. After all, if you’re that obsessed with somebody there is a fair chance that you’re going to end up with their tongue down your throat, and we all know where that leads.

In the mid 1960s it was still just about acceptable to openly lust after underage girls, as in blues songs such as Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, with its none-too-subtle declaration, “ I wanna ball you all night long”. Some people were seeing sense, though, or possibly seeing a prison sentence on the horizon. Gary Puckett and the Union Gap worried themselves sick in 1968 with Young Girl.

With all the charms of a woman
You’re just a baby in disguise
And though you know that it’s wrong to be alone with me
That come-on look is in your eyes

teen 3
You can’t be arrested for wearing civil war gear, more’s the pity

It was a sentiment that still bothered pop stars in 1979 when Abba asked Does Your Mother Know: same scenario, hormone-driven young girl looking for trouble.

Meanwhile, the broader concept of teenagerism had been aired in the early 1970s with Alice Cooper’s Teenage Lament ’74 and T Rex’s Whatever Happened to the Teenage Dream.

Brief teen sensations Alessi, two  cute twin brothers who could actually sing, brought dignity to the genre with their elegant, jazz-inflected 1976 smash Oh Lori, in which the action moves swiftly from wanting to ride his bicycle with her on the handlebars to recalling having her dance for him in her bare feet one afternoon when her feet weren’t the only things that were revealed. But that’s a teen-teen thing, and the world is more tolerant of that.

You can listen to it via the link at the end.

alessi
Omigod, girls, his button’s come undone! Oops!

The Police raised the age-old problem of girl-fancies-teacher with Don’t Stand So Close to me, while Aerosmith merely strutted and lusted in true 70s rocker style on Walk This Way.

Even Steely Dan, well old enough to know better, found themselves in an age-gap romance on Hey Nineteen. Although 19 is probably old enough to do whatever you want in 99% of the universe, here it was the cultural differences proving troublesome.

Hey Nineteen, that’s Aretha Franklin
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul
There’s hard times befallen the soul survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old

Sensible as he is, the narrator resorts to tequila and cocaine to gloss over the problem

The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian
Make tonight a wonderful thing

The Ramones, never ones to let us into their troubled psyche, motored through Teenage Lobotomy, while British rock-popsters Supergrass poked fun at their junior selves with Alright.

We are young, we’ve gone green
We’ve got teeth nice and clean
See our friends, see the sights
Feel alright

Ah, youth! It’s a minefield and we all do well if we get through it unscathed.

Our Day Will Come: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qw9RVjEN9OI

Oh Lori: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-R8ru1TAAo