The Songwriters – The 60s English mob

 

We stray now into territory that is not cool, except to those who simply like the songs and don’t acknowledge the difference between natural sugar and artificial sweeteners.

The pop charts of the 60s – in the UK, at least – required liberal supplies of songs that are sometimes referred to as “disposable”. The writers were never going to be given much credit by the cognoscenti, but they would sell millions of singles and make sums of money that “serious” artistes could only dream of as they drove their Ford Transits up and down the country in search of a place in history.

I’m talking here about people like Roger Cook & Roger Greenaway, Tony Macaulay, Geoff Stephens, Les Reed & Barry Mason –people with a big house in the country but who, when you deliver a pizza to them and they tell you they made their pile as songwriters, are hurt but not surprised when you say you’ve never heard of them.

Take Cook and Greenaway: You’ve Got Your Troubles by The Fortunes, I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman by Whistling Jack Smith, Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart (Gene Pitney), Melting Pot (Blue Mink) and I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (New Seekers) are just five of dozens of songs that blared through transistor radios and put singers’ faces on bedroom walls while everyone was officially  worshiping The Beatles and The Stones.

Macaulay gave us Baby Make It Soon (Marmalade), Build Me Up Buttercup (The Foundations), Don’t Give Up On Us and Silver Lady (David Soul), Lights Of Cincinatti (co-written with Stephens, sung by Scott Walker) and Sorry Suzanne (The Hollies).

Geoff Stephens created  The Crying Game (Dave Berry, Boy George and a film), Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast (Elvis Presley), There’s A Kind Of Hush (Herman’s Hermits, The Carpenters), Winchester Cathedral (The New Vaudeville Band) and You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me (with Macaulay, sung by The New Seekers)

Reed and Mason came up with Delilah (Tom Jones, Alex Harvey Band), Here It Comes Again (The Fortunes), Les Bicyclettes De Belsize (Engelbert Humperdinck), Supergirl (Graham Bonney) and Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes (Edison Lighthouse).

Masterpieces? Compared with Yesterday or Ruby Tuesday, perhaps not. But Winchester Cathedral demonstrated considerable imagination and the courage to attempt a chart hit from a very different direction, while Melting Pot was pretty cool, with a bit of social commentary (and Cook was a member of Blue Mink). Delilah is a great one for any clown with a guitar to bash out at a party (I’ve done it myself, hungover one Boxing Day in Venezuela – they all knew it and loved it).  I’d Like to Teach The World To Sing was enormously successful in the advertising world in its guise as I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke.

It doesn’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination to see any of these as footnotes in the Paul McCartney songbook.

Some of these guys have a further claim to fame: Cook had a lot of success as a writer and singer on the US country scene and Macaulay made his mark in American musical theatre, for instance.

I thought long and hard before lumping them all into one post and a slightly different category from those more commonly regarded as greats, but no disrespect: I wouldn’t mind having their track record  – and a fraction of their royalties.

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The Songwriters – Bert Berns

“Live fast, die young” is the sort of motto that appeals to young people, but the image it conjures up is of hedonism: drink, drugs, sex and rebellion. In the case of Bert Berns, the fact that he crammed a lot of songs into his short life (he died at 38) may have had something to do with his knowing he didn’t have long in the first place.

People who contract rheumatic fever as a child know their heart has been weakened and that it is likely to give out relatively young, and such was the case with Bertrand Russell Berns, author of immortal pop/rock songs like Twist and Shout and Hang on Sloopy.

Those two songs alone make Berns the king of the three-chord trick, the holy grail of the aspiring guitarist. You’re aged 12, say, and you’ve just persuaded your parents to buy you a guitar. It’s a terrible thing with a heavy action and a tone devoid of any beauty, and it doesn’t stay in tune. But it’s a guitar and you are now a guitarist. All you need is a song you can knock off in five minutes, because the fancy stuff can wait – you just want to be able to bash something out and show the world you’ve got the gift.

Without wishing to get any 11-year-olds too excited, you should be able to master three simple chords quite quickly. By the time your fingertips have hardened enough to hold the strings down for three minutes you should be able to go – slowly and clumsily – from D to G to A, and if you can, that’s Twist And Shout in the bag.

Learn how to play the chord of C and you’ve got Hang On Sloopy, which is G, C and D. And Bob’s your uncle: you’re a star in the making.

For the rest of the world, those are just great little songs. The Isley Brothers had a hit with Twist and Shout before the Beatles took it on. John Lennon recorded the lead vocal at the end of a long day in the studio, his voice tired and ragged, and had to be cajoled to go through with it when he would have preferred to leave it for another day when he would be more in control. He didn’t like the result – strained, imprecise and as rough as a bear’s armpit – but for us, the consumers, it’s kind of thrilling. And the song itself is just one of those rabble-rousing things that gets people dancing and singing almost in spite of themselves.

Its durability can be seen by its success in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Matthew Broderick as the charismatic Ferris gatecrashes a carnival float and mimes the entire song. That’s a song more than 20 years old, sounding as fresh as yesterday.

Sloopy was recorded by The McCoys and easily makes it into my top ten raucous, good-time songs.

And then from Berns’s pen came Here Comes The Night, a hit for a young Belfast band, Them, featuring Van Morrison before he  became  a “serious artiste”. The chords have upped the ante a little, but any young guitarist worth his salt and with six months’ experience should be able to negotiate it. Speaking of guitars, Jimmy Page played on the track, even though Them had their own guitarist in Billy Harrison.

It’s another irresistibly singable song and has been covered many times, including early versions by Lulu and David Bowie and a more recent one by Rod Stewart. Lulu’s version actually came out before Them’s, but tanked, failing to make the top twenty – much to Them’s delight.

Lyrically it’s quite gloomy, a tale of lost love and seeing your girlfriend with someone new and wondering what is wrong with you and why you can’t accept the situation: Morrison’s voice and character are perfect for it.

Another success for Berns was Tell Him, a hit in the US for The Exciters (as Tell Her – it works either way) and in the UK for Billie Davis, sometime girlfriend of Shadows bass player Jet Harris.

Other early 60s hits included Cry Baby and Piece Of My Heart, both revamped later in the decade by Janis Joplin.

Berns also had a successful career as a record producer, working with people such as The Drifters.

His damaged heart duly packed up in 1967 when he was just 38, and that was the end of Bert Berns. Such was his knack for creating a hit song out of very little, he could have extended his career and reputation for many more years. Think what might have happened if he had still been around in the punk era. Three chords and a catchy chorus – there was no one better.

 

 

The Songwriters – Leiber and Stoller

So far in this series we’ve seen some pretty impressive catalogues in terms of numbers, but Leiber and Stoller make everyone else look like slackers. To mention every hit they have written would amount to a list, rather than an article, so you will find some notable ones missing and the ones I mention might be included because I like them, not because they’re more important.

They got their big break through Elvis Presley with Hound Dog, followed by Jailhouse Rock, Treat Me Nice, King Creole, Trouble and more.

For other people there was Poison Ivy (The Paramounts, including future Procol Harum members), Yakety Yak, Kansas City, Along Came Jones, Love Potion No. 9 and Charlie Brown – and that was all before the end of the 1950s. At that point many of us might have  pushed off to the Bahamas to live off the royalties for the rest of our lives, but whatever was driving Leiber and Stoller just kept them turning up at the coalface every day. And so to the 60s and Stand By Me (Ben E. King and everyone from Cassius Clay in 1964 to John Lennon in 1975). On Broadway by The Drifters, Some Other Guy (Beatles album track) and I Who Have Nothing (Ben E. King again, and in the UK Shirley Bassey).

The sheer coverability of these songs was illustrated to me in 2013 in a bar on the Caribbean island of Tobago, when a 20-something local guy did a karaoke reggae version of I Who Have Nothing. We were the only two singers – the only two customers – and I was trying to choose material that didn’t age me too much, but he blithely came up with that wizened old thing.

In 1968 a Leiber and Stoller song called Is That All There Is was a US hit for Leslie Uggams, a one-hit wonder whose  existence has eluded me until now. The song was also recorded by singing sex bomb Peggy Lee and crooner Tony Bennett, and it is interesting lyrically, being the bored, seen-it-all reminiscences of someone too cool for school. In the light of that, it’s hard to understand what Bennett saw in it, but there was a much more satisfying take on it in 1980 by a sneering American rich kid called Cristina, who added a masochistic verse about being beaten up by a man. Leiber and Stoller were not amused, sued her and had her version banned for several years. I like it.

On a completely different note there is Pearl’s a Singer, a 1977 hit for Elkie Brooks (Dino and Sembello in the US) and then the divine I Keep Forgetting, sung by the exceedingly earnest-sounding Michael McDonald.

The tune cropped up again in 1994 when rappers Warren G and Nate Dogg used it to tell a sordid tale of gangs and sex. For those who maintain that in rap the c is silent, it’s melodic refrains such as this that make the motherf***ing things bearable, and indeed Regulate is quite nice as long as you don’t listen too closely.

Now, what Leiber and Stoller gems have we missed? They wrote Spanish Harlem, a fabulous tune that makes the setting sound more romantic than it perhaps is, and Jackson, the stomping, riotously funny argument between a frustrated man and his cynically realistic wife. Johnny Cash and June Carter did it, but in my opinion Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood did it better.

And Leiber had a hand in Past Present and Future, a heartbreakingly wistful song based on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The singer seems to be carrying some terrible secret, possibly more than the emotional distress of a broken relationship and even having been sexually assaulted. It’s hardly conventional pop  material, and the lyrics don’t make it clear, but it’s haunting and thought-provoking.

The song was originally recorded by the Shangri-Las and there was a version in the late 80s but I’m damned if I can find it. It was  just about note-for-note like the original, but sung less theatrically, I seem to recall. Not Agnetha Faltskog of Abba – that was 2004. If you happen to know it, please let me know. In the meantime, here’s the Shangri-las.

The wisdom of pop songs – Revenge and vitriol

It’s the ugliest of emotions and completely fruitless. It makes us as bad as the person we’re getting back at. It leads to ongoing conflict. Revenge isn’t sweet, it’s sour. It just feels sweet briefly. And it makes for great little pop songs sometimes.

Connie Francis had a hit in 1958 with Who’s Sorry Now, which had first been published (in the old sheet music days) in the 1920s. She’s glad that her ex is sorry, so she’s got her own back in a tame way. We don’t learn what has happened to the man who broke her heart, but he’s not happy, and that makes her feel better, even if you get the feeling she’ll be round at his door within the hour with a tin of tomato soup and some ice cream to cheer him up.

The Ronettes got slightly more vitriolic with How Does It Feel, written by Vini Poncia and Peter Andreoli and produced by Phil Spector in a rare example of an uptempo wall of sound recording. Some girl has broken her ex’s heart and she’s as pleased as punch, but unlike Connie Francis, she openly admits she’d take him back because he still loves him. Silly girl; he’ll only do it again, you mark my words.

The Angels were in a very different situation in 1963 with My Boyfriend’s Back. He’s been away, you see, and in his absence a boy who fancies her, having failed with his advances, is spreading rumours about her. But now the boyfriend has returned and is about to give the young pretender a bunch of fives.

The Angels were unusual for a Sixties girl group in that they were white – not that colour has any bearing on what they were like as a musical unit. But it was the song, not the singers, and they are one-hit wonders – and there’s nothing wrong with that. A nifty little three minutes of pop and very singable: Hey la hey la, my boyfriend’s back.

All of these revenge songs seem to be from the early 60s, and we’ll continue with The Shirelles and Foolish Little Girl. It’s not openly about revenge, but a girl talking to another girl who wants her guy back, having dumped him earlier. Now he’s about to get married and she’s a jealous as hell. The singer is berating her for this, which leads me to read between the lines and surmise that there is history between these two and the singer is glad her rival has been hurt.

Whatever, this is a classic lineup of four black women. The lead singer has a good, strong voice and the backing vocals sound like they’re done by a bunch of random girls dragged off the street as they walked past the studio and told to do their best and do it loudly. And I mean that in the nicest possible way – it’s part of the record’s charm.

Incidentally, if you’re going to download this from YouTube or wherever, make sure you get the original version. There’s a rerecorded one out there, and I wish they wouldn’t do that. Sure, singers may improve as they get older and recording techniques are constantly evolving, but the artistes never recapture the magic, and if they’re eradicating some blemish that’s been bugging them for years, they should realize that we, the fans, know and love it just as it is.

John Lennon, for all his peace-and-love stuff, had a nasty jealous streak and wasn’t averse to venting it in song. Take You Can’t Do That, from A Hard Day’s Night. He’s not taking revenge – yet – but he’s telling the girl in no uncertain terms that he’s going to dump her if she persists in talking to a particular boy.

The live recording I’m putting here is pretty faithful to the studio version but there’s one irritating thing: they don’t show us who played the solo. It doesn’t appear to be George, which means it must be John, but we don’t know for sure.

And that’s where I’m going to leave it. There are plenty of others and you could probably name a few off the top of your head. Cry Me A River, yes, and products of spiky personalities like Alanis Morrisette and Lily Allen, but the early Sixties was the goldmine.

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 – Sun worshippers

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

sun

The Beatles summed it up with Here Comes The Sun and its simple expression of post-winter relief, “It’s all right”. Rain we call for when we need it. The sun we want almost all the time.

The beautiful innocence of the early 1960s (beautiful and innocent from this distance, at least) gave us  the Beach Boys, who, if not always mentioning the yellow hot thing by name, were always obviously out in it, admiring the girls and getting a tan (apart from ginger-haired Mike Love, who probably just got roasted).

1965 saw a catchy if brainless little ditty called I Live For the Sun, by the Sunrays. With a name like that, it sounds suspiciously like the song came first and the group was just a vehicle to take it to the people.

It was produced by Murry Wilson. There was only one man of that name and spelling in the musical sphere, and he had sons called Brian, Carl and Dennis. That’s right, the Beach Boys. He had been their manager and co-producer until they ditched him in 1964, so his involvement with these one-hit wonders seems quite understandable. I’ll show the ungrateful sods.

Rolf Harris had recently arrived in England at that time from Australia, with a unique angle: using aboriginal influences to make distinctive pop music. With its highly unusual, primeval didgeridoo sound conjuring up roasting reptiles on a camp fire in the outback, it was perhaps Harris’s one admirable contribution to music and culture in general, far more so than, for instance, his previous single, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, even if the B-side was “an old traditional Cockney folk song that I’ve just written”, Someone’s Pinched Me Winkles. But those were different times, when George Martin was still producing comedy records rather than buffing the brilliance of the Fab Four.

The Kinks  brought a broader dramatic scope to their pop/rock with Sunny Afternoon:

My girlfriend’s run off with my car
And gone back to her Ma and Pa
Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty
Now I’m sitting here
Sipping at my ice-cold beer
Lazing on a sunny afternoon

One of the era’s timeless classics, House of the Rising Sun, had nothing really to do with solar matters, while the Kinks came back a couple of years later with Waterloo Sunset, in which the sun is in spectacular decorative mode.

Cream, the blues-rock gods whose early output included some surprisingly poppy singles, came up with one of the all-time great guitar riffs for Sunshine of your Love, in which the sunshine is metaphorical, representing the goodness and warmth of a romantic relationship.

sun 2

Jumping forward to reggae times in the 70s and 80s, Bob Marley and the Wailers got Sun is Shining from legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry and even though it appeared on their Kaya album in 1978, it took a remix by Danish producer Funkstar de Luxe to propel the song to the stratosphere in 1999.

Meanwhile, The Police had been on the case with Invisible Sun, where lyricist Sting presages his later social commentator role with a song full of gloom and danger, redeemed only when the sun “gives us hope when the whole day’s done”.

Morrissey, that grossly misunderstood pop genius, wrote and recorded a superb little dig at those who like to loll around, soaking up the rays while the world falls apart around them, in The Lazy Sunbathers. You see, Mozza, that’s how you got that reputation.

In 1985 Katrina and the Waves unleashed the phenomenally popular Walking on Sunshine, a clearly impossible feat that just expressed  how elated they were.

Elton John had already lamented the loss of solar activity in Don’t let the Sun Go Down on Me. Sun: happy, no sun: sad. It’s a simple equation.

In 2015, Rihanna went all wise and mature on us with Towards the Sun and it’s profound advice:

Turn your face towards the sun
Let the shadows fall behind you
Don’t look back, just carry on
And the shadows will never find you

Ed Sheeran alluded to the dangers of the sun when he used it to describe his feelings on being dumped:

You scarred and left me
Like a sunburn

The full picture, though, was brought to us by the film director Baz Luhrmann in his rather bizarre song/lecture Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen. It is the first and most important piece of advice he offers young people in a litany that includes not believing they’re fat and not being upset by criticism.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.
The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists
Whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
Than my own meandering experience, I will dispense this advice now…

Okay, Baz, you’re Australian, so you probably know what you’re talking about, but this is pop music. Where’s your bravado, your exultation? If they want to get melanomas, that’s up to them.

Here:

 

 

Did we mention the 1990s? here’s a bit of Supergrass.

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Leaving home

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
clash
The eternal question, as addressed in 1981 by The Clash

Leaving home is a source of inspiration for songwriters, perhaps because it is something we all do eventually. It’s those teenage years when we feel trapped, hemmed in by our family and a home town that seems too claustrophobic to contain us and our unique, misunderstood, restless souls.

Bettering yourself is what it’s all about, and The Animals put it as well as anyone in 1964 with We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. This is often taken to mean leaving their native Newcastle-upon-Tyne in what at the time was a grimy coal mining area, the north-east of England. In fact they didn’t write it; it was penned by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, New York-based songwriters who were also responsible for On Broadway, Blame it on the Bossa Nova and Saturday Night at the Movies, among many others. So they were possibly not determined to get out of anywhere in particular, but they recognized the feeling and put it into song.

Paul McCartney saw the scenario from a girl’s point of view with the tearful She’s Leaving Home, as covered by everybody from Bryan Ferry to Carrie Underwood. Just a few years later, having gone solo, McCartney released Another Day, in which the move has been made and reality has hit home, the city turning out to be full of men only interested in one thing, and only for one night, at that.

simon
You can’t start a revolution from your bedroom in your parents’ house

New York has always been a popular destination for those hoping to make it in the entertainment world, and has been celebrated in music several times, from Frank Sinatra’s assertion that “if I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere” to Empire State of Mind, often attributed to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys but originally by two almost unheard-of Brooklyn girls who were feeling homesick while abroad. In that respect it’s not a leaving home song but a pining for home one.

Turning up in the big city doesn’t always end up well, as Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City demonstrates, the innocent hopeful from out of town gazing in awe at the “skyscrapers and everything” at the start of the song. But within four minutes he’s been banged up for five years.

An oddity among the Big Apple songs is Odyssey’s Native New Yorker, a sad tale of a local girl who may not be thinking of leaving but wishes she was at least treated better. “No one opens the door for a native New Yorker,” she laments.

Then there’s Bacharach and David’s Do You Know The Way to San Jose, where another starry-eyed would-be star joins the legions waiting on tables or “parking cars and pumping gas”.

Johnny Cash and June Carter played it for laughs with Jackson, a country romp by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber that was also a hit for Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, with the men stating their intention to go to the fleshpots of a town called Jackson and give the women there the benefit of their frustrated masculinity. The women, on the other hand, predict that “they’ll lead you round the town like a scalded hound with your tail tucked between your legs”.

jackson
They’ll laugh at him in Jackson, won’t they, Nancy?

Bruce Springsteen’s contributes to the genre with a vivid tale in which the singer tells his girlfriend Sandy, whom he has been two-timing with a waitress, that he’s getting out of what is presumably a New Jersey seaside town of funfairs and small minds. What he is really doing, though, even as he urges her to leave town too, is trying to get her to make love with him one more time before he goes.

Harry Nilsson’s version of the Fred Neil theme tune for Midnight Cowboy, Everybody’s Talking, speaks of “going where the weather suits my clothes” to get away from people stopping and staring at him. Wherever you are, kids, it’s the same story. They don’t think you’re a genius, they just think you’re weird. And all because they know your Mum and Dad.

carrie u
When Carrie Underwood needed a great song for American Idol she went for The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home

The Smiths’ London, a breathless and typically uncomfortable piece of Morrissey fiction, sees our hero on a train from (probably) Manchester to the capital, with doubt and trepidation already creeping in. “And do you think you made the right decision this time?”

Maybe. Maybe not, but you’ll never know until you try.

 

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The wisdom of pop songs – God, I love you

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
greenbaum
Smuggling his faith into the charts – Norman Greenbaum

When we talk about ‘religious music’, most of us western pop music lovers mean Christian music because, like it or not, Christianity is still the leading religion in the UK and Europe, USA, Australia and other countries. I don’t know if there has ever been a top 40 single on an Islamic or Hindu theme, although we did have a few Indian-flavoured songs in the late 1960s and early 70s.

While religion has never been as unpopular as it is now, since the dawn of rock’n’roll it has been considered uncool, and songs with a religious bent almost had to be smuggled into the charts. Why, though? If somebody sings about killing someone and we buy the record, that doesn’t mean we agree with murder. Pop history is littered with songs about cheating lovers, and if we like the tune, that doesn’t mean we condone what they’re doing. Religious content doesn’t have to be construed as ‘a message’.

When George Harrison had the masses singing My Sweet Lord in 1970, they weren’t thinking about the lyrics, and the Indian influence made it unclear who exactly this lord was anyway.

Interestingly, when the writers of the old Chiffons song, He’s So Fine, got their lawyers on the case because Harrison’s song seemed to be a straight rip-off of theirs, he said he had actually been influenced mainly by the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ 1967 hit Oh Happy Day, which had non-believing hippies singing about ‘when Jesus washed our sins away’.

Meanwhile, Billy Preston had put his burgeoning credibility right on the line with That’s The Way God Planned it, a Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton-fuelled workout that doesn’t mince its words.

Round about the same time Norman Greenbaum rose briefly from obscurity to bring us Spirit in the Sky, which would later be covered in the UK by Doctor and the Medics (1986). On a personal note, a couple of years ago I had a regular acoustic gig in a beach bar on a small Caribbean island, and when I threw in Spirit in the Sky late one night it was amusing and sort of thrilling to see some defiantly dismissive friends in the audience singing along and dancing to it.

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“Yeah, I nicked it – but not from where you think.” George Harrison comes clean

Bob Dylan may have lost a bit of credibility and a few fans when he ‘got religion’ in the late 70s, but he eased up on it after Slow Train Coming and Saved.

And why not? A Christian motor mechanic doesn’t have to preach to his customers, although he may try to be a good ambassador for God through the way he conducts his business. And, I hear the scathing multitudes grumble, he may not.

A little beacon of the 1990s was Joan Osborne’s One of Us, written by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters, which had music fans’ heads swimming with “Yeah, yeah, God is great, and yeah, yeah, God is good”.

Considering all the thousands of songs that have floated through the charts since the 1950s, this (admittedly incomplete) list may be a meagre one, and none of these recordings may have resulted in mass conversions, but they do exist, they were hits and we all know them.

And you’ve got the Reverend Al Green, who, in addition to having what is generally regarded as the sweetest soul voice in the world, is an actual ordained (i.e. official) minister. Many of the old soul stars, from Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston, honed their vocal skills singing in church in their youth, and although Steve Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic grew up in Birmingham, England, rather than attending a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, he has been known to step in for the organist at his local church in Gloucestershire as well as singing in the choir.

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What if God was on the cover of the Rolling Stone?

All of the above are what might be termed ‘mainstream’ acts, but what of those Christian musicians who write and play nothing but religious songs? There are stars among them: names like Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin are known in every Church of England music group, their contemporary songs competing with the vast collection of hymns from the past. The main difference between Christian songs and secular ones is that the love is directed, not at ‘you baby’ but at ‘the Lord’.

Christian rock bands tend to be of the American-style big ballad persuasion, and because the emphasis is on the lyrics and the star is God rather than the lead guitarist or singer, the genre is unlikely to generate a Led Zeppelin or a Sex Pistols.

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If she hadn’t been a Christian she would have been a star. Don’t deprive yourself of Darlene Zschech

There are, though, some voices that would hold their own with the best of the atheists and agnostics. Take the Australian Darlene Zschech, for instance, one of the top singers of that country’s Hillsong United. Hillsong do a song called Made Me Glad, a powerful, ebbing and flowing piece of praise overlaid by Szech’s vocals, that can make the hairs stand up on your neck.

Could that have made the international charts, given the right promotion? In another, less cynical era, perhaps.

Well, please yourself, but it’s on my iPod, somewhere between Mad World and Maggie May.

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Can happiness be cool?

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
happy
Happy album title, Elvis, but do you really practise what you preach?

For some reason it is more natural to write a song about being unhappy than it is to celebrate good events. ‘This is broken-hearted me with my guitar’ is far more popular than ‘Guess what? I’m feeling good today, like I usually do’.

Yes, people write about being in love, but not so much about being happy for any other reason.

Is that because it’s cool to be miserable? The standard rock group photo shoot isn’t full of grins and teeth, but moody expressions.

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Seventies soul-style elation

So let’s look at the expressions of joy that have slipped through the net since Elvis Presley popularized the snarl.

Starting almost bang up to date, Pharrell Williams, who is as talented as he is energetic and seems to be aware of how fortunate he is, followed his Daft Punk-collaboration worldwide smash Get Lucky, with a song called Happy – and he got away with it. It is still being sung in halls and clubs all over the world by people more accustomed to whingeing along with their heroes’ tales of sadness, alienation and how generally unfair life is.

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Stevie Wonder reminds us of the joy behind the tragedy of Martin Luther King

The undisputed king of pop happiness, though, is Stevie Wonder. Vivacity leaps from the grooves of his early work, from the virtuoso harmonica-playing 12-year-old of Fingertips to taking the smoochy For Once In My Life and turning it into an ecstatic song of love and thanks.

Wonder can do unhappy as well as anybody, but when the light of life is upon him, the joy pours out. I Was Made to Love Her, Sir Duke, Signed Sealed Delivered, You Are the Sunshine of my Life, Isn’t She Lovely… His brain is such a goldmine of good vibes that he even has material to give to other people: Syreeta’s Spinning and Spinning is pure exhilaration, and when George Michael and Mary J. Blige took on As (I’ll be loving you always) they were simply jumping on a fairground ride.

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Giving happiness a bad name, one for the 60s hippies’ grandparents

As an indication of how happy stuff is considered uncool, 1960s goody-goodies The Seekers turned out smiling fluff such as A World of Our Own and Morningtown Ride while The Rolling Stones were busy challenging moral codes and The Beatles were taking us down cos they were going to Strawberry Fields.

On the other hand, that was mainly John Lennon, while Paul McCartney’s career is bejeweled with the likes of Penny Lane, Hello Goodbye, Helen Wheels, Junior’s Farm and even the much-maligned children’s song, We All Stand Together (a mega-catchy tune that could have been given any number of treatments). All You Need Is Love notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine Lennon coming up with the equivalent of Wonderful Christmastime, although he would give in occasionally to sentiment, as in the paean to his son Sean, Beautiful Boy.

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On the other hand…

Those of us with a tendency towards introspection and a love of insightful music that takes us down rather than up should, perhaps, treat ourselves occasionally to a happy session. It might take a bit of work and head-scratching to find feelgood stuff in the murky depths of a Metallica collection or the bombastic sobbing of 1980s power ballads, but… look… there’s Bryan Adams’s Summer of 69. There’s Queen with You’re My Best Friend, here’s Aretha and George Michael with I Knew You Were Waiting. And here’s Stevie with I Love Every Little Thing About You.

The world is not all bad, and we’ve got the music to prove it.