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.

The wisdom of pop songs – Doing time

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

It is probably true to say that nobody wants to go to prison. One can’t say for sure, because there is always somebody ready to shoot down such an assertion, but let’s say the vast majority of us shiver at the very thought of being banged up.

Prison plays a significant role in popular culture, though, from films – The Birdman of Alcatraz to The Shawshank Redemption – to music.

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And that message would be “Bake a cake and put my file in it. It’s in my tool box. In the shed. Chocolate, please.”

Sam Cooke’s heavenly voice gave a sweetness to Chain Gang that perhaps it didn’t merit, although if you want to analyse it (never a good idea with a pop song), perhaps he represents the good but misguided or unfortunate souls who end up behind bars.

That is certainly how Joan Baez saw it with There But For Fortune. She didn’t write it – Phil Ochs did – but (as far as we can tell from her recordings) she’s an earnest character who will automatically side with the underdog: witness We Shall Overcome and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.

While an early Bee Gees song such as Gotta Get A Message to You, supposedly delivered by someone about to be executed, could give a young, impressionable person sleepless nights, not all prison songs are harrowing.

Never one to take anything too seriously, Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, which of course he didn’t write, because he didn’t write any of his hits, turns incarceration into a party, thrown by the warden.

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Yeah, we had plenty of time to rehearse, lazengennelmen. Not a whole lot else to do in here as a matter of fact.

The Everly Brothers served up a helping of unadulterated schmaltz in their 1958 rehash of a 1934 song Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail, which tells of an old lady showing up at the facility where her son languishes, armed only with her elderly status and pathos and attempting to persuade the warden to let him out. And guess what – it works, but as soon as the gates are opened and she hugs him, she drops dead. Well, it’s only a song.

Johnny Cash made a bit of capital out of the subject by not only writing prison songs but playing gigs in Folsom and San Quentin, which no doubt did his record sales no harm at all, given the bravado of the material. The oft-quoted line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” might be taken out of context by many (in the song he’s regretting it), but it’s the sort of macho posturing that gives jailbirds a bad name, if they didn’t have one already.

It is easy to act tough about such things if it’s not too serious, as in Humble Pie’s 30 Days In The Hole, singer Steve Marriott’s boastful  account of doing a short sentence for drug possession.

Similarly, Thin Lizzy’s mid-70s anthem Jailbreak was just a comic book tale designed to appeal to young men who liked to talk tough.

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“Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak Somewhere in this town.” Err, would that be at the prison, Phil?

Bob Dylan’s album Desire featured two fact-based songs of incarceration, the more famous being the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whom the singer believed had been framed for murder. Carter was eventually freed. On the other side of the album was Joey, co-written by Jacques Levy, which tells the tale of a New York Italian mobster, Joey Gallo. By many accounts, Gallo was a nasty piece of work, but Dylan (or, more likely, Levy) portrayed him as a victim trying to rebuild his life, only to have it blown away by the police.

Many a rock’n’roller did prison time in real life, from Chuck Berry (transporting a minor across a state line for immoral purposes) to Sex Pistols bass-playing buffoon Sid Vicious, who stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon to death and did some time on Riker’s Island before being transferred to a secure hospital and eventually died of a heroin overdose.

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Yellow ribbons on trees mean someone’s just got out.

Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector is still inside for murdering his girl, while top session drummer Jim Gordon’s schizophrenia eventually led him to kill his mother. He’s still in prison too. Gordon was a member of Derek and the Dominoes and played the piano on Layla part 2.

Among those whose lifestyle was asking for it and eventually got it is David Crosby, peace-loving dope smoker and political activist of Crosby Stills and Nash, who in 1982 did nine months for possession of heroin and cocaine, only to end up in trouble again in 2004, when he was caught in possession of an ounce of marijuana plus knives and a gun. He did a mere 12 hours in jail and skilful lawyers  managed to spring him with little more than bail and the threat of serious time if he didn’t clean up his act.

Heroin had been the downfall of troubled singer Billie Holiday many years earlier, when the frail woman with the voice of a tiny angel had been sentenced to several months in a low-security institution for possession.

Ike Turner, band leader and husband of Tina, fell foul of a catalogue of charges in the 1980s, from possession of weapons including a grenade to the usual drugs and, just for a change, failing to pay his taxes.

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Cash in the slammer: Okay, nobody leaves till I’ve finished. Hear?

When he got out, Turner revived his career to an extent, but acheved nothing like Tina’s international stardom. He eventually succumbed to a cocaine overdose complicated by other medications for bipolar disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

The murky world of 1990s rap meant trouble for the likes of Tupac Shakur, who served  a sentence for sexual assault and had a number one album while he was in there. In that dark period that gave us the term “drive-by shooting”  and the gallows-humour name Death Row Records, Tupac died in hospital as a result of “respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest in connection with multiple gunshot wounds”.

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And their Christmas album? Why, Christmas on Death Row, of course.

Meanwhile over in the UK, Gary Glitter (Leader of the Gang, Do You Wanna Touch me?) would come to grief for his paedophile tendency, as would singer, songwriter and producer Jonathan King.

So, anybody out there still want to be a rock star? If it’s songwriting you’re interested in, it’s a lifestyle that will generate plenty of material.