The Songwriters – The last verse

Well, it’s got to end somewhere, so this is it.

When I started this series, the aim of which was to celebrate writers whose material was suitable for others as well as themselves, it was not my intention to concentrate on the 1960s (it started, after all, with Sandy Linzer, whose best known work was with Odyssey in the late 70s), but as the names came and I wrote them up, that’s just the way it went. Whatever it was about that decade that made songwriters so important, they just were.

There are, no doubt, deserving cases who I’ve missed (in the 60s Mob, Guy Fletcher and Doug Flett, for instance), but if I could go to a desert island with the songs of the writers in this series available to me, I would be a happy man. By all means let me know the people you would have included, remembering the criteria, as explained months ago in the second post of the series:

“When someone told Ian Dury he had written some great songs, his reaction was that he didn’t agree. To him, a great song was something that could be successful when other people sang it, and his material was very reliant on his voice and persona for its effect. This series is dedicated to writers who do or did that, whether or not they had hits in their own right.”

Admittedly the Sixties is the era I know most about, and although there is plenty of variety in my music collection, a quick analysis of my iTunes will show that that’s what I keep coming back to.

For me, discovering new music doesn’t necessarily mean finding people who have only started working recently. As great as it is to hear something brand new that is as good as anything, ever, I also find a thrill in stumbling across something for the first time that has been around since I was a boy but has somehow escaped me until now.

One of the first songs I downloaded when the iTunes era began was Our Day Will Come, a teen longing number with cheesy organ backing, by Ruby and the Romantics, and included here just because I like it. It was written by the little-known Mort Garson and lyricist Bob Hilliard, whose other credits include the words for Tower of Strength and Seven Little Girls (sitting in the back seat). Our Day Will Come may well have brushed past me in 1963 but only hit me in the face around 40 years later, just before Amy Winehouse brought it to the attention of a new generation. Similarly, Patti and the Emblems’ Mixed Up Shook Up Girl from 1964 was an exciting surprise when it finally found me in 2012, particularly as I had known a completely different song of the same title by Mink de Ville in 1978.

Anyway, what with half a dozen Motown writers, plus Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney and all the rest, the early years of the second half of the 20th century emerged as the key era of the pop song, and as much as the following decades might have been full of songs written by people for other people, it was difficult to find deserving candidates after about 1980.

Even such thrusting British contenders as Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, whose names were all over the British charts in the late 80s and early 90s, don’t really fall into this category, because their success was due as much to their magic touch with production as to the tunes and the lyrics.

Body Talk and Music and Lights by Imagination kept chart music alive for me when many of my friends wouldn’t be seen dead buying a single, and even Bananarama were given a certain credibility by Jolley and Swain’s Cruel Summer and Robert de Niro’s Waiting – but again, take away the production and give the songs to somebody else and they don’t cry out for new treatments. Even Michael Buble (who, to borrow a saying from a different area, would shag anything) wouldn’t be interested.

It was the same thing for Stock Aitken and Waterman, who churned out some great stuff. You might not like I Should Be So Lucky, but who can dismiss You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)? But the songs on their own, naked and unadorned? Not so much.

As for the songs featured in this post, there’s one by Paul Simon, whose songs have been covered by plenty of people, but not necessarily done as well as he and Art Garfunkel did them.

I looked for a great version of a Don McLean song and found one by Joanna Wang, a new name to me.

As different versions go, there is nothing quite so subtle or amusing as Vic Reeves’s treatment of Born Free. Written by John Barry and lyricist Don Black, it was an early 60s hit for Matt Monro, and Reeves’s version shows, I think, that he loves the song. But he’s a comedian, so he does this thing with it, in an affectionate way. And there’s a nice little sample from Strawberry Letter 23 by the Brothers Johnson thrown in – that  plink plonky keyboard riff that keeps cropping up.

And finally – a little self-indulgent, I admit –  a song from the relatively small but precious box of jewels that is the work of one of my obscure favourites, Pete Dello. He wrote and sang I Can’t Let Maggie Go, a hit for his band Honeybus in 1968, and they also did the original version of Do I Still Figure In Your Life, one of the pillars of Joe Cocker’s debut album, which also included covers of  With A Little Help From My Friends by the Beatles and two by Bob Dylan. That’s pretty exalted company. You may also remember I’m A Gambler by Lace (1969) – that was him. He’s a music teacher now, apparently.

And even more finally, here is a song written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway with bassist Herbie Flowers (whose name comes first on the record label, so maybe the basic idea was his) that should have appeared in The 60s English Mob a couple of posts ago. As fine a love song as was ever written, featuring top British session musicians and vocals by Madeline Bell, a sublime singer who did a lot of session work but never quite cracked it as a solo act. Last I heard she was living in Spain and singing jazz.

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The wisdom of pop songs – Rain is bad

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
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Double A side. Paperback Writer probably won because it was upbeat, but Rain is equally catchy

This thread of the blog being called The Wisdom of Pop Songs, we’re not just going to look at songs about the weather, but what the weather symbolizes.

Rain has always been a negative symbol: sun good, rain bad. That, of course, depends on where you live, but famous pop songs don’t generally come from the Sahara or from drought-stricken countries.

If you go out in the rain, you get wet, and most people don’t like that. Being cold is one thing. Being cold and wet is another. Besides, rain spoils your hairstyle and doesn’t look good when soaked into your clothes. On the ground it forms mud, which means dirty shoes and maybe strips of gunge at the bottom of your trousers.

No one, then, likes being caught in the rain – unless they’re in love, and we will come to that next week.

This week, rain is bad. Ask anyone. Ask John Lennon, who wrote Rain, the B-side of Paperback Writer in 1966. “If the rain comes, they run and hide their head. They might as well be dead.” That’s a bit extreme, but maybe he was speaking metaphorically, and rain represented bad things in general. Actually, at one point he says “Rain, I don’t mind”. A gorgeous song, anyway, the psychedelic sound just developing in Lennon’s voice, and Paul McCartney’s bass going where no bass player had gone before (listen to it later – it’s at the bottom of the page).

A couple of years before Lennon wrote that, he would have heard The Cascades’ one-off hit Rhythm of the Rain, in which the singer imagines the rain is communicating with him.

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain
Telling me just what a fool I’ve been

Listen, pal, I know you’re young and romantic, but you’ll get yourself locked up if you carry on like that.

As I just mentioned, young lovers can find walking in the rain quite charming, but not Oran “Juice” Jones in 1986. What bothered him, though, was that his girlfriend was walking in the rain with someone else – holding the guy’s hand, no less – and if anyone was going to be getting soaked in that way, it should have been him.

Paul Simon came up with a very different scenario in I Do It For Your Love on the Still Crazy album. Daydreaming about the beginning of a relationship, he sings of buying furniture for the couple’s  rather modest abode.

Found a rug in an old junk shop
Brought it home to you
Along the way the colours ran
The orange bled the blue

Let’s hope he wasn’t clutching it to his nice white shirt, or that will have been ruined too.

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Rain on a window. On some glass, at least. And it could have been sprayed by a hose. Looks like rain, anyway

Peter Gabriel’s song Red Rain (1986 on the album So) may not be about rain at all. Again, it may have been about something bad happening, and poor old scapegoat precipitation gets the blame. It’s falling down all over him, apparently. But he’s dreaming, so it could be anything. He could have had a deprived childhood in which his family had tomato ketchup with everything to enhance the bland food, so he shook the Heinz bottle so many times he was sick of it.

It’s a theory, that’s all. These are pop songs, not pronouncements from on high.

Carole King left us in no doubt about her feelings in her 1962 hit “It might as well rain until September”. She didn’t mean that in a good way. Her boyfriend had gone away for the summer and she wasn’t happy about it. Let’s hope he and the sun returned before her tennis shoes went rotten.

ELO made the wet stuff guilty by association in Showdown (1973), when an unspecified situation is heading for a confrontation that can bring no good, and the singer concludes:

It’s raining all over the world
Tonight, the longest night

Eurythmics (they didn’t go in for definite articles) joined in the moaning in 1984 with this:

Here comes the rain again
Raining in my head like a tragedy
Tearing me apart like a new emotion

Little Annie Lennox wanted better weather, which would somehow revive a dead relationship.

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This was a comedy record. It is excruciating. But I still have it in my iTunes

James Taylor’s breakthrough hit Fire and Rain is said by some to be metaphorical, with the elements of the title representing his drug addiction (fire) and alcohol consumption (rain), and for once there could be something in that. Send the forensics team in to examine the song and you find that the Suzanne whom he had always thought he would see again was one Suzanne Schnerr, an old friend who had committed suicide, while the “flying machines in pieces on the ground” refers to the breakup of his old band, Flying Machine.

So it’s a rarity: a pop song that actually means something.

Meanwhile, back at the rainy day complaints department, I Can’t Stand The Rain, as popularized by Ann Peebles and covered by many others including Tina Turner, reggae singer Hortense Ellis, Paul Rodgers and Michael Bolton, gives us rain against the window as emblematic of the distress caused by yet another romantic breakup.

When Bob Dylan sang about a hard rain that was going to fall, he was at his most enigmatic: the bard of rock talking about who knows what. Something to do with heavy water, a part of the process of creating nuclear energy and therefore capable of more bad than good? You get the feeling Dylan is never going to tell us the truth, because his protest songs and other heavy material rely on their mystery.

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Yeah, it’s a title, okay? That’s all

Way back in the 1950s, Buddy Holly presented no such conundrums with Raining in my Heart, in which everything in the garden is rosy except one thing: the girl doesn’t love him. The weather man doesn’t know that, though, so he has announced glorious sunshine. Insensitive berk.

That’s more like it. Pop music is for basic emotions. It’s there to tell us we’re not alone and others have felt the way we do. It’s there for us, come rain or shine.

 

Next Friday: rain is good

Confessions of an expat – Singing by the sea

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The wild east coast of Grand Turk. Before Hurricane Ike in 2008 there was a hotel here

A friend (an expat) who ran a business in Grand Turk told me that if you kept your head down you could tick along quite nicely. That is only possible, though, once you have been through the mill of officialdom.

One of the legacies of British colonial times in the Caribbean is 19th century-style bureaucracy. While bureaucrats are everywhere, holding up those in a hurry through their insistence on doing things by the book, that book can be relatively straightforward or unnecessarily complicated.

In Grand Turk you would start at one civil service office, where there were forms to be filled in. Then there  would be the inevitable consequence of filling in those forms: the need to go to the accounts office half a mile away on the sea front and pay a fee. With the receipt for that fee you could go back to the first office and continue the process, which ended with the filling in of another form and another trip to the accounts department to pay another fee. It gets tedious and it gets expensive. But you can’t argue, and the worst thing you can do in another country is tell them what they’re doing wrong and how the system can be improved. That makes you an American smartass (people in in general who speak English are presumed to be American, and your London/Scottish/Australian accent counts for nothing).

One day while driving through the back streets near the centre of Cockburn Town we passed a building through the open doors of which we saw shiny new stainless steel equipment. Aha. A restaurant we didn’t know about. There was no sign outside, but they don’t really go in for signage in Grand Turk. With such a small population the tradition is that everyone knows where everything is and where everyone lives.

We climbed the stairs to be greeted, if that is the word, by two noisy dogs, followed by a blonde woman whom we had seen in the Sandbar. She and her husband were Canadian and were in the process of setting up a ginger beer business. ‘Hard’ ginger beer, that is, containing alcohol at about the same strength as ordinary bottled beer. The stainless steel containers were part of the brewing process.

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You can’t get the ginger beer anymore, but the bar and the smiles are still there

Hard ginger beer has a long history in the Caribbean, and this couple had experimented with recipes to produce a beer that tasted good and had a pretty broad appeal. Like many of the other expats, I got a bit of a kick out of the fact that this stuff, although not exactly homemade, was produced on a small scale by some friends of ours.

With live entertainment being at a premium, and being a singer-guitarist myself, I eventually got a regular gig at the Sandbar. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience: the expat crowd were mainly around my age and receptive to my material, which  is big on Neil Young, Bob Dylan and James Taylor, with a song here and another there by everyone from The Beatles to Bonnie Raitt and Steve Miller, plus a bit of reggae, a touch of folk and even a wander down a country lane at times.

The Yorkshireman who ran the cruise centre lent me their PA system and there was a brief flurry of excitement at the musical new kid in town. A drummer appeared from nowhere, an Italian who played a single instrument called a djembe, which most of us in our ignorance would refer to as a bongo. Whatever it was called, it added rhythm to my solitary guitar and he played along to whatever I launched into from a repertoire of several hundred songs.

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One Thursday night at a bar on stilts over the Caribbean. That’s me making an easy chord look difficult, with a real sky in the background

Last week I told you about Mitch, who has been playing in Grand Turk for years, and I have to say I don’t know how he does it. For my own amusement as much as the audience’s, I tried to add two or three different songs every week, and variety was added some weeks when a holidaymaker who could play or sing would come up and do a bit. There was a regular who came to Grand Turk two or three times a year for the diving and brought his electric guitar with him. With a bandana adding a touch of the rock star to his balding head he would blaze away on whatever I was playing.

Another who turned up more than once was a Canadian who played exclusively his own songs. That’s a brave thing to do unless you’re Neil Young or Bob Dylan; I used to do one of mine now and then, but in my experience in such a setting  you’ve got to give people something they know.

A couple turned up once who sang I-can’t-remember-what and then did some backing vocals on California Dreaming. A solo singer-guitarist had everyone bewitched with his first song but didn’t have more great material to back it up. And one of the local masseuses, a Guyanese girl, would get up and do three or four with me each week, which involved rehearsals.

I was always on the lookout for talent, but more often than not, people who can sing a few songs very well in private just haven’t got the confidence to do it in front of an audience. And it is different. The next time you see someone giving you a couple of hours of good music, just remember it doesn’t happen by magic. As Ian Dury said on What A Waste, “First night nerves every one-night stand”. Yes, it’s fun to do when there’s a bit of a crowd and they’re on your side, but on a quiet night it can be a lonely job.

 

Next Tuesday: all things must pass

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Drugs

drugs 1
Let me take you down, cos I’m going to…

The issue of drug-taking has been around pop music a long time. It is an emotive subject and one not to be dismissed lightly, whether one is of the “marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and it’s never done me any harm” school or the “just say no  – drugs are drugs and they’re bad” persuasion.

There are three basic categories of songs about drugs:

  1. I’m doing it and I don’t care
  2. I’m doing it and I wish I could stop
  3. Don’t do it

There is also the misunderstood group: songs that don’t condone the use of drugs but are accused of it anyway.

So, group one: I’m doing it and I don’t care. The 60s was the decade when it all came out into the open. The Beatles’ music became intentionally strange, with sounds we had never heard before and lyrics that were not exactly nonsense but didn’t apparently make sense. While most people were attempting to make drug references without attracting the attention of the police, John Lennon deliberately gave the game away with LSD in the first letters of words in the title of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Jimi Hendrix took up the baton in the same way with (The stars that play with) Laughing Sam’s Dice. This was a world away from the covert references in songs like Doctor Robert and the Small Faces’ Here Come The Nice (‘he’s always there when I need some speed’).

Bob Dylan had  gleefully announced on Rainy Day Women nos. 12 & 35 that “Everybody must get stoned”, but while every pop and rock musician on the planet was using cannabis, marijuana, pot, grass, weed or whatever you wanted to call it, it was only the big boys who felt secure enough to come right out with it. Then on the Woodstock album at the end of the decade, Country Joe and the Fish shouted “Marijuana” and it was plain to all that there was a lot of it about.

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Freaky Freddie Frolly had some I know. He was last seen picking green flowers in a field of snow

But that was just marijuana, widely regarded as nothing to worry about, while LSD was damaging brains in the most high profile way. The first guitarist, singer and leader of Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, was noticeably impaired almost before the band became famous, with the extent of his illness disguised by the childlike persona he assumed on much of their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. His solo work gives us a vivid insight into his problems, as he can barely get through even short songs, and his own awareness of his condition in Vegetable Man could almost be funny if it weren’t tragic.

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The opening track on British stoners May Blitz’s first album was Smoking the Day Away

More harrowing was the decline of Peter Green, who had the same role with Fleetwood Mac. The acclaimed blues guitarist who brought us the heavenly tranquility of Albatross revealed a darker side on Man of the World, before the self-disparaging Oh Well and the nightmarish Green Manalishi, which sound like the final desperate flourishes of a man falling overboard.

Meanwhile in the US, while the Grateful Dead were happily smoking and tripping and playing marathon guitar solos, The Velvet Underground were mired in the cold, terrifying world of heroin.

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A different kettle of fish – and no laughing matter

Some of the greatest figures in rock found themselves out of their depth as the drugs that broadened their musical palate took away their control. When The Who’s leader Pete Townshend sought  professional help he was told by one specialist that she could cure his problem “but I might cure your talent too”.

As the 70s developed its own character, out of Jamaica came the rolling, bouncing, booming phenomenon of reggae, which celebrated the use of marijuana so loudly that it gave the impression to the rest of the world that it was legal there. In fact it wasn’t and isn’t; it was just rampant, but the likes of Bob Marley, only slightly less godlike in life than he is in death, epitomized all that was good about smoking heaven’s herb.

Sadly, while a generation was telling its parents and less cool friends that it was all about peace and love, not all rastas turned out to be such positive role models as Marley.

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Look: no hands

 

Next Friday: the chemicals get more sophisticated but political correctness takes over.

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – When life gets real

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

Serious issues call for serious songs

mcguire
Don’t look at me – I didn’t write it

While the vast majority of pop, rock and country songs are concerned with matters of the heart and libido, people do get serious about other things from time to time.

The 1960s being a time of great change and when relatively young people began to have a voice, that is also the period when songs with a message started to hit the charts. Before that we might have had Pete Seeger getting intense about something, but he wasn’t getting into the Top 40 with it.

The man who really made pop grow up was Bob Dylan, who set about making us aware of racial inequality (The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll) and also wider political issues. With The Times They Are a-Changing he didn’t get too specific, but he was addressing the world at large and politicians in particular.

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There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke…

This sort of thing struck a chord with John Lennon and just as the Beatles’ output was maturing musically, so he began to write about subjects other than girls and drugs.

Like Dylan, he didn’t focus on one thing he wanted sorted out, but made it clear that people were watching what was going on in the world. Revolution, the B-side of Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude, took a scattergun approach that sprayed venom at not just the establishment but the activists who were going about things in what he felt was the wrong way.

More focused was Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction, which, with its disturbing message of impending doom delivered in the singer’s charmless growl, put the mockers on many a thoughtless, carefree party if anybody took the trouble to think about what he was saying.

McGuire didn’t write the song, though. It was written by P. F. Sloan, a talented if peripheral figure on the California music scene who also worked with such political lightweights as The Searchers, the Mamas and the Papas and Herman’s Hermits.

An altogether more mellow, if equally intense, hit in the late 60s was Marvin Gaye’s Abraham Martin and John, in which Motown temporarily abandoned its fixation with boy-girl relationships to look at some of the great people who had been cut down before they had finished their good works: anti-slavery President Abraham Lincoln, the recently-murdered Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and his also recently blown-away brother Bobby.

Nuclear apocalypse was on the agenda as early as 1961 with a well-known song by the little-known Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson. Morning Dew was a chilling tale of a world when it was too late, the bombs having trashed the planet. The song was picked up later in the decade by the Grateful Dead in the US and the Jeff Beck Group in the UK, its undemanding chord structure also making it a popular choice for amateur bands who wanted to spend half an hour playing the same song.

Crosby Still and Nash ploughed the same lyrical furrow with Wooden Ships, bringing a nasty splash of reality to their otherwise happily hippie first album.

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Shot by his own father: caring old Marvin Gaye

The 70s didn’t seem to care about such things, or so pop history would suggest, but there was the odd speck of blight on the hedonistic fruit, such as Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes’ Wake Up Everybody and Marvin Gaye again with What’s Going On. Marvin may well have been thinking this years later when he was shot and killed by his dad.

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No, it’s not about Ebola, and it’s not about homosexuals, it’s about an aeroplane

Then the UK’s Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark saw fit to build a song around the name of the USAF bomber that dropped its load on Hiroshima in 1945. Enola Gay, you should have stayed at home yesterday, they lamented.

Themes of saving the planet abounded in the 1980s and 90s, as Do They Know It’s Christmas and We Are the World drew attention to the plight of starving millions in drought-ravaged Africa, with superstars drawn into the studios to sing just a few words and maybe join in the chorus.

Sensible and serious don’t add up to sexy, as the earnest, politically-aware British singer Billy Bragg admitted many years after his 80s-90s heyday when he conceded that, while he had fondly imagined his songs about unions and working men were the standout tracks in his repertoire, he eventually realized that people preferred the love songs.

Meanwhile, Sting’s career took a dramatic turn to the left when he became interested not only in global nuclear safety (“I hope the Russians love their children too”) but also the destruction of the rainforest. We found out about a hole in the ozone layer, which probably 99.9% of us had never even heard of, and while aerosol manufacturers frantically looked for ways of making things go tschhhhhh without using harmful chemicals, the former Police singer found himself on chat shows being obliged to be a grownup.

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Sting stands up to be counted

And that’s not what it’s all about, is it? Rock’n’roll is about blue suede shoes and “my baby done this and that”. But somebody’s “baby” flew the Enola Gay and the men who killed the Kennedys and Martin Luther King had girlfriends in their past too.

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – God, I love you

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
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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.