The wisdom of pop songs – Sun worshippers

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts


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.




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



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.

drugs 2
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.

drugs 3
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.

drugs 5
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.

drugs 4
Look: no hands


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



The wisdom of pop songs – violence

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
hey joe
Check the lyrics: “I’m going down to shoot my old lady”.

It’s a thin line between love and hate. We know that because the song of that name says so.

In 1934 Cole Porter, the composer of countless classic songs, brought us the sad tale Miss Otis Regrets, in which the lady in question got so upset when a man had his wicked way with her and didn’t love her afterwards that she shot him. Killed him.

So much for the misty-eyed notion of the past: “Ah, more innocent times”. This was an era when Al Capone was in prison and sufferering from syphilis-induced dementia, and John Dillinger breathed his last in a hail of bullets.

Perhaps that is why there seems to have been no furore about Porter creating a bad role model and inciting people to violence. When you can’t see across the street for flying lead, what is one more seducer in the graveyard?

In today’s politically correct world, such a story of mayhem would probably be banned. That the world of rap music has largely escaped such censure for its litany of bitter diatribes and stories of drive-by shootings can only be due to the fact that the people who would like to have that sort of thing banned can’t understand the words because of da way dem muthas sing.

Confessions account for several notable pop violence ditties. When Jimi Hendrix made an international hit out of a song, Hey Joe, that had been kicking around for a few years (and we’re not even sure who wrote it), he wasn’t expressing murderous thoughts, but explaining why he had shot his girlfriend. It wouldn’t get him very far in front of a real judge and jury (ask Oscar Pistorius), but somehow Hendrix came over as a nice guy in spite of what he was telling us.

On a completely different note, Bessie Smith once sang about domestic violence and apparently excused her man for hitting her. “I’d rather my man would hit me, than for him to jump up and quit me,” and “I swear I won’t call no copper if I get beat up by my papa” must have raised eyebrows in the 1920s, but nothing like they would today. They are not her lyrics, in fact, because the song was written by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, but even so, she was delivering the message. When Mary Coughlan recorded it in 1985, the strong-minded Irish singer switched “hit” and “quit” in the first of those lines, making her disapproval clear, and changed the second to “I swear I would call a copper…”

And yes, I have a load of spare ammunition under there too

Messing around with a lyric in that way wouldn’t always work (Hey Joe, where you going with those heavy thoughts in your mind? I’m going to have a word with my old lady…), but then some songs are obviously just youthful rock’n’roll bravado while others seem relevant in reality.

A more modern take on domestic violence came in Suzanne Vega’s 1980s song Luka, which drew attention to the fact, even though the Luka character seems resigned to her fate, urging her neighbor to ignore anything that sounds like violence late at night. It is not pop music’s job to offer solutions, but it can draw our attention to things.

No laughing matter: Suzanne Vega gets serious

Quite what Bob Marley thought he was doing when he admitted he shot the sheriff but denied shooting the deputy is not clear. Was shooting sheriffs okay in Jamaica at that time? Although his work is streaked with trouble with the police, Marley’s general message was that he and his fellows should be left alone to smoke ganja as and when they wanted, because they weren’t doing anyone any harm.

All of these songs, though, are from the fringes of pop: blues, rock, rap and reggae. In the simpler, more peaceful world of true pop music, from Doris Day to One Direction, no such skullduggery lurks. And anyway, it’s only rock’n’roll, so we can’t take it too seriously.