The wisdom of pop songs – The thrill of the foreign lover

Foreigners. How exotic they seem, just because we don’t know much about their culture and their country. We romanticize their urban squalor when it is no more attractive than a council estate in Grimsby. We think they know things we don’t – about love, sex, food, wine, football, all the simple pleasures of life.

And English-speaking songwriters enshrine these thoughts in three-minute paeans (a work that praises or honours its subject, according to my phone’s Merriam Webster dictionary).

So let’s hear it for the foreign boys and girls who have moved our lyricists and tunesmiths in the pop music era.

Beginning with… The Girl From Ipanema, of course. This was actually written by the celebrated Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and originally had lyrics in Portuguese before Norman Gimbel gave it some English language words. And it was made famous in 1962 by Astrud Gilberto, a Brazilian songbird who made up for the fact that she couldn’t sing her way out of a paper bag by exuding a charmingly off-key vulnerability.

So it’s not really about a foreign girl after all, because it was written and sung by Brazilians about one of their own. But it was so popular with British and American singers that it sounds like a gringo’s song of adoration for the exotic beauty who’s on her way to the beach – and not the pebbles of Brighton or the fish-and-chips  aroma of Blackpool, but what we fondly imagine to be a beautiful, pristine expanse of sand populated by sparsely clad totty of Ms Gilberto’s ilk.

This leads naturally, if unfortunately, to the disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris, who recently did time for sex offences. In 1968 he had a minor hit in the UK with the utterly Ipanema- style Fijian Girl, who was “undulating by”, if you please. Don’t you undulate at me, young lady, or I’ll put you over my knee.

Meanwhile in the southern USA, country singer Marty Robbins brought us a tale of ill-starred love as a man in El Paso falls for a Mexican barmaid, his passion for whom leads him to shoot a cowboy she’s flirting with and go on the run, to eventually be shot dead himself as he flees the law. See, just because a woman makes a good chilli con carne doesn’t mean she’s not trouble.

The Beatles made passing reference to Ukraine girls and Moscow girls in Back in the USSR, Paul McCartney’s affectionate riposte to the Beach Boys’ glib assessment of various geographical groups of American girls, Back in the USA.

In 1970 Canadian band the Guess Who sang scathingly about an American Woman they wanted nothing to do with, and whether this was really about American politics and business rather than a woman doesn’t actually matter. It’s a solid, catchy bit of pop rock with a nice guitar riff, and that’s all we’re concerned with here.

Getting back to the Americas, Neil Young seems to have a bit of an obsession with that region’s past, and in 1979 on the stupendous album Rust Never Sleeps he fantasised about a native American beauty, Pocahontas, who famously married an Englishman.

Staying on that side of the Atlantic, British folk-rockers Stackridge brought us a panoramic piece of whimsy in The Road to Venezuela, which conjures up a South American atmosphere without ever getting very specific. There’s pampas grass, llamas and a millionairess involved but the singer doesn’t end up with her. It’s just a breezy, acoustic guitar-driven few minutes that seems to take you somewhere but doesn’t really, which after all is kind of pop music’s job.

A little-known  gem from 1994 is British band The Auteurs’ New French Girlfriend, which again creates an appealing feeling without completing the story. French girls are lovely and he’s got one on tap – that’s the deal here.

So, with all the thousands of Polish and Latvian girls in the UK, plus Latinos and heaven knows who in the US, it seems the local guys are happy with the home-grown talent. But of course a few years in your adopted country makes you part foreign and part local, as Bruce Springsteen shows us all over his album The Wild The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, with songs such as Incident on 57th Street, in which Spanish Johnny woos Puerto Rican Jane, while another Latin lovely, Rosalita, gets a song all to herself.

The wisdom of pop songs – Songs about occupations

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Wisdom of Pop Songs – songs about cars

car 1
The key is in the title

It says a lot about the difference between the sexes that, of all the songs about motor vehicles, the vast majority are sung by men and even those that are voiced by women were written by men. As one of the few exceptions, this non-car lover finds the stereotype of the male who loves his four-wheeled mistress as much as his wife to be sad but justified.

One of the earliest examples in the rock’n’roll era is also one of the most entertaining, courtesy of the wit and libido of Chuck Berry. No Particular Place to Go tells of our hero being out for a drive with his girlfriend with one thing on his mind: finding a secluded spot where they can get down to some teenage hanky panky.

Trouble and frustration ensue when the admirably safety conscious stud can’t engage in anything other than a hand-contorting fumble because she’s wearing a seat belt and he can’t undo it, even though he is presumably free to move himself.

All the way home I held a grudge
But that safety belt it wouldn’t budge

cars 2
Being good latter-day Mods, the Merton Parkas may have been referring to scooters – but you can ruin a nice suit that way if it rains

The Beach Boys went through a car phase in tandem with the surfing one in response to the drag racing craze in the early 60s.

Those of us who are neither American nor interested in cars were baffled by the fact that these people were singing about their Little Deuce Coupe. Even when you know they’re talking about a car, the meaning is not immediately clear to most people, although Wikipedia provides an explanation: apparently it’s a 1932 Ford Coupe (coupe – missing an accent on the e – should be pronounced coopay, and means it has a soft top that can be taken down to let the sun in, while deuce is for the year) jazzed up as a “hot rod”. Well, whatever turns you on.

Less complicated – and more in keeping with the traditional pop song – was the same band’s Don’t Worry Baby, in which the narrator has bragged about his car and now has to put his money where his mouth is by racing. He’s nervous but his girlfriend tells him it will be all right because she loves him. That’s the beauty of life lived through pop music: you can come out with the most inane nonsense and it sounds good. In this case it also  reemphasises songwriter Brian Wilson’s highly unusual and unhip tendency to concede he wasn’t a big, tough young adult but an insecure teenager. The individual who wrote When I Grow Up to Be a Man  is scared and doesn’t mind admitting it.

But I can’t back down now
Because I’ve pushed the other guys too far

cars 3
I’m a friendly stranger in a black sedan, they said. Won’t you hop inside my car, they said. I’m calling the police, she said.

Wilson Pickett’s much-covered 60s track Mustang Sally makes liberal use of the double entendre, and particularly the link between riding in a car and, err, the other kind of riding that often involves lying down. If a song such as this even wants to be taken literally, it seems that our hero bought his girl a Ford Mustang and now would rather drive it than play pistons and cylinders with him.

All you wanna do is ride around Sally
Ride, Sally, ride

As all observers of male stereotypes know, sport cars have to be red because that is more phallic, and so it is that Prince gave us Little Red Corvette, although in a major break with tradition, he seems to be complaining that she only wants one thing from him and he’s shocked.

A body like yours
Ought to be in jail
Cos it’s on the verge of being obscene

But then apparently he sees the good side of this state of affairs and reverts to type:
Move over baby
Give me the keys
Cos I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine

cars 4
Baby you’re much too fast – hang on, what am I thinking? Okay, I’ve got 10 minutes, so let’s have a look under the hood

And so to the girls. Bruce Springsteen’s Pink Cadillac works on a  different level when he sings it rather than Natalie Cole. When he’s singing about her pink Cadillac it’s loaded with leering meaning, whereas when she sings about his, it’s just a car.

Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, co-written by Bob Neuwirth and recorded just three days before her death, seems to be innuendo-free and is a tale of envy. She wants a Merc because all her friends have Porsches.

This is in stark contrast to GTO, a big 1980s hit in the UK for Sinitta which is so obviously written by a man and so macho and suggestive that he must have been kidding. The words the writer puts into the mouth of the little pop songbird include:

He’s got a big red GTO
Everywhere we go the GTO must go
But I wonder if he’ll ever know
If he loves me
Or just his GTO

So, the eternal triangle has four legs and four wheels. Who’d have thought it?