The wisdom of pop songs – Boredom

Boredom may not be exclusively the province of the young, but it’s young people who complain about it. As soon as we become old enough to give an assessment of life, we see it as disappointing. It should be more exciting. Why can’t I be James Bond or Spongebob? This town/village/capital city is a drag. Nothing to do.

This is reflected in pop songs, where although the acts we see associated with the boredom songs may be middle aged, elderly or dead by now, the songs they brought us came early in their career.

The Lovin’ Spoonful, making a long-overdue debut in this blog, sang mainly about young love and optimism. John Sebastian was that kind of guy, and he was mature for his years too. But when touring became a chore  he told us all about it in a song called Boredom.

Boredom: hanging by myself
In a bleak motel
Overnight in a small town

What happened to the groupies and marijuana, that’s what I want to know. Surely he wasn’t bored with them too.

Around the same time, the late 60s, The Statler Brothers had a minor one-off hit with Flowers on the Wall, in which a rejected boyfriend tells his cruel lover what it’s like being without her.

That sort of whingeing gets you nowhere, but try telling that to a lovesick fool – and we’ve all been that person.
In the 70s The Clash brought us I’m So Bored With The USA, which  was a punked-up version of the idle rich’s idea of boredom. They weren’t bored with the USA at all, just resentful of the country’s attitudes.

Morrissey, a far more suitable candidate to express this sort of thing, wrote and recorded one of his fascinating little slices of life in 1991 on the Kill Uncle album, the splendid first lines of which are

Your boyfriend he went down on one knee
Well could it be he’s only got one knee?

He then goes on to tell us about the obnoxious girl, including this:

I tried to surprise you, I crept up behind you
With a homeless Chihuahua
You cooed for an hour
Then handed him back and said “You’ll never guess,
I’m bored now”

You will note that these are not hugely commercial songs. Boredom is not a money-spinner.

American indie band The Eels droned spookily in the 1990s with Novocaine for the Soul, a typical tale of young disillusionment:

Guess whose living here
With the great undead
This paint-by-numbers life
Is f***ing with my head

All together, parents: Get out of that bedroom and wash my car!

The Pet Shop Boys, an act with dilettante tendencies, brought us Being Boring, a response to criticism by someone in Japan who didn’t think they were exciting enough for a band.

“Spokesman for a generation” Pete Townshend of The Who tackled the subject on their 1974 concept album Quadrophenia, which amounts to one long tale of woe for a young man let down by life. On the hit single 5:15, for instance,

Magically bored
On a quiet street corner
Free frustration
In our minds and our toes

Treatment in this case was administered in the form of drugs: amphetamines and barbiturates, as required.

The master of the yawning-in-his-silk-dressing-gown approach was a much earlier songwriting genius, Cole Porter, who summed up the dinner-and-cocktails lifestyle of his 1930s contemporaries in I Get a Kick Out of You.

I get no kick from champagne
Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all

Some versions (and there have been many, from Frank Sinatra in 1954 to the 1970s’ Gary Shearston) include cocaine on the list of things that fail to get the singer going. Ho hum, what is to be done with these people?

A more circumspect view came from Jethro Tull on their second album, 1969’s Stand Up, and the song Back to the Family, where songwriter Ian Anderson sings about a character not unlike himself, under pressure with work in London and retreating to the his home in the country, where he immediately misses the buzz of the city.

Rod Stewart had a good idea when he was bored in 1972: write to an old flame, a few years your senior, and try to rekindle some action. You Wear It Well may have been a thinly-veiled retread of Maggie May, but it lolloped along with a sort of lonely swagger.

The Rolling Stones in the late 60s had taken the  drug-treatment line on Mother’s Little Helper, the bored housewife resorting to some chemical assistance from “a little yellow pill”.

The problem was still also in the 80s, as Tears for Fears with Mad World, a simmering stew of disappointment, tedium and desperation. And as for the 21st century, well… yawn… I don’t know if I can be bothered. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz


The wisdom of pop songs – Flying

Songs about air travel

If  iTunes or YouTube survive the destruction of mankind, however and whenever that may be, the extraterrestrial historians of the future will be able to use pop songs to study our interests, preoccupations, habits, likes and dislikes. And one of the things they will discover, in addition to the fact that we are obsessed with love, is that human beings could fly. Having studied skeletons, they will conclude that it wasn’t self-powered flight, which must mean a machine was involved.

Going through the list of songs available to them alphabetically, they may stumble across Airport, a mid-70s single by English pub-rockers-turned-new-wavers The Motors.  And they will find that love has got mixed up in it as usual, with the airport being blamed in this instance for taking someone’s loved one away.

“Irrational,” they might conclude, Spock-like, “but then they destroyed their own planet, so what can you expect?”

Labouring through their research – and think how distracting it would be, having a zillion songs to listen to – they might then find Joni Mitchell’s This Flight Tonight (covered, strangely enough, by the raucous rock band Nazareth), in which she is regretting getting on the thing, which a Steve Miller song will tell them was called a Jet Airliner. In this, Miller is talking to the plane, urging it rather pointlessly not to take him too far from home.

To back up the theory that all this travel was not necessarily a good thing would be Leaving On A Jet Plane, most famously by Peter Paul and Mary but written by John Denver. He doesn’t want to be on that plane either. So did these humans have no control over air travel? Did it choose them, rather than the other way around?

The Beatles seemed happy enough on Back in the USSR, though, with screaming jet engines taking them to the former Soviet Union although other research indicated that they came from Liverpool, England.

Should these historians come across the legendary live recording of Woodstock, they might hear Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee introducing a song as I’m Going Home “by helicopter”, and painstaking detective work would reveal that the musicians playing at the 1969 concert got into the traffic-choked farm where it was taking place by air, and that Neil Young was thrilled to be sharing a chopper with the late, lamented Jimi Hendrix.

Travel in all its many forms will be revealed to the researchers by Oleta Adams’s 1991 tearjerker Get Here, soon adopted by worried lovers and spouses of American servicemen and women in the Gulf War, as every mode of transport is evoked as a possible means to bring them safely home. This was written by prolific songwriter Brenda Russell, of Piano in the Dark fame.

Perhaps the only recorded musical artifact that conjures up the dreamy, surreal quality of a long plane journey is 12 Hours of Sunset, in which the maverick English troubadour Roy Harper follows the rays around the world from Los Angeles to London. I will leave it to those of a scientific bent to work out if such a thing is plausible. Suffice it to say that it does capture those long hours when, despite the endless drinks and snacks, your destination never seems to get any closer and all you can do is surrender to the in-flight movies and your iPod.

The only other truly happy plane song is Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon, which, being a pre-space travel number, fails to grasp the fact that a pair of wings and a full tank isn’t going to get you to another planet. Of course, further study shows that the song wasn’t about air travel at all, but merely an elaborate way for a man to make the perennial suggestion to a woman. Or maybe he just loves her.

Step forward Peter Gabriel, whose late-80s hit Sledgehammer offers his girl “an aeroplane flying, if you bring your blue sky back”. As we have seen so many times before, we don’t have to try to make exact, logical sense out of this kind of thing. We get the idea.

Frustration and impatience of the practical variety is the usual atmosphere of these things, as corroborated by Gunga Din, The Byrds’s late 60s tale of returning to L.A. after a disastrous gig in New York.

Sitting backwards on this airplane
Is bound to make me sick
Spend your life on a DC8
And never get to pick

That’s not something you come across often these days, but you still get it on trains.

Moving into the 21st century, B.o.B. featuring Hayley Williams with a bit of help from Eminem brought us Airplane, in which an aspiring rap star is reflecting on the episodic nature of life and how when one mutha doesn’t give him a recording contract he will simply adjust the swivel of his baseball cap and try again. And the plane bit? Oh, he or she (they keep swapping lines) wants to pretend that airplanes were like shooting stars. Why? So they could wish on them, of course. Do try to keep up.

The wisdom of pop songs – odes to wine

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
wine 1
Would you like to taste it, Sir? Or just hurl it down your neck?

Drinking is a significant part of the rock’n’roll lifestyle and songwriters like to tell us about it.  In the early days they had an obsession with sweet wine, which is understandable, because wine was considered a sophisticated drink, but in many countries people didn’t know much about it and their tastes were not as sophisticated as their ambitions.

While the French and the Italians might have known a thing or two because it was part of their culture, in the UK (and, I suspect, the US) all people could relate to was what would now be considered dessert wines: Sauternes and so on are smooth and sweet and as such more attractive to the unrefined palate.

Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, a hit for both Jimmie Rodgers and Frankie Vaughan in the late 1950s, was written by the American folk group The Weavers. As it is only a song lyric, there is little point in wondering whether the lady’s kisses actually tasted sweeter than wine (and if so, sweeter than sweet wine or dry wine?) or if it was the feelings associated with the kisses that were sweet in the emotional sense.

wine 3
With your own winery, there’s no more late night trips to the booze shop

In these politically correct and health-conscious days, there is no place for a song that promotes excessive alcohol intake, such as Mario Lanza’s Drink Drink Drink, from The Student Prince, but then that’s not rock’n’roll anyway – and it’s not about wine. It was a hearty, back-slapping, rousing  show tune from the days when men were men and women were nervous, and the lusty young studs were egging each other on to inevitable drunken oblivion with steins of German beer, while celebrating the girls who were to be the recipients of their boozy overtures later, if they were still sober enough to manage it.

While the demon drink took its toll on some of music’s biggest names from Bill Haley to George Jones, others made it part of the act. Dean Martin had a sizeable hit with Little Old Wine Drinker Me.

wine 4
Old Pink Eyes is back

I am indebted to  the fiercely independent Modern Drunkard magazine for information about Thunderbird wine, made by the American  company that is now E & J Gallo. This was cheap stuff that came in a screwcap bottle (now respectable but at that time denoting “bum wine” ideal for getting bladdered on a park bench, or at home if you were posh).

In his tribute to a rock’n’roll legend, Sweet Gene Vincent, Ian Dury wondered aloud:

Shall I mourn your decline
With some Thunderbird wine
And a black handkerchief?

Former  Bob Dylan cohorts The Band, who went on to fully-fledged stardom themselves with songs reflecting life from the old-time working class man’s point of view, delivered one the alcoholic’s most ill-advised retorts to his nagging woman with:

You just ain’t as sweet as my strawberry wine

Tragically, Richard Manuel, one of their three lead singers (although he didn’t sing this one) was downing five bottles of Grand Marnier a day before he eventually hanged himself.

In 1966 at least some people could see that drinking wasn’t without its consequences. The Greenwoods had a worldwide hit with a song supposedly sung by a little girl to the local bar owner:

Please don’t sell my daddy no more wine, no more wine
Mama don’t want him drinking all the time
Please don’t sell my daddy no more wine, no more wine
He may be no good, but he’s still mine

wine 5
Yes, but LILAC- are you sure?

In the rock world, good sense and sobriety are just not considered cool, though, and odes to the fermented grape continued, with the likes of Red Red Wine, written by Neil Diamond and a huge hit decades later for British reggae band UB40.

An old song from 1950, Lilac Wine, may have been another product of someone who didn’t know much about alcoholic beverages, but it served many artists well, with successful versions by everyone from Nina Simone and Elkie Brooks to Miley Cyrus and John Legend. Might be a bit much on its own, but maybe okay in a cocktail.