The firmament of 1960s British pop music wasn’t all Beatles and Motown; there were hundreds of singers and bands hoping for a crack at this wacky new world where they could be an unknown, selling nail varnish in Woolies’ or suits in Burtons one day and appearing on Ready Steady Go the next. It hadn’t yet become a case of writing your own stuff, not for most people, anyway, so there was a market for songwriters, and one who burst through was Graham Gouldman.
Later to become famous as one quarter of 10cc, Gouldman was a Jewish lad from Manchester who just happened to have tunes popping into his head, and he found himself ploughing two distinct furrows at the same time. While he was providing the sort of out-and-out pop that the chart-oriented acts needed, he was also having his sleeve pulled by The Yardbirds, an altogether more rootsy outfit, brought up on blues and soon to branch out into psychedelia, and boasting future legendary guitarists, not one but three, in their ranks.
That Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page should all pass through this British combo is little short of miraculous, but even so, the way of things at the time was that they needed hit singles. Gouldman gave them For Your Love, later covered by plenty of people, including a version by Fleetwood Mac in between the Peter Green and Lindsey Buckingham eras. He gave them Heart Full of Soul, which was edging towards that strange psychedelic sound, and Evil Hearted You, a tougher, darker thing that American alternative rockers The Pixies would, much later, sing in Spanish, for some reason.
Of the mainstream pop material he was generating, Gouldman assisted the Hollies’ soaring 60s trajectory with Look Through Any Window and Bus Stop, both evocative as well as tuneful, but the one that has always fascinated me is Herman’s Hermits’ No Milk Today, in which an empty milk bottle on a backstreet doorstep symbolises the singer’s lost love. Pretentious? Nah. It’s just a nice image:
But all that’s left is a place dark and lonely
A terraced house in a mean street back of town
Becomes a shrine when I think of you only
Just two up two down
Another one with a bit of character, a bit of uniqueness, is Tallyman, a minor hit for Jeff Beck, which tells the story of a family paying for goods “on tick”, whereby the housewife is given the clothes or whatever by the salesman and is then visited once a week for repayments.
The early and mid 60s are famous for their gritty, kitchen-sink novels and films, and Tallyman and No Milk Today are cut from the same cloth: little slices of life that paint as much of a picture as going down the dancehall to check out the girls and the beat groups.
Once 10cc had got together in the 1970s, Gouldman started concentrating on his own song needs, and that’s what brought us I’m Not In Love, sometimes voted as the greatest love song of all time. And there was the melodramatic, oddly gripping I’m Mandy Fly Me and the cheeky swipe at the Caribbean, Dreadlock Holiday.
If songs are handed out by God – or however you believe it happens – Graham Gouldman certainly received, and passed on, more than his fair share.
The idea of singing to a real person – or perhaps inventing a person and singing to them – but not in a boy-girl-I-love-you way can be effective. Anything that brings realism to art tends to give it credibility. In the case of pop music it can add a touch of originality by shifting the listener’s perspective.
Take, for example, Outkast’s Ms Jackson. He’s sorry, the singer is, for hurting Ms Jackson’s daughter, and I have always had this mental picture of him in Ms Jackson’s kitchen, having gone round there to apologise. The popular video actually shows her driving round to have it out with him, curlers in her hair and all. That’s one reason I would rather just listen to a song, rather than watch the video, because the visuals are just someone else’s interpretation.
I’m not putting that video up because I would like you to use your imagination.
The music borrows from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, the section known as The Bridal Chorus (and colloquially as Here Comes The Bride), which imparts a certain romantic air, and the song has a catchy hook; in fact you could say it consists largely of the hook, even if he does wander off down a lane of incomprehensible soulbrutha chuntering (and when I first read the lyrics I had less sympathy for the guy because he’s whingeing – although some people might think he has a point. For me, finally watching the video was like wandering innocently into the wrong part of town and being confronted by gangsters).
Having set up in my own mind the image of being in the woman’s house, there is also the possibility that Ms Jackson is an attractive woman in her own right and that our penitent hero has noticed this. It wouldn’t be the first time a boy has fancied his girlfriend’s mother.
Again, the video takes a different view, casting Ms Jackson as the kind of old dragon no cool rapper would be interested in. So, sadly, the more I look into this song, the less it seems to be what I originally imagined, and would still like to imagine. Quite a moving little pop experience, though, if you keep other people’s images out of your head.
A similar kettle of fish (sorry, what a vile expression) exists in the very different Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter, as sung in 1965 by Herman’s Hermits. Either despite or because of its self-consciously Manchester accent, this was a big hit in the USA, but it wasn’t originally released as a single in the UK. They loved our regional accents in the States, lapping up the Beatles’ pronunciation (thur instead of there and so on), and Davy Jones flew the Mancunian flag in The Monkees. Even now Americans talk of how they love a “British” accent, whatever that is.
The original version of Mrs Brown had been recorded a couple of years earlier by the actor Tom Courtenay for a TV play.
And even that isn’t the most interesting thing about the song, because you’ll never guess who wrote it. And I mean never, because without some monstrous clues and guidance, surely no one would get anywhere near it.
Who? Not the stuttering villager in The Vicar of Dibley?
And, as Barry Norman used to say, why not? Young people desperate to get into the entertainment field will try anything, and clearly Trevor had all-round talent.
Despite the accent giving it a slightly comic feel, the song is a poignant little thing. Again, the singer is addressing the mother, but in this case it’s the girl who has dumped him and he’s saying “tell her that I’m well and feeling fine” while secretly hoping Mrs Brown will shake her daughter by the shoulders and tell her not to be so stupid because he’s a nice boy and he’s crazy about her.
In the mid 70s Billy Paul brought us Me And Mrs Jones, about an extramarital affair which he wants to keep secret but has no intention of ending. It’s the sort of love song that requires us to either ignore or forgive the circumstances and just concentrate on the genuine love that’s going on there.
Brazenly borrowing the title, Amy Winehouse gave us a very different story on a track from her miraculously good album Back to Black. It’s hard to work out what she is really trying to tell us, but she and Mr Jones are apparently getting it on. Listeners of a sensitive disposition should prepare themselves at the start of every verse for the invented word “f***ery”, which can be translated as mischief, stupidity, treachery and probably many other things. She’s having a go at her man for making her miss the Slick Rick gig and thinking that she didn’t love him when she did. And she’s not going to put him on the guest list for her own gig because he has had a lot of other women.
But is Mr Jones the object of her affections as well as her tirade? As is so often the case, we can’t be sure, because it’s just a pop song, with words being thrown at a vague subject and the main requirement being to fit the lines and rhyme where necessary rather than to make a cohesive story.
Jones is a popular name in songs, even cropping up in the Bee Gees’ highly unusual New York Mining Disaster 1941. “Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones?” one trapped miner says to another, presumably showing him a little black and white photograph. The song is nothing short of a triumph of craft over subject matter and shows the inventive side the Gibb brothers exercised before discovering that smartly tailored disco music and gimmicky falsetto singing could make them a thousand times more money.
Paul Simon hit a seam of pure gold when fashioning a song out of the 1967 film The Graduate. Anne Bancroft’s simmering older woman, Mrs Robinson, inspired Simon to one of his most enduring successes and to his credit he did it without resorting to sexual fantasizing, delving into her mind rather than her underwear to explore what made her as she was. Many years later George Michael would use Mrs. R’s “Would you like me to seduce you?” line in Too Funky.
For me, though, even that brilliant musical psychoanalysis is eclipsed by Simon’s song about an architect. So Long Frank Lloyd Wright is a beautiful piece of wistfulness reflecting on a friendship between two men. And it’s not even based on fact. Legend has it that Art Garfunkel challenged Simon to write a song and gave him the most unlikely subject matter, which the master turned into a hypnotic three minutes that makes the listener feel sad about something that not only they didn’t experience, but never happened.
So, with all due respect to the millions of songs that take liberties with our willingness to believe, once in a while somebody creates a song that is the equal of any poem by any celebrated man of words of any era.
It’s not just the song, of course: that is just the framework on which the layers of sound are added through spellbinding production, and if you or I had a go at this one open-mic night there would be precious little magic in the air. But the recording as issued on the album Bridge Over Troubled Water is one that I would be very tempted to put in a time capsule for future generations or people from another planet to marvel at.