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 – Going home

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
ten years after
As Alvin Lee insisted for 15 minutes at Woodstock, he was going home to see his bay beh

If leaving home is the chief ambition for many young people, going home is another preoccupation when things don’t work out so well.

Paul Simon wrote Homeward Bound at a railway station in a small town in the north of England, and whether he really was feeling homesick or not we don’t know. It’s just a song and a skilled songwriter like him can knock out a lyric for its effectiveness and its ability to strike a chord with an audience. That is not to say that writers never tell you what they really feel, but sometimes they’re just creating stories and feelings, like a painter working on a picture.

In Homeward Bound the singer is disillusioned, doubting his own talent:

“But all my words come back to me
In shades of mediocrity
Like emptiness in harmony
I need someone to comfort me”

Looking at the basic problem and the relative costs involved, it sounds like a nice Lancashire girl could have eased his pain as much as a trip back to New Jersey.

country roads
Okay, but have you entered the destination in the satnav?

John Denver’s Country Roads, in which he urges the rural thoroughfares to take him home, is not so much a song of feeling sorry for himself as a wistful appraisal of the place he comes from.

“Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze”

Those of us who have never been there will just have to take his word for it.

Jack Johnson, on the other hand, seems more worried about the state of his property:

“I’ve gotta get home
There’s a garden to tend
All the fruit’s on the ground
The birds have all moved back into my attic,
Whistled in static
The young learn to fly
I will patch up the holes once again”

Can’t you get your Dad to pop round, mate? Or pay someone. You’re a pop star, after all, so money shouldn’t be a problem.

And the lawn needs mowing too, Jack

Mostly, though, it’s like an exercise in writing lyrics at a songwriting workshop. “You have 30 minutes to come up with three verses and a chorus on the subject of longing for home.”

Or, if you’re looking for an angle for a Christmas song, how about throwing in the idea of the one you love not being there, because on a less sentimental day of the year she dumped you? Step forward Don Henley of the Eagles for the all-encompassing “Please come home for Christmas”. And then he gives her a get-out clause:

“If not for Christmas, by New Year’s night”.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that she’s not coming back because she never left. He was a songwriter trying to write a festive hit.

One song that makes no pretence of being autobiographical but hits home as a piece of fiction is Nick Cave’s Roaming. Here, the singer is  a no-good drifter who sounds boozed-up and maudlin, talking about all the good things he’s going to do when he gets home, seeing his mother and brother and how he’s going to “put things in order.”

This includes seeing his little boy, and buying him a toy, and “he’s going to jump for joy”. But in the last verse he lets slip that it’s all just talk.

“When I get home, I’m gonna unpack my bags
When I get home, I’m gonna wash these dirty rags
When I get home, I’m gonna pack ’em up again
And I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go right back a-roaming”


Lynyrd Skynyrd wailed about a whole state in Sweet Home Alabama, throwing in such elements as the fact that Neil Young had had the audacity to criticise it, and using language as their dirt-poor, uneducated grandparents might have.

“Big wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to see my kin
Singing songs about the Southland
I miss Alabamy once again
And I think its a sin, yes”

But was it really any more than a way of guaranteeing extra record sales in their own region and a roof-raising finale at their next concert in Birmingham or Mobile? It wouldn’t be wise to suggest this to the band – or to Alamabans in general – when they were up to their eyes in Jack Daniels and it’s not a mark of disrespect, either; it’s just a song, that’s all. Just like the Star Spangled Banner or Rule Britannia.

Most of us see our home town through rose-coloured glasses, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of patriotism, but really, if you want to go home, be my guest. And see if you can find everything you need there. Remind us: why did you leave?