The wisdom of pop songs – Regret

Having your heart broken is an unwanted part of life’s rich pageant, but there is another side to the coin: when we do the hurting. I’m not sure anyone has ever deliberately broken someone’s heart through stopping loving them. It’s just one of those things, although don’t try telling that to the person on the receiving end.

Breaking up with someone doesn’t make us a monster; it shows that we’re human, and what were we supposed to do: not fall in love in the first place? The more you look at it the more complicated it gets.

Prince gets straight to the heart of the matter in Purple Rain. “I never meant to cause you any sorrow…”

Cher, on the other hand, in If I Could Turn Back Time, has lost the guy through her own stupidity, so what she is regretting is the things she said and did.

John Lennon’s Jealous Guy hasn’t quite blown it altogether, but he’s singing to himself as much as his lover, regretting what he said and did and knowing that if there’s a next time it could be terminal.

At a glance you might think Bryan Adams’s Please Forgive Me is about a similar scenario, but closer inspection shows it’s not. In this case he’s apologizing for loving her so much, perhaps because she thinks his adoration is over the top and is stifling her. Sometimes you just can’t win.

John B. Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful evidently found himself in a regrettable position in 1966 when he wrote I Didn’t Want to Have to Do It. However, he’s not blaming himself entirely. He had to do it because one of them had to and, good hearted guy that he is, he elected to carry the can.

“Was a time when I thought our love could fly

And never never fall

Why should I suppose we were never really meant

To be close to each other at all.”

We’re not told the girl’s reaction, but he does tell us he knew she would end up crying, so presumably that’s what happened.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, on a song written of course by Smokey himself, are also not accepting unmitigated blame. Ooh Baby Baby wasn’t a hit in the UK and may have never even been released as a single there, but it just goes to show the charts don’t paint a comprehensive picture of the brilliant stuff that exists in other people’s record collections. I only discovered the song three or four years ago and I couldn’t believe it had eluded me for so long.

“Mistakes,” he says, “I know I made a few. But I’m only human: you’ve made mistakes too.”

Quite right too. We don’t know the ins and outs of it, but nobody’s perfect. Whether or not this is an admirable trait he’s displaying, I’m not sure, but he’s clearly crazy about the girl. About three months ago Ooh Baby Baby got stuck on repeat in my head and was with me for days. I was on the net for hours, searching for  a slightly different version I seemed to remember, but there isn’t one. It must have been just my imagination, if you’ll forgive the Smokey-inspired reference.

And then there’s the kind of regret to which there is no answer, no other way of doing it. It had to be done and that’s life. Sometimes the end of a relationship is like that.

Cue an absolute killer from one of this column’s favourites, Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, via the composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Normal Gimbel. How Insensitive sees the singer wishing she hadn’t broken the boy’s heart, but “what can one say when a love affair is over?” He must hate her; he must think she’s a heartless bitch, but really she had no option. The poor man’s loss is our gain, however (or perhaps girl, since Gimbel is a man). It doesn’t have to be autobiographical to strike a chilling chord in the listener’s heart.

Regret of a different but equally painful kind can be found in Cat’s In The Cradle, a 1974 hit for Harry Chapin. This is about a man who fails to find enough time for his young son and then, when he’s old and the boy is the one with a busy life, finds the tables are turned.

Chapin was something of a genius with lyrics, and regret was one of his themes. W.O.L.D., his other huge success, is the sad tale of a DJ who walked out on his family to follow his broadcasting career wherever the offers came from. Now he’s getting past it and he’s thinking he’d like to get back with his wife, but she has moved on.

It’s hard to see either of these songs as truly autobiographical, although they might have been visions of what he worried might happen, given the musician’s inevitable absences from home while touring. Sadly, he never had time to find out, because he died at the age of 39 in a car crash, possibly having had a heart attack that caused him to lose control.

As it happens, anyway, the lyrics were written by Chapin’s wife about her ex-husband’s relationship with his father. And if you didn’t want to know that because it spoils your personal memory of the song, well I’m sorry.

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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 – Rain is good

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
rain c
Hey Barry, we’re up here

As we established last week, rain is generally seen as a bad thing in pop songs, but there are notable exceptions.

Walking in the rain might be avoided in the normal course of events, but when you’re in love, suddenly it’s a romantic thing to do.

Just before the dawn of rock’n’roll, in 1952, the classic musical number Singin’ in the Rain left no doubt as to the singer’s mood, while Johnny Ray had a hit with Just Walking in the Rain, in which he’s happy to be getting wet in this way because it takes his mind of his broken heart.

In 1964 the Ronettes brought us an update on that with their own Walking in the Rain, courtesy of the songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil plus producer Phil Spector. Jay and the Americans did a version too, and I am indebted to the erstwhile David Cassidy fan proprietor of the What’s It All About Alfie blog for pointing out that the Partridge Family also recorded it. They featured it in their TV show, playing it out by the pool, all dressed in pale blue shirts and dark blue trousers with matching waistcoats. Very smart. This is the sort of thing that women know, because while the show could be mildly amusing, Mum Partridge (Shirley Jones) didn’t appeal to us boys as much as Cassidy did to the (Eeek, I love you David!!!!!!!!!!) girls.

Not long afterwards, Barry White introduced himself by stealth as the power behind Love Unlimited, as the lovesick girl gets soaked through as she walks home and then, in one of pop’s cheesiest moments, phones Barry and tells him she has something to tell him. Guess what: she loves him. And he loves her too. And it’s still a monsoon outside but she doesn’t care because if he lays his bulk on her, the rain’s not going to be getting anywhere near.

Grace Jones’s Walking in the Rain in 1982 was a pretty straight rehash of the original by Flash and the Pan, and it is hard to tell whether the singer is happy to be out in the deluge or not. He or she just sounds defiant and contemptuous, so we’ll put it in the ‘rain is good’ column.

rain a
Oops, nearly forgot this one, which is all about trying to rescue an unhappy girl. She’s lonely and so is he, so there might be an ulterior motive

Randy Crawford’s version of Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night in Georgia is also ambiguous. He/she is tramping the streets with nowhere to go, but love in the heart makes it all bearable. Interestingly, White wrote this in the Sixties and soul crooner Brook Benton had a hit with it in 1970, but it’s Crawford’s damp sweater and angelic delivery in 1981 that puts the crown on it.

In other news, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen included Walk between Raindrops (he sings the raindrops but it isn’t in the title for some reason) on his solo album The Nightfly. And it’s a happy one. They’re in Florida, where rain is warm, and they’re in love, so let nature do what it will. Sleet and lightning? Who cares? Give us a kiss.

The Move had long since had their flower power hit, Flowers in the Rain, in which the singer is quite happy to be  in the rain because he’s out of his head… and what’s this… “If my pillow’s getting wet, I can’t see that it matters much to me.” Further scrutiny of the lyrics reveals that he has pushed his bed “into the grounds”, so maybe he’s been locked up already. Ultimately, though, as we keep discovering, you can almost never take a pop song at face value.

The Everly Brothers had found a new angle in 1962, or rather songwriters Howard Greenfield and Carole King had, with Crying in the Rain: it disguises tears, so you can walk around blubbing as much as you like if it’s pouring down on your head.

rain b
And take that fag out of your mouth when I’m talking to you

The Lovin Spoonful’s Rain on the Roof was all about being warm and dry with one’s new girlfriend, while Eddie Rabbit’s I Love A Rainy Night is pretty hard to misinterpret. He, apparently, just loves the rain because it cleanses things, including his life. Good for you, Eddie, glad you’re okay. (Strange boy.)

Possible the most joyful rain song of all is the Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men, but then they’re not talking about real rain, and presumably the guys who are falling from the sky are not drips either.

Garbage’s 1995 hit I’m Only Happy When it Rains sounds to this hawk-eared observer like a title that sounded good, so they fleshed it out, desperately trying to create  a cohesive theme and thereby finding themselves claiming to enjoy misery and depression. God help them if they’re ever cross-examined about their mental state after they’ve just flown their passenger plane into a mountain and unexpectedly survived.

“I put it to you, Mr Garbage, that you were not a fit and proper person to take on this position in the first place.”

“Your honour, it’s only a bleeding pop song…”

A much happier vibe permeates Joni Mitchell’s Rainy Night House, back at the turn of the Seventies when Joni was happy to be seen as (and possibly was) naïve. Rainy night, empty house, young couple – whatever could happen next?

Rihanna’s huge hit Umbrella brings us right (and unusually) up to date, with a song that glorifies the strange contraption that someone must have invented (but we don’t know who). The umbrella of the song is in fact a metaphor: the girl is illustrating the fact that whatever the metaphorical weather in their lives, she will always provide her man with protection and comfort.

Again, she might regret it if it ever comes to a bitter marital breakdown and she’s sued for breach of promise.

“But madam, you stated in front of millions of people, through every TV, radio, laptop and cell phone in the world, that you would stick by him no matter what.”

All together now: “Your honour, it’s only a bleeding pop song.”