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.

 

Advertisements

The wisdom of pop songs – Rebellion, morality and abuse

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
rebel
Standing by their man: the girls don’t care what anybody says. He’s not a troublemaker, he’s sweeeet

It is not pop music’s job to present the world in a politically correct way. When pop and rock were young they were about rebellion. It was all about F*ck you, I’m doing it my way. But the songs are written by individuals, people with their own views on morality, and things have certainly changed.

Rock’n’roll began in the 1950s, when the transition from child to adult acquired a new stage and a new name: teenagers. Even then, though, the kids who were riding on Elvis Presley’s coat tails were pioneers and the world had yet to see how they could gain power and independence.

What Elvis did looks pretty mild to a generation that grew up looking at porn on the internet. So he waggled his hips a bit: whoopee dee. Go man go.

The main problem affecting teenagers in those days was that they had nowhere to go and no privacy. Being promiscuous is a lot easier if your parents aren’t on the premises on guard duty 24 hours a day. And that is what teenage rebellion is concerned with really. Yes, it’s about what you wear and having to go to school when you don’t want to and being expected to eat what’s put in front of you. But for many, if the girl or boy of your choice was in bed waiting for you, you’d have that homework done and that broccoli eaten in no time.

to sir
Just say no, Sid

Notable among the few who didn’t go along with the rebellion were the Beach Boys, whose early material contained wimp-outs like When I Grow Up to be a Man and Wouldn’t it be Nice. Good songs, but it seems that Brian Wilson was resigned to not getting his rocks off until he was 21.

Such tame acceptance was the exception, though. Everybody else was trying to kick doors down.

Songs with a moral message didn’t start to sneak through until the second wave of rebellion, in the hippie-powered late 60s, some of the barriers had been knocked down. While the barriers are up and stopping you from getting into trouble, you can rail at them all you like because nothing’s going to happen.

Thus it was okay in the 1967 for a schoolgirl to sing a love song to a teacher, as in To Sir With Love, written by men but sung by young Scottish minx Lulu.

A friend who taught me right from wrong
And weak from strong.
That’s a lot to learn.
What can I give you in return?

don't stand
And you’re not helping the situation by clowning around

Twenty years later Sting, who had been a teacher before finding fame with The Police, was urging her Don’t Stand So Close to Me, because there was every chance they would end up at his place doing an intensive class in sexual intercourse. And while that wouldn’t have gone down too well at any time in history, the AIDS scare of the late 70s had seen the start of what looked like (but wasn’t, as it turned out) a new Victorian era.

The issue of teenage pregnancy, which the contraceptive pill had promised but failed to resolve, was treated as a source of shame until Madonna got on the case in 1986 with Papa Don’t Preach, in which she informs her Dad that she is keeping her baby.

And now look at the world, dads might say.

madonna
Keep, it, love. Nobody’s arguing with you

There was a saying in the hazy hippie days and into the aimless early 70s: If it feels good, do it. It wasn’t an original thought, and the song that came out of it (Della Reese and others recorded it) wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last to bear that title. Not different versions of the same song, but different songs with the same name, because it’s a thought that strikes similar characters of different generations.

As so often, it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but then it’s just a snappy title and they are just pop songs.

luka

Sexual and physical abuse may never have been fashionable subjects for songs, but then they weren’t talked about much until relatively recently.

Two that must embarrass the Who’s highly respected leader Pete Townshend are both on the band’s 1969 rock opera album Tommy, and both written by the late bass player John Entwistle. First there is Fiddle About, in which wicked Uncle Ernie gleefully describes molesting a young boy, while Cousin Kevin brings us a similarly gruesome tale of tying the deaf, dumb and blind kid to a chair and torturing him. What larks we had in the 60s, children. Many people – presumably including Townshend and Entwistle – actually thought they were quite funny at the time.

Suzanne Vega wiped the smiles off with Luka, in which the girl of the title asks the neighbours to ignore her plight as she gets audibly knocked about.

You’re only hit until you cry
And after that you don’t ask why
You just don’t argue anymore.

Compare that with the Crystals’ 1962 song He Hit Me (and it felt like a kiss), written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. This was apparently inspired by an abusive relationship suffered by their babysitter (Little Eva before she became famous with The Locomotion) and was meant to condemn the violence, which perhaps goes to show that irony (saying the opposite of what you mean) doesn’t really work in print or in song. The story goes that Eva had provoked the boyfriend by her relationship with another man, and saw his violent reaction as proof that he loved her. It’s a festering stew of twisted logic, masochism and sheer stupidity that wouldn’t be allowed to enter our ears nowadays.

he hit me
Yes, them again. Hmm, so you’re not going to press charges against this ‘rebel’, then?

But that’s how we got to where we are now, the age of political correctness: people wanted to save us from ourselves.

There is a very different take on hedonism, which tends to take hold soon after the carefree boom has started to fade: “If it feels good, it must be risky and bad, immoral and dangerous to your health.” But that’s a fine, upstanding, clean-living adult thought, and there’s very little room in pop music for that kind of thing.