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.

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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.

The wisdom of pop songs – Sex

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
Rock you, Tina? I hope you mean what I think you mean

Sex. The very essence of rock, pop, soul and r’n’b music. Along with its more reserved sister, Love, it accounts for approximately 99.9% of all song lyrics.

The only problem facing people who want to write and sing about the oldest preoccupation is that to be explicit is to invite trouble, criticism, being banned and so on, which may or may not have an adverse effect on sales.

This, along with the usual need to rhyme, and the equally restrictive need to keep it simple, has resulted in certain innocent words being misused and eventually misconstrued.

Exhibit A: charms. The evidence against this is due entirely to its so often keeping company with the word arms, itself a harmless enough item except for its involvement in romantic clinches leading to intimacy.

Thus in the 1960s tale of a straying husband, 24 Hours from Tulsa, Gene Pitney tell us
All of a sudden I lost control as I held her charms
And I caressed her, kissed her
Told her I’d die before I would let her out of my arms

You held her ‘charms’ did you, Mr Pitney? And where were these ‘charms’ located? On her chest? Or at the top of her legs at the back?

The very term rock’n’roll is itself a reference to the sorts of motions made by those engaged in making love.

And talking of making love, is love really what people are talking about when they say that? It’s a euphemism that has made its way into the spoken word.

When Bad Company sang Feel Like Making Love, they weren’t suggesting merely saying a few romantic words in their lover’s ear, and nor was Roberta Flack in her very different song with the same title.

Put them away, Etta. We get the idea

In the UK, Frankie Goes To Hollywood had their hit single Relax banned when people listened closely to the lyrics, as did Max Romeo with his ska smash Wet Dream.

At the beginning of her career Donna Summer made a fortune as much out of moaning and groaning suggestively as actually singing, while a few years later Olivia Newton John attempted to lose her nice-girl image by recording Let’s Get Physical, although many listeners were not convinced. She persevered by asking ‘will a little more love make you stop defending?’ when what she was really asking was if she would find her way into his heart by letting him have his wicked way with her again.

Notice how the ones sung by girls seem more brazen than the guys’ Neanderthal posturing. 1980s mini-star Charlene gave us I’ve Never Been to Me, in which she confides

I’ve been undressed by kings
And I’ve seen some things
That a woman’s not supposed to see

Oo err, girl, steady on.

Grace Jones, too fearsome a character for most men to make a pass at, took matters into her own hands with Pull Up to the Bumper, which had little to do with squeezing into a parking space. ‘In your long black limousine’, indeed.

Where I come from you have a cigarette afterwards, not during

While so many songs of the past few years, particularly in the hiphop genre, are astonishingly sexist, with the bad muthas singing about ho’s and what they’re going to do to them, the world champion of the dirty lyric has to be the female rapper Khia, who came to prominence/notoriety in 2002 with My Neck My Back. The hit was with a cleaned-up version, but even on the raunchy original, she attempts to throw us off the track by mouthing different words on the video. While one person’s sexual interests are entirely their own business and the practices advocated in this song should not be condemned, you will have to look it up yourself, alone, preferably using headphones to protect the innocent. Or don’t.

So impressed was Miley Cyrus, Newton-John-like in her determination to redefine herself, that the former Hanna Montana recorded her own version of the song.

Give it a rest, Olivia – you’re just embarrassing yourself

It wasn’t an entirely original thought – is there anything that hasn’t been sung about before? In 1995 a UK indie duo called Scarlet had a hit with Independent Love Song, although its censor-evading urging to ‘go down, go down’ seems positively mild compared to what Khia and Miley are suggesting.

One can’t help wondering if, 20 years later, the Scarlet girls are living quietly in suburban obscurity, taking their own daughters to school and glossing over their brief brush with fame. After all, every generation of teenagers think they have exclusive rights to sex and it’s okay if they do it, but their parents?

God, Mum. You keep quiet about that or I’ll die.