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.