The Songwriters – The last verse

Well, it’s got to end somewhere, so this is it.

When I started this series, the aim of which was to celebrate writers whose material was suitable for others as well as themselves, it was not my intention to concentrate on the 1960s (it started, after all, with Sandy Linzer, whose best known work was with Odyssey in the late 70s), but as the names came and I wrote them up, that’s just the way it went. Whatever it was about that decade that made songwriters so important, they just were.

There are, no doubt, deserving cases who I’ve missed (in the 60s Mob, Guy Fletcher and Doug Flett, for instance), but if I could go to a desert island with the songs of the writers in this series available to me, I would be a happy man. By all means let me know the people you would have included, remembering the criteria, as explained months ago in the second post of the series:

“When someone told Ian Dury he had written some great songs, his reaction was that he didn’t agree. To him, a great song was something that could be successful when other people sang it, and his material was very reliant on his voice and persona for its effect. This series is dedicated to writers who do or did that, whether or not they had hits in their own right.”

Admittedly the Sixties is the era I know most about, and although there is plenty of variety in my music collection, a quick analysis of my iTunes will show that that’s what I keep coming back to.

For me, discovering new music doesn’t necessarily mean finding people who have only started working recently. As great as it is to hear something brand new that is as good as anything, ever, I also find a thrill in stumbling across something for the first time that has been around since I was a boy but has somehow escaped me until now.

One of the first songs I downloaded when the iTunes era began was Our Day Will Come, a teen longing number with cheesy organ backing, by Ruby and the Romantics, and included here just because I like it. It was written by the little-known Mort Garson and lyricist Bob Hilliard, whose other credits include the words for Tower of Strength and Seven Little Girls (sitting in the back seat). Our Day Will Come may well have brushed past me in 1963 but only hit me in the face around 40 years later, just before Amy Winehouse brought it to the attention of a new generation. Similarly, Patti and the Emblems’ Mixed Up Shook Up Girl from 1964 was an exciting surprise when it finally found me in 2012, particularly as I had known a completely different song of the same title by Mink de Ville in 1978.

Anyway, what with half a dozen Motown writers, plus Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney and all the rest, the early years of the second half of the 20th century emerged as the key era of the pop song, and as much as the following decades might have been full of songs written by people for other people, it was difficult to find deserving candidates after about 1980.

Even such thrusting British contenders as Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, whose names were all over the British charts in the late 80s and early 90s, don’t really fall into this category, because their success was due as much to their magic touch with production as to the tunes and the lyrics.

Body Talk and Music and Lights by Imagination kept chart music alive for me when many of my friends wouldn’t be seen dead buying a single, and even Bananarama were given a certain credibility by Jolley and Swain’s Cruel Summer and Robert de Niro’s Waiting – but again, take away the production and give the songs to somebody else and they don’t cry out for new treatments. Even Michael Buble (who, to borrow a saying from a different area, would shag anything) wouldn’t be interested.

It was the same thing for Stock Aitken and Waterman, who churned out some great stuff. You might not like I Should Be So Lucky, but who can dismiss You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)? But the songs on their own, naked and unadorned? Not so much.

As for the songs featured in this post, there’s one by Paul Simon, whose songs have been covered by plenty of people, but not necessarily done as well as he and Art Garfunkel did them.

I looked for a great version of a Don McLean song and found one by Joanna Wang, a new name to me.

As different versions go, there is nothing quite so subtle or amusing as Vic Reeves’s treatment of Born Free. Written by John Barry and lyricist Don Black, it was an early 60s hit for Matt Monro, and Reeves’s version shows, I think, that he loves the song. But he’s a comedian, so he does this thing with it, in an affectionate way. And there’s a nice little sample from Strawberry Letter 23 by the Brothers Johnson thrown in – that  plink plonky keyboard riff that keeps cropping up.

And finally – a little self-indulgent, I admit –  a song from the relatively small but precious box of jewels that is the work of one of my obscure favourites, Pete Dello. He wrote and sang I Can’t Let Maggie Go, a hit for his band Honeybus in 1968, and they also did the original version of Do I Still Figure In Your Life, one of the pillars of Joe Cocker’s debut album, which also included covers of  With A Little Help From My Friends by the Beatles and two by Bob Dylan. That’s pretty exalted company. You may also remember I’m A Gambler by Lace (1969) – that was him. He’s a music teacher now, apparently.

And even more finally, here is a song written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway with bassist Herbie Flowers (whose name comes first on the record label, so maybe the basic idea was his) that should have appeared in The 60s English Mob a couple of posts ago. As fine a love song as was ever written, featuring top British session musicians and vocals by Madeline Bell, a sublime singer who did a lot of session work but never quite cracked it as a solo act. Last I heard she was living in Spain and singing jazz.

Advertisements

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.

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Rain is bad

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
rain 1
Double A side. Paperback Writer probably won because it was upbeat, but Rain is equally catchy

This thread of the blog being called The Wisdom of Pop Songs, we’re not just going to look at songs about the weather, but what the weather symbolizes.

Rain has always been a negative symbol: sun good, rain bad. That, of course, depends on where you live, but famous pop songs don’t generally come from the Sahara or from drought-stricken countries.

If you go out in the rain, you get wet, and most people don’t like that. Being cold is one thing. Being cold and wet is another. Besides, rain spoils your hairstyle and doesn’t look good when soaked into your clothes. On the ground it forms mud, which means dirty shoes and maybe strips of gunge at the bottom of your trousers.

No one, then, likes being caught in the rain – unless they’re in love, and we will come to that next week.

This week, rain is bad. Ask anyone. Ask John Lennon, who wrote Rain, the B-side of Paperback Writer in 1966. “If the rain comes, they run and hide their head. They might as well be dead.” That’s a bit extreme, but maybe he was speaking metaphorically, and rain represented bad things in general. Actually, at one point he says “Rain, I don’t mind”. A gorgeous song, anyway, the psychedelic sound just developing in Lennon’s voice, and Paul McCartney’s bass going where no bass player had gone before (listen to it later – it’s at the bottom of the page).

A couple of years before Lennon wrote that, he would have heard The Cascades’ one-off hit Rhythm of the Rain, in which the singer imagines the rain is communicating with him.

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain
Telling me just what a fool I’ve been

Listen, pal, I know you’re young and romantic, but you’ll get yourself locked up if you carry on like that.

As I just mentioned, young lovers can find walking in the rain quite charming, but not Oran “Juice” Jones in 1986. What bothered him, though, was that his girlfriend was walking in the rain with someone else – holding the guy’s hand, no less – and if anyone was going to be getting soaked in that way, it should have been him.

Paul Simon came up with a very different scenario in I Do It For Your Love on the Still Crazy album. Daydreaming about the beginning of a relationship, he sings of buying furniture for the couple’s  rather modest abode.

Found a rug in an old junk shop
Brought it home to you
Along the way the colours ran
The orange bled the blue

Let’s hope he wasn’t clutching it to his nice white shirt, or that will have been ruined too.

rain
Rain on a window. On some glass, at least. And it could have been sprayed by a hose. Looks like rain, anyway

Peter Gabriel’s song Red Rain (1986 on the album So) may not be about rain at all. Again, it may have been about something bad happening, and poor old scapegoat precipitation gets the blame. It’s falling down all over him, apparently. But he’s dreaming, so it could be anything. He could have had a deprived childhood in which his family had tomato ketchup with everything to enhance the bland food, so he shook the Heinz bottle so many times he was sick of it.

It’s a theory, that’s all. These are pop songs, not pronouncements from on high.

Carole King left us in no doubt about her feelings in her 1962 hit “It might as well rain until September”. She didn’t mean that in a good way. Her boyfriend had gone away for the summer and she wasn’t happy about it. Let’s hope he and the sun returned before her tennis shoes went rotten.

ELO made the wet stuff guilty by association in Showdown (1973), when an unspecified situation is heading for a confrontation that can bring no good, and the singer concludes:

It’s raining all over the world
Tonight, the longest night

Eurythmics (they didn’t go in for definite articles) joined in the moaning in 1984 with this:

Here comes the rain again
Raining in my head like a tragedy
Tearing me apart like a new emotion

Little Annie Lennox wanted better weather, which would somehow revive a dead relationship.

rain 5
This was a comedy record. It is excruciating. But I still have it in my iTunes

James Taylor’s breakthrough hit Fire and Rain is said by some to be metaphorical, with the elements of the title representing his drug addiction (fire) and alcohol consumption (rain), and for once there could be something in that. Send the forensics team in to examine the song and you find that the Suzanne whom he had always thought he would see again was one Suzanne Schnerr, an old friend who had committed suicide, while the “flying machines in pieces on the ground” refers to the breakup of his old band, Flying Machine.

So it’s a rarity: a pop song that actually means something.

Meanwhile, back at the rainy day complaints department, I Can’t Stand The Rain, as popularized by Ann Peebles and covered by many others including Tina Turner, reggae singer Hortense Ellis, Paul Rodgers and Michael Bolton, gives us rain against the window as emblematic of the distress caused by yet another romantic breakup.

When Bob Dylan sang about a hard rain that was going to fall, he was at his most enigmatic: the bard of rock talking about who knows what. Something to do with heavy water, a part of the process of creating nuclear energy and therefore capable of more bad than good? You get the feeling Dylan is never going to tell us the truth, because his protest songs and other heavy material rely on their mystery.

rain 3
Yeah, it’s a title, okay? That’s all

Way back in the 1950s, Buddy Holly presented no such conundrums with Raining in my Heart, in which everything in the garden is rosy except one thing: the girl doesn’t love him. The weather man doesn’t know that, though, so he has announced glorious sunshine. Insensitive berk.

That’s more like it. Pop music is for basic emotions. It’s there to tell us we’re not alone and others have felt the way we do. It’s there for us, come rain or shine.

 

Next Friday: rain is good

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.

213522-A11-036A.psd
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”

home

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?

 

 

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Leaving home

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
clash
The eternal question, as addressed in 1981 by The Clash

Leaving home is a source of inspiration for songwriters, perhaps because it is something we all do eventually. It’s those teenage years when we feel trapped, hemmed in by our family and a home town that seems too claustrophobic to contain us and our unique, misunderstood, restless souls.

Bettering yourself is what it’s all about, and The Animals put it as well as anyone in 1964 with We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. This is often taken to mean leaving their native Newcastle-upon-Tyne in what at the time was a grimy coal mining area, the north-east of England. In fact they didn’t write it; it was penned by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, New York-based songwriters who were also responsible for On Broadway, Blame it on the Bossa Nova and Saturday Night at the Movies, among many others. So they were possibly not determined to get out of anywhere in particular, but they recognized the feeling and put it into song.

Paul McCartney saw the scenario from a girl’s point of view with the tearful She’s Leaving Home, as covered by everybody from Bryan Ferry to Carrie Underwood. Just a few years later, having gone solo, McCartney released Another Day, in which the move has been made and reality has hit home, the city turning out to be full of men only interested in one thing, and only for one night, at that.

simon
You can’t start a revolution from your bedroom in your parents’ house

New York has always been a popular destination for those hoping to make it in the entertainment world, and has been celebrated in music several times, from Frank Sinatra’s assertion that “if I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere” to Empire State of Mind, often attributed to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys but originally by two almost unheard-of Brooklyn girls who were feeling homesick while abroad. In that respect it’s not a leaving home song but a pining for home one.

Turning up in the big city doesn’t always end up well, as Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City demonstrates, the innocent hopeful from out of town gazing in awe at the “skyscrapers and everything” at the start of the song. But within four minutes he’s been banged up for five years.

An oddity among the Big Apple songs is Odyssey’s Native New Yorker, a sad tale of a local girl who may not be thinking of leaving but wishes she was at least treated better. “No one opens the door for a native New Yorker,” she laments.

Then there’s Bacharach and David’s Do You Know The Way to San Jose, where another starry-eyed would-be star joins the legions waiting on tables or “parking cars and pumping gas”.

Johnny Cash and June Carter played it for laughs with Jackson, a country romp by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber that was also a hit for Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, with the men stating their intention to go to the fleshpots of a town called Jackson and give the women there the benefit of their frustrated masculinity. The women, on the other hand, predict that “they’ll lead you round the town like a scalded hound with your tail tucked between your legs”.

jackson
They’ll laugh at him in Jackson, won’t they, Nancy?

Bruce Springsteen’s contributes to the genre with a vivid tale in which the singer tells his girlfriend Sandy, whom he has been two-timing with a waitress, that he’s getting out of what is presumably a New Jersey seaside town of funfairs and small minds. What he is really doing, though, even as he urges her to leave town too, is trying to get her to make love with him one more time before he goes.

Harry Nilsson’s version of the Fred Neil theme tune for Midnight Cowboy, Everybody’s Talking, speaks of “going where the weather suits my clothes” to get away from people stopping and staring at him. Wherever you are, kids, it’s the same story. They don’t think you’re a genius, they just think you’re weird. And all because they know your Mum and Dad.

carrie u
When Carrie Underwood needed a great song for American Idol she went for The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home

The Smiths’ London, a breathless and typically uncomfortable piece of Morrissey fiction, sees our hero on a train from (probably) Manchester to the capital, with doubt and trepidation already creeping in. “And do you think you made the right decision this time?”

Maybe. Maybe not, but you’ll never know until you try.

 

.