Randy Newman may not have contributed a huge amount to the panoply of pop hits in terms of numbers, but has certainly done his bit in terms of quality. Newman is the songwriter’s songwriter, a master craftsman of the lyric and much more than the usual purveyor of fast-food tunes and words.
He first made his mark in the UK with Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear, a hit for Alan Price and quite an oddity in the 1967 world of psychedelia, when everyone was vying to be the coolest cat. Randy Newman was never concerned with being cool. He’s the musical equivalent of the nerd, writing about whatever he feels like in whatever style suits the lyrics. He looks more like a school chemistry teacher than a supplier of superior songs to the stars and he certainly doesn’t look like a star himself. He never did. But Price was so impressed with the nascent songwriting talent that he put no fewer than five Newman songs on the album A Price on his Head. Even the B side of Simon Smith was a Newman song: Tickle Me.
American megastars Three Dog Night brought Newman back into the UK charts with 1969’s Mama Told Me Not To Come, a nerd’s eye view of a party where everyone else is drunk and smoking dope and the narrator doesn’t know what the hell is going on.
The Newman CV includes a long solo career with limited commercial success but a core of devoted admirers, and sporadic outbreaks of hits for other people.
He’s Got The Blues, sung in part by Paul Simon, is typical, or typically different, with Newman’s character raising a cynical eyebrow at the way a smooth singer tugs on the heartstrings, while Simon’s bits demonstrate just how that is done in his sweet, effortless voice. It’s like a practical seminar at a college of popular music.
This song bends this series’ rules in not being a cover version, but Paul Simon is so perfect for his part that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t written for him, and it’s also hard to imagine a Simon completist not considering this a bona fide part of the collection.
I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today, which Newman originally recorded in 1968, has been covered by dozens of artists, from Judy Collins to Leonard Nimoy, Barbara Dickson to Barbra Streisand and Chris Farlowe to Peter Gabriel.
One that has become a standard of sorts, nor least in karaoke, is You Can Leave Your Hat On, an amusingly suggestive little number ruined, in my opinion, by such leering fools as dirty old uncle Tom Jones, who leaves no nudge unnudged and no wink unwinked. Millions of people disagree, and I hope I don’t sound prudish, but really, it’s the kind of performance that merits a slap in the face. Good for the Newman pension fund, though, and he needs it, because he signed away the rights to his early songs and doesn’t receive a penny in royalties for them.
The candid thoughts of former Premier League referee Colin Preece, as recorded by our eavesdropping mole in the Duck and Peasant.
Sunderland, Dave. Yes, Sunderland. I would like to hear your thoughts on one of the sleeping giants that’s been asleep so long it’s got hair and a beard like Hagrid in Harry Potter. The Robbie Coltrane character, Baz. Fat bloke with hair and a beard that look like Sunderland would if it was a man. Bloody hell it’s hard around here sometimes. But as you say, Dave, giving cultural references to a man devoid of culture is, well, it’s hard to finish that thought without another cultural reference.
But if Leicester City can achieve what they did last season, supporters of the other perennial strugglers must be thinking it’s just possible it’s their turn now.
So, the team in red and white stripes with black shorts are dreaming of glory, and why not? Their manger until about a month ago is now the manager of England. And he’s been replaced by a former manager of a Champion’s’ League-winning club. The sobering reality is that it’s David Moyes, but, again, think back just a few years and he was highly respected for doing good things with Everton. Anybody would have struggled at Man U straight after Ferguson. Nothing wrong with Moyesy, and he’s probably better off somewhere where expectations are not high.
Sunderland’s a working man’s club. Have you seen their crest, their badge? It’s got a ship on it, a silhouette of a ship. Not the Queen Mary or a cruise ship, but it looks like a merchant vessel or maybe a warship. And that’s because that’s what the town is famous for, building ships. I know it’s not like that now, but what do you think they’re going to put on their crest, a silhouette of a council estate? That’s their history and they’re trying to use it as inspiration.
Raich Carter, Brian Clough, Tom Finney, Ian Porterfield, Jim Montgomery. I know the kids haven’t heard of them, but why does it always have to be about kids? Nobody’s ever heard of Baz, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist. I had to explain to Jody the other day who Brian Clough was, and she’s 25. Only one of the greatest centre forwards in the English language and a legendary manager who won the European Cup twice on the trot. You have to explain what the European Cup was too nowadays, and tell them the old First Division was what is now the Premier League.
Cheers, Gary, something from the north-east, mate. Do they still have Newcastle Brown ale? I know Sunderland supporters would probably object, but it’s the closest we’re going to get. See if they’ve got Shipbuilding on the juke box. Robert Wyatt or Elvis Costello, I don’t mind. Or Don’t Give Up, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Bit gloomy for a juke box, I know. Tell you what, I’ve got it on my iPod, which I happen to have here. We can take turns. To get in the mood, Baz. To bring luck to the boys shivering up in la la land.
Sentimental? Yes, I suppose I am a bit. I’ll tell you the truth. The ex-wife’s daughter is up the duff. Pregnant. The father’s a guy from the Job Centre, originally from the north-east. So I’m going to be a granddad. No, she’s not my own flesh and blood, but close enough. Jody? Not amused, but she’ll get over it.
At least Sunderland have a history. Leicester didn’t. Towns and cities tend to have successful football clubs when the town is doing well, and Sunderland was booming once with the shipbuilding, but what’s Leicester’s claim to fame? Look at Aberdeen. They were a force in Scottish football in the days when Britain suddenly discovered it had oil and gas under the sea, and a lot of it happened to be in the frozen north. So the town no longer just had beer and fish and chilblains, it had money, and then it had Alex Ferguson and European football.
If iTunes or YouTube survive the destruction of mankind, however and whenever that may be, the extraterrestrial historians of the future will be able to use pop songs to study our interests, preoccupations, habits, likes and dislikes. And one of the things they will discover, in addition to the fact that we are obsessed with love, is that human beings could fly. Having studied skeletons, they will conclude that it wasn’t self-powered flight, which must mean a machine was involved.
Going through the list of songs available to them alphabetically, they may stumble across Airport, a mid-70s single by English pub-rockers-turned-new-wavers The Motors. And they will find that love has got mixed up in it as usual, with the airport being blamed in this instance for taking someone’s loved one away.
“Irrational,” they might conclude, Spock-like, “but then they destroyed their own planet, so what can you expect?”
Labouring through their research – and think how distracting it would be, having a zillion songs to listen to – they might then find Joni Mitchell’s This Flight Tonight (covered, strangely enough, by the raucous rock band Nazareth), in which she is regretting getting on the thing, which a Steve Miller song will tell them was called a Jet Airliner. In this, Miller is talking to the plane, urging it rather pointlessly not to take him too far from home.
To back up the theory that all this travel was not necessarily a good thing would be Leaving On A Jet Plane, most famously by Peter Paul and Mary but written by John Denver. He doesn’t want to be on that plane either. So did these humans have no control over air travel? Did it choose them, rather than the other way around?
The Beatles seemed happy enough on Back in the USSR, though, with screaming jet engines taking them to the former Soviet Union although other research indicated that they came from Liverpool, England.
Should these historians come across the legendary live recording of Woodstock, they might hear Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee introducing a song as I’m Going Home “by helicopter”, and painstaking detective work would reveal that the musicians playing at the 1969 concert got into the traffic-choked farm where it was taking place by air, and that Neil Young was thrilled to be sharing a chopper with the late, lamented Jimi Hendrix.
Travel in all its many forms will be revealed to the researchers by Oleta Adams’s 1991 tearjerker Get Here, soon adopted by worried lovers and spouses of American servicemen and women in the Gulf War, as every mode of transport is evoked as a possible means to bring them safely home. This was written by prolific songwriter Brenda Russell, of Piano in the Dark fame.
Perhaps the only recorded musical artifact that conjures up the dreamy, surreal quality of a long plane journey is 12 Hours of Sunset, in which the maverick English troubadour Roy Harper follows the rays around the world from Los Angeles to London. I will leave it to those of a scientific bent to work out if such a thing is plausible. Suffice it to say that it does capture those long hours when, despite the endless drinks and snacks, your destination never seems to get any closer and all you can do is surrender to the in-flight movies and your iPod.
The only other truly happy plane song is Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon, which, being a pre-space travel number, fails to grasp the fact that a pair of wings and a full tank isn’t going to get you to another planet. Of course, further study shows that the song wasn’t about air travel at all, but merely an elaborate way for a man to make the perennial suggestion to a woman. Or maybe he just loves her.
Step forward Peter Gabriel, whose late-80s hit Sledgehammer offers his girl “an aeroplane flying, if you bring your blue sky back”. As we have seen so many times before, we don’t have to try to make exact, logical sense out of this kind of thing. We get the idea.
Frustration and impatience of the practical variety is the usual atmosphere of these things, as corroborated by Gunga Din, The Byrds’s late 60s tale of returning to L.A. after a disastrous gig in New York.
Sitting backwards on this airplane
Is bound to make me sick
Spend your life on a DC8
And never get to pick
That’s not something you come across often these days, but you still get it on trains.
Moving into the 21st century, B.o.B. featuring Hayley Williams with a bit of help from Eminem brought us Airplane, in which an aspiring rap star is reflecting on the episodic nature of life and how when one mutha doesn’t give him a recording contract he will simply adjust the swivel of his baseball cap and try again. And the plane bit? Oh, he or she (they keep swapping lines) wants to pretend that airplanes were like shooting stars. Why? So they could wish on them, of course. Do try to keep up.
The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
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.
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.
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.
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.