The wisdom of pop songs – The nature of love

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

It’s all very well the world’s songwriters basing their work on being in love, but there is a rather basic matter to be sorted out beforehand. To quote Howard Jones, “What is lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ove anyway?” We can disregard the next bit, “Does anybody love anybody anyway?” because it’s a nice line and he had a song to finish.

But the first part is a question that has been asked many times, from Foreigner’s whingeing “I want to know what love is” to Haddaway’s Trinidadian-German inquiry that comes just before “Baby don’t hurt me”.

So we know that whatever love is, it’s potentially hazardous.

Michael Jackson pointed out the difference between falling in love and being in love on his 1979 album Off The Wall. He can’t take any credit for such an incisive thought, though, because It’s The Falling In Love was written by Carol Bayer Sayer and David Foster.  Bayer Sager was well qualified to express an opinion, having been married to a record producer, had a relationship with the composer Marvin Hamlisch and spent most of the 1980s married to Burt Bacharach before ending up with a former chairman of Warner Brothers. She’s a pretty nifty lyricist – or knows people who are – as we can see by her quirky solo hit You’re Moving Out Today, co-written by Bette Midler and Bruce Roberts. Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t it infuriating when you can’t tell who did what?

Meanwhile, back at the concept, what is love? Is it that intense longing that comes at the start or is that just a form of lust and therefore doesn’t count? It’s certainly a confusing element, as the Partridge Family’s David Cassidy  demonstrated via I Think I Love You. You think? You only think? Come back when you’re sure. In fact the singer is not trying to make progress into a girl’s clothing by this  cautious expression of emotion: he’s afraid of suffering “a love there is no cure for”. Or rather the songwriter Tony Romeo was. That was his big moment, although he wrote other hits including Lou Christie’s I’m Gonna Make You Mine.

The Detroit Spinners didn’t seem to be afraid in their 1973 hit Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, written by Melvin and Mervin Steals (unless someone is winding me up about those names). They were just The Spinners in their native America, but in the UK we had a famous folk group of that name, so they were obliged to amend theirs.

Falling in love is the easy bit, as anyone who has been around that particular block knows. Falling in love only takes a minute, to quote Tavares before the disgraced English pop jack-of-all-trades Jonathan King grabbed himself a local hit with his own version.

In 1967 Diana Ross and the Supremes had given voice to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s (keep falling) In and Out of Love, a sort of sung expression of the old saying that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.

It’s sustaining it that’s the hard part, staying in love while life goes on around you, and the young can’t write about that because they haven’t experienced it yet. Therefore it falls to a slightly older crowd to bring it to us. Country music is a good source of such ageing wisdom, as evidenced by Shania Twain’s 1997 crossover hit You’re Still The One, co-written by her husband and producer Mutt Lange. Sadly, he is probably not still the one in real life, because he screwed the whole thing up by having an affair with Twain’s best friend and they divorced in 2010.

Billie Jo Spears spoke for a generation of still-in-love and still lusty women with 1975’s Blanket on the Ground, in which she proposes sacrificing a some of her precious  bedding to have a nostalgic romp in the dirt with her husband. Didn’t they have sleeping bags in her one-horse town?

A very different take on the subject comes from Jamaican singer-producer Sean Paul, who is breathtakingly frank when he tells his lover:

Blessings loving from the start but you know we had to part
That’s the way I give my love
I’m still in love with you
But a man gotta do what a man gotta do

And he’s not talking about having to go off to war or some other mitigating circumstance. It’s a track from his second album Dutty Rock, dutty being the Caribbean form of dirty.

But we can’t leave the subject on that note, so let’s turn to Al Green, with his typically chirpy Still in Love With You and Thin Lizzy with a very different song of the same name.

This love business is a marathon, not a sprint.

 

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Fire

Pop music being about youth and excitement a lot of the time, it’s not surprising that fire crops up. Not in the literal sense, that is, but as an indication of emotion.

One that did purport to be about the real thing was 1968’s Fire by  The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, a rabble-rouser if ever there was one, and appealing to teenagers even now. Sadly for Arthur, he burned brightly for a very short time and that was his only hit, although he has recorded plenty of music over the years and is apparently still at it. Incidentally, his band originally contained keyboardist Vincent Crane, who went on to form Atomic Rooster, into which drummer Carl Palmer later followed him before becoming part of Emerson Lake and Palmer.

Brown toured with Jimi Hendrix and managed to get thrown off the tour for safety reasons, in spite of Hendrix’s own predilection for squirting lighter fluid on his guitar and setting fire to it. And of course Hendrix had his own song called Fire, in which he urged the object of his affections to let him stand next to her “fire”. A figure of speech, no doubt.

Jerry Lee Lewis’s contribution to the theme came merely as part of an exclamation, goodness gracious, Great Balls of Fire, again as a result of an incendiary woman.

The Rolling Stones were also just playing with words when they wrote and recorded Play With Fire, a warning by the singer to a girl not to mess with him.

Deep Purple’s perennial favourite, Smoke on the Water, was about a real incident when Montreux Casino burned down after a concert by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. As the song tells us, “some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground”. This mattered to Deep Purple because, for whatever reason, they had intended to record an album in the casino, using the Rolling Stones’s mobile recording equipment.

And so was born a guitar riff that sounds easier to play than it really is, as fledgling rockers have been finding out for almost 50 years.

Many years later, Saturday Night Fever included Disco Inferno, in which the writers (no, not the BeeGees) imagined a blaze, so hot was the atmosphere in this particular palais de dance.

The Pointer Sisters, during their 1980s heyday, claimed to burst into flames courtesy of a kiss, although science has for centuries failed to prove or disprove the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion.

Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire is supposedly an attempt to absolve his rock’n’roll generation of the blame for the world’s ills – although it sounds more as if he’s just enjoying a bit of a reminisce and trying to make it sound like a rock song.

Possibly the most gentle fire song is Jose Feliciano’s acoustic guitar-powered version of Light My Fire, which was written by the Doors and recorded by them with a rampant organ… err, a  driving, organ-based accompaniment.

Self-indulgent as ever, I must mention The Fire by one of New York’s new wave bands of the 70s, Television. A dead-slow, basically nonsensical but emotional-sounding piece of poignant fantasy, I won’t bother you with a track to listen to, but if you ever come across their second album, Adventure, it’s on there. And tell them I sent you.

One that has always made me quite angry is The Prodigy’s firestarter, a vile and puerile piece of vitriol that makes me want to go round their house and lob a Molotov cocktail into the shed, if they think it’s so damn funny. It’s only a pop song, of course, but does this add to the beauty of human existence?

Current world favourite Adele mixed her metaphors with reckless abandon on Set Fire To The Rain, but then she could sing the Koran  in Greek and it would be a hit.

On one final note of self-indulgence, I give you Etta James (real name Jamesetta Hawkins – that’s what it says on Wikipedia, anyway), perpetual   bridesmaid in the pantheon of female soul singers. Well known in certain circles in the 1960s with songs such as I Just Want To Make Love To You, she faded badly before re-emerging in 1986 with an album called Seven Year Itch, on which she breaks your heart one minute and rocks like a bitch the next on tracks like Jump Into My  Fire.

The wisdom of pop songs – The greatest pop song ever

dusty 1

You know that old thing where someone asks you what your five favourite songs are? It’s very difficult to answer, and even more difficult when you refine the rules. Does that mean five songs or five versions? Could you therefore nominate Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Spirit, Patti Smith and The Rolling Stones?

What the question really means is which five songs would you take to a desert island if five was all you could have. Even then, it’s pretty hard to decide. For me the list would change every day.

But as a song lover, a student of – and dabbler in – the craft of songwriting, I recently came to this conclusion: the best pop song ever written is I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten, as recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1968.

And why do I state this so clearly? Because it’s a masterpiece of construction, instrumentation and production – with the obvious added bonus of being sung by one of the great pop voices.

The song was written by Clive Westlake, not a well-known name, but The Hollies had a hit with his Here I Go Again and his lesser-known material was recorded by, among others, Elvis Presley, Petula Clark and Tom Jones.

Westlake was a classically trained musician (Royal Academy of Music), which accounts for the majestic intro on grand piano. But it is piano played with verve, with joy, with key-shattering gusto. This owes a lot to the producer and pianist, who I’m assuming was John Franz, Dusty’s usual producer and a renowned pianist (although my internet search failed to come up with anything concrete). If you listen to live versions, the pianist is playing the same notes but it just doesn’t have the oomph, the magic.

dusty 2
This wasn’t my idea. Bloody photographers.

Then we come to the construction, to describe which I have to get slightly technical on yo ass. Pop songs tend to go verse verse chorus verse chorus, possibly with a different bit in the middle which is often eight bars long and therefore known as a middle eight.

But look at this.

It isn’t the way that you look
And it isn’t the way that you talk
It isn’t the things that you say or do
Make me want you so

It has nothing to do with the wine
Or the music that’s flooding my mind
But never before have I been so sure
You’re the someone I dreamed I would find

It’s the way you make me feel
The moment I am close to you
It’s a feeling so unreal
Somehow I can’t believe it’s true
The pounding I feel in my heart
The hoping that we’ll never part
I can’t believe this is really happening to me

I close my eyes and count to ten
And when I open them you’re still here
I close my eyes and count again
I can’t believe it but you’re still here

We were strangers a moment ago
With a few dreams but nothing to show
The world was a place with a frown on its face
And tomorrow was just, I don’t know

But the way you make me feel
The moment I am close to you
Makes today seem so unreal
Somehow I can’t believe it’s true
Tomorrow, will you still be here?
Tomorrow will come but I fear
That what is happening to me is only a dream

I close my eyes and count to ten
And when I open them you’re still here
I close my eyes and count again
I can’t believe it but you’re still here
I close my eyes and count to ten
And when I open them, you’re still here

Two verses  (It isn’t the way… etc.) and what comes after them is the chorus: “It’s the way you make me feel…”

But then what happens? We get the “I close my eyes…” section, which is a kind of second chorus. The first would have been enough to make it a hit, but here you’ve got your ice cream with chocolate sauce and then some raspberry stuff on top. You’ve got your McDonalds fries with ketchup and mayonnaise. But this is the best one: you’ve got  your tequila with orange juice, which is nice, but then grenadine as well, making it a tequila sunrise and extra special.

So that’s the technical aspect. But that counts for very little unless the song just sounds and feels great. And it does.

It makes me glad to be alive.

Specifically it makes me glad to be alive in the pop era. William Shakespeare, Queen Victoria and even Marilyn Monroe might have had eventful lives and enjoyed many things, but they were gone by the time Clive Westlake and Dusty Springfield brought us their masterpiece.

Sir Winston Churchill missed it by a couple of years.

Billy Wells, the gong striker for Rank films, checked out with just months to go.

And Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at around the time the record was released in the UK.

And here it is. Pity about the dress, eh, ladies?

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 – Boredom

Boredom may not be exclusively the province of the young, but it’s young people who complain about it. As soon as we become old enough to give an assessment of life, we see it as disappointing. It should be more exciting. Why can’t I be James Bond or Spongebob? This town/village/capital city is a drag. Nothing to do.

This is reflected in pop songs, where although the acts we see associated with the boredom songs may be middle aged, elderly or dead by now, the songs they brought us came early in their career.

The Lovin’ Spoonful, making a long-overdue debut in this blog, sang mainly about young love and optimism. John Sebastian was that kind of guy, and he was mature for his years too. But when touring became a chore  he told us all about it in a song called Boredom.

Boredom: hanging by myself
In a bleak motel
Overnight in a small town

What happened to the groupies and marijuana, that’s what I want to know. Surely he wasn’t bored with them too.

Around the same time, the late 60s, The Statler Brothers had a minor one-off hit with Flowers on the Wall, in which a rejected boyfriend tells his cruel lover what it’s like being without her.

That sort of whingeing gets you nowhere, but try telling that to a lovesick fool – and we’ve all been that person.
In the 70s The Clash brought us I’m So Bored With The USA, which  was a punked-up version of the idle rich’s idea of boredom. They weren’t bored with the USA at all, just resentful of the country’s attitudes.

Morrissey, a far more suitable candidate to express this sort of thing, wrote and recorded one of his fascinating little slices of life in 1991 on the Kill Uncle album, the splendid first lines of which are

Your boyfriend he went down on one knee
Well could it be he’s only got one knee?

He then goes on to tell us about the obnoxious girl, including this:

I tried to surprise you, I crept up behind you
With a homeless Chihuahua
You cooed for an hour
Then handed him back and said “You’ll never guess,
I’m bored now”

You will note that these are not hugely commercial songs. Boredom is not a money-spinner.

American indie band The Eels droned spookily in the 1990s with Novocaine for the Soul, a typical tale of young disillusionment:

Guess whose living here
With the great undead
This paint-by-numbers life
Is f***ing with my head

All together, parents: Get out of that bedroom and wash my car!

The Pet Shop Boys, an act with dilettante tendencies, brought us Being Boring, a response to criticism by someone in Japan who didn’t think they were exciting enough for a band.

“Spokesman for a generation” Pete Townshend of The Who tackled the subject on their 1974 concept album Quadrophenia, which amounts to one long tale of woe for a young man let down by life. On the hit single 5:15, for instance,

Magically bored
On a quiet street corner
Free frustration
In our minds and our toes

Treatment in this case was administered in the form of drugs: amphetamines and barbiturates, as required.

The master of the yawning-in-his-silk-dressing-gown approach was a much earlier songwriting genius, Cole Porter, who summed up the dinner-and-cocktails lifestyle of his 1930s contemporaries in I Get a Kick Out of You.

I get no kick from champagne
Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all

Some versions (and there have been many, from Frank Sinatra in 1954 to the 1970s’ Gary Shearston) include cocaine on the list of things that fail to get the singer going. Ho hum, what is to be done with these people?

A more circumspect view came from Jethro Tull on their second album, 1969’s Stand Up, and the song Back to the Family, where songwriter Ian Anderson sings about a character not unlike himself, under pressure with work in London and retreating to the his home in the country, where he immediately misses the buzz of the city.

Rod Stewart had a good idea when he was bored in 1972: write to an old flame, a few years your senior, and try to rekindle some action. You Wear It Well may have been a thinly-veiled retread of Maggie May, but it lolloped along with a sort of lonely swagger.

The Rolling Stones in the late 60s had taken the  drug-treatment line on Mother’s Little Helper, the bored housewife resorting to some chemical assistance from “a little yellow pill”.

The problem was still also in the 80s, as Tears for Fears with Mad World, a simmering stew of disappointment, tedium and desperation. And as for the 21st century, well… yawn… I don’t know if I can be bothered. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Boats and ships

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

A couple of weeks ago we had a look at air travel through the eyes of the world’s songwriters and now it’s time to take to the water: boats.

Boating is not necessarily about long voyages; it can be about pleasure and relaxation. In 1961 a Scottish folk singer called Josh MacRae had a UK hit with a sleepy piece of whimsy called Messing About On The River, in which he extolled the virtues of taking it easy on the water. Josh wasn’t his real name – he borrowed it from  blues musician he liked. He was really Iain, and if this song is representative of his usual conversation, one can surmise that he loved his mother, went caravanning to the same loch-side location every year and sometimes treated himself to a naughty third glass of shandy. A Jack Daniels-swigging rebel he wasn’t, but what is called in the UK an anorak, as this couplet suggests:

There are tillers and rudders and anchors and cleats,
And ropes that are sometimes referred to as sheets.

Rock on, Iain. Or folk on, perhaps.

New Zealand being a former British territory, that song may well have been crooning through the speaker of the radio in the house of the young Tim Finn before he formed Split Enz and was subsequently eclipsed by his younger brother Neil, with Crowded House. Split Enz had great success with the wonderful Six Months in a Leaky Boat, a rollicking tale of life on the high seas.

The Beach Boys had already brought us Sloop John B, a folk song from the Bahamas that told of problems of drunkenness and ill health aboard the eponymous ship, leaving the narrator wanting to go home.

You don’t get this kind of thing with air travel, because it’s all over too quickly.

Many songs with boat or ship in the title actually have nothing to do with nautical matters: Bebop Deluxe’s Ships in the Night, for instance, is a figure of speech meaning two people who don’t really connect, while the Walker Brothers’ My Ship Is Coming In is another way of saying his fortunes are changing and “things are gonna be different now”.

One of this blog’s favourite songs on any subject is perfect here, though: Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog, a beautifully crafted story of British sailors thousands of miles from home and settling on a remote island. Lyricist Keith Reid put the words in Gary Brooker’s mouth – he also created the psychedelic strangeness of A Whiter Shade of Pale – and perhaps because he wasn’t singing them himself, he had a poetic flair and breadth of vision that is all too rare in pop music.

We fired the gun, and burned the mast, and rowed from ship to shore
The captain cried, we sailors wept: our tears were tears of joy
Now many moons and many Junes have passed since we made land
A salty dog, this seaman’s log: your witness my own hand

Rod Stewart’s massive hit Sailing, a song of love and loneliness, was written by Gavin Sutherland of the Sutherland Brothers, who enjoyed considerable success in their own right but are probably sick to death of the song, if not the royalties.

Christopher Cross’s song of the same name seems to tell of his love for being out on the water himself, forgetting his worldly cares because “the canvas can do miracles”.

Much less well known but equally brilliant are two songs by The Band. Rocking Chair, on their second album, the one with Up on Cripple Creek and Rag Mama Rag, features an ageing  man urging his friend Willie to join him in retiring from their seafaring life because they’re simply too old.

I spent my whole life at sea
And I’m pushing age 73
Now there’s only one place that was meant for me

Later came Evangeline, which sounds like a Canadian folk song but was actually written by guitarist Robbie Robertson just in time to be tacked onto the end of the film The Last Waltz. A tale of a riverboat gambler and his drowning  while his love watches, helpless, from a hilltop, it features the voices of Rick Danko and Levon Helm, with the girl portrayed by Emmylou Harris.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary evokes a similar era, albeit far less dramatically.

A completely different angle comes from Elvis Costello with Shipbuilding, which was also a hit for Robert Wyatt. Set in the tough economic times of the early 1980s when the Falklands war was generating money for the north of England and Scotland because war ships needed to be built, it’s about as appealing as a politically-motivated song can be.

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday…

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

And on that somber note, The Wisdom of Pop Songs will see you next Friday.

The wisdom of pop songs – Sing a song of Britain

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

 

Songs about British towns

In spite of having an international reputation for arrogance, the British are a very self-effacing lot. We routinely make fun of our own limitations: the food is no good, the weather is awful, the football teams haven’t won a major tournament since England had Sir Walter Raleigh in goal.

Perhaps the only thing we will claim in our favour is that when it comes to pop music we wrote the book. From the Beatles to Ed Sheeran and Adele, we are the champions.

And yet even in that there is one perceived weakness: our place names don’t work in songs. While Americans love to sing about their home town, be it New York or Baton Rouge, the British can’t do it with the same aplomb.

But I beg to differ. And here, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present documentary, recorded evidence.

Starting at the biggest, the capital has been celebrated in song many times. From ELO’s Last Train to London to Blur’s London Loves, from the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset to Ian Dury’s Billericay Dickie and Plaistow Patricia, not forgetting Morrissey’s Dagenham Dave, our metropolitan placenames are scattered through our music like double decker buses in a blizzard.

It is tempting to think of Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning as being written during an early trip to civilization, but unfortunately there is an area of that name in New York, and she lived there at the time. Similarly, any reference to the Chelsea Hotel  means the famous one in New York, where, among other things, Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001: A space odyssey, Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon to death and Leonard Cohen reputedly received oral favours from Janis Joplin. How do we know that? Because he wrote about it in a song called Chelsea Hotel.

But it’s not just London. South coast, anyone? The Beatles’ Ballad of John and Yoko starts with “Standing on the docks at Southampton.”

The New Vaudeville Band’s Winchester Cathedral might not be rock’s finest hour, but it was a typically witty celebration of Britishness.

Liverpool? Home of the Beatles, and they celebrated places within it, such as Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields.

Then there’s Kimberley Rew’s brilliant contribution to The Bangles’  repertoire, Going Down to Liverpool.

Gerry and the Pacemakers, Liverpool lads that they were, sang about the local river in Ferry Cross the Mersey.

Blackburn? John Lennon in A Day in the Life: four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.

And Blackburn’s big neighbor, Manchester, home of the Hollies, Stone Roses and the Smiths: the latter acknowledged the dark side of the city  in Morrissey’s song about the Moors Murders, Dig a Shallow Grave. “Oh Manchester, so much to answer for…”

Up to Scotland, and in addition to such patriotic fervor as The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith, no less a force than Abba gave it a mention in Supertrouper, their song about the loneliness of touring.

I was sick and tired of everything
When I called you last night from Glasgow

Paul McCartney had happier memories of the city in Helen Wheels.

Glasgow town never brought me down
When I was heading out on the road

As for Newcastle, where the population is as regionally self-aware as any in the country, although the town itself doesn’t seem to lend itself to lyrical status, proud Geordie Jimmy Nail sang about the Tyne in Big River, while Lindisfarne had used the city and even its accent to their advantage in Fog On The Tyne.

Also in that part of the world, The Shadows had a song in the early 60s called Stars Fell on Stockton, which probably sounds more glamorous to those who have never been there than to a Teessider.

Paul McCartney ticks off another couple of towns in Old Siam Sir

She waited round in Walthamstow
Skated round in Scarborough

And talking of the Yorkshire coastal resort, Simon and Garfunkel did a tremendous job on the old folk song Scarborough Fair.

Yorkshire singer-songwriter Michael Chapman’s postcards of Scarborough wasn’t just a song but an album title.

The most famous northern resort of them all has been referred to several times, from Jethro Tull’s Going up the ‘Pool to Graham Nash’s mention of his birth and early childhood in Military Madness:

In an upstairs room in Blackpool
By the side of the Northern Sea
The army had my father
And my mother was having me

Back down south, Athlete sang fondly about Dungeness, a town more famous for its power station than anything else, while Blur’s Damon Albarn sang about throwing yourself off a national landmark in Clover Over Dover. And in Tracy Jacks he had the hero getting on “the first train to Walton”, which could be several places but is probably Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex.

And finally, my own beautiful little lump in the English Channel, Guernsey, might not be an obvious contender here, but check out Steely Dan’s Showbiz Kids (first line after the intro):

After closing time
At the Guernsey Fair
I detect the El Supremo
In the room at the top of the stair

Probably a Stateside Guernsey, but still… Jersey is constantly being name checked when what people really mean is New Jersey, old stomping ground of, among others, Bruce Springsteen.

The list must go on and one, but you get my point, I’m sure. Engerland swings like a pendulum do, as an American once observed.

 

 

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Flying

Songs about air travel

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 wisdom of pop songs – Sun worshippers

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

sun

The Beatles summed it up with Here Comes The Sun and its simple expression of post-winter relief, “It’s all right”. Rain we call for when we need it. The sun we want almost all the time.

The beautiful innocence of the early 1960s (beautiful and innocent from this distance, at least) gave us  the Beach Boys, who, if not always mentioning the yellow hot thing by name, were always obviously out in it, admiring the girls and getting a tan (apart from ginger-haired Mike Love, who probably just got roasted).

1965 saw a catchy if brainless little ditty called I Live For the Sun, by the Sunrays. With a name like that, it sounds suspiciously like the song came first and the group was just a vehicle to take it to the people.

It was produced by Murry Wilson. There was only one man of that name and spelling in the musical sphere, and he had sons called Brian, Carl and Dennis. That’s right, the Beach Boys. He had been their manager and co-producer until they ditched him in 1964, so his involvement with these one-hit wonders seems quite understandable. I’ll show the ungrateful sods.

Rolf Harris had recently arrived in England at that time from Australia, with a unique angle: using aboriginal influences to make distinctive pop music. With its highly unusual, primeval didgeridoo sound conjuring up roasting reptiles on a camp fire in the outback, it was perhaps Harris’s one admirable contribution to music and culture in general, far more so than, for instance, his previous single, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, even if the B-side was “an old traditional Cockney folk song that I’ve just written”, Someone’s Pinched Me Winkles. But those were different times, when George Martin was still producing comedy records rather than buffing the brilliance of the Fab Four.

The Kinks  brought a broader dramatic scope to their pop/rock with Sunny Afternoon:

My girlfriend’s run off with my car
And gone back to her Ma and Pa
Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty
Now I’m sitting here
Sipping at my ice-cold beer
Lazing on a sunny afternoon

One of the era’s timeless classics, House of the Rising Sun, had nothing really to do with solar matters, while the Kinks came back a couple of years later with Waterloo Sunset, in which the sun is in spectacular decorative mode.

Cream, the blues-rock gods whose early output included some surprisingly poppy singles, came up with one of the all-time great guitar riffs for Sunshine of your Love, in which the sunshine is metaphorical, representing the goodness and warmth of a romantic relationship.

sun 2

Jumping forward to reggae times in the 70s and 80s, Bob Marley and the Wailers got Sun is Shining from legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry and even though it appeared on their Kaya album in 1978, it took a remix by Danish producer Funkstar de Luxe to propel the song to the stratosphere in 1999.

Meanwhile, The Police had been on the case with Invisible Sun, where lyricist Sting presages his later social commentator role with a song full of gloom and danger, redeemed only when the sun “gives us hope when the whole day’s done”.

Morrissey, that grossly misunderstood pop genius, wrote and recorded a superb little dig at those who like to loll around, soaking up the rays while the world falls apart around them, in The Lazy Sunbathers. You see, Mozza, that’s how you got that reputation.

In 1985 Katrina and the Waves unleashed the phenomenally popular Walking on Sunshine, a clearly impossible feat that just expressed  how elated they were.

Elton John had already lamented the loss of solar activity in Don’t let the Sun Go Down on Me. Sun: happy, no sun: sad. It’s a simple equation.

In 2015, Rihanna went all wise and mature on us with Towards the Sun and it’s profound advice:

Turn your face towards the sun
Let the shadows fall behind you
Don’t look back, just carry on
And the shadows will never find you

Ed Sheeran alluded to the dangers of the sun when he used it to describe his feelings on being dumped:

You scarred and left me
Like a sunburn

The full picture, though, was brought to us by the film director Baz Luhrmann in his rather bizarre song/lecture Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen. It is the first and most important piece of advice he offers young people in a litany that includes not believing they’re fat and not being upset by criticism.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.
The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists
Whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
Than my own meandering experience, I will dispense this advice now…

Okay, Baz, you’re Australian, so you probably know what you’re talking about, but this is pop music. Where’s your bravado, your exultation? If they want to get melanomas, that’s up to them.

Here:

 

 

Did we mention the 1990s? here’s a bit of Supergrass.

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Kitchen songs

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

 

Yes, songs about kitchens. You will be surprised.

kitchen 2

I started thinking about this theme while listening to the Lemonheads song, Stove. You know when you get a new album, you might not study it, but just play it a few times to let it grow on you? That’s what happened with this one. The album is called Lovey, and it’s a bit patchy – not in the same league as It’s A Shame About Ray, but features some great songs.

Gradually I found myself singing an emotional line that started “I know I shouldn’t think about it anymore” and it sounded like the usual post-breakup business. But when I looked up the lyrics (because they’re not very clear when you listen), I found this:

The gas man came and took out our electric stove
I helped him carry it

Looking more closely, we learn that the gas man was once a boxer and had a son at UVM (University of Vermont). And they put a new stove in and the old one sits in the corridor, but every time the singer (the peerless Evan Dando) sees it, he gets upset.

All of this is dressed in a scorching fast rhythm that would get me going if it was about, well, a stove.

So, here it is. No video to look at, just a great, quirky rock-pop song.

Kitchen songs in general – and there are a few – are not usually so off-the-wall. There’s the blues classic by Robert Johnson, Come On In My Kitchen, which is a not particularly subtle invitation to join him not in his kitchen, but somewhere else warm and comfortable where he can stir the lady’s passions and probably serve up some special sauce in the end, but it’s all mixed up with somebody else having done him wrong, stolen his girl and he steals her back again. There is a brilliant live version by Steve Miller, revving up a 12-string guitar like you have never heard.

kitchen 4

It’s s similar tale in the Doors’ Soul Kitchen:

Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen
Warm my mind near your gentle stove
Turn me out and I’ll wander baby
Stumblin’ in the neon groves

A typical Jim Morrison stew of imagery, you might say; thought-provoking but nonsensical and with one thing on his mind.

About 10 years ago when Corinne Bailey Rae was the new rising Brit-soul songwriter, before Amy Winehouse crashed the party, she gave us Till It Happens To You, a dreamy song of lost love remembering how : “we used to stay up all night in the kitchen when our love was new”.

Returning briefly to the Lemonheads, their song, Kitchen, tells of how “It all started in the kitchen” without getting at all specific.

kitchen 1

Jona Lewie, post-punk oddity of Stiff Records fame, who has a recurring source of UK income from his Christmas song Stop the Cavalry, also sang  about how you would always find him in the kitchen at parties, which fellow introverts recognise as being a safe zone, away from the expectant hurly burly of the front room with its music and frantic socialising.

Early 90s pop beanpole Martika had a hit with Martika’s Kitchen, another thinly veiled invitation to sample spices and condiments of the human variety. This was written and produced by Prince, in his instantly recognisable 1999-type style.

The strange link between cooking and sex is demonstrated once again by Joni Mitchell in Raised on Robbery, her 1974 hit from the Court and Spark album. This is the story of an unfortunate woman whose husband drank away all their money, leaving her to resort to selling her body.

I’m a pretty good cook
Sitting on my groceries
Come up to my kitchen
And I’ll show you my best recipes

Tongue sandwich, anyone? Insert your own food-based smutty remark here.