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.

 

 

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Rain is good

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
rain c
Hey Barry, we’re up here

As we established last week, rain is generally seen as a bad thing in pop songs, but there are notable exceptions.

Walking in the rain might be avoided in the normal course of events, but when you’re in love, suddenly it’s a romantic thing to do.

Just before the dawn of rock’n’roll, in 1952, the classic musical number Singin’ in the Rain left no doubt as to the singer’s mood, while Johnny Ray had a hit with Just Walking in the Rain, in which he’s happy to be getting wet in this way because it takes his mind of his broken heart.

In 1964 the Ronettes brought us an update on that with their own Walking in the Rain, courtesy of the songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil plus producer Phil Spector. Jay and the Americans did a version too, and I am indebted to the erstwhile David Cassidy fan proprietor of the What’s It All About Alfie blog for pointing out that the Partridge Family also recorded it. They featured it in their TV show, playing it out by the pool, all dressed in pale blue shirts and dark blue trousers with matching waistcoats. Very smart. This is the sort of thing that women know, because while the show could be mildly amusing, Mum Partridge (Shirley Jones) didn’t appeal to us boys as much as Cassidy did to the (Eeek, I love you David!!!!!!!!!!) girls.

Not long afterwards, Barry White introduced himself by stealth as the power behind Love Unlimited, as the lovesick girl gets soaked through as she walks home and then, in one of pop’s cheesiest moments, phones Barry and tells him she has something to tell him. Guess what: she loves him. And he loves her too. And it’s still a monsoon outside but she doesn’t care because if he lays his bulk on her, the rain’s not going to be getting anywhere near.

Grace Jones’s Walking in the Rain in 1982 was a pretty straight rehash of the original by Flash and the Pan, and it is hard to tell whether the singer is happy to be out in the deluge or not. He or she just sounds defiant and contemptuous, so we’ll put it in the ‘rain is good’ column.

rain a
Oops, nearly forgot this one, which is all about trying to rescue an unhappy girl. She’s lonely and so is he, so there might be an ulterior motive

Randy Crawford’s version of Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night in Georgia is also ambiguous. He/she is tramping the streets with nowhere to go, but love in the heart makes it all bearable. Interestingly, White wrote this in the Sixties and soul crooner Brook Benton had a hit with it in 1970, but it’s Crawford’s damp sweater and angelic delivery in 1981 that puts the crown on it.

In other news, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen included Walk between Raindrops (he sings the raindrops but it isn’t in the title for some reason) on his solo album The Nightfly. And it’s a happy one. They’re in Florida, where rain is warm, and they’re in love, so let nature do what it will. Sleet and lightning? Who cares? Give us a kiss.

The Move had long since had their flower power hit, Flowers in the Rain, in which the singer is quite happy to be  in the rain because he’s out of his head… and what’s this… “If my pillow’s getting wet, I can’t see that it matters much to me.” Further scrutiny of the lyrics reveals that he has pushed his bed “into the grounds”, so maybe he’s been locked up already. Ultimately, though, as we keep discovering, you can almost never take a pop song at face value.

The Everly Brothers had found a new angle in 1962, or rather songwriters Howard Greenfield and Carole King had, with Crying in the Rain: it disguises tears, so you can walk around blubbing as much as you like if it’s pouring down on your head.

rain b
And take that fag out of your mouth when I’m talking to you

The Lovin Spoonful’s Rain on the Roof was all about being warm and dry with one’s new girlfriend, while Eddie Rabbit’s I Love A Rainy Night is pretty hard to misinterpret. He, apparently, just loves the rain because it cleanses things, including his life. Good for you, Eddie, glad you’re okay. (Strange boy.)

Possible the most joyful rain song of all is the Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men, but then they’re not talking about real rain, and presumably the guys who are falling from the sky are not drips either.

Garbage’s 1995 hit I’m Only Happy When it Rains sounds to this hawk-eared observer like a title that sounded good, so they fleshed it out, desperately trying to create  a cohesive theme and thereby finding themselves claiming to enjoy misery and depression. God help them if they’re ever cross-examined about their mental state after they’ve just flown their passenger plane into a mountain and unexpectedly survived.

“I put it to you, Mr Garbage, that you were not a fit and proper person to take on this position in the first place.”

“Your honour, it’s only a bleeding pop song…”

A much happier vibe permeates Joni Mitchell’s Rainy Night House, back at the turn of the Seventies when Joni was happy to be seen as (and possibly was) naïve. Rainy night, empty house, young couple – whatever could happen next?

Rihanna’s huge hit Umbrella brings us right (and unusually) up to date, with a song that glorifies the strange contraption that someone must have invented (but we don’t know who). The umbrella of the song is in fact a metaphor: the girl is illustrating the fact that whatever the metaphorical weather in their lives, she will always provide her man with protection and comfort.

Again, she might regret it if it ever comes to a bitter marital breakdown and she’s sued for breach of promise.

“But madam, you stated in front of millions of people, through every TV, radio, laptop and cell phone in the world, that you would stick by him no matter what.”

All together now: “Your honour, it’s only a bleeding pop song.”

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Rain is bad

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 – Doing time

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

It is probably true to say that nobody wants to go to prison. One can’t say for sure, because there is always somebody ready to shoot down such an assertion, but let’s say the vast majority of us shiver at the very thought of being banged up.

Prison plays a significant role in popular culture, though, from films – The Birdman of Alcatraz to The Shawshank Redemption – to music.

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And that message would be “Bake a cake and put my file in it. It’s in my tool box. In the shed. Chocolate, please.”

Sam Cooke’s heavenly voice gave a sweetness to Chain Gang that perhaps it didn’t merit, although if you want to analyse it (never a good idea with a pop song), perhaps he represents the good but misguided or unfortunate souls who end up behind bars.

That is certainly how Joan Baez saw it with There But For Fortune. She didn’t write it – Phil Ochs did – but (as far as we can tell from her recordings) she’s an earnest character who will automatically side with the underdog: witness We Shall Overcome and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.

While an early Bee Gees song such as Gotta Get A Message to You, supposedly delivered by someone about to be executed, could give a young, impressionable person sleepless nights, not all prison songs are harrowing.

Never one to take anything too seriously, Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, which of course he didn’t write, because he didn’t write any of his hits, turns incarceration into a party, thrown by the warden.

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Yeah, we had plenty of time to rehearse, lazengennelmen. Not a whole lot else to do in here as a matter of fact.

The Everly Brothers served up a helping of unadulterated schmaltz in their 1958 rehash of a 1934 song Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail, which tells of an old lady showing up at the facility where her son languishes, armed only with her elderly status and pathos and attempting to persuade the warden to let him out. And guess what – it works, but as soon as the gates are opened and she hugs him, she drops dead. Well, it’s only a song.

Johnny Cash made a bit of capital out of the subject by not only writing prison songs but playing gigs in Folsom and San Quentin, which no doubt did his record sales no harm at all, given the bravado of the material. The oft-quoted line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” might be taken out of context by many (in the song he’s regretting it), but it’s the sort of macho posturing that gives jailbirds a bad name, if they didn’t have one already.

It is easy to act tough about such things if it’s not too serious, as in Humble Pie’s 30 Days In The Hole, singer Steve Marriott’s boastful  account of doing a short sentence for drug possession.

Similarly, Thin Lizzy’s mid-70s anthem Jailbreak was just a comic book tale designed to appeal to young men who liked to talk tough.

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“Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak Somewhere in this town.” Err, would that be at the prison, Phil?

Bob Dylan’s album Desire featured two fact-based songs of incarceration, the more famous being the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whom the singer believed had been framed for murder. Carter was eventually freed. On the other side of the album was Joey, co-written by Jacques Levy, which tells the tale of a New York Italian mobster, Joey Gallo. By many accounts, Gallo was a nasty piece of work, but Dylan (or, more likely, Levy) portrayed him as a victim trying to rebuild his life, only to have it blown away by the police.

Many a rock’n’roller did prison time in real life, from Chuck Berry (transporting a minor across a state line for immoral purposes) to Sex Pistols bass-playing buffoon Sid Vicious, who stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon to death and did some time on Riker’s Island before being transferred to a secure hospital and eventually died of a heroin overdose.

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Yellow ribbons on trees mean someone’s just got out.

Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector is still inside for murdering his girl, while top session drummer Jim Gordon’s schizophrenia eventually led him to kill his mother. He’s still in prison too. Gordon was a member of Derek and the Dominoes and played the piano on Layla part 2.

Among those whose lifestyle was asking for it and eventually got it is David Crosby, peace-loving dope smoker and political activist of Crosby Stills and Nash, who in 1982 did nine months for possession of heroin and cocaine, only to end up in trouble again in 2004, when he was caught in possession of an ounce of marijuana plus knives and a gun. He did a mere 12 hours in jail and skilful lawyers  managed to spring him with little more than bail and the threat of serious time if he didn’t clean up his act.

Heroin had been the downfall of troubled singer Billie Holiday many years earlier, when the frail woman with the voice of a tiny angel had been sentenced to several months in a low-security institution for possession.

Ike Turner, band leader and husband of Tina, fell foul of a catalogue of charges in the 1980s, from possession of weapons including a grenade to the usual drugs and, just for a change, failing to pay his taxes.

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Cash in the slammer: Okay, nobody leaves till I’ve finished. Hear?

When he got out, Turner revived his career to an extent, but acheved nothing like Tina’s international stardom. He eventually succumbed to a cocaine overdose complicated by other medications for bipolar disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

The murky world of 1990s rap meant trouble for the likes of Tupac Shakur, who served  a sentence for sexual assault and had a number one album while he was in there. In that dark period that gave us the term “drive-by shooting”  and the gallows-humour name Death Row Records, Tupac died in hospital as a result of “respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest in connection with multiple gunshot wounds”.

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And their Christmas album? Why, Christmas on Death Row, of course.

Meanwhile over in the UK, Gary Glitter (Leader of the Gang, Do You Wanna Touch me?) would come to grief for his paedophile tendency, as would singer, songwriter and producer Jonathan King.

So, anybody out there still want to be a rock star? If it’s songwriting you’re interested in, it’s a lifestyle that will generate plenty of material.

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Girl groups grow up

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
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Deja vu: the Three Degrees channel the Supremes

As the 70s got going, the female soul threesomes and foursomes fell by the wayside, although the male of the  species flourished.

Then, enter the Three Degrees. Same format, similar look and plenty of success. For those hoping the world was growing up and that applied to women in pop music,  Year of Decision laid a false trail with its vague incitement to stand up for some cause or other. Normal service was resumed with When Will I See You Again and My Simple Heart. It was like an Indian summer, the old girlie feeling back on 45rpm.

Other than them, though, the cupboard was bare and change was inevitable. There was Odyssey, who produced some great stuff such as Native New Yorker and If You’re Looking For a Way Out, but they were two girls and one guy (even though apparently he replaced his own mother in the group).

A while later there was a flurry of activity in the UK, led by Bananarama, and although the hits flowed with such offerings as Cruel Summer and Robert De Niro’s Waiting, the music didn’t have the substance of what we were used to from the Motown and Philadelphia crews. The 70s bandwagon was jumped by the momentary likes of Toto Coelo (I Eat Cannibals), but the real action was elsewhere.

The most important female group of the 80s was not a cute trio in fancy frocks but a bona fide rock band. The Runaways had prepared the ground and eventually gave us the briefly-wonderful Joan Jett, and The Go-Gos would spawn Belinda Carlisle and Jane Weidlin, but they didn’t set the world on fire. The Bangles, though, were the real thing: a proper band who wrote their own songs (although they did the odd one of other people’s), played on their own records, made their own decisions and were in it for the long haul.

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The Bangles; (from left) Flirty, Drummy, Rocky, Strangey

From the Prince-sponsored Manic Monday, The Bangles blossomed into a smart, productive source of great pop/rock songs such as Walk Like An Egyptian and  Eternal Flame. They triumphed not because of the influence of the record industry but in spite of it. While executives saw doll-like singer and rhythm guitarist Susannah Hoffs as a potential solo star, there was talent aplenty in the majestic yet awkward and shy drummer-singer Debbie Peterson and her lead guitarist sister Vicki, while the bass player, the world’s only famous female Michael (Steele) completed a line-up that was three-quarters serious.

Perhaps the executives can’t be totally blamed for their Susannah fixation when she played up her sexy little minx persona with compositions such as In Your Room (“In the warm glow of the candlelight, oh I wonder what you’re going to do to me”) and If She Knew What She Wants (he’d be giving it to her). Meanwhile, Peterson (D) powered the band through Going Down to Liverpool and brought understated emotion to Be With You.

While the band was doomed to implode, there were stirrings back on the more traditional girl-group front in the late 80s and early 90s with TLC (No Scrubs, Waterfalls, Unpretty) and the two-thirds female Deee Lite (Groove is in the Heart).

En Vogue gave us My Loving (No you’re never gonna get it)and SWV came up with Right Here.

And then, of course, there are The Spice Girls, a phenomenon rather than a musical unit, who galvanized young girls and sold millions of records without actually being much good as singers.

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Music? There’s a lot more to us than that. In fact it’s about everything but the music

They were followed in the UK by All Saints with hits including Never Ever, and we had Destiny’s Child, who gave birth to Beyonce when she had a surname (Knowles) and Pussycat Dolls, plus the curious case of Sugababes. Curious because although the line-up changed over time, and none of the members showed much sign of being a great singer, the quality remained. Check out  Overload, Freak Like Me, and their whole guileless appeal laid bare on Real Thing. It may be largely down to a producer, but then so was much of Motown and The Ronettes.

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Destiny’s Child: Anybody here by the name of Knowles? Come on, own up

Eternal produced Stay and Oh Baby I and there was Girls Aloud with Sexy No No, Something Kinda Ooooh, Can’t Speak French and Biology.

Girl groups: all it means is a group of girls performing together, but somehow there is – or can be – a magic in there that is different from male or mixed line-ups.

It is easy to dismiss the more recent ones as just so much “product” churned out by managers and record companies, and a victory of style over substance, but that pretty much sums up most of pop music. If you hear a song on the radio and you like it, someone is doing their job.

The studio version is better, but here they are, doing it for real:

And my favourite Sugababes track.