The wisdom of pop songs – Start with the title

buzz 1
Hey, I got a great title. Anybody got a tune?

Any time someone writes a song, they hope it’s going to be a hit. Even if it’s you or me, with precious little hope of that ever happening, we  daydream. And we try to make it attractive to people.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula, but that doesn’t stop people  throwing in every trick they can think of.

Songs have to have ‘hooks’, but what is one of those when it’s at home? It’s a catchy little bit that goes on repeat in the listener’s brain.

However, you either think of one or you don’t. The blessed few, such as Paul McCartney, have been supplied with catchy bits way beyond their fair share over the years. From Yellow Submarine to The Frog Chorus and beyond he has come up with tunes you can’t get out of your head.

Another potential tool at the writer’s disposal – and one which any mere mortal can use – is the catchy title, particularly a popular expression, saying etc, whether classic or fashionable.

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The Essex. They had the image, they had the title…

As an example, take drop dead gorgeous. It’s an expression that emerged some time in the 1990s and spread throughout the English-speaking world. It was only a matter of time before someone used it for a song title, and lo and behold, in 1997 a band called Republica did just that and had a hit. This was followed a couple of years later by a film of the same name and there are probably beauticians’ shops and boutiques all over the world trading under those three words too.

The English singer and producer Nick Lowe took advantage of the expression “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” and duly reaped a number 12 spot on both sides of the Atlantic in 1979, while three years later Kylie Minogue benefited from Stock Aitken and Waterman’s eye for a commercial idea with Better The Devil You Know.

Scottish songwriter/singer B. A. Robertson enlisted the posthumous help of William Shakespeare for his To Be Or Not To Be, a title which has also been used by other artistes, including the actress Courtney Welbon, whose  more recent song owes nothing whatever to Robertson’s.

buzz 2
Well, it was the old boy’s deathday this week

Elvis Presley was a pioneer of the buzz-phrase title with It’s Now or Never in 1960, and the years following that used the trick relentlessly.

Early Motown legend Mary Wells had a big hit with Smokey Robinson’s Beat Me To The Punch, well before her classic My Guy.

Around the same time a group of US Marines, three men and a girl singer,  had a degree of success with Easier Said Than Done, which did well in the US and just scraped into the UK charts, boosted by its popularity on the Northern Soul scene.

The world’s leading exponent of the art of making a song out of a title must be Jim Steinman, creator of hits for Meatloaf and others, who came blasting out of nowhere  in the 1970s with Bat Out of Hell. He kept his corpulent, overacting friend in the hits with other such gimmicky numbers as Dead Ringer and perhaps the most despicable abuse of words in the history of music, (I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. But don’t feel sad, cos) Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. Along the way he provided Bonnie Tyler with Total Eclipse of the Heart and Celine Dion with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

The late Irish blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher seemed incapable of naming a song or an album without resorting to snappy familiarity: Big Guns, Photo Finish, Stage Struck, Fresh Evidence.

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What rhymes with this, guys? Oh yeah, I’m doing fine… on cloud nine

And people are still doing it. R. Kelly’s Thank God It’s Friday took advantage of a phrase coined by a restaurant chain, while Aerosmith gratefully accepted a few million bucks via Diane Warren’s I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.

In the 21st century if there is one saying that was asking for this treatment it is that ubiquitous piece of dumb wisdom What Goes Around Comes Around, and Justin Timberlake did the honours in 2006.

Or perhaps the top candidate was (What doesn’t kill you makes you) Stronger, which provided inspiration for both Kelly Clarkson (or her writers, anyway) and Kanye West.

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What doesn’t kill you makes you… richer

Honourable mentions: Queen for Another One Bites the Dust, Helen Reddy for That Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady and The Eagles for New Kid in Town

The Wisdom of Pop Songs – songs about cars

car 1
The key is in the title

It says a lot about the difference between the sexes that, of all the songs about motor vehicles, the vast majority are sung by men and even those that are voiced by women were written by men. As one of the few exceptions, this non-car lover finds the stereotype of the male who loves his four-wheeled mistress as much as his wife to be sad but justified.

One of the earliest examples in the rock’n’roll era is also one of the most entertaining, courtesy of the wit and libido of Chuck Berry. No Particular Place to Go tells of our hero being out for a drive with his girlfriend with one thing on his mind: finding a secluded spot where they can get down to some teenage hanky panky.

Trouble and frustration ensue when the admirably safety conscious stud can’t engage in anything other than a hand-contorting fumble because she’s wearing a seat belt and he can’t undo it, even though he is presumably free to move himself.

All the way home I held a grudge
But that safety belt it wouldn’t budge

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Being good latter-day Mods, the Merton Parkas may have been referring to scooters – but you can ruin a nice suit that way if it rains

The Beach Boys went through a car phase in tandem with the surfing one in response to the drag racing craze in the early 60s.

Those of us who are neither American nor interested in cars were baffled by the fact that these people were singing about their Little Deuce Coupe. Even when you know they’re talking about a car, the meaning is not immediately clear to most people, although Wikipedia provides an explanation: apparently it’s a 1932 Ford Coupe (coupe – missing an accent on the e – should be pronounced coopay, and means it has a soft top that can be taken down to let the sun in, while deuce is for the year) jazzed up as a “hot rod”. Well, whatever turns you on.

Less complicated – and more in keeping with the traditional pop song – was the same band’s Don’t Worry Baby, in which the narrator has bragged about his car and now has to put his money where his mouth is by racing. He’s nervous but his girlfriend tells him it will be all right because she loves him. That’s the beauty of life lived through pop music: you can come out with the most inane nonsense and it sounds good. In this case it also  reemphasises songwriter Brian Wilson’s highly unusual and unhip tendency to concede he wasn’t a big, tough young adult but an insecure teenager. The individual who wrote When I Grow Up to Be a Man  is scared and doesn’t mind admitting it.

But I can’t back down now
Because I’ve pushed the other guys too far

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I’m a friendly stranger in a black sedan, they said. Won’t you hop inside my car, they said. I’m calling the police, she said.

Wilson Pickett’s much-covered 60s track Mustang Sally makes liberal use of the double entendre, and particularly the link between riding in a car and, err, the other kind of riding that often involves lying down. If a song such as this even wants to be taken literally, it seems that our hero bought his girl a Ford Mustang and now would rather drive it than play pistons and cylinders with him.

All you wanna do is ride around Sally
Ride, Sally, ride

As all observers of male stereotypes know, sport cars have to be red because that is more phallic, and so it is that Prince gave us Little Red Corvette, although in a major break with tradition, he seems to be complaining that she only wants one thing from him and he’s shocked.

A body like yours
Ought to be in jail
Cos it’s on the verge of being obscene

But then apparently he sees the good side of this state of affairs and reverts to type:
Move over baby
Give me the keys
Cos I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine

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Baby you’re much too fast – hang on, what am I thinking? Okay, I’ve got 10 minutes, so let’s have a look under the hood

And so to the girls. Bruce Springsteen’s Pink Cadillac works on a  different level when he sings it rather than Natalie Cole. When he’s singing about her pink Cadillac it’s loaded with leering meaning, whereas when she sings about his, it’s just a car.

Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, co-written by Bob Neuwirth and recorded just three days before her death, seems to be innuendo-free and is a tale of envy. She wants a Merc because all her friends have Porsches.

This is in stark contrast to GTO, a big 1980s hit in the UK for Sinitta which is so obviously written by a man and so macho and suggestive that he must have been kidding. The words the writer puts into the mouth of the little pop songbird include:

He’s got a big red GTO
Everywhere we go the GTO must go
But I wonder if he’ll ever know
If he loves me
Or just his GTO

So, the eternal triangle has four legs and four wheels. Who’d have thought it?


The wisdom of pop songs – pretentious stuff

If you think this is sacrilege, stop reading now

Pop music gives ordinary people the power to be heard and the material they come up with entitles them to be called “songwriters”. And technically that is correct, of course; you can be a songwriter without having your songs published or recorded and released professionally, but if you do manage to do it officially, your words of wisdom are out there for all to see and marvel at.

That is all very well for the likes of Cole Porter (Miss Otis Regrets, I Get a Kick out of You, Every Time We Say Goodbye),  Sammy Kahn (Three Coins in the Fountain, Call me Irresponsible, All the Way) and the rest of those old masters, because they were skilled and their material was chosen and recorded by other people because it was good, not because they were sexy or controversial or otherwise fashionable.

The goalposts moved when The Beatles started writing their own songs – which they didn’t much at the beginning – and they moved again when the same groundbreaking band gave their version of psychedelic music a lyrical flourish where making literal sense was not a requirement.

So when John Lennon wrote Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, a dreamy, spaced out insight into LSD tripping, he opened the floodgates for what became known as “progressive music”, or “prog rock”, which took the idea beyond The Beatles’ economical four minute epics and allowed rock musicians to extend their “works” to classical music dimensions.

There is, however, a big difference between rambling playfully and  pretending you have something meaningful and important to say. A band such as King Crimson, for instance, could conjure up strange images in songs such as 21st Century Schizoid Man and you know they’re just playing with the paints, while Yes, the uncomfortably serious British noodlers, and more specifically their angelic-voiced singer Jon Anderson, came over as if you were supposed to take them as seriously as they took themselves.

Yes: we have no bananas

To nominate just one Yes song for the Pretentious category is to ignore dozens more, but The Yes Album gave us I’ve Seen All Good People, a chess-themed piece of nonsense which will do very well.

I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day
So satisfied, I’m on my way.
Take a straight and stronger course
To the corner of your life
Make the white queen run so fast
She hasn’t got time to make you a wife

The song is full of little clauses that make the listener think it’s actually about something, but really it’s just a collection of rhyming lines that don’t add up to anything much.

You don’t have to interview me, man. It’s all in the lyrics

A far more famous song, whose anthemic quality ensures it is still popular decades after its initial devotees have grown old enough to know better is Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. This piece of head-in-the-clouds drivel comes from a band  who cut their teeth on no-nonsense blues rock. The first line is enough to tell you what’s afoot here:

There’s a lady who’s sure all the glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

But it gets worse:

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen

Hang your head in shame, lyricist Robert Plant, who may well argue that millions of people who love the song can’t be wrong.

However, follow the man’s career just a few years down the line and you come to a solo single, Big Log, which begins with the whimpering line:

My love is in league with the freeway

Pull yourself together, man. You’re a testosterone-fuelled philanderer who doinked half the impressionable girls in the US in your heyday.

Even before the progressive 70s, though, the freedom to write whatever you liked had persuaded Jimmy Webb, author of By The Time I get to Phoenix and Wichita Lineman, to give us Macarthur Park, an ode to an elaborate bit of pastry-cheffing.

Macarthur Park is melting in the dark
All that sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
Cos it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again

The real Macarthur Park: left out in the rain so long it’s got a lake in it

Or are we not supposed to take it literally? The otherwise admirable Webb has said it was inspired by the breakup of his relationship with a girl he used to meet up with in Macarthur Park, Los Angeles. Whatever the truth may be, it took Richard Harris, an actor rather than a singer, to have the confidence to take it on, and the royalties must have soothed the writer’s aching heart a bit.

Another 70s favourite that unfortunately falls into this category is Bohemian Rhapsody, which perhaps is saved by Freddie Mercury’s camp persona despite such outrageous lyrics as:

I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?
Thunderbolt and lightning,
Very, very frightening me.
(Galileo) Galileo.
(Galileo) Galileo,
Galileo Figaro

What does it mean? A doting Mum might give this rationale:

“Little Freddie just gets carried away sometimes – he’s very clever and he has a vivid imagination. And he means well.”