The wisdom of pop songs – Sun worshippers

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts


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.




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



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.

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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.”




Why God needs a new image

Yes, guys, the laptop is a nice touch, but this old boy’s not going to appeal to our demographic

Everything happens for a reason. You hear it all the time.

What this expression says to me is that the people who use it want to believe in God but can’t bring themselves to, because it’s so unfashionable these days. People don’t just disagree with those with religious beliefs, they think you’re stupid, because God has been intellectualized out of existence. When man can construct buildings half a mile high and do it using mainly glass; when we can access information from who-knows-where using an electronic device that isn’t physically connected to anything; and when we can savour the salty delights of takeaway food served not on a stone but in a polystyrene box, why should we believe in anything but ourselves?

So okay, let’s suppose that everything happens for a reason. Who or what decides the reasons? Who or what knows the future and has determined what must happen and what must be prevented from happening? An ’everything happens…’ merchant might appear to have access to privileged information, but to have such an unprovable feeling, he or she must believe in something or someone.

As much as one might detest the PR industry, in which nothing is true and nothing is false unless it serves the best interests of the client, it is so easy nowadays to broadcast your views that there is wisdom everywhere, but there is also stupidity. And stupidity needs help

We used to hold our elders in great esteem. The wise old people of the village were revered as having knowledge about things, and a better perspective on them than the younger ones. Nowadays, when we see them unable to work a mobile phone, there isn’t the respect there once was. Money talks, and those who bring it into the household call the shots. All of which suggests that, whoever it was that drew up the interminable list of reasons for which things happen, they must have been relatively youthful.

And that in turn suggests that God needs a drastically different image.

So we must call in the experts: the creative team. Here’s the first meeting in their self-consciously ‘alternative’ offices.

“Sitting on a cloud dressed in white – okay, if you must,’ groan the PR people. ‘Looks stupid, but you’re the client. But let’s have him with short hair and a neatly trimmed beard, untainted by grey, and the sort of physique that implies that he works out three times a week and is going to live forever on the strength of that. It can’t be an old guy with a white beard. Better if he looked like – that’s it – Lewis Hamilton.”

Of course: young, physically fit, fashionably dressed, successful, popular – and black. That’s important, because it’s not just the black community that notices when somebody non-black gets some credit, deserved or not.

If this PR firm is to be seen universally as forward-thinking and broad-minded, they can’t let anything get in the way of the mood of the times.

Just as the US decided it was time for a black President and duly elected one – albeit not very dark-skinned – so it may soon give in to the ‘need’ to balance things up by electing a woman to run the country.

The world has had enough of old men. The world has had enough of white people.

Oh, Lewis, if only you were a woman

So the only thing stopping our PR firm from using a Lewis Hamilton lookalike as the face of God would be the fact that he is a he.

“Let’s look at an option: Halle Berry. Black enough, yes, but too old. Hang on, though, we’re supposed to be against ageism in the case of women. The old men can go screw themselves, but older women we like. Trouble is, the world is not as sophisticated as we PR and marketing people are, so we’d better go for someone younger after all. No one will ever know we rejected Halle, and it’s not as if she needs the money.

“No, Crispin, intellect isn’t a factor – we considered Lewis Hamilton, didn’t we? Not stupid, but he’s no Stephen Hawking. What we’re looking for is a person, an image pure and simple. A black, female, youngish person. She’s not going to be actually running the universe, just serving as the image when people feel they have to draw pictures of The Almighty. So we want someone who will look good on a cloud, maybe holding a small harp.

Agreed, Thom, the harp’s a bit old hat. Guitar? No, I tell you what, I saw a young guy at an open-mic night the other week, looking very pleased with himself because he was playing a ukulele. Not looking sexy because of his phallic instrument, but in spite of the lack of one.

You think it was the angels who had the harps? Okay, I’m thinking The Three Degrees, but let’s do the boss first.

Love the throne, Josh, but are you sure she’s dark enough?

Yes, Josh, Rihanna. Exactly. She’s mixed race, so technically black. Or Beyonce, yes. Same thing. Like Obama – he’s not exactly Idi Amin, but he ticks the box and that’s all we’re interested in. With Rihanna or Beyonce, nobody can complain. Except the Asians, okay, but we’ll update her to Indian or Chinese next time – say in 10 years or so, depending on how the land lies at that time.”