The wisdom of pop songs – Revenge and vitriol

It’s the ugliest of emotions and completely fruitless. It makes us as bad as the person we’re getting back at. It leads to ongoing conflict. Revenge isn’t sweet, it’s sour. It just feels sweet briefly. And it makes for great little pop songs sometimes.

Connie Francis had a hit in 1958 with Who’s Sorry Now, which had first been published (in the old sheet music days) in the 1920s. She’s glad that her ex is sorry, so she’s got her own back in a tame way. We don’t learn what has happened to the man who broke her heart, but he’s not happy, and that makes her feel better, even if you get the feeling she’ll be round at his door within the hour with a tin of tomato soup and some ice cream to cheer him up.

The Ronettes got slightly more vitriolic with How Does It Feel, written by Vini Poncia and Peter Andreoli and produced by Phil Spector in a rare example of an uptempo wall of sound recording. Some girl has broken her ex’s heart and she’s as pleased as punch, but unlike Connie Francis, she openly admits she’d take him back because he still loves him. Silly girl; he’ll only do it again, you mark my words.

The Angels were in a very different situation in 1963 with My Boyfriend’s Back. He’s been away, you see, and in his absence a boy who fancies her, having failed with his advances, is spreading rumours about her. But now the boyfriend has returned and is about to give the young pretender a bunch of fives.

The Angels were unusual for a Sixties girl group in that they were white – not that colour has any bearing on what they were like as a musical unit. But it was the song, not the singers, and they are one-hit wonders – and there’s nothing wrong with that. A nifty little three minutes of pop and very singable: Hey la hey la, my boyfriend’s back.

All of these revenge songs seem to be from the early 60s, and we’ll continue with The Shirelles and Foolish Little Girl. It’s not openly about revenge, but a girl talking to another girl who wants her guy back, having dumped him earlier. Now he’s about to get married and she’s a jealous as hell. The singer is berating her for this, which leads me to read between the lines and surmise that there is history between these two and the singer is glad her rival has been hurt.

Whatever, this is a classic lineup of four black women. The lead singer has a good, strong voice and the backing vocals sound like they’re done by a bunch of random girls dragged off the street as they walked past the studio and told to do their best and do it loudly. And I mean that in the nicest possible way – it’s part of the record’s charm.

Incidentally, if you’re going to download this from YouTube or wherever, make sure you get the original version. There’s a rerecorded one out there, and I wish they wouldn’t do that. Sure, singers may improve as they get older and recording techniques are constantly evolving, but the artistes never recapture the magic, and if they’re eradicating some blemish that’s been bugging them for years, they should realize that we, the fans, know and love it just as it is.

John Lennon, for all his peace-and-love stuff, had a nasty jealous streak and wasn’t averse to venting it in song. Take You Can’t Do That, from A Hard Day’s Night. He’s not taking revenge – yet – but he’s telling the girl in no uncertain terms that he’s going to dump her if she persists in talking to a particular boy.

The live recording I’m putting here is pretty faithful to the studio version but there’s one irritating thing: they don’t show us who played the solo. It doesn’t appear to be George, which means it must be John, but we don’t know for sure.

And that’s where I’m going to leave it. There are plenty of others and you could probably name a few off the top of your head. Cry Me A River, yes, and products of spiky personalities like Alanis Morrisette and Lily Allen, but the early Sixties was the goldmine.

The wisdom of pop songs – Regret

Having your heart broken is an unwanted part of life’s rich pageant, but there is another side to the coin: when we do the hurting. I’m not sure anyone has ever deliberately broken someone’s heart through stopping loving them. It’s just one of those things, although don’t try telling that to the person on the receiving end.

Breaking up with someone doesn’t make us a monster; it shows that we’re human, and what were we supposed to do: not fall in love in the first place? The more you look at it the more complicated it gets.

Prince gets straight to the heart of the matter in Purple Rain. “I never meant to cause you any sorrow…”

Cher, on the other hand, in If I Could Turn Back Time, has lost the guy through her own stupidity, so what she is regretting is the things she said and did.

John Lennon’s Jealous Guy hasn’t quite blown it altogether, but he’s singing to himself as much as his lover, regretting what he said and did and knowing that if there’s a next time it could be terminal.

At a glance you might think Bryan Adams’s Please Forgive Me is about a similar scenario, but closer inspection shows it’s not. In this case he’s apologizing for loving her so much, perhaps because she thinks his adoration is over the top and is stifling her. Sometimes you just can’t win.

John B. Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful evidently found himself in a regrettable position in 1966 when he wrote I Didn’t Want to Have to Do It. However, he’s not blaming himself entirely. He had to do it because one of them had to and, good hearted guy that he is, he elected to carry the can.

“Was a time when I thought our love could fly

And never never fall

Why should I suppose we were never really meant

To be close to each other at all.”

We’re not told the girl’s reaction, but he does tell us he knew she would end up crying, so presumably that’s what happened.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, on a song written of course by Smokey himself, are also not accepting unmitigated blame. Ooh Baby Baby wasn’t a hit in the UK and may have never even been released as a single there, but it just goes to show the charts don’t paint a comprehensive picture of the brilliant stuff that exists in other people’s record collections. I only discovered the song three or four years ago and I couldn’t believe it had eluded me for so long.

“Mistakes,” he says, “I know I made a few. But I’m only human: you’ve made mistakes too.”

Quite right too. We don’t know the ins and outs of it, but nobody’s perfect. Whether or not this is an admirable trait he’s displaying, I’m not sure, but he’s clearly crazy about the girl. About three months ago Ooh Baby Baby got stuck on repeat in my head and was with me for days. I was on the net for hours, searching for  a slightly different version I seemed to remember, but there isn’t one. It must have been just my imagination, if you’ll forgive the Smokey-inspired reference.

And then there’s the kind of regret to which there is no answer, no other way of doing it. It had to be done and that’s life. Sometimes the end of a relationship is like that.

Cue an absolute killer from one of this column’s favourites, Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, via the composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Normal Gimbel. How Insensitive sees the singer wishing she hadn’t broken the boy’s heart, but “what can one say when a love affair is over?” He must hate her; he must think she’s a heartless bitch, but really she had no option. The poor man’s loss is our gain, however (or perhaps girl, since Gimbel is a man). It doesn’t have to be autobiographical to strike a chilling chord in the listener’s heart.

Regret of a different but equally painful kind can be found in Cat’s In The Cradle, a 1974 hit for Harry Chapin. This is about a man who fails to find enough time for his young son and then, when he’s old and the boy is the one with a busy life, finds the tables are turned.

Chapin was something of a genius with lyrics, and regret was one of his themes. W.O.L.D., his other huge success, is the sad tale of a DJ who walked out on his family to follow his broadcasting career wherever the offers came from. Now he’s getting past it and he’s thinking he’d like to get back with his wife, but she has moved on.

It’s hard to see either of these songs as truly autobiographical, although they might have been visions of what he worried might happen, given the musician’s inevitable absences from home while touring. Sadly, he never had time to find out, because he died at the age of 39 in a car crash, possibly having had a heart attack that caused him to lose control.

As it happens, anyway, the lyrics were written by Chapin’s wife about her ex-husband’s relationship with his father. And if you didn’t want to know that because it spoils your personal memory of the song, well I’m sorry.

The wisdom of pop songs – O Caroline by Matching Mole

The way it goes in writing this blog is that sometimes I’m enjoying it so much and the ideas are coming so thick and fast that something slips through the net. And so it is that in this case I must apologise not just to you but to myself for omitting this beautiful, haunting song by Robert Wyatt.

Wyatt, for those who may have missed him throughout his long but low-key career, started out as the drummer with The Soft Machine, a jazz-rock band that emerged from Canterbury, England, in the late 1960s. Why is the city worth mentioning? Because it spawned a host of talent around that time and there was a cohesion to it all: musically sophisticated, jazzy and with an understated English eccentricity about the lyrics.

Names? Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield and the North among many. As for musicians, in addition to Wyatt, there was Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen of Gong fame and Dave Stewart (not the Eurythmics one, but he had a couple of surprising hits with Barbara Gaskin). Those are the people you might have heard of, the tip of an iceberg of people who are musicians but not potential celebrities. If, like me, you spent a lot of time hanging around in record shops after school, you will recognize names such as Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper, David Sinclair, Pip Pyle, Pye Hastings and Elton Dean.

Some of them are dead now, while others have made a career out of it without necessarily making much money.

As for Robert Wyatt, he overcame the adversity of being paralysed from the waist down after falling out of a fourth floor window at a party and has continued making music. His guileless, angelic voice has given a new twist to such pop hits as I’m a Believer and Yesterday Man, while his version of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding gave the anti-war song (about building ships for the Falklands conflict) a poignant edge quite different from Costello’s own treatment.

This Caroline song is by Wyatt’s band Matching Mole (a literal French translation and wilful mispronounciation of Soft Machine). Listen to the first line: “David (Sinclair)’s on piano and I may play on a drum”, which leads into his reiteration to Caroline of his love and devotion, and the fact that they once expected to marry, but clearly things have changed. That girlfriend was Caroline Coon, an artist who briefly managed The Clash and who was also celebrated in The Stranglers song London Lady.

How did this song fail to be a hit when released as a single? Maybe it is possible for a record to be too good, too sophisticated to succeed.

The wisdom of pop songs – Caroline

With a sizeable part of the pop music canon devoted to songs about girls, their names inevitably crop up as the lovesick boys profess their undying devotion. And one name crops up a lot: Caroline. It’s not as if the world was full of Carolines, and it doesn’t rhyme with many things, but songwriters seem to like it.

So off we go on a journey that starts with Neil Diamond, whose Caroline of choice was apparently sweet (and he rhymes it with “inclined). So was Status Quo’s muse shortly afterwards, if a muse is somebody who inspires you to “really wanna make ya”).

The Beach Boys had already used the name for one of Brian Wilson’s trademark heartache ballads Caroline No, about a girl who has grown up too fast and left the boy trailing in her wake. It happens, Brian. But there’ll be another one along in a minute.

Former Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone’s breathy 1971 ode, Caroline Goodbye, was about a real girl who people of a certain age will know. Caroline Munro was Blunstone’s girlfriend, an aspiring actress who entranced a generation of  young men with her TV commercial appearances as the Lamb’s Navy Rum girl before graduating to film, notably in the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.

Around the same time Lou Reed, under the influence of David Bowie but just before his breakthrough Transformer album, recorded Caroline Says, a prototype of Reed’s strange era when he attempted to be camp and which heralded songs such as Satellite of Love.

In the early 1990s an American heavy rock band called Concrete Blonde had an album called Bloodletting and from it issued the single Caroline, with vocals by Johnette Napolitano (a woman) and the most fluid guitar work in rock history by half man, half octopus James Mankey.

And then there was the late, lamented Kirsty MacColl, destined to be killed by a powerboat while swimming in Mexico. With MacColl’s knack of sounding like the rather naughty girl next door, her Caroline song deals with not wanting to see her friend because she feels guilty, having just  pinched her boyfriend.

Fleetwood Mac’s contribution comes on 1987’sTango In The Night. Caroline here is both “crazy” and “lazy”, which is nothing more than lazy writing, with Lindsey Buckingham having stumbled upon the art of sometimes making a hit through production rather than songwriting.

By coincidence, former Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, many years after his introduction by Peter Green, had his own C-song, a typically dreamy piece of work by a man who was by all accounts (and presumably still is) intense and serious. If you’re heard His Fleetwood mac song Dragonfly you will recognize this one as being his.

In 2007 a slightly oddball English girl, Kate Nash, had a surprise hit with Caroline’s a Victim, which is refreshingly raw in the era of computer-smooth pop.

So that’s plenty of Carolines and it doesn’t even take into account the Carolinas ( James Taylor) and Caroles of this world (Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, Al Stewart on Modern Times, Neil Sedaka singing about Carole King and so on).

Not a bad tally for a name that originally, according to some sources, meant a follower of King Charles an certainly owes its start in life to versions of that male name (Karel in German, Karol in other languages). It just has a ring to it, I suppose, and like most things about pop songs, you shouldn’t think about it too much anyway.

The wisdom of pop songs – The thrill of the foreign lover

Foreigners. How exotic they seem, just because we don’t know much about their culture and their country. We romanticize their urban squalor when it is no more attractive than a council estate in Grimsby. We think they know things we don’t – about love, sex, food, wine, football, all the simple pleasures of life.

And English-speaking songwriters enshrine these thoughts in three-minute paeans (a work that praises or honours its subject, according to my phone’s Merriam Webster dictionary).

So let’s hear it for the foreign boys and girls who have moved our lyricists and tunesmiths in the pop music era.

Beginning with… The Girl From Ipanema, of course. This was actually written by the celebrated Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and originally had lyrics in Portuguese before Norman Gimbel gave it some English language words. And it was made famous in 1962 by Astrud Gilberto, a Brazilian songbird who made up for the fact that she couldn’t sing her way out of a paper bag by exuding a charmingly off-key vulnerability.

So it’s not really about a foreign girl after all, because it was written and sung by Brazilians about one of their own. But it was so popular with British and American singers that it sounds like a gringo’s song of adoration for the exotic beauty who’s on her way to the beach – and not the pebbles of Brighton or the fish-and-chips  aroma of Blackpool, but what we fondly imagine to be a beautiful, pristine expanse of sand populated by sparsely clad totty of Ms Gilberto’s ilk.

This leads naturally, if unfortunately, to the disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris, who recently did time for sex offences. In 1968 he had a minor hit in the UK with the utterly Ipanema- style Fijian Girl, who was “undulating by”, if you please. Don’t you undulate at me, young lady, or I’ll put you over my knee.

Meanwhile in the southern USA, country singer Marty Robbins brought us a tale of ill-starred love as a man in El Paso falls for a Mexican barmaid, his passion for whom leads him to shoot a cowboy she’s flirting with and go on the run, to eventually be shot dead himself as he flees the law. See, just because a woman makes a good chilli con carne doesn’t mean she’s not trouble.

The Beatles made passing reference to Ukraine girls and Moscow girls in Back in the USSR, Paul McCartney’s affectionate riposte to the Beach Boys’ glib assessment of various geographical groups of American girls, Back in the USA.

In 1970 Canadian band the Guess Who sang scathingly about an American Woman they wanted nothing to do with, and whether this was really about American politics and business rather than a woman doesn’t actually matter. It’s a solid, catchy bit of pop rock with a nice guitar riff, and that’s all we’re concerned with here.

Getting back to the Americas, Neil Young seems to have a bit of an obsession with that region’s past, and in 1979 on the stupendous album Rust Never Sleeps he fantasised about a native American beauty, Pocahontas, who famously married an Englishman.

Staying on that side of the Atlantic, British folk-rockers Stackridge brought us a panoramic piece of whimsy in The Road to Venezuela, which conjures up a South American atmosphere without ever getting very specific. There’s pampas grass, llamas and a millionairess involved but the singer doesn’t end up with her. It’s just a breezy, acoustic guitar-driven few minutes that seems to take you somewhere but doesn’t really, which after all is kind of pop music’s job.

A little-known  gem from 1994 is British band The Auteurs’ New French Girlfriend, which again creates an appealing feeling without completing the story. French girls are lovely and he’s got one on tap – that’s the deal here.

So, with all the thousands of Polish and Latvian girls in the UK, plus Latinos and heaven knows who in the US, it seems the local guys are happy with the home-grown talent. But of course a few years in your adopted country makes you part foreign and part local, as Bruce Springsteen shows us all over his album The Wild The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, with songs such as Incident on 57th Street, in which Spanish Johnny woos Puerto Rican Jane, while another Latin lovely, Rosalita, gets a song all to herself.

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.