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.

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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.

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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