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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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 – It’s hard being young

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
teen 1
So you’re a teenager, eh? Can I see some ID please?

Young love manifests itself in song all the time and varies over the decades only by dint of the apparent level of innocence. When teenagers were first labelled as such in the 1950s they hit the world like a new species, and yet they seem, in retrospect, pathetically grateful to be acknowledged.

Teenager in Love, a 1959 hit for Dion and the Belmonts, sounds as if the title was written first and the song built around it (more of which next week), but like many a ditty featuring teenagers, it was written by professional songwriters well past puberty – in this case Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (Save the Last Dance for Me, Sweets for my Sweet, Suspicion et al).

Too Young was a hit in 1951 in the US for Nat ‘King’ Cole and in the UK by Jimmy Young, both of whom seemed too old rather than too young to be bleating about this.

They try to tell us we’re too young
Too young to really be in love

It has always been the teenager’s most cherished wish to be accepted as an adult and allowed to do ‘adult’ things, while refusing to get out of bed before midday and have a shower unless they have a date with the love of their embryonic life.

Longing for the day when all will be enabled has resulted in some beautiful songs, and none is more poignant t hanRuby and the Romantics’ highly emotional yet controlled Our Day Will Come, with its primitive, surging organ (the musical instrument, that is). Such is the majesty of the song that it has been recorded by scores of artists since, such as Bobby Darin, Brenda Lee, The Supremes, Fontella Bass, Isaac Hayes, The Carpenters, Dionne Warwick, K D Lang, Christina Aguilera and Amy Winehouse.

You can listen to it via the link at the end.

Ruby
Hey Ruby! Give the guys the slip and meet me round the back, okay?

Puppy Love, written in 1960 by Paul Anka and recorded by him and others including Donny Osmond, falls on the mawkish side of the fence, but that didn’t bother millions of youngsters who moped tearfully around their bedrooms, hopelessly in love with some dork at school.

The magic age is 16, which coincidentally is the age of consent in many places. After all, if you’re that obsessed with somebody there is a fair chance that you’re going to end up with their tongue down your throat, and we all know where that leads.

In the mid 1960s it was still just about acceptable to openly lust after underage girls, as in blues songs such as Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, with its none-too-subtle declaration, “ I wanna ball you all night long”. Some people were seeing sense, though, or possibly seeing a prison sentence on the horizon. Gary Puckett and the Union Gap worried themselves sick in 1968 with Young Girl.

With all the charms of a woman
You’re just a baby in disguise
And though you know that it’s wrong to be alone with me
That come-on look is in your eyes

teen 3
You can’t be arrested for wearing civil war gear, more’s the pity

It was a sentiment that still bothered pop stars in 1979 when Abba asked Does Your Mother Know: same scenario, hormone-driven young girl looking for trouble.

Meanwhile, the broader concept of teenagerism had been aired in the early 1970s with Alice Cooper’s Teenage Lament ’74 and T Rex’s Whatever Happened to the Teenage Dream.

Brief teen sensations Alessi, two  cute twin brothers who could actually sing, brought dignity to the genre with their elegant, jazz-inflected 1976 smash Oh Lori, in which the action moves swiftly from wanting to ride his bicycle with her on the handlebars to recalling having her dance for him in her bare feet one afternoon when her feet weren’t the only things that were revealed. But that’s a teen-teen thing, and the world is more tolerant of that.

You can listen to it via the link at the end.

alessi
Omigod, girls, his button’s come undone! Oops!

The Police raised the age-old problem of girl-fancies-teacher with Don’t Stand So Close to me, while Aerosmith merely strutted and lusted in true 70s rocker style on Walk This Way.

Even Steely Dan, well old enough to know better, found themselves in an age-gap romance on Hey Nineteen. Although 19 is probably old enough to do whatever you want in 99% of the universe, here it was the cultural differences proving troublesome.

Hey Nineteen, that’s Aretha Franklin
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul
There’s hard times befallen the soul survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old

Sensible as he is, the narrator resorts to tequila and cocaine to gloss over the problem

The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian
Make tonight a wonderful thing

The Ramones, never ones to let us into their troubled psyche, motored through Teenage Lobotomy, while British rock-popsters Supergrass poked fun at their junior selves with Alright.

We are young, we’ve gone green
We’ve got teeth nice and clean
See our friends, see the sights
Feel alright

Ah, youth! It’s a minefield and we all do well if we get through it unscathed.

Our Day Will Come: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qw9RVjEN9OI

Oh Lori: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-R8ru1TAAo

 

The Wisdom of Pop Songs – The drugs don’t work

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If your thing is done and you want to ride on: cocaine. Don’t forget this fact, you can’t get it back, cocaine. She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie…

It is true to say that people who work in the music business  are more likely to use drugs than, say, bricklayers or accountants. Anyone can get hold of something if they really want to, but if you’re a professional musician, you won’t have to try too hard. It sounds like fun to many people, and most will try something and either continue with it occasionally or just decide they don’t want to do that.

Smoking cannabis is like a rite of passage in such circles, but what worries non-users who care about someone who is exposed to that world is that the same people who sell a bit of grass are quite likely to have access to other things.

The 1960s saw an explosion in freedom of choice, and for a while everyone was happy. But trouble was lurking, as Steppenwolf pointed out in The Pusher.

The dealer is a man with a lump of grass in his hand
But the pusher is a monster and God he’s not a natural man
Goddam, goddam the pusher

drug 2
Come on – do I look like I smoke dope?

Then the drug-related deaths started to happen.

Whatever you believe about the 1970 demise of Jimi Hendrix – and ‘choked on his own vomit’ tells only part of the story among the conspiracy theories –  he was no choirboy. A gentle, peaceful character by all accounts, despite the media’s portrayal of him as the ‘wild man of pop’, he was living the rock’n’roll lifestyle all right, and that didn’t mean mineral water and early nights.

Janis Joplin’s number was up around that time, too, with heroin and alcohol mentioned on the death certificate.

Jim Morrison checked out of the hotel of life soon afterwards, with heart failure blamed for his departure and no autopsy performed. A heroin overdose is widely believed to be the real cause.

And so to the death of Gram Parsons, who succumbed to a mixture of morphine and alcohol.

drug 1
The ‘Jake’ they were encouraging to clean up his act was guitarist Paul Kossoff (centre, front) and guess what – he died of  a “heroin-related heart problem”

With ‘drugs’ now considered all one thing by many people, in the US and elsewhere the ‘Just say no’ campaign sent a clear message to the youngsters who are presented, as on a conveyor belt, as potential customers for the purveyors of drugs, prescription and illegal alike. But even though the next generations couldn’t claim they weren’t aware of the dangers, and their spokespeople may have said the right things, humans are fallible.

drug 5
Yeah, cos it’s like serious. It’s by our friend Ed Sheeran and it’s called… The A Team

The bravado continued.

While the highly intelligent, studious Walter Becker of Steely Dan gained worldwide respect for his contribution to their music, he and Donald Fagen (but I suspect Walter either wrote or strongly influenced the lyrics) gave us Time Out of Mind and the blasé lines

Tonight when I chase the dragon
The water may change to cherry wine
And the silver will turn to gold

Becker is still alive, but in 1978, before the song was released on 1980’s Gaucho album, he was sued over his girlfriend’s overdose death in his apartment. Shortly after Gaucho, Steely Dan split up and he moved to Hawaii, where apparently he managed to quit drugs altogether.

Johnny Thunders, one-time guitarist with the New York Dolls and then his own band the Heartbreakers, bragged about his drug use on Chinese Rocks and duly died a drug-related death years later.

Whitney Houston came through a stormy, cocaine-fuelled marriage to Bobby Brown, only to fall victim to her weakness in 2012.

Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album Back to Black is like a diary of her substance-abusing life. On Rehab she proudly declares that they’re trying to get her to enter a rehabilitation program but “I won’t go, go, go”.

drug 3
The man said “Why you think you’re here?”  I said “I have no idea”

It was tragically predictable that, with that wonderful album under her belt and a bountiful future ahead of her, she wouldn’t be able to get it together and live a careful life, although the terrible irony is that when alcohol finally nailed her it was because she had been dry for a while and had lost her tolerance to it, so when she hit the bottle like old times, her body couldn’t handle it.

And so it goes on. Defiant and foolhardy, the rebels carry on while knowing it can only lead to trouble.

The warning songs continue too, such as Ed Sheeran’s song The A Team, about a crack-addicted prostitute, which was covered by teen sensations One Direction.

But it won’t stop the tide. Rock’n’roll is rebellious, and if you tell it not to do something… it’s not going to listen.