The Songwriters – The last verse

Well, it’s got to end somewhere, so this is it.

When I started this series, the aim of which was to celebrate writers whose material was suitable for others as well as themselves, it was not my intention to concentrate on the 1960s (it started, after all, with Sandy Linzer, whose best known work was with Odyssey in the late 70s), but as the names came and I wrote them up, that’s just the way it went. Whatever it was about that decade that made songwriters so important, they just were.

There are, no doubt, deserving cases who I’ve missed (in the 60s Mob, Guy Fletcher and Doug Flett, for instance), but if I could go to a desert island with the songs of the writers in this series available to me, I would be a happy man. By all means let me know the people you would have included, remembering the criteria, as explained months ago in the second post of the series:

“When someone told Ian Dury he had written some great songs, his reaction was that he didn’t agree. To him, a great song was something that could be successful when other people sang it, and his material was very reliant on his voice and persona for its effect. This series is dedicated to writers who do or did that, whether or not they had hits in their own right.”

Admittedly the Sixties is the era I know most about, and although there is plenty of variety in my music collection, a quick analysis of my iTunes will show that that’s what I keep coming back to.

For me, discovering new music doesn’t necessarily mean finding people who have only started working recently. As great as it is to hear something brand new that is as good as anything, ever, I also find a thrill in stumbling across something for the first time that has been around since I was a boy but has somehow escaped me until now.

One of the first songs I downloaded when the iTunes era began was Our Day Will Come, a teen longing number with cheesy organ backing, by Ruby and the Romantics, and included here just because I like it. It was written by the little-known Mort Garson and lyricist Bob Hilliard, whose other credits include the words for Tower of Strength and Seven Little Girls (sitting in the back seat). Our Day Will Come may well have brushed past me in 1963 but only hit me in the face around 40 years later, just before Amy Winehouse brought it to the attention of a new generation. Similarly, Patti and the Emblems’ Mixed Up Shook Up Girl from 1964 was an exciting surprise when it finally found me in 2012, particularly as I had known a completely different song of the same title by Mink de Ville in 1978.

Anyway, what with half a dozen Motown writers, plus Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney and all the rest, the early years of the second half of the 20th century emerged as the key era of the pop song, and as much as the following decades might have been full of songs written by people for other people, it was difficult to find deserving candidates after about 1980.

Even such thrusting British contenders as Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, whose names were all over the British charts in the late 80s and early 90s, don’t really fall into this category, because their success was due as much to their magic touch with production as to the tunes and the lyrics.

Body Talk and Music and Lights by Imagination kept chart music alive for me when many of my friends wouldn’t be seen dead buying a single, and even Bananarama were given a certain credibility by Jolley and Swain’s Cruel Summer and Robert de Niro’s Waiting – but again, take away the production and give the songs to somebody else and they don’t cry out for new treatments. Even Michael Buble (who, to borrow a saying from a different area, would shag anything) wouldn’t be interested.

It was the same thing for Stock Aitken and Waterman, who churned out some great stuff. You might not like I Should Be So Lucky, but who can dismiss You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)? But the songs on their own, naked and unadorned? Not so much.

As for the songs featured in this post, there’s one by Paul Simon, whose songs have been covered by plenty of people, but not necessarily done as well as he and Art Garfunkel did them.

I looked for a great version of a Don McLean song and found one by Joanna Wang, a new name to me.

As different versions go, there is nothing quite so subtle or amusing as Vic Reeves’s treatment of Born Free. Written by John Barry and lyricist Don Black, it was an early 60s hit for Matt Monro, and Reeves’s version shows, I think, that he loves the song. But he’s a comedian, so he does this thing with it, in an affectionate way. And there’s a nice little sample from Strawberry Letter 23 by the Brothers Johnson thrown in – that  plink plonky keyboard riff that keeps cropping up.

And finally – a little self-indulgent, I admit –  a song from the relatively small but precious box of jewels that is the work of one of my obscure favourites, Pete Dello. He wrote and sang I Can’t Let Maggie Go, a hit for his band Honeybus in 1968, and they also did the original version of Do I Still Figure In Your Life, one of the pillars of Joe Cocker’s debut album, which also included covers of  With A Little Help From My Friends by the Beatles and two by Bob Dylan. That’s pretty exalted company. You may also remember I’m A Gambler by Lace (1969) – that was him. He’s a music teacher now, apparently.

And even more finally, here is a song written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway with bassist Herbie Flowers (whose name comes first on the record label, so maybe the basic idea was his) that should have appeared in The 60s English Mob a couple of posts ago. As fine a love song as was ever written, featuring top British session musicians and vocals by Madeline Bell, a sublime singer who did a lot of session work but never quite cracked it as a solo act. Last I heard she was living in Spain and singing jazz.

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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 – 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.

 

 

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Flying

Songs about air travel

If  iTunes or YouTube survive the destruction of mankind, however and whenever that may be, the extraterrestrial historians of the future will be able to use pop songs to study our interests, preoccupations, habits, likes and dislikes. And one of the things they will discover, in addition to the fact that we are obsessed with love, is that human beings could fly. Having studied skeletons, they will conclude that it wasn’t self-powered flight, which must mean a machine was involved.

Going through the list of songs available to them alphabetically, they may stumble across Airport, a mid-70s single by English pub-rockers-turned-new-wavers The Motors.  And they will find that love has got mixed up in it as usual, with the airport being blamed in this instance for taking someone’s loved one away.

“Irrational,” they might conclude, Spock-like, “but then they destroyed their own planet, so what can you expect?”

Labouring through their research – and think how distracting it would be, having a zillion songs to listen to – they might then find Joni Mitchell’s This Flight Tonight (covered, strangely enough, by the raucous rock band Nazareth), in which she is regretting getting on the thing, which a Steve Miller song will tell them was called a Jet Airliner. In this, Miller is talking to the plane, urging it rather pointlessly not to take him too far from home.

To back up the theory that all this travel was not necessarily a good thing would be Leaving On A Jet Plane, most famously by Peter Paul and Mary but written by John Denver. He doesn’t want to be on that plane either. So did these humans have no control over air travel? Did it choose them, rather than the other way around?

The Beatles seemed happy enough on Back in the USSR, though, with screaming jet engines taking them to the former Soviet Union although other research indicated that they came from Liverpool, England.

Should these historians come across the legendary live recording of Woodstock, they might hear Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee introducing a song as I’m Going Home “by helicopter”, and painstaking detective work would reveal that the musicians playing at the 1969 concert got into the traffic-choked farm where it was taking place by air, and that Neil Young was thrilled to be sharing a chopper with the late, lamented Jimi Hendrix.

Travel in all its many forms will be revealed to the researchers by Oleta Adams’s 1991 tearjerker Get Here, soon adopted by worried lovers and spouses of American servicemen and women in the Gulf War, as every mode of transport is evoked as a possible means to bring them safely home. This was written by prolific songwriter Brenda Russell, of Piano in the Dark fame.

Perhaps the only recorded musical artifact that conjures up the dreamy, surreal quality of a long plane journey is 12 Hours of Sunset, in which the maverick English troubadour Roy Harper follows the rays around the world from Los Angeles to London. I will leave it to those of a scientific bent to work out if such a thing is plausible. Suffice it to say that it does capture those long hours when, despite the endless drinks and snacks, your destination never seems to get any closer and all you can do is surrender to the in-flight movies and your iPod.

The only other truly happy plane song is Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon, which, being a pre-space travel number, fails to grasp the fact that a pair of wings and a full tank isn’t going to get you to another planet. Of course, further study shows that the song wasn’t about air travel at all, but merely an elaborate way for a man to make the perennial suggestion to a woman. Or maybe he just loves her.

Step forward Peter Gabriel, whose late-80s hit Sledgehammer offers his girl “an aeroplane flying, if you bring your blue sky back”. As we have seen so many times before, we don’t have to try to make exact, logical sense out of this kind of thing. We get the idea.

Frustration and impatience of the practical variety is the usual atmosphere of these things, as corroborated by Gunga Din, The Byrds’s late 60s tale of returning to L.A. after a disastrous gig in New York.

Sitting backwards on this airplane
Is bound to make me sick
Spend your life on a DC8
And never get to pick

That’s not something you come across often these days, but you still get it on trains.

Moving into the 21st century, B.o.B. featuring Hayley Williams with a bit of help from Eminem brought us Airplane, in which an aspiring rap star is reflecting on the episodic nature of life and how when one mutha doesn’t give him a recording contract he will simply adjust the swivel of his baseball cap and try again. And the plane bit? Oh, he or she (they keep swapping lines) wants to pretend that airplanes were like shooting stars. Why? So they could wish on them, of course. Do try to keep up.

The wisdom of pop songs – Rain is bad

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
rain 1
Double A side. Paperback Writer probably won because it was upbeat, but Rain is equally catchy

This thread of the blog being called The Wisdom of Pop Songs, we’re not just going to look at songs about the weather, but what the weather symbolizes.

Rain has always been a negative symbol: sun good, rain bad. That, of course, depends on where you live, but famous pop songs don’t generally come from the Sahara or from drought-stricken countries.

If you go out in the rain, you get wet, and most people don’t like that. Being cold is one thing. Being cold and wet is another. Besides, rain spoils your hairstyle and doesn’t look good when soaked into your clothes. On the ground it forms mud, which means dirty shoes and maybe strips of gunge at the bottom of your trousers.

No one, then, likes being caught in the rain – unless they’re in love, and we will come to that next week.

This week, rain is bad. Ask anyone. Ask John Lennon, who wrote Rain, the B-side of Paperback Writer in 1966. “If the rain comes, they run and hide their head. They might as well be dead.” That’s a bit extreme, but maybe he was speaking metaphorically, and rain represented bad things in general. Actually, at one point he says “Rain, I don’t mind”. A gorgeous song, anyway, the psychedelic sound just developing in Lennon’s voice, and Paul McCartney’s bass going where no bass player had gone before (listen to it later – it’s at the bottom of the page).

A couple of years before Lennon wrote that, he would have heard The Cascades’ one-off hit Rhythm of the Rain, in which the singer imagines the rain is communicating with him.

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain
Telling me just what a fool I’ve been

Listen, pal, I know you’re young and romantic, but you’ll get yourself locked up if you carry on like that.

As I just mentioned, young lovers can find walking in the rain quite charming, but not Oran “Juice” Jones in 1986. What bothered him, though, was that his girlfriend was walking in the rain with someone else – holding the guy’s hand, no less – and if anyone was going to be getting soaked in that way, it should have been him.

Paul Simon came up with a very different scenario in I Do It For Your Love on the Still Crazy album. Daydreaming about the beginning of a relationship, he sings of buying furniture for the couple’s  rather modest abode.

Found a rug in an old junk shop
Brought it home to you
Along the way the colours ran
The orange bled the blue

Let’s hope he wasn’t clutching it to his nice white shirt, or that will have been ruined too.

rain
Rain on a window. On some glass, at least. And it could have been sprayed by a hose. Looks like rain, anyway

Peter Gabriel’s song Red Rain (1986 on the album So) may not be about rain at all. Again, it may have been about something bad happening, and poor old scapegoat precipitation gets the blame. It’s falling down all over him, apparently. But he’s dreaming, so it could be anything. He could have had a deprived childhood in which his family had tomato ketchup with everything to enhance the bland food, so he shook the Heinz bottle so many times he was sick of it.

It’s a theory, that’s all. These are pop songs, not pronouncements from on high.

Carole King left us in no doubt about her feelings in her 1962 hit “It might as well rain until September”. She didn’t mean that in a good way. Her boyfriend had gone away for the summer and she wasn’t happy about it. Let’s hope he and the sun returned before her tennis shoes went rotten.

ELO made the wet stuff guilty by association in Showdown (1973), when an unspecified situation is heading for a confrontation that can bring no good, and the singer concludes:

It’s raining all over the world
Tonight, the longest night

Eurythmics (they didn’t go in for definite articles) joined in the moaning in 1984 with this:

Here comes the rain again
Raining in my head like a tragedy
Tearing me apart like a new emotion

Little Annie Lennox wanted better weather, which would somehow revive a dead relationship.

rain 5
This was a comedy record. It is excruciating. But I still have it in my iTunes

James Taylor’s breakthrough hit Fire and Rain is said by some to be metaphorical, with the elements of the title representing his drug addiction (fire) and alcohol consumption (rain), and for once there could be something in that. Send the forensics team in to examine the song and you find that the Suzanne whom he had always thought he would see again was one Suzanne Schnerr, an old friend who had committed suicide, while the “flying machines in pieces on the ground” refers to the breakup of his old band, Flying Machine.

So it’s a rarity: a pop song that actually means something.

Meanwhile, back at the rainy day complaints department, I Can’t Stand The Rain, as popularized by Ann Peebles and covered by many others including Tina Turner, reggae singer Hortense Ellis, Paul Rodgers and Michael Bolton, gives us rain against the window as emblematic of the distress caused by yet another romantic breakup.

When Bob Dylan sang about a hard rain that was going to fall, he was at his most enigmatic: the bard of rock talking about who knows what. Something to do with heavy water, a part of the process of creating nuclear energy and therefore capable of more bad than good? You get the feeling Dylan is never going to tell us the truth, because his protest songs and other heavy material rely on their mystery.

rain 3
Yeah, it’s a title, okay? That’s all

Way back in the 1950s, Buddy Holly presented no such conundrums with Raining in my Heart, in which everything in the garden is rosy except one thing: the girl doesn’t love him. The weather man doesn’t know that, though, so he has announced glorious sunshine. Insensitive berk.

That’s more like it. Pop music is for basic emotions. It’s there to tell us we’re not alone and others have felt the way we do. It’s there for us, come rain or shine.

 

Next Friday: rain is good

The wisdom of pop songs – Drugs

drugs 1
Let me take you down, cos I’m going to…

The issue of drug-taking has been around pop music a long time. It is an emotive subject and one not to be dismissed lightly, whether one is of the “marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and it’s never done me any harm” school or the “just say no  – drugs are drugs and they’re bad” persuasion.

There are three basic categories of songs about drugs:

  1. I’m doing it and I don’t care
  2. I’m doing it and I wish I could stop
  3. Don’t do it

There is also the misunderstood group: songs that don’t condone the use of drugs but are accused of it anyway.

So, group one: I’m doing it and I don’t care. The 60s was the decade when it all came out into the open. The Beatles’ music became intentionally strange, with sounds we had never heard before and lyrics that were not exactly nonsense but didn’t apparently make sense. While most people were attempting to make drug references without attracting the attention of the police, John Lennon deliberately gave the game away with LSD in the first letters of words in the title of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Jimi Hendrix took up the baton in the same way with (The stars that play with) Laughing Sam’s Dice. This was a world away from the covert references in songs like Doctor Robert and the Small Faces’ Here Come The Nice (‘he’s always there when I need some speed’).

Bob Dylan had  gleefully announced on Rainy Day Women nos. 12 & 35 that “Everybody must get stoned”, but while every pop and rock musician on the planet was using cannabis, marijuana, pot, grass, weed or whatever you wanted to call it, it was only the big boys who felt secure enough to come right out with it. Then on the Woodstock album at the end of the decade, Country Joe and the Fish shouted “Marijuana” and it was plain to all that there was a lot of it about.

drugs 2
Freaky Freddie Frolly had some I know. He was last seen picking green flowers in a field of snow

But that was just marijuana, widely regarded as nothing to worry about, while LSD was damaging brains in the most high profile way. The first guitarist, singer and leader of Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, was noticeably impaired almost before the band became famous, with the extent of his illness disguised by the childlike persona he assumed on much of their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. His solo work gives us a vivid insight into his problems, as he can barely get through even short songs, and his own awareness of his condition in Vegetable Man could almost be funny if it weren’t tragic.

drugs 3
The opening track on British stoners May Blitz’s first album was Smoking the Day Away

More harrowing was the decline of Peter Green, who had the same role with Fleetwood Mac. The acclaimed blues guitarist who brought us the heavenly tranquility of Albatross revealed a darker side on Man of the World, before the self-disparaging Oh Well and the nightmarish Green Manalishi, which sound like the final desperate flourishes of a man falling overboard.

Meanwhile in the US, while the Grateful Dead were happily smoking and tripping and playing marathon guitar solos, The Velvet Underground were mired in the cold, terrifying world of heroin.

drugs 5
A different kettle of fish – and no laughing matter

Some of the greatest figures in rock found themselves out of their depth as the drugs that broadened their musical palate took away their control. When The Who’s leader Pete Townshend sought  professional help he was told by one specialist that she could cure his problem “but I might cure your talent too”.

As the 70s developed its own character, out of Jamaica came the rolling, bouncing, booming phenomenon of reggae, which celebrated the use of marijuana so loudly that it gave the impression to the rest of the world that it was legal there. In fact it wasn’t and isn’t; it was just rampant, but the likes of Bob Marley, only slightly less godlike in life than he is in death, epitomized all that was good about smoking heaven’s herb.

Sadly, while a generation was telling its parents and less cool friends that it was all about peace and love, not all rastas turned out to be such positive role models as Marley.

drugs 4
Look: no hands

 

Next Friday: the chemicals get more sophisticated but political correctness takes over.

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – pretentious stuff

bohemian
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
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.

stairway
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

macarthur
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
Magnifico.

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.”