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.

Advertisements

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 – Leaving home

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
clash
The eternal question, as addressed in 1981 by The Clash

Leaving home is a source of inspiration for songwriters, perhaps because it is something we all do eventually. It’s those teenage years when we feel trapped, hemmed in by our family and a home town that seems too claustrophobic to contain us and our unique, misunderstood, restless souls.

Bettering yourself is what it’s all about, and The Animals put it as well as anyone in 1964 with We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. This is often taken to mean leaving their native Newcastle-upon-Tyne in what at the time was a grimy coal mining area, the north-east of England. In fact they didn’t write it; it was penned by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, New York-based songwriters who were also responsible for On Broadway, Blame it on the Bossa Nova and Saturday Night at the Movies, among many others. So they were possibly not determined to get out of anywhere in particular, but they recognized the feeling and put it into song.

Paul McCartney saw the scenario from a girl’s point of view with the tearful She’s Leaving Home, as covered by everybody from Bryan Ferry to Carrie Underwood. Just a few years later, having gone solo, McCartney released Another Day, in which the move has been made and reality has hit home, the city turning out to be full of men only interested in one thing, and only for one night, at that.

simon
You can’t start a revolution from your bedroom in your parents’ house

New York has always been a popular destination for those hoping to make it in the entertainment world, and has been celebrated in music several times, from Frank Sinatra’s assertion that “if I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere” to Empire State of Mind, often attributed to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys but originally by two almost unheard-of Brooklyn girls who were feeling homesick while abroad. In that respect it’s not a leaving home song but a pining for home one.

Turning up in the big city doesn’t always end up well, as Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City demonstrates, the innocent hopeful from out of town gazing in awe at the “skyscrapers and everything” at the start of the song. But within four minutes he’s been banged up for five years.

An oddity among the Big Apple songs is Odyssey’s Native New Yorker, a sad tale of a local girl who may not be thinking of leaving but wishes she was at least treated better. “No one opens the door for a native New Yorker,” she laments.

Then there’s Bacharach and David’s Do You Know The Way to San Jose, where another starry-eyed would-be star joins the legions waiting on tables or “parking cars and pumping gas”.

Johnny Cash and June Carter played it for laughs with Jackson, a country romp by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber that was also a hit for Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, with the men stating their intention to go to the fleshpots of a town called Jackson and give the women there the benefit of their frustrated masculinity. The women, on the other hand, predict that “they’ll lead you round the town like a scalded hound with your tail tucked between your legs”.

jackson
They’ll laugh at him in Jackson, won’t they, Nancy?

Bruce Springsteen’s contributes to the genre with a vivid tale in which the singer tells his girlfriend Sandy, whom he has been two-timing with a waitress, that he’s getting out of what is presumably a New Jersey seaside town of funfairs and small minds. What he is really doing, though, even as he urges her to leave town too, is trying to get her to make love with him one more time before he goes.

Harry Nilsson’s version of the Fred Neil theme tune for Midnight Cowboy, Everybody’s Talking, speaks of “going where the weather suits my clothes” to get away from people stopping and staring at him. Wherever you are, kids, it’s the same story. They don’t think you’re a genius, they just think you’re weird. And all because they know your Mum and Dad.

carrie u
When Carrie Underwood needed a great song for American Idol she went for The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home

The Smiths’ London, a breathless and typically uncomfortable piece of Morrissey fiction, sees our hero on a train from (probably) Manchester to the capital, with doubt and trepidation already creeping in. “And do you think you made the right decision this time?”

Maybe. Maybe not, but you’ll never know until you try.

 

.