BESTqUEST

essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…

Songs and lyrics

Everybody has them. Not everybody takes them seriously, but we all have them: songs that have left an indelible impression on our minds; that helped us grow up; that belong with other important developments in our lives; that, looking back, seem to have become part not just of our history but the history of our time here.

It’s not about good songs. I think the songs I’m going to talk about are good songs, but I’d talk about them anyway, if they were bad songs. They’re just songs I like. It’s what they mean to me that’s important, and I couldn’t care less if they were innovative, well constructed or influential, or not. For some people it’s The Archies (“Sugar, Honey honey…”).

But because I can’t really talk about songs – songs are music, you listen to them, not talk about them – I’m looking here at songs with lyrics; I mean words that appear to say something, not merely rhyme.

And it’s not about meaning. Who knows what these lyrics mean? People do go over them and have interesting bits to say about the songwriter’s life, the people who are alluded to, the literary or pop culture references. But when it comes down to it, the song, and the song as a whole – words, melody, arrangement, singer and when you heard it – enters your life at a non-conscious level. I remember reading something Picasso said about his paintings: “people ask me what they mean” he said, “and I have no idea. I just paint them. If I knew what they meant I’d give lectures and never lift a brush. Meaning is something that comes later, sometimes years later. If I have done my work well my painting should start a process in the viewer that will eventually change them in some way. That’s all” (if Picasso never said all this, then he should have).

Skin deep
Anniq
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiuGpXFRBtQ (Natasha Thomas’ version, which sticks pretty close to the Anniq original. You know how it is, I heard Anniq first, so I think she’s better). Guess that must be Annie Q.

Skin Deep was released in 2002, and had it all, superb writing and production from Jiant in the UK, a catchy tune, great singing from Anniq. And it didn’t sell. A reminder that talent doesn’t matter in pop music, and that 90% of performers and their support team fade silently away. What matters in pop music is brashness. And most of the CD industry is controlled by four companies in America, so UK teams are behind the 8-ball.

It was a sign of the times. Pop music (and most of human culture for that matter) is about sex. Women have usually been given the role of object, adored from afar, persuaded the singer was sincere. Now women are singing back, even in the protected teen market. Young girls in their teens have pop singer ‘role models’ like Jennifer Lopez and whoever. And the message seems to be, “cut the crap”. It’s the battle of the sexes, where women negotiate a relationship while men negotiate for sex, and now we’re hearing both sides. At the time I first heard this I was helping to look after a young teenager. She wanted to be a singer. I talked her into learning the words of this song, and listened to quite a few of her performances of it. The song is an example of how pop music works. Every component, words, tune, arrangement, production, voice: all above average, none outstanding. What makes this a killer track is the combination of elements, the fact that each component fits together so well. Yeah, it’s dance music for the teen market of the day, but this one’s a keeper while much else is in the pop music museum gathering dust.

Skin deep

You’re telling me that I’m your queen
That nothing matches me
You’re making me feel like a dream
The way you flatter me

Ah, you’re just another fake
Or something special

You’re telling me that I’m too cool
You say I’m beautiful
I got to tell you I’m no fool
I’m kind of cynical

Boy, have you got what it takes
Something special

Don’t think this beauty’s skin deep
Anymore than you’re giving me’s skin deep
Get down to the bone
Heart and soul
I’ve got to have it all
Got to be special

You sit me on the top of your world
Can’t take your eyes off me
You say that I’m your candy girl
Well, that’s all so sweet

Boy, have you got what it takes
Something special

Don’t think this beauty’s skin deep
Anymore than you’re giving me’s skin deep
Get down to the bone
Heart and soul
I’ve got to have it all
Got to be special

Down, down, take it to the bone
Get to the beauty within
Down, down, take it to the bone
Get to discover me
Down, down, take it to the bone
Open your mind and come in
Down, down, take it to the bone

Don’t think this beauty’s skin deep
Anymore than you’re giving me’s skin deep
Get down to the bone
Heart and soul
I’ve got to have it all
Got to be special

Don’t think this beauty’s skin deep
Anymore than you’re giving me’s skin deep
Get down to the bone
Heart and soul
I’ve got to have it all
Got to be special, special

Don’t think this beauty’s skin deep

Repulj Madar Repulj (Fly, Bird, Fly)
Muzsikas and Marta Sebestyen
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apE1n63ZhMQ

Here’s the Hungarian words (hopefully transcribed by someone who knows the language), followed by a conflation of several translations which I have altered to make more sense, even though departing from the original to do so. I’m flying blind, as I can only understand English (and sometimes not even that). It is originally a lover’s song, which mourns her absence, and the singer wishes to be a bird, and to fly to her, before youth flies from him. Here, on a 1986 album, it becomes a political song about injustice and the loss of freedom, and is sung and played with power and passion by Muzsikas. Hungary’s glorious 1,000 year empire was finally destroyed after WWI, and was later followed by a 40 year period of repressive Communist rule. The Magyars of that period knew how precious freedom was. Lack of choice as the West knows it is much more insidious, exercised through economic means.

Marta Sebestyen is known outside Hungary chiefly in connection with the French duo Deep Forest, which is perhaps not the best way to appreciate either her achievement nor even the quality of her voice. Any list of the greatest voices of all time should include her (and Amália Rodrigues, and Maria Callas…but back to the point). She sings with marvellous clarity and great expressiveness and some of the vocal inflexion of the very best blues singers. Here is an example of how little the meaning of a song adds to its effect, as I always respond emotionally to Marta Sebestyen’s voice without understanding a word of what she’s saying. Somehow I know what she means. Muzsikas has been around since the 70s, a major figure in revitalising central European folk music. In this track you notice the mandolin and long flute especially. For me the song kicks in with the introduction of the electric bass. It’s like a slap in the face, and sends shivers down my spine. When I started investigating so called ‘world music’ in the 90s, this is the track that told me it included groove, soul, and (strangely enough) ethics.

repülj madár repülj
menaságra repülj
édes galambomnak
gyenge vállára ülj!

vidd el madár vidd el
levelemet vidd el
apámnak s anyámnak
jegybéli mátkámnak

ha kérdik hogy vagyok
mondjad hogy rab vagyok:
szerelemtömlöcben
térdig vasban vagyok

rab vagy rózsám rab vagy
én meg beteg vagyok
mikor eljössz hozzám
akkor meggyógyulok

repülj madár repülj
menaságra repülj
édes galambomnak
gyenge vállára ülj!

s ha kérdik hogy vagyok
mondjad hogy rab vagyok:
szerelemtömlöcben
térdig vasban vagyok

Fly, bird, fly
Fly swiftly away
From my weak shoulders
Take my letter away

My father and mother
Have fled to be free
Tell them I am a prisoner
And have to remain 

I’m shackled in irons
My freedom is lost
I languish alone
Let me live again

Fly bird fly
Fly swiftly away
From my weak shoulders
Take my letter away

Tell them I am a prisoner
And have to remain
Shackled in irons
Till they come to free me again

Fly Bird Fly (original)
Youth is a bird that lives to be free 
Once it’s caught it’s a captive 
And will never fly free
I’m alone, without you
I’m fettered in irons 
O Fly bird, fly!

Desolation Row
Bob Dylan

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YA9ZR8ykRow

Well, people have been saying earnestly to me for about 40 years that this is Bob Dylan’s greatest song, one of a handful of songs he wrote that changed popular culture in the mid 60s and created the world we live in today. To which I say, yeah, I really like the harmonica bit, didn’t know Bob Dylan could play the thing so well, always wondered why he wore the silly holder around his neck. Like, the words are really moving, and I wonder why each time I listen to the song, and then the harmonica comes and blows my sox off and I can’t think for about 90 seconds.

About the importance thing. This is a song that’s full of what I call referents. Names, sometimes situations, that trigger associations in your mind, some more than others, depending on how well educated you are. It starts out in Hibbing Minnesota, and Bobby and Lady look out and see nothing but stupidity, and corruption. Then there are people suffering bad cases of self delusion: Cinderella, Romeo. Even the best, the Good Samaritan, ignores what’s wrong, he’s going to the carnival, while others just discuss the weather. Only the poet can see:
“Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide”
Even the poet’s cultural heroes start to lose meaning: Orphelia (and Hamlet, and Shakespeare), Einstein, Casanova, Kafka, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, all succumb to a kind of distorting mirror where the only real figure is the menacing Dr Filth. Then the visitor arrives, full of gossip about people once known, now somehow not relevant. The song ends in a protest, signalled by the blistering harmonica solo. If you’re going to talk to me, talk to me from reality, from this crazy place where people are corrupt, deluded, vain, self interested, and where we have to deal with it.

Some people place importance on the fact that at a certain point Bob Dylan took a lead attached to a guitar and plugged it in to a source of electricity. Abandoning the folk and ‘protest’ movement, which was acoustic, and going electric, and inventing rock. Which doesn’t explain why this is the greatest protest song ever written.

Thanks to Charlie McCoy and Mike Bloomfield on guitars, it also sounds like a Bach cantata. Not to mention Bob Dylan on harmonica, who makes it sound like the Marseillaise.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Cinderella, she seems so easy
It takes one to know one, she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
You belong to me I believe
And someone says, you’re in the wrong place, my friend
You better leave
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortunetelling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the Hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

Now Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
Have mercy on his soul
They all play on the penny whistle
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
Theyre getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
A perfect image of a priest
They’re spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls
Get outa here if you don’t know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
Which side are you on? 
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

(harmonica)

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(about the time the door knob broke)
When you asked me how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke? 
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from
Desolation Row

(harmonica)

Suzanne
Leonard Cohen
sung by Nina Simone
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtOKYXYStmU live Rome 1969
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3B0iJQcXmk album 1969

There’s two versions here, one a live performance to a hypnotic guitar and drum accompaniment that is so intense the words of the song enter at an almost subliminal level and affect your emotions not your brain. The other is the released studio version with Nina playing piano triplets as a counterpoint to the melody. If it were needed, here is proof (play both versions) that Nina Simone is one of the greatest interpreters of song ever recorded.

Leonard Cohen is a great poet/performer in his own right. From the days when he lived in poverty on Kalymnos, and was encouraged by fellow exiles in poverty George Johnston and Charmian Clift, to his move back to Canada and a career change to that of a recording artist he has never ceased to develop as a writer able to express a uniquely spiritual view of sexual relations. Suzanne is perhaps his best known song, and dates to the same era as Desolation Row (and produced, like that song, by Bob Johnston). Here’s a love song to Suzanne and in between is a verse about Jesus, and the importance of giving in order to receive salvation. If love brings understanding, does understanding bring love? It’s a question answered in the first verse by the sound of “tea and oranges that come all the way from China”, and further down, “she gets you on her wavelength, and she lets the river answer”. None of this makes sense as mere words, but as an account of what happens between people it is just what does occur. And the poet looks further, “between the garbage and the flowers” and he sees things he’d never seen before.

I just can’t resist Nina Simone, and have always responded to her version of this song much more than to Cohen’s. She seems to recreate the songs she sings. They become her songs, somehow, as does Tom Thumb’s Blues in her wistful version on the same CD (To Love Somebody). More than a singer or performer, Nina Simone was someone who cared, and the world is a little poorer without her in it.

Suzanne takes you down 
to her place by the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
She gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover

And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.

Now Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
Cause you think maybe you can trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Between the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning, leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
For you think maybe you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.

Madame George
Van Morrison
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrOgYjp20j0

In New York in 1968 Van Morrison was given an opportunity to exit a previous contract that was taking him nowhere. He recorded an album called Astral Weeks in three sessions, and was back where he started, without enough money to buy himself food. The album made no impression on anyone, and didn’t sell, so Morrison became more commercial, and composed more successful pop oriented material. Now he’s considered one of the greatest writers and performers in popular music history. For a while it was touch or go.

I first heard Madame George in 1970 while staying at a friend’s house in Canberra for a folk festival at the university. There were six of us camped on the floor. We stayed up all night talking, and someone put Astral Weeks on the turntable. It’s been with me ever since. The first thing I noticed wasn’t the voice, it was the bass. The backing group were prominent jazz musicians, and they were playing jazz accompaniment while the singer was singing soul. It was a peculiar thing to do, and nobody’s done it since. You can imagine how Van Morrison felt. He was a long, long way from home, he’d tried to be a rock and roll singer and failed, his back was to the wall. It must have dredged up all kinds of regrets, bitterness, but also nostalgia and yearning for what he knew. The song itself had been around for a while, he’d even recorded it before, but this time it became a song of farewell to all the things he’d grown up with and knew and thought he’d lost.

There’s a lot of power in the voice, which is forced to its limits at times, in tone the human equivalent to that of a saxophone (an instrument, like the harmonica, and guitar, of which Morrison is a master). Underpinning everything is the double bass, and, on most of the tracks, one of the most sublime flute performances I’ve ever heard. Acoustic guitar plays rhythm for most of the track, and a string quartet (overdubbed) adds immeasurably to the feeling of nostalgia. The lyrics are full of indecipherable references to Belfast locations and people, but the theme is crystal clear:
“Say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
Dry your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye…
The loves to love the loves to love the loves to love…
Get on the train
Get on the train, the train, the train…”
A song about good times in the home town has become a Celtic lament, and the Celts are very good at a lament. It’s not a song you listen to, it’s a song you feel.

Astral Weeks has been voted a place on many best album lists. I think it, and Madame George in particular, of all rock music, the one most likely to survive the next century or two. It still moves people after 50 years, and that’s not common.

Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision leaping into view
Clicking, clacking of high heeled shoe
Ford & Fitzroy, Madame Joy

Marching with the soldier boy behind
He’s much older now, with hat on, drinking wine
And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through
The cool night air like Shalimar
And outside they’re making all the stops
The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops
Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops
Happy taken Madame Joy

That’s when you fall
Whoa, that’s when you fall
Yeah, that’s when you fall
When you fall into a trance
A sitting on a sofa playing games of chance
With your folded arms and history books you glance
Into the eyes of Madame Joy

And you think you found the bag
You’re getting weaker and your knees begin to sag
In the corner playing dominoes in drag
The one and only Madame Joy

And then from outside the frosty window raps
She jumps up and says lord have mercy I think it’s the cops
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below
And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame Joy
Dry your eye for Madame Joy
Wonder why for Madame Joy

And as you leave, the room is filled with music, laughing, music,
Dancing, music all around the room
And all the little boys come around, walking away from it all
So cold
And as you’re about to leave
She jumps up and says hey love, you forgot your gloves
And the gloves to love to love the gloves…
To say goodbye to Madame Joy
Dry your eye for Madame Joy
Wonder why for Madame Joy
Dry your eyes for Madame Joy

Say goodbye in the wind and the rain on the back street
In the back street, in the back street
Say goodbye to Madame Joy
In the back street, in the back street, in the back street
Down home, down home in the back street
Gotta go
Say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
Dry your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye…
Say goodbye to Madame Joy
And the loves to love to love the love
Say goodbye

Oooooo
Mmmmmmm
Say goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye to Madame Joy
Dry your eye for Madame Joy
Wonder why for Madame Joy
The loves to love the loves to love the loves to love…
Say goodbye, goodbye
Get on the train
Get on the train, the train, the train…
This is the train, this is the train…
Whoa, say goodbye, goodbye….
Get on the train, get on the train…

Quem de nos dois (Which one of us)
Ana Carolina
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3kAEF79sEE (studio)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqDKX2JFMm8 (live)

Ana Carolina, Brazil’s greatest incentive to foreigners to learn Portuguese, charts territory little explored in pop song at least, in this account of what’s left behind when the love affair is over. Rueful acknowledgment of the power that someone you’ve loved still has over you, self knowledge that admits you don’t want to let go while realising you have, and a sad awareness of your lover and their dissembling ways which have ceased to have effect. Back in the 90s a friend introduced me to Brazilian music and as I explored it gradually became apparent this was no historic culture but that major artists were emerging all the time. Ana Carolina’s first CD was released in 1999, this song dates from 2000, she’s gone on to become a major singer/songwriter with a succession of number one hits in Brazil and I’ve followed her career, loving every track she’s put down. Quem de nos dois, from Ana Carolina’s second CD Ana Rita Joana Iracema e Carolina, is still my favourite. The live performance shows it’s a favourite with Brazilians, who know the words by heart.

What a voice the woman has, low in register, powerful, and so controlled she seems to have the technique of an opera singer. Ana Carolina is also a very accomplished guitarist (and apparently a good drummer as well). On stage she’s a WYSIWYG performer, producing seemingly without effort the same sound she has on record (not so common an accomplishment any more). The three main traditions in Brazilian music are country, samba and MPB and this last is what Ana Carolina plays. She would be a star in any culture. This is the best Portuguese text I could find, but not the best translation possible though it will have to do.

Eu e você 
Não é assim tão complicado
Não é difícil perceber
Quem de nós dois
Vai dizer que é impossível
O amor acontecer
Se eu disser que já nem sinto nada
Que a estrada sem você é mais segura
Eu sei você vai rir da minha cara
Eu já conheço o teu sorriso, leio teu olhar
Teu sorriso é só disfarce
Que eu já nem preciso

Sinto dizer 
Que amo mesmo,
Tá ruim pra disfarçar
Entre nós dois
Não cabe mais nenhum segredo
Além do que já combinamos
No vão das coisas que a gente disse
Não cabe mais sermos somente amigos
E quando eu falo que eu já nem quero
A frase fica pelo avesso
Meio na contra-mão
E quando finjo que esqueço
Eu não esqueci nada

E cada vez que eu fujo, eu me aproximo mais
E te perder de vista assim é ruim demais
E é por isso que atravesso o teu futuro
E faço das lembranças um lugar seguro
Não é que eu queira reviver nenhum passado
Nem revirar um sentimento revirado
Mas toda vez que eu procuro uma saída
Acabo entrando sem querer na tua vida

Eu procurei
Qualquer desculpa
Pra não te encarar
Para não dizer
De novo e sempre a mesma coisa
Falar só por falar

Que eu já não tô nem aí pra essa conversa
Que a história de nós dois não me interessa
Se eu tento esconder meias verdades
Você conhece o meu sorriso
Lê no meu olhar
Meu sorriso é só disfarce
Porque eu já nem preciso

E cada vez que eu fujo, eu me aproximo mais
E te perder de vista assim é ruim demais
E é por isso que atravesso o teu futuro
E faço das lembranças um lugar seguro
Não é que eu queira reviver nenhum passado
Nem revirar um sentimento revirado
Mas toda vez que eu procuro uma saída
Acabo entrando sem querer na tua vida

Me and you…it’s not that complicated,
not too difficult to see –
which one of us will say
that our love cannot be.

If I say that I feel nothing,
that the road alone is safer,
I know you’ll laugh in my face.
I already know your smile
I can already see in your eyes;
your smile that is just a disguise
something I don’t need anymore.

I feel like saying that I just love,
that this is not good to conceal (aaaaaah).
between the two of us
there’s no room for secrets,
beyond those we’ve already agreed.

Despite all the things we’ve said
we can’t any more be just friends;
and when I say I don’t want you
it’s not what I feel – a wrong way.
And when I pretend I’m forgetting
I still remember everything about us.

(refrain)

Every time I leave I get closer (eeeeee),
to lose sight of you is so bad (éeeeeeee)
for this I enter your future,
turn your memory into solace so sad.
It’s not that I want to revisit our past
or to revive a feeling that’s faded,
but every time I look for an exit
I end up, can’t help it, with you (aaaaah).

I looked for excuses
to hide from you (aaaaah).
not to say the same things over and over,
not to speak just for speaking,
to say I’m not there for this talk,
that the story doesn’t concern me.

If I try to hide a half truth,
you know my smile
you read the look in my eyes;
my smile is just a disguise
which I don’t need anymore.

(refrain)

Every time I leave I get closer (eeeeee),
to lose sight of you is so bad (éeeeeeee)
for this I enter your future,
turn your memory into solace so sad.
It’s not that I want to revisit our past
or to revive a feeling that’s faded,
but every time I look for an exit
I end up, can’t help it, with you (aaaaah).

Eleanor Rigby 
Paul McCartney
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9Itt02QOO0

They didn’t do it all by themselves. Brian Epstein, George Martin, Bob Dylan, Harold Wilson and Mick Jagger had a hand in their achievement, and a dozen more. The Beatles dropped a bomb on what everyone concerned thought was possible in popular music and blew those conceptions sky high. Pop has never been the same since. Here the stars are Paul McCartney, who writes, sings, plays guitar and does backing vocals, and George Martin, who dubs in a string quartet, does arrangement, and channels the Beatles’ voices to create a unique electronica, something that could be only created in a recording studio. What would George do now, when sound can be created and blended, note by note and decibel by decibel, on a computer?

To reconstruct lives from reading the inscription on a London tombstone and turn it into a meditation on the effects of isolation was a plausible leap for Paul, who might have felt isolated in the midst of all the adulation. To produce it, backed by a quartet in the style of Brahms, was more audacious, and showed a belief the Beatles could sell anything. They both could and did. This is a milestone in the history of popular music. It’s both unique, and one of the most influential songs ever recorded. The Beatles’ music has never seemed to me to be about anything much, but maybe I’m wrong.

I look at all the lonely people
I look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near. 
Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

The Green Fields of France
Eric Bogle
sung by Finbar Furey
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GxLOenKHjE

The ultimate protest song, for it blames no-one. It mourns the waste, not only of life, but of all that is noblest in human life, the ideals, the bravery, the chivalry and self sacrifice. Why does it take the killing of fellow human beings to bring out the best in men? Every soldier must ask the question. It’s a sad, sad fact that no war ever fought has ever had the slightest effect on subsequent history, or on the conditions under which human beings live. Humans make war because it is the most profitable of businesses, but also because they take pride in their strength and ability to survive. Ironic we have reached the stage where it is impossible to survive a war, no matter how brave the soldier. And when a life is over, how fragile the passions that meant so much then appear.

I first heard this on the Irish Folk Festival CD and was impressed with both the singing and piping of Finbar Furey. There’s a lament on the CD that’s still one of my favourites. Follow the intonations of the voice as he sings and you’ll pick up every nuance of Eric Bogle’s meaning. It’s a song that should be sung on both sides before every battle,
“For Willie McBride, it all happened again, 
And again, and again, and again, and again”.

Well, how do you do, young Willie McBride, 
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside? 
And rest for awhile in the warm summer sun, 
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done. 
I see by your gravestone you were only 19 
When you joined the great fallen in 1916, 
I hope you died well and I hope you died clean 
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene? 

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the pipes lowly? 
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down? 
Did the band play The Last Post and chorus? 
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? 

Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind 
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined? 
And, though you died back in 1916, 
To that faithful heart are you forever 19? 
Or are you a stranger without even a name, 
Enclosed forever behind some glass pane, 
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained, 
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame? 

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the pipes lowly? 
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down? 
Did the band play The Last Post and chorus? 
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? 

The sun’s shining down on these green fields of France; 
There’s a warm summer breeze, makes the red poppies dance. 
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds; 
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now. 
But here in this graveyard that’s still No Man’s Land 
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand 
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man. 
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned. 

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the pipes lowly? 
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down? 
Did the band play The Last Post and chorus? 
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? 

And I can’t help but wonder, now Willie McBride, 
Do all those who lie here know just why they died? 
Did you really believe them when they told you “The Cause?” 
Did you really believe that this war would end wars? 
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame 
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain, 
For Willie McBride, it all happened again, 
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the pipes lowly? 
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down? 
Did the band play The Last Post and chorus? 
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? 

They Can’t Take That Away From Me
George and Ira Gershwin
Fred Astaire
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMqXXdBlvZE

Fred Astaire was much more than a singer. I don’t just mean he was an actor and a dancer, but that he inspired great composers like the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin to write some of their best songs, which were written for him, for his style of delivery. He was more their collaborator. And Ginger Rogers was much, much more than the person he sang to. Look at the clip and you’ll see she’s the one that makes the song so effective, and all by the look on her face. What an artist.

The great age of songwriting in the 30s in America contrasts strongly with the revolutionary period of the 60s when modern pop culture was invented. In the 30s it was all about romance, because there had been a devastating world war, a stock market crash, and a Great Depression, and all that needed forgetting. In the 60s there was paranoia about the Cold War, and wars in Vietnam succeeding wars in Korea, but people weren’t desperate. They were on edge. Civil rights, women’s liberation, the hippies, widespread us of recreational drugs and the move to control in key positions in the music industry by ‘liberated’ young people resulted in a major shift in what was produced and how it was marketed, and a generation of singer/songwriters came to the fore. How nice to go back. It was just as complicated then, but George and Ira and Fred and Ginger made it seem so simple.

And I still find Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers irresistible.

The way you wear your hat, 
The way you sip your tea, 
The mem’ry of all that — 
No, no! They can’t take that away from me! 
The way your smile just beams, 
The way you sing off key, 
The way you haunt my dreams — 
No, no! They can’t take that away from me! 

We can never, never meet again 
On the bumpy road to love, 
Still I’ll always, always keep 
The mem’ry of — 

The way you hold your knife, 
The way we danced ’til three. 
The way you changed my life — 
No, no! They can’t take that away from me! 
No! They can’t take that away from me!

So there it is. Some of the songs I like, and the lyrics I consider significant, and why. It’s a funny list, the kind of songs that have found their way into my life are as different as chalk and cheese but I bet most people find the same. There’s many more, but some I couldn’t find the lyrics, others I just can’t write about. There’s no way I could describe classical music for instance, and non-English lyrics are a difficulty. It’s been a good journey so far.

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, 16 August, 2011 by in music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
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