26 June 2006

The express train metaphor

When I heard Elton John's This Train Don't Stop There Anymore (2001) I liked it more than any Elton song I'd heard for years.

One thing about Bernie Taupin's lyrics bugs me, though. The metaphor is a train, about how the singer was a mad tearaway in the past, an express train:

I used to be the main express
All steam and whistles heading west...

That makes sense, but then he sings about how he's changed:

But this train don't stop,
This train don't stop,
This train don't stop there anymore

Isn't that the thing about an express train, that it doesn't make stops? That's what makes it an express, right? So what's this about it not stopping any more?

Guess I've missed something.

09 June 2006

The Sir Francis Drake theme

I was thinking about how you can fall for your own stereotypes.

Look at me, born in 1950, deep in Baby Boomer territory, just in time for a rock'n'roll childhood: Elvis's Heartbreak Hotel appeared in 1956, my Grade 1 year.

As if that weren't enough, The Beatles came along to span my teenage years so neatly, hitting our radios when I was 13 years old, and feeding me groovy new music until I was 19, when they broke up. They couldn't have planned it better!

So if I tried to sum up what I listened to in the 60s, I'd probably rattle off The Beatles, The Stones, all those other British Invasion bands like Manfred Mann and The Animals; solo artists like P.J. Proby and Dusty Springfield; The Beach Boys and The Turtles and Lovin' Spoonful of course; and Aussies like The Loved Ones, The Easybeats, Lynne Randell, Doug Parkinson... you get the picture.

If I ever want to evoke the 60s, give myself a pure, unrefined shot of what it felt like back then, I put on The Stones Aftermath (1966) and I'm immediately transported. Individual songs like Mike Furber's You Stole My Love or The Loved Ones' Everlovin' Man or even Cilla Black's Beatles giveway It's For You will do it for me as well.

But that's really my official line, the PR version, because the reality is more complicated.

As I was idly cruising the Lounge and Library mp3 sites recently, I downloaded a track that gave me such an unadulterated shot of my world at 14 or 15 that it made my head spin. This was a strong feeling of remembrance: you know, of things past, the effect that the madeleine cakes had on Proust's Marcel.

It wasn't some groovy song by The Mamas & The Papas or The Zombies that had this effect. It was the theme music to Sir Francis Drake, a British TV series that starred Terence Morgan and Jean Kent.

To begin with, this is a stirring composition in its own right, written by the British composer Ivor Slaney (1921-1988). The music evokes standing at the wheel of a creaking timber sailing ship, with the salty wind and spray in your face, surging through the icy waves to adventures in the name of Elizabeth I...

Okay, I have no idea what it's really like to do all that, but this music sets off all my well-conditioned responses to what films have told me it would be like, and it uses familiar conventions of Western film music: heroic trumpet fanfares, a majestic sailing ship tempo, swirling ocean wave strings, that sort of thing.

I was also startled to find how strongly it evoked watching afternoon TV in the living room of our house in Swan Hill. This was probably around 1965, when Sir Francis Drake was broadcast during the school holidays on the ABC (Australia).

Sir Francis Drake was absorbing viewing, one of those British series with classy actors and engaging scripts that convinced you this was real life at court and on the ocean wave in the 16th century. More than that, I was home from boarding school, so holidays were an intense time anyway.

Our soundtrack, the music we listened to and carried around in our heads, wasn't all 96 Tears and Psychotic Reaction. Now that I think of it, two of my most played LPs were the Charade soundtrack of Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle's Route 66 and Other TV Themes, both of which seemed at the time to have a certain air of hipness, even though they were near the Middle of the Road.

While we wouldn't have come out as Matt Monro or Engelbert Humperdinck fans, we might have caught ourselves humming such MOR hits as Born Free or Les Bicyclettes de Belsize.

There were always songs like that on the charts, happily nestled in beside the groovier hits. Maybe it was our parents who put them onto the charts, or those kids who never dug the groovy stuff anyway, but they still formed part of that soundtrack in our heads, still took up space in our musical history.

Now, you can spend hours browsing and downloading whole albums of music from mp3 blogs dedicated to soundtracks, Lounge, Space Age, Exotica and Library Music, much of it digitalised from long lost LPs found in thrift stores. It's as if some of the music we dismissed outright and
classified under 'Parent' may have been worth a closer listen after all, and we may recognise more of it than we realise.

07 June 2006

Outside, I'm masquerading, Inside, my hopes are fading

Speaking of lyrics, I was catching up on Series 2 of Scrubs on DVD when that joyous Cat Stevens song Here Comes My Baby popped up. The Tremeloes had the hit version, in 1967 (#4 UK, #13 USA), but Cat himself had released it on Matthew And Son (1967), and I believe that was the version heard on Scrubs.

Joyous indeed, and I break into a big chuckly smile every time I hear it: The Tremeloes record runs with that feeling, adding a party atmosphere with whoops and yelps of encouragement from the lads, and an interlude of merry whistling.

If you listen to the lyrics, though, you first hear this: In the midnight moonlight I'll be walking a long and lonely mile. What's this about a long and lonely mile? Doesn't sound too joyous, does it? In fact here comes the guy's baby, and she's with another guy:

Here comes my baby, here she comes now,
And it comes as no surprise to me, with another guy.
Here comes my baby, here she comes now,
Walking with a love, with a love that's all so fine,
Never could be mine, no matter how I try.

So this is a song about unrequited love, or a break-up. Whatever the back story, the words seem to be at odds with the feel of the song.

Of course, it depends on how you look at it. The guy might be like Smokey Robinson's life of the party in The Tracks Of My Tears (recorded by Smokey's group The Miracles):

Although I may be laughing, loud and hearty,
Deep inside I'm blue.

Smokey tells it from the inside, behind the masquerade, so his song does sound sad, but maybe in Here Comes My Baby we're hearing it from the outside, as he laughs through his tears at The Tremeloes' record hop.

The same story, watching your baby with another guy, is told in a fine, overlooked song from the 60s, See The Way by The Black Diamonds.

The singer in See The Way isn't masquerading, he's not cracking hardy, he's good and mad. You can picture him with his mates, indignantly pointing out his ex with her new guy, so incredulous he can hardly get the words out: See the way, see the way, see the way she's walking with him...

With each new outrage he cries out at the start of the chorus, NOW LOOK! as if he can't believe his eyes, and by the last chorus he can hardly contain himself: YES!!! NOW LOOK!!! All of this anguish is propelled by dramatic guitar and drum lines: the whole thing is like a scene from a teenage opera.

See The Way is miles away from Cat's scorned but peppy lover, musically and geographically. The Black Diamonds were a 60s garage band from Lithgow, a coal mining town in New South Wales. Later (I'm reading from Ian McFarlane's Encyclopedia of Australian Rock & Pop) , they moved to Sydney and changed their name to Tymepiece, but along the way they recorded a local hit version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight under the name of Love Machine.

02 June 2006

A few words from our lyricist

I keep getting emails from people looking for lyrics, usually to some obscure local hit that's impossible to find at any lyrics site. The other day, someone was after Frankie Davidson's Ball Bearing Bird.

Really, I'm the last person to ask about lyrics. I'm a poor listener: I notice the beat, and the arrangement, and the vocals... but it's only the odd line or phrase that sticks in my mind.

It's not that I don't care about lyrics, but with many rock or pop songs I'm happy if the words just sound right: in fact I hate it when they don't sound right, whatever their meaning is.

If the vowels and consonants sound good with each other it doesn't matter so much if I don't take in the meaning, in the same way that Italian opera or Brazilian pop are incomprehensible but still enjoyable. Scat singers knew about that, and John Lennon's Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé always sounded fine to me: I mean, let's face it, goo goo g’joob!

I'm not, like, against lyrics, nothing extreme like that: I always dug Simon & Garfunkel's words, and you can't listen to Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell or Tom Waits without taking in the lyrics. It's just that it's mainly fragments I notice or remember, the odd line or phrase. Fragments like these:

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping

Simon & Garfunkel - America (Paul Simon - Art Garfunkel)
On Bookends, 1968

So you think you’re having good times
With the boy that you just met
Kicking sand from beach to beach
Your clothes all soaking wet
Traffic - Paper Sun (Jim Capaldi - Steve Winwood) 1967
The lyrics are by Jim Capaldi. See the 2002 Usenet discussion about the second verse's pitching lips, heard (plausibly) by some as hitching lifts. (The 'Lindsay Martin' in the discussion is me.)

"C'est la vie," say the old folks,
It goes to show you never can tell.
Chuck Berry - You Never Can Tell (Chuck Berry) 1964
Neat use of assonance. Check out those vowel sounds: C'est-say; old-folks-goes-show; never-tell.
The whole song is a slice-of-life masterpiece, a short story writer's catalogue of everyday details.

You study 'em hard and hopin' to pass...
Chuck Berry - School Days (Chuck Berry) 1957

And so it's my assumption, I'm really up the junction.
Squeeze - Up The Junction (Chris Difford - Glenn Tilbrook)
On Cool For Cats, 1979.
The lyrics are by Difford, I believe. This is the final line of the song. See the annotated lyrics from SqueezeFan.com (now off-line: archived). First, there's the nice near-rhyme of assumption and junction. Second, it uses a word that is unexpected in a pop song: assumption. Third, I love a song that leaves the words of the title right till the very end, rather than chanting it desperately all through the chorus.

I don't like you, but I love you.
The Miracles - You've Really Got A Hold On Me (Smokey Robinson) 1962
Genuine use by William 'Smokey' Robinson of the oxymoron as a literary device (not just any old contradiction, which most people these days seem to believe is an oxymoron). Also recorded famously by The Beatles on With The Beatles, 1963

Daniel is travelling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain
Elton John - Daniel (Elton John - Bernie Taupin)
On Don't Shoot Me I'm The Piano Player, 1973.
Words by Bernie Taupin. Puts a picture in my mind that sums up the song.

Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean,
Yours are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen.
Elton John - Your Song (Elton John - Bernie Taupin)
On Elton John, 1970
Bernie Taupin again. British diffidence, summed up in colloquial language, and all the more romantic for it.

You stay home, she goes out...
The Beatles - For No One (John Lennon - Paul McCartney)
On Revolver, 1966
Routine language for a romance gone routine. For me the most perfect Beatles song, written by Paul, it's more like European cinema than a pop song. I was going to cut and paste the whole song, but see SongMeanings instead.

Here comes the twist:
I don't exist.
The Bonzo Dog Band - I'm The The Urban Space Man (Neil Innes) 1969
Produced by Apollo C. Vermouth, aka Paul McCartney.

Joneses, Joneses, all I see, page 19 to 23
Big big world can be unkind, the phone just took my last dime
Johnny Burnette - Big Big World (Fred Burch - Gerald Nelson - Red West) 1961
I know it ain't poetry, but it was on the radio a lot back then, and it tells a story, and it stuck with me.

South Silicon Way...
It's an address, right? Maybe in a suburb of some English industrial city?
Sooorry... It's a misheard lyric, one I was so convinced of at the time that I couldn't believe it was actually So Sally can wait. That's the line in Don't Look Back In Anger
by Oasis, 1995, on (What's The Story) Morning Glory.