10 Mustache Songs for Movember

The Beatles took separate projects in 1966 when they stopped touring for good that year.  John Lennon went to Spain to film Richard Lester’s How I Won the War.  George Harrison sped off to India for the first time to take sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar.  Paul dreamed up a way for the band to continue by having their next record sound like the work of a touring band, even if it was the Beatles once removed.  Ringo contemplated a film career too, which would come to fruition in the ensuing years.

But despite their individual pursuits, when the Beatles reconvened in November of 1966 for the recording of the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” double-A side they shared one thing in common.

They had all grown mustaches.

Since then, mustaches have been a mainstay in rock from Frank Zappa’s signature ‘stache-n-patch, to the 1800s preacher-boy look of the Band, to Freddie Mercury who led pomp-rock gods Queen to glory, mustache-first.

David Crosby grew one after leaving  the Byrds, showing a commitment to a facial hedgerow that endures to this day.  U2’s the Edge experimented with a myriad of mo’s, appropriating and discarding them seemingly on a daily basis.

Motorhead’s Lemmy proudly wears his mustache-cum-mutton chops, and Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos’ ‘stache has seen the fashions come and go too.  The list is endless.  I haven’t even mentioned Frankie Goes to Hollywood…

Here are 10 songs by 10 mustachioed rock and pop artists, some who have stayed true to their ‘staches, some who went through a phase and wisely abandoned it, and others who once wore the ‘stache proudly and the ‘staches of which are sadly no longer with us.  In any case, in honour of the Movember Men’s Health Charity, I give you ten unshaven upper lips of the upper echelon.

Jimi Hendrix – Red House

James Marshall Hendrix revolutionized the guitar, first serving time as a sideman to Little Richard.  From Richard, he learned that he couldn’t hang back like a sideman should. But, perhaps also, he learned the power of Little Richard’s ‘stache as a rock ‘n’ roll accessory of choice.

Gitarrlegenden Jimi Hendrix

And who knows?  Maybe the ‘stache was the key to Hendrix’s ability to shred?

Burton Cummings of The Guess Who – Hang On To Your Life

Among their skills as Canadian hit-makers who had some play in the States, despite hailing from the Canadian prairies (Winnipeg, actually), they had an advantage in lead singer and keyboardist Burton Cummings, who’s mustache has become a national icon.

You know that one relative who’s always had a mustache, and you can’t imagine him without it?  Think of that on a cultural scale,  and you begin to see what Burton Cummings’ ‘mo means to every Canadian, everywhere.

Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter of Steely Dan – My Old School

This man really is the Walrus, defining the ‘Dan’s early career as dual-guitared jazz-rock champions, and defining the extent to which one man might seek to entirely hide his mouth using his own hair.


And if you think the ‘stache is only for unwashed, peace-loving hippies, think again! Not only is this ‘stache still around today, it remains on the face of a man who’s had a second careering in designing guidance systems for missles.

Ron Mael of Sparks – This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us

If Adolph Hitler stole Charlie Chaplin’s ‘stache in the 1930s, then Ron Mael has been trying to steal it back ever since he could grow one.


I think all would be well, if Mael looked any less insane than Hitler.  But, he doesn’t.  At all.

Bernard Sumner of Joy Divison – Transmission

Guitarist for Joy Division and later the same for New Order, Bernard Sumner’s brief flirtation with a ‘bumfluff’ mustache at the end of the 1970s has become legendary.

Even in his 1999 guest vocal on the Chemical Brothers “Out of Control” contained the telling line “is my mustache too much?”, proving that mustache shame (or is it envy) can dog you for decades if you play it wrong.  Bassist Peter Hook of course hedged (pun intended?) his bets by sticking to his unfashionable beard.

The Village People – YMCA

There were very few bands pulling this look off in the early 80s.  But, nearly every member of this unique disco-pop outfit, despite the differences in costuming, had a ‘tache they could be proud of.  Cop ‘tache?  You bet!  Cowboy ‘tache? Check. Biker ‘tache?  What, are you kidding me?

The Village People

The Village People showed that no matter what your walk of life, there was a mustache out there for everyone!

Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap – Rock n’ Roll Creation

It was a ‘first mustache’ for many a special friend on the road.


If Smalls was the lukewarm water between two creative fire ‘n’ ice forces in the ‘Tap, then he is smokin’ hot on the ‘representin’ the ‘tache’ front for his otherwise clean-shaven band mates.

John Oates of Hall & Oates – You Make My Dreams Come True

John Oates was the mustache of the decade in the ’80s, his visual trademark during a very fruitful run of smash singles with Daryl Hall from 1976 to 1986.

Sadly, his mustache is no longer with us, even if (luckily) John Oates is.  He shaved it off!  Can you believe that!?

George Michael – Spinning the Wheel

There was a time when people thought George Michael was straight.  No, honest. At one point in his career around the time this song was on the radio, he rocked a Pancho Villa vibe when it came to his moustache, a look not many reached for in 1996.

Nick Cave, with the Bad Seeds – Dig!! Lazarus Dig!!!

Nick Cave has stuck by his haircut – sort of a gothic mullet affair – from the 1980s when he made his name as the frontman for the Birthday Party.  Yet, lately he’s sported a droopy outlaw mustache, kind of like he’s keeping it for a friend.

We’ll see if it and the haircut get along…

OK. It’s full disclosure time.  I am growing a mustache, participating in the aforementioned Movember event to raise awareness and money for prostate cancer research.  Should you wish to support said mustache, click here to do just that.


10 Happy Songs That Aren’t Really Happy

Happy Face Sad FaceEmotional states and the act of managing them seems to be one of the key tensions in this thing we call human experience. We have a built-in capacity it seems to cover our anguish and turmoil with a coating of contentedness, a patina of pleasure, a veneer of vitality, and yet very often on the inside, we’re full of doubt, worry, insecurity, and an impending sense of doom. Well, don’t think that songwriters have overlooked this dynamic in human experience. Oh no. There are plenty of songs out there that can be counted on as bitter pills coated with sugar.

This is not to say that they are necessarily mocking, or are in some way disingenuous, although some of them are. After all, all of that is a part of life too. But, here are ten jaunty tunes of doom, ten ditties of delightful destruction, ten anthems of anguished despair that proves the grand greyscale of our existence is not so lonely, knowing that we all appreciate the irony of a disaster you can dance to.

Happy face image courtesy of A.M Kuchling

The Wanderer – Dion & the Belmonts

Dion and the Belmonts the WandererThis is a macho guy’s anthem in many ways, taken from their 1961 album named after it, The Wanderer. This is the tale of an itinerant ladies’ man who is with a different girl, or group of girls, every night. Which one does he love best? His tattoo, man – Rosie on his chest. Nothing can touch this guy. When love rears its head, he hops back into his car and he’s gone again. But, there’s the rub. This doesn’t happen when women fall for him; it happens when he finds himself falling for one of them. To me, this is where the macho womanizer tale ends, and where the lonely soul who is frightened of love begins. Ultimately, this song is one of the most tragic of the period, even among all of the teen death ballads that were out around this time when Dion & the Belmonts recorded this.

Dion’s own story is also a tale of the seemingly happy, together singer who had a dark secret – Dion struggled with heroin addiction. Luckily, he managed to shake it, while recording some critically acclaimed folk-rock albums by the end of the decade, and finding religion in the next.

Baby’s in Black – The Beatles

Beatles For SaleOne of the most joyous sounds to me is the combined voices of Lennon and McCartney on some of those early Beatles sides. This tune, taken from the 1964 album Beatles for Sale, is a great example of what great singers these guys were together, with John’s lower voice anchoring the melody while Paul soars above him. Without listening to the words here , the song could be about rainbows and unicorns. But despite the sweetness of the voices, this song is all about trying to woo a widow, a woman caught up in the despair of her loss. And more, it’s about the feelings that arise from her would-be lover, that she is wasting away, denying love in exchange for a memory. To me, it’s one of the most sombre tracks the group ever recorded. And yet those voices – aural honey!

One of the things which amazes me about the Beatles is their maturity as writers even very early in their songwriting careers. It’s been written many times that at some point, they stopped writing for teenage girls and began writing for themselves and their peers. But, where does this one fall? It’s not really a teen death song because there’s no romanticism in the death spoken of here. The tragic event is implied more so than directly described. There’s no romantic tragedy here. There’s just two messed up lives, both pining for a love that can never be returned.

Crippled Inside – John Lennon

A few years later, Lennon had kept what he’d learned about making the words work against the melody of a song in order to create a jarring effect. And on this cut, taken from his landmark 1971 solo album Imagine, is a prime example of his dark humour, and his prowess in using a good-time melody and style against his own sobering views of inner turmoil. Since John knew a lot about both great melody and dealing with lifelong demons, it probably made some sense to him to put them together. The song was allegedly about an acquaintance, yet it’s hard not to apply the message of the song to Lennon himself, who had by this time made the subject of his own anguish something of a favourite when he approached songwriting.

Lennon had spent many years as “Beatle John”, one of the lovable mop-tops, never without a quip or a mug for the camera. And yet the death of his mother while he was still a teen, and his feelings of abandonment surrounding his absent dad from early childhood were dark feelings he could barely conceal even at the height of his popularity. In 1965, he’d written “Help!” which is a child’s cry for love and attention in the guise of a catchy pop song. By ’71, he was writing from this vantage point with a level of self-awareness which he may not have been at liberty to demonstrate at the height of Beatlemania. Yet, still he struggled. I’d like to think that if he’d lived, he’d be at peace with his past by now. After all, he’d done his therapy and recorded it for posterity.

Marie Provost – Nick Lowe

Much has been written of the New York death; that is, the death of someone who is not discovered for weeks and months, due to how disconnected and anonymous that person was in a bustling metropolis. There is further tragedy heaped upon this sad situation when the person in question once dominated the limelight, and had in fact been celebrated as a star in their field. Such was the fate of silent screen actress Marie Provost (actually spelled Marie Prevost), sidelined by the advent of sound in movies, and destined to die penniless in her New York apartment, only to become “a doggie’s dinner” to her pet dachshund post mortem. A ghastly tale of tragedy and gore, right? Sure.

But in Nick Lowe’s 1977 song taken from his Bowi EP (so named in answer to David Bowie’s Low album…) and later featured on the compilation Basher: The Best of Nick Lowe , you’d think that this was a bouncy, happy-go-lucky 60s pop throwback, with chiming guitars and twinkle-in-the-eye vocal delivery to boot. But this is a song about the empty and transitory trappings of fame, a weighty subject. Yet you can practically hear the smile on Nick Lowe’s face. Lowe understands and employs a classic angle in pop songwriting; using the contrast between lyrics and melody to drive the delivery of the song, which is ultimately a sad tale told with ironic jubilance.

Nite Klub – The Specials

The SpecialsIn Britain at the beginning of the 80s, things were not looking too good for traditional industry. And because of that, the industrial centers of the country suffered lay-offs, long-term unemployment, and thousands and thousands of people “on the dole” without anything to really define their purpose in life. Racial tensions were on the rise, and street violence was common. At the same time, the music of the Caribbean had made cultural headway in the area too, particularly reggae and its early progenitor ska, both of which had been the answer to the joyfulness of Tamla Motown as interpreted by musicians from the islands. It is party music, music to dance to, to use as a means of celebrating life.

British musicians, including first and second-generation immigrants from Jamaica, St. Lucia, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands, took the celebratory nature of ska, and mixed it with the sneering dissatisfaction of punk. And songs like “Nite Klub” from one of the premier proponents of the scene, Coventry’s The Specials, typified the spirit of the times. This tune, taken from their 1979 debut The Specials, portrays the emptiness of nights out while facing the crushing economic pressures of having no job and depending on government money to survive. Yet, with the bright tones of the horns and the bouncy energy of the rhythm section, at least this is social marginalization that you can dance to, right?

Genetic Engineering – Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD)

As was pointed out in an article about Kraftwerk I wrote recently, there is a tension running through the music of the futurist pop that sprang up at the beginning of the 80s. The tension is about looking forward to the future and dreading it at the same time. Medical science and the leaps and bounds that were (and are) being made were a concern as much then as they are now. This is so much so that it filtered very easily into pop culture, and onto the charts. Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock had been a popular bestseller for a decade, and everyone who had their minds on the role of technology in society seemed to reflect this duality, this longing for a bright future mixed with a fear of the unknown, and possibly a deep-seated mistrust in the moral basis upon which a lot of technology was being developed.

The question seemed to be: are we moving into the future too fast for our society, and individuals in that society, to manage? Perhaps not much has changed, but for the question which is perhaps unasked all too often. It’s easy to forget that the brains that invented digital technology which has come to define our world, are arguably no more wise than those who wage preemptive wars with countries who have done us no direct harm.

OMD’s “Genetic Engineering” from their 1983 album Dazzle Ships expresses this is a roundabout way. To me this is like a children’s song, or an advert, except for the menacing drone of the music against the shiny, happy melody line. And then of course there are the lyrics “These are the lies they tell us/the future’s good as sold/In all the things we do and know, we really must be told.” Suddenly, after pushing through the chirpiness of the melody, we realize that this isn’t the ode to salvation through science it seems to be. It’s a propaganda piece, with a hint that the future is a place where all things are controlled – yet by whom?

Our House – Madness

Madness Our HouseFamilies are almost never what they seem. And yet there is often pressure on them to project a certain image to others that the family in question is normal, healthy, and fit to stand as an example to other families everywhere. I suppose there is a good side to this of course; it’s always good to aspire to an ideal, just as long as that ideal is not thought of as reality. Because in every family, there are secrets big and small. Some are unexpected in a good way; that Grandma once backpacked through Europe when she was a girl. Or that your uncle once played bass in a pickup band for a one-off Chuck Berry show in 1973. But some secrets are so dark, so unspeakable, that they remain to be a hovering spectre over a household that dare not explore it or deal with it.

This is what we’ve got here, I believe. Just as their “House of Fun” single is not about going to a carnival, Madness’ sole 1983 North American hit “Our House” is not what it seems either. In this tune, we get the portrait of the mundaneness of a family, of a sister sighing in her sleep, a brother who’s got a date to keep, about a house-proud Mum. This is all well and good, except for the throw-away line buried between the verses: “Something tells you that you’ve got to get away from it.” Suddenly, there are other forces at work in this tune, with the veneer of normality and even dullness scratched away just a little bit to discover dissatisfaction and negativity underneath.

Road to Nowhere – Talking Heads

Talking Heads Little CreaturesThey say that life is all about the journey, and it’s certainly been depicted that way in popular literature from Pilgrim’s Progress, to On the Road, to Dude, Where’s My Car?. I think that one of the main drives behind this idea is the hope that life is intrinsically meaningful, that it is in fact going somewhere. Whether this is a place, as some religious orders and traditions hold, to a certain state of mind, or to some technological and entirely rational future based purely on the merits of human achievement is almost beside the point in these terms. But, what if life is just a series of events linked together randomly, with nothing but cause and effect as its only source?

This is what I get from this 1985 Talking Heads song, taken from their album Little Creatures. The music is almost a tent-meeting gospel singalong track, in the traditions of the timeless church hymn “I’ll Fly Away”. But, the song has a message which could be construed as being entirely opposite. What with the concepts of American manifest destiny, the Second Coming of Christ, and Star Trek fantasies of a harmonious world government and an end to hunger and poverty in the future, our culture seems to be clinging to the hope that things will work out in the end. With this song, the jauntiness of the tune seems to hint, rather ironically, that no future is guaranteed but for the present times which will shape and define it.

Lovefool – The Cardigans

Love – the two-edged sword. It can make you, or entirely ruin you. Of course, love has been the subject of popular song for centuries, and I imagine too that heartbreak hasn’t changed all that much over the course of time. With the advent of heartbreak of course come a myriad of other emotions, exploding outward like shrapnel from an emotional epicenter. Among those comes desperation, delusion, and the distortion of one’s self image, defined forever (or seeming to be) by a damaged connection to one who doesn’t return the sentiment. How do you make a perky pop song about that, exactly? Well, it’s been done numerous times.

The Cardigans’ 1996 hit from their album First Band on the Moon, “Lovefool” was such a song, with the chirpy backing vocals and bouncy rhythm, all aiding and abetting lead singer Nina Persson’s plaintive vocal of someone who will settle for the pretense of love instead of the real thing, just to remain with the one she adores. The tragedy of that proved to be an infectious dance groove by the middle of the 90s, perhaps fueled by the universality of the scenario. And as above, what better way to expunge the feelings of worthlessness than by singing and dancing about it and to it? If the origin of the blues can be traced anywhere, then surely that place is here.

This song was used effectively on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack album, brightly bouncing along to arguably the most tragic love story there is.

She Called Up – Crowded House

Crowded House She Called UpOne of the most frightening sounds is the ring of a phone early in the wee hours of the morning from loved ones far away. Phone calls like that, unless someone is expecting a baby, are almost always bad news of the worst kind. It means someone is dead, doesn’t it – or at very least in the drunk tank. But think of the life of the internationally traveled musician, finding themselves in all time zones for large portions of the year while life happens for their families and friends at home without them. The chances of such wee-hour phone calls expand exponentially. And as a result, the news and the experience of finding out the news, filters down into songwriting. This is what happened with Neil Finn while touring with his brother Tim. His friend and former bandmate Paul Hester had been found dead near his home in Australia, and Finn was in England.

In times like that, there really is nothing to be done, and particularly when in another country. So, the song “She Called Up” , taken from the group’s 2007 album Time on Earth is a tale of bad news, sadness, and helplessness, all to a blithe backing and even “la la la” backing vocals which Hester probably would have appreciated. And this is just the thing. With all of the tragedy, the song that came out of it was true to the memory of the one who’d passed, known as he was for his onstage banter and clownish demeanour. This is a wake of a song, rather than a funeral. And it points out that there are many ways to mourn, many tones in the emotional paintbox to help one grieve the loss of a friend.


When in music class at school, we learned to tell the difference between major keys and minor keys in terms of happy and sad; major was positive sounding, happy, triumphant, while minor keys were blue, morose, sad. As we got older, we became more aware of the complexities of emotional states. And while those first impressions still ring true to some extent, we know that something as wonderful and dangerous as emotions and the experiences which provoke them aren’t always so cut and dried.

And because it is the stuff of the lifeforce, music follows suit, acting like a medium to communicate complex ideas to millions of people using simple tones to unlock new possibilities and new connections, whether they be good tidings or bad. It is because of this that a dirge can make us aspire to greatness, while the sweetest ode can allow us to see the greatest sense of grief.

10 Songs About Fame

No Photos PleaseFame is the bitch-goddess of Western culture, a thing to be reviled as much as it is to be coveted. Our reality-TV addicted habits of recent years is but one example of people doing pretty much anything to become recognized for something, anything. Yet, from the mouths of the most famous names we can think of, we hear stories of lost identity, lost humanity, interspersed with tales of artistic and personal triumph. Is fame all it’s cracked up to be? It seems to be a bit of a catch-22. Only the famous can really answer that question. And for them, the answer is a moot point. Funny old world, isn’t it?

So, in lieu of a definitive answer for the benefit of those who sing into their hairbrushes daily, here are 10 songs about fame – the triumphs, the low-points, the delusions, the cynicism, the survivor’s tales, which shed some light on a distinctive late 20th-early 21st century phenomenon which is mass celebrity. Judge for yourself whether your name in lights is a blessing, a curse, or both.

Above image courtesy of RecoilRick

Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry the Great Twenty-EightChuck Berry has been quoted as saying that if his job as a painter had made him more money than the music, than he would have stuck with the painting. But, this tale of a poor country boy who ‘never learned to read or write so well/ but he could play the guitar just like a ring in a bell”, is about someone with, possibly, fewer options than Chuck, but with a singular gift to transport him into the stratosphere. This is a classic rock n’ roll story – perhaps the only rock n roll story – lived out by the chosen few, although in many cases with more than they bargained for. But, Chuck Berry is setting up a fantasy story here, not one for real life. This is a 1950s American Dream story, of a poor boy who makes good. Indeed, in the follow up song, “Bye Bye Johnny B. Goode”, Johnny flies off to Hollywood to become a star, a dream realised, with our hero flying off into the sunset. End credits. This is the dream of fame, the idea of it, not the reality. After all, dreams have sold more records than reality ever has.

The song hit the charts in 1958, a smash success, and appeared in many forms both by Berry, and by other artists who recoginised it as the quintessential rock n’ roll story. It appears on the must-have Chuck Berry compilation The Great Twenty-Eight.among a number of songs which would immortalize Berry’s own fame. Yet, it’s “Johnny B. Goode” which was included in the package sent into space on the Voyager mission in 1977. It’s hard to rival fame like that, when visitors to our world can potentially riff along with Chuck when they arrive.

Drive My Car – The Beatles

The Beatles Rubber SoulBy 1966, the Beatles had seen enough of fame in an annis horriblis that involved a disasterous experience in the Philippines, when they had ‘snubbed’ the Marcos family when they were called upon like good little pop stars to attend a state dinner, and chose not to attend. This was also the year that Lennon was quoted by a friend in the British press that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”, which caused a furore in the States that included radio bans and (incredibly) burning of Beatles merchandise. The trappings of fame had gone south for them. But, at least through it all they kept their perspective which would carry them through.

“Drive My Car”, taken from their 1965 album Rubber Soul, showed that the Beatles knew that the pursuit of fame was mostly about the accessories in the end. “I got no car and it’s breaking my heart/But I found a driver and that’s a start”. These young men had perspective, that those truly seeking the accouterments of fame are ultimately ridiculous. And it was after time spent among many of these types of people, those who wished to bask in their reflected glory, that the band would decide to quit touring, and to quit attending the ‘right’ parties in order to concentrate on the business of being serious artists. This new pursuit was more about escaping the trappings of fame than embracing them, and ultimately was the driving force in transforming pop/rock music into something to be respected, rather than something simply on which to hang an image.

So, You Wanna Be A Rock n’ Roll Star – The Byrds

The Byrds Younger Than YesterdayBy the end of the 60s, a lot of money could be made in the pop star game, and so the star-maker machinery was built up to full-steam, crushing many a dream in its wake. Not ones to miss the changing times were the Byrds, who had been inspired by both the electrified jangle of Beatles and the folk leanings of Bob Dylan to construct what became known as folk-rock. This 1967 song from the album Younger Than Yesterday offers ironic criticism of the whole fame game, when the benign act of learning to play an electric guitar leads to selling …”your soul to the company/Who are waiting there to sell plastic ware”.

Things had changed since the early part of the decade when a good deal of the major labels saw pop music as an insignificant tax write-off, rather than as a multi-million dollar industry. And there must have been a lot of harsh contrast between the hippie ideal and the demands of capitalism which began to drive the industry more and more on a grander scale. This would certainly be a dynamic in the ensuing decades, this idea of selling out, when worldwide fame of rock stars was directly proportionate to perceptions of their lack of artistic integrity.

Fruit Tree – Nick Drake

Nick Drake Five Leaves LeftFame is an elusive mistress, with many well-known names – Vincent Van Gogh, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Edgar Allen Poe, and many more – who only won her favour after their own deaths. In 1969, British folk artist Nick Drake would ruminate on the the randomness of fame on this key track from the debut album Five Leaves Left , not knowing that he himself would serve as yet another example of an artist sharing similar post-mortem popularity.

Drake was a struggling musician, painfully shy, and wrestling with clinical depression, yet also wanting his music to be heard. His own thoughts here about fame being a fruit tree, fed by the deaths of those who seek it may well have been a case of sour grapes. Yet, I think it was just pure observation of the basic cruelties of real life. During his life, he made three complete albums, none of which shifted very many units. His fame would grow only after his passing in 1974 of a (probably accidental) prescription drugs overdose. It would achieve the heights of fame at the end of the 1990s, when his song ‘Pink Moon’ was used to sell Volkswagens 25 years after his death – far from his dying day indeed. Luckily, it’s not fame that is the point. It’s the supreme delicacy of his songs, his voice, and his superlative gifts as a guitarist which emerges. And the tragedy is not that he didn’t achieve fame in his lifetime. It’s that he didn’t make more albums, famous or not.

Cover of the Rolling Stone – Dr. Hook

The Best of Dr. HookEveryone has a benchmark to use to measure when they’ve ‘made it’. By the mid-70s, when a pop star, the coveted cover of Rolling Stone magazine was surely the Superbowl of rock stardom. But, very few bands allowed themselves to drop their cool demeanours and click their heels upon reaching that goal. After all, rock n’ roll is not about acceptance by the press. It’s supposed to be about rebellion, about sticking it to the man. It’s not about getting ‘five copies to my mother’. Your mother? C’mon guys! You’re in a rock n’ roll band! Yet, this song by Dr. Hook gets to the heart of the matter, and pushes past the coolness that rock musicians are supposed to have in the face of widespread acceptance. The song points out that everyone, aloof rock stars especially, wants the respect of their peers, and of the public too. You can say you’re in it for the music. But, to say that you don’t care about acceptance? Well, you’re not fooling anyone, says this tune.

“Cover of the Rolling Stone is clearly a shot at rock n’ roll pretension, much of which was reaching a fever pitch around the time this song came out. Gigs were getting bigger, outsized only by the egos that were behind them. And this not to mention the money involved. Yet, this song suggests that it’s not any of that which really matters. What does matter is the moment of recognition that the greater culture acknowledges, even for an instant, that what you’ve done has had an impact. This is the essence of fame, to be tasted only once in quite this same way.

Midnight Train to Georgia – Gladys Knight & the Pips

Gladys Knight & the Pips I've Got to Use My ImaginationWhere there are times when fame comes too late, there are quite a few more instances of fame not coming at all to those who seek it, despite their talent. In this tale of a man crushed by disappointment, and the woman who stays by his side anyway, fame is something that is no longer an option “proving too much for the man” and driving him homeward. Such is the tale of many who travel from far flung locations to the Big City, seeking fame and riches that may or may not exist in the way they are promised. This song is about the dark side of the rock myth about the boy from the country who makes good as a star. Sometimes, Johnny B. Goode just isn’t good enough.

But in Gladys Knight’s song, we don’t hear from the man himself, but from the one who has come to love him, with a hint that she has established some success, yet choosing to “live in his world (rather than living) without him in mine.” To this, fame pales in comparison to the greater forces of love and sacrifice. So, in the end this is a hopeful song, when success is defined by the two in question, which of course is the sucess of the best kind.

“Midnight Train to Georgia” from the I’ve Got To Use My Imagination album was Gladys Knight & the Pips biggest hit, after a string of chart showings when they were a Motown act from 1966 to 1973. This tune was the group’s only number one hit, their debut on the Buddah label.

Life’s Been Good – Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh But Seriously FolksWhen you really think about it, the mega-successful musician’s life can very easily fall into the realm of cliche. After all, what is it that these guys are getting paid to do exactly? Make up songs, sing them, and get what? Summer homes? Masseratis that do 185? Groupies? Drugs? Gold records for wallpaper? When you reduce fame like this to it’s bare essentials, it sounds absurd. And that’s what Joe Walsh does so brilliantly here; a song about stunted emotional development traded in for a life of leisure, perhaps half-joking, but then again perhaps not. The tune was a big radio hit in 1978, taken from Walsh’s solo album But Seriously, Folks…

Walsh was a late joiner to the Eagles, who were massive upon his arrival as well as before it. Before that, he’d forged a reputation in James Gang, as well as in a series of concurrent solo albums. He knew a thing or two about the fame game enough to write a song that reveals something of its true nature. And what you get in this song, underneath the vignettes of rock star excess, is that the narrator of the tune is lost and not in control of his own circumstances. Beneath the humour and the joviality of the laid back rock star is a hint that the narrator is only reacting to the forces in his life, not creating them. Fame has made him a bit player in the story of his own life.

Big Time – Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel SoThere is an old proverb that says that “success is the best revenge”. Getting out of the small town you’re in, maybe changing your accent, and getting a new life is the goal of a lot of people. And sometimes, escaping one’s origins becomes a full-time job, making sure that there are enough props in one’s life to ensure that the true root of one’s identity is not seen as having not evolved from that which they once were. This is the underlying element in this 1986 song about the shallowness of success and fame found on Peter Gabriel’s smash record So

‘Overcompensation’ would be a great alternate title for this song, exquisitely damning of pop star hubris and greed, two watchwords of the 1980s me generation which was the degradation of baby boom idealism. This is a story of a big shot who attempts to distance himself from the small town in which he was raised, where “they think so small/they use small words/but not me; I’m smarter than that” by means of displays of fame, success, and material wealth. Yet once again, reaching the Big Time here ultimately comes down to the ridiculous, the downright childish, the juvenile “look at my circumstance!” cry of attention. This is a conclusion of fame for those of dubious self-esteem; that fame becomes little more than a means to an end, with that end getting lost in the noise of self-promotion and crass materialism.

Handle With Care – The Travelling Wilburys

Traveling WilburysFor many, fame is not something to be sought, but rather something to be survived. The Travelling Wilburys was a composite of several branches in rock’s family tree, from Sun Records veteran Roy Orbison, to 60s icons Bob Dylan and George Harrison, to the kid brother figures in ELO’s Jeff Lynne, and of course Tom Petty. All of them had been through the grind of what it means to achieve, and be saddled with the burdens of being known wherever they went. Harrison had survived Beatlemania. Dylan was still trying to shake off his “voice of a generation” millstone, and the others too had known the rigours of the road and all of the instabilities that life brings. And this is why this tune, which sounds like a form letter to be filled out by new friends and lovers for people in the position of our Wilbury heroes. The very fact that each of these ‘legends’ took on stage names for this record and the one to follow, made it somewhat of a one-finger salute to their own images, or the images many had of them. And because these are legends at work here, this song is believable in that loneliness and weariness is as much a part of fame as riches and glory.

The song was the lead track from the 1988 album Traveling Wilburys , Vol. 1 a project which started out as a B-side to a George Harrison single, and blossomed into an entire record made by friends and contemporaries who wanted to bring the music back down to earth. And on this tune, we get Harrison’s trademark slide playing, Dylan’s wheezy harmonica, Orbison’s operatic tenor, and more delights for which each member had made their fame. Yet this was about making music in spite of fame, rather than because of it.

Deception – Blackalicious

Blackalicious NiaThe temptations of fame and the dangers surrounding them all have one thing in common – pursuing them means abandoning the pursuit of finding out who one is. In this tune, taken from the album Nia the lead character Cysco is hoodwinked by fame, distracted by its promises to the point where his own identity is subsumed in pursuit of it. A perennial question to the newly rich is “will the money change me”? And it’s the terminally honest person who responds “how could it not”?

Yet, in the hip hop world, nothing is more valued than the strength of character it takes to manage the burdens of sucess, while at the same time staying true to one’s roots too – spending money, yet not being spent. In this story, the character loses his way in a labyrinth of materialism, dependence, and egotism. The result is inevitable – that fame turns on the unwary, and that where it’s possible to shoot to the top, it is even more likely that one will plummet to the bottom from such great heights.


Fame is a conundrum. The only way you know it’s worth it or not is to attain it. And then, you take your chances. It is a volatile cocktail of glory, immortality, and untold danger that few have not at least thought about. And yet, the pursuit of fame often leads many to places of either profound disappointment, or stifling solitude, not truly being able to share themselves because of how fame tends to blur the view to the true identity of those who are associated with it. Yet, despite it’s untamed nature, we as a culture are obsessed with it, so much so that fame isn’t necessarily attached to achievement anymore. Now, one just has to be perceived as famous in order to gain it, perhaps even when the more deserving of public recognition toil in obscurity. But, like life, and the animal kingdom, no one said it was fair.

10 Songs About Music

MusicAmerican author and social critic Kurt Vonnegut was famous for his pessimistic view of the world, particularly its cruel absurdities which often defines it. But, the one thing which made him consider the possibility of God was music. He said:

“Let this be my epitaph; The only proof that he needed for the existence of God was music.” (more from the source of this quote here…)

It’s hard to argue with the fact nature of music, which seems to have a remarkable effect on people of all ages, cultures, religions, and genetic make-ups, has something of the divine about it. Of all the arts, music seems to be the most universal; not everyone can appreciate Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Rudolf Nureyev, or the Marx Brothers. But, everyone likes some form of music; some people even make their living at it. And among some of these, many have dedicated songs in tribute to music itself, or how certain music has inspired them.

So, here are 10 songs about music, the mysterious force that makes a few black dots on a page become a key to the meaning of life itself. Here are 10 tributes to organized sound, to words and melodies, to the voices of gods and goddesses, priests and priestesses, who evoke that life force to enrich the lives of everyone who has ears to hear it. Here’s to music!

Image courtesy of RossinaBossio

Sweet Soul Music – Arthur Conley

Arthur Conley Sweet Soul MusicOne of the things which makes music so vital is that it creates heroes out of those who deliver the best. Arthur Conley celebrates his contemporaries in this 1967 classic cut which immortalizes James Brown, Lou Rawls, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and other proponents of sweet soul music. Conley was under the guidance of Redding when he cut this track along with the album Sweet Soul Music which shared the title of his hit. The song itself is an unadorned tribute to the music, acknowledging his heroes and the heroes of his own fans. There are few tunes to match the passion for one’s own contemporaries. It’s as if Conley knew that soul music was enjoying a golden age, with the best of the best at the heights of their powers.

Unfortunately, Otis Redding would die the year this song came out – a crushing blow to the southern soul sound which would mark the beginning of the end of this particular chapter in the history of soul. As always, the music would evolve and transform to a new era in the next decade. But, this song remains as a record to just how vital it was when soul giants like Sam Cooke and Redding ruled the roost.

Dance to the Music – Sly & The Family Stone

Sly & The Family Stone Greatest HitsMusic made up of important elements that make it greater than the sum of its parts. Sylvester Stewart, otherwise known as Sly Stone captured this idea in his 1968 anthem to the power of music “Dance to the Music”, with each voice and sound from his group The Family Stone throwing in to create the celebratory sound of a song dedicated to a groove. The tune is taken from the album of the same name, Dance to the Music, but has also appeared on their first Greatest Hits compilation as a centerpiece to the band’s very identity. This song was made at a time when interracial bands were still fairly rare, and definitely odd to see on national television. So, this mixture of sounds – the organ, the guitar, bassist Larry Graham‘s “bottom”, and the ever-present “voices” – was more than just the working parts to a song. The other level here is the idea the combinations of notes and sounds is a symbol for how people can work together, even if they’re from different sides of the tracks.

In this, music is a great social force, a binding force that has the potential to eradicate the unnecessary divisions between people and their communities. Sly & The Family Stone, and many others before them, had gathered an audience made up of black and white, and everyone in between. In this, music is more than just a pleasantry; it is a healing agent in a broken world.

Lady Day and John Coltrane – Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-HeronMusic is a means to provide if not an escape from life, then certainly as a force to inject a little perspective. There is something to be said for anything in one’s life that allows one to catch a glimpse of something inspiring and even therapeutic, and music for many is both. For Gil Scott-Heron, it was the sound of Billie Holiday‘s voice, and John Coltrane’s saxophone. A lot of Scott-Heron’s work is centred around social ills and the state of the inner city, and it’s clear that he is a songwriter with a certain weight on his shoulders. Yet this tune, taken from his album Pieces of a Man, and also featured on the compilation album Ghetto Style, Scott-Heron views music as a place of solace and comfort, and encourages us the listener to do the same.

Gil Scott-Heron has made no secret of his love for Coltrane, particularly A Love Supreme, which is looked upon by many as Coltrane’s masterpiece. Although Scott-Heron’s work emphasizes social justice and reform, this tune is an ode to the restorative powers of music in one’s life, a counterbalance to the efforts to transform the world in a political sense. In this way, the joy to be found in music is the engine to making joy a reality in the lives of others. And it helps us to give us balance so that we can continue in our efforts to push forward the things which are just as central to our identities. Music has a spiritual dimension. It is important, potent, and life-giving. It is not to be dismissed.

Sir Duke – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of LifeAnother thing which music has the power to do is to tie people together with a sense of common history. In Stevie Wonder’s case, it was the jazz of the big band era, which was music he grew up with. In particular, this song is dedicated to the immortal Duke Ellington after which this song was named. Ellington had passed away in 1974, two years before this song, and the album off of which it comes – Songs in the Key of Life – was released. This is Stevie’s tribute to a man who added to the American experience, specifically the black American experience, by excelling in the form, and by taking talent and using it to create something communal and life-giving. In this, the song is also about how visceral music can be, that it affects people in a spiritual way, but also in a bodily way too – “they can feel all over” because “music is a world within itself/it’s a language we all understand”, says Stevie in this song which was a major hit for him in 1976 and one of many for which he is best known.

Between 1971 and 1976, Stevie Wonder enjoyed a purple patch of songwriting and performance which lifted him out of his role as a writer and singer on the Motown label into the sonic auteur that he was always meant to be. His run of albums from this period – from Where I’m Coming From onward to Songs in the Key of Life – is an incomparable burst of creativity that is at the top of the tree of any genre. This tune is as much a tribute to Wonder’s own talent and dedication to a form of expression of which he was a unique voice as it is to the masters of the past which he celebrating here.

Rock n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution – AC/DC

AC/DC Back in BlackBands like AC/DC were pretty self-aware all around. They know that the kind of music they were making was not well-loved by everyone, particularly the parents of their fans. How times have changed, when I can see a 14 year old kid today wearing an AC/DC T-shirt, knowing he may well have become a fan by flipping through his parents record collection. But, in 1980 when the breakthrough album Back in Black came out, rock n’ roll of this kind was still viewed through eyes narrowed by suspicion and contempt, at least from the point of view of the older generation. “Rock n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is a reaction against its critics, revealing that the music is what it is, and with an affect that is undeniable on many whether one cares to admit it or not. Rock n’ roll is nothing if it isn’t a celebratory flip of the bird to anyone with a complaint. “If it’s too loud”, the proverb says, “you’re too old.”

The fact that this song is the closer to an album which is a tribute to a fallen comrade in former lead singer Bon Scott who died in the back of a London cab after effectively drinking himself to death makes it all the more celebratory and rebellious. It can be argued that the engine of the record, and of this song, is the giant ‘fuck you’ to death itself to which it owes its existence. And that is the kind of power that music brings, criticism or no; out of death comes new life, sometimes with a Gibson SG guitar in hand and wearing a schoolboy’s outfit.

When Smokey Sings – ABC

ABC Alphabet CityMusic is a means of elevation. This can be in the sense that the experience of life is heightened when music is enjoyed, but it also means that those who do the best at bringing it to you gain the stature of hero and demigod – just like those listed in Arthur Conley’s song, although that tune was more about the admiration of his contemporaries. This song by Sheffield’s ABC is the voice of the worshipers to one such demigod of soul music; William “Smokey” Robinson, one of the key architects of Motown and a unique voice in pop music all in one package. While Motown became the Sound of Young America in the 60s, by the 70s and early 80s, Motown fans in Britain had formed bands of their own, utilizing the sounds associated with it for their own music, while venerating its key figures too, like Smokey.

ABC was one such group, known for the same approach to pop-soul music as crafted by Smokey Robinson and his contemporaries. And this song, taken from the group’s 1987 album Alphabet City, is a big “thank you” to those who came before them having made the music which inspired a generation to make music of their own. This is a pure expression of a love for the music, with plenty of affection left over for the man as well. Note the bona fide shrine depicted in the video – that may be a bit on the cheeky side, but there is an element of truth in there too.

Walking in Memphis – Marc Cohn

Marc CohnTo continue with the idea of music as something associated with divine, music draws pilgrims to its sites of origin, just as many religions draw pilgrims to places like Mecca and Lourdes. One such place is Memphis, Tennessee which is the city where, many argue, rock n’ roll was born. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Rufus Thomas, B.B King, and many others found a base in Memphis, where the recording industry and popular venues were hungry for new sounds that had the potential to draw communities together. This was an area where steps were being taken to create something good during a time known for tensions, and often out and out violence, between said communities – all while making a little money too, of course. Marc Cohn’s 1991 song from his self-titled debut album Marc Cohn is a trace of that history and what it means to the narrator, the portrait of someone following the footsteps of history in the “ghost of Elvis” who takes him as far as the gates of Graceland before passing through them and disappearing.

One of my favourite parts of the song is when the narrator is talking about singing gospel songs at the piano, and being asked by one of the participants if he’s a Christian. The response is perfect: “I am tonight”. This speaks volumes of how moving music can be, that being connected to others by performing for and with those people, singing with them, or enjoying a performance, has transforming power which is undeniable. It becomes spiritual – a communion, in fact.

Music: Response – The Chemical Brothers

The Chemical Brothers SurrenderA lot of traditional music is centred around dance, possibly because it is the most communal thing one can do – let loose and move to music together. I think this is what is behind club culture, which replaces the religious rites of dancing together to evoke spirits. Now, we dance together to evoke a communal spirit between people – and for other reasons which have less to do with spirit, perhaps. Yet either way, music is at the centre of it all. And this is what the Chemical Brothers do so well – create an environment, a groove, a set of conditions to make the crowd move as one, to make each person feel as though they are a small yet important part of an unstoppable whole. This is what their track “Music:Response”, taken from the 1999 album Surrender captures best – music as a collective activity, enjoyed in community not unlike a religious ceremony.

In this tune, there is no need to explain the effect that music has to illicit a response. That truth is self-evident, and best experienced live. In this genre, the central figures are not the stars; they’re more like technicians or, to be more florid perhaps, midwives. What is born out of the mixing, the sequencing, the sampling is what counts. As such, for sheer experience, this is as pure as it gets when it comes to how visceral music can be, especially when experiencing it with a large crowd.

Heavy Metal Drummer – Wilco

Wilco Yankee Hotel FoxtrotOften, the music of our youth is remembered like the soundtrack to our time in the garden of Eden; memorable, joyous, and innocent. It’s when we’re young that our passions first take a hold of us, and that makes the passions themselves as much a part of our very identities as we get older. For the narrator in Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”, taken from the band’s 2002 album (and arguably their masterpiece) yankee hotel foxtrot, the sound of paradise was the heavy metal bands he saw at summer festivals as they played KISS covers “beautiful and stoned”.

This is not just about the music itself. It’s where the music has the ability to take us – to places and times when we could appreciate the simplicity of things, the innocence, without all of the weight which often comes along with such things as we get older. What is missed in this song then is what the music evokes – a time when innocence reigned. And music has a keen quality to it which allows us to do this easily. There is something about it which connects us to the best part of our past, a force that lends life a cohesion, and a sense of continuity, which nothing else can do for us in the same way.

Hip Hop is Dead – Nas featuring Will.I.Am

Nas Hip Hop is DeadIt’s been established by now that the music we’ve come to hold dear, that is in fact ours, is more than just a pleasant diversion in our lives. For some, it means a basis for identity, and as such their is a certain loyalty placed in the music we love, and those who make it. For hip hop artist Nas, in this title track taken from the 2006 album Hip Hop Is Dead, there is a responsibility to the music which artists have to make it better, and to protect its place in our lives as something which it is supposed to be – a force for expression and transformation.

On this track, which is one of many on the record which looks at hip hop as more than just a genre and more like a cultural legacy, Nas and guest rapper Will.I.am look at a possible future without the music. The video in particular is an Orwellian vision of underground hip-hop fans, keeping the flame of the music alive. In the rap itself, the criticism is aimed at the artists who cowtow to the powers that be, or to their own egos, those who wish to water down the purity of expression that hip hop makes possible through commercialism and neutered imaging. The violence expressed in the track is about the frustration around the fact that this may be where things are going. Yet for me it’s the lines in the last verse that resonate most:

“…we here for life B/On my second marriage, hip hop’s my first wifey/And for that we not takin’ it lightly/If hip hop should die we die together”.

In this song, the music, identity, and life are intertwined. Whether one genre makes sense to you or not, surely this is a universal idea. We love our music because in many ways, it’s part of who we are and how we understand the world.


A bunch of sounds, sometimes with words attached. At some point, someone throws some little black dots on the page to represent it. And that’s a song. Oh, and there’s also the huge infusion of wonder, of spiritual energy, raw emotion, and some ineffable quality that makes certain songs in our lives mean everything, tying us to the threads of our lives. That’s not something to dismiss. And in my view, that means that those who bring the best in it, or are meant to, have charge over a vital aspect of the human experience.

10 Songs About Work

Punch clockGet a job. Work hard for the money, 9 to 5. Take this job and shove it. Popular song has a lot to say when it comes to the daily grind, it seems. Many of the most famous songs about work being in the rock n’ roll tradition look on “working for the man every night and day” as being antithetical to the goals of freedom and rebellion on which the values of rock n’ roll are traditionally based. And maybe this is because “takin’ care of business” in the Bachman-Turner Overdrive sense means being able to dream of the possibilities that work need not be as demoralizing as all of that. Yet, there are scores of songs about working, toiling, and sometimes just making do, which resonate with us because scratching to get by is a reality for most people.

The very act of hearing someone sing about how work can kill you is strangely liberating, which is maybe why the work song became such a standard way for slaves in the American southern plantations, and later sharecroppers, to deal with the hardships of their lives spent toiling in the fields – that is until that intolerable situation, and new songs, inspired them to take on the new job of getting free.

There is a certain sense that song is the secret world which no heartless boss can ever touch. Here are 10 of them, framed by the idea that jobs or the pursuit of them can get you down, steal your time, take your energy. But singing about it, and listening to someone else sing sometimes makes it easier to know you’re not alone. Making connections and staying connected are what we’re really after, and when work stops us from getting there, popular song has helped us to document the consequences.

above image courtesy of Philon.

Summertime Blues – Eddie Cochran

Eddie Cochran Summertime BluesThe mission of early rock n’ roll records was clear – give teens a voice (after all, they’re the ones buying the records…). And no song better embodies the core message of that mission quite like Eddie Cochran‘s “Summertime Blues”, a tale of a young slogger who is caught in a series of parentally and economically driven catch-22 situations. Borrow the car? Sure, but you have to work to earn the privilege. But, I want the car so that I can go out, so I’ve taken the night off. Really? No car then, junior. Aw, gee Dad! I think I’d better take this to a higher power – the U.N! Sorry, son; you’re too young to vote. Of all the luck – what’s a boy to do?

This is a fantastic youth anthem recorded in 1958 by Cochran which actually speaks to pretty much anyone who feels the pinch of needing money, and having to work to earn that money to the degree that you don’t have time or energy (or indeed the money you’ve earned!) to spend on anything else. And in the era it was written, when the idea of the teenager as a social group was still a pretty new one, the song must have seemed like a manifesto in striking out against The Man. In fact, it would be covered memorably by proto-metal band Blue Cheer in a particularly ferocious take on the song in the next decade, taking out Cochran’s lightheartedness in favour of bringing out the rage. The Who also performed it at the Monterey Pop Festival, later at Woodstock, and later still on their Live at Leeds album in very much in the same spirit as the Blue Cheer version. More recently, it was recorded by Rush, adding considerable scope of the song’s span of influence, not to mention the sentiments behind it, across the decades and across genres.

Working in a Coal Mine – Lee Dorsey

Lee Dorsey Working in a Coal MineThe theme of the catch-22 when it comes to working to live, not living to work is recurring in popular song. Here in Lee Dorsey‘s 1966 signature hit “Working in a Coal Mine”, which hides a lot of anguish underneath a celebratory arrangement, we get the portrait of someone who is not only feeling oppressed by their job, but is also in constant danger because of the nature of the work. Much like in Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” which is also about the hopelessness of the coal miner, the protagonist here is eaten up by the obligations of having to work a job which takes all energy which would otherwise be spent having a good time on his off hours. Coal mining here takes on a double meaning; going down, down, down is a physical thing, but also a spiritual one too. In this song, the daily grind is like a life sentence.

It’s interesting that this song is such a rollicking, good-time tune about someone who doesn’t have time, or energy for what the music promises, due to a crushed spirit. Backed here by the Meters and aided and abetted by fellow New Orleans musical figure Allen Toussaint, the melody and rhythm of the song is an infectiously joyous experience. Yet lyrically, it’s full of hopelessness which acts against the jauntiness of the tune . No wonder the post-punks of the late 70s and early 80s loved it, and Dorsey, so much since the tension between lyrical content and the classic pop melody was such a big part of the new wave approach. The song would be covered by new wave outfit Devo in the early 80s. Dorsey himself, like Bo Diddley before him, would tour with the Clash before his death from emphysema in 1986.

Witchita Lineman – Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell Witchita LinemanIn some cases, work can really help you focus on what is most important to you. Yet sometimes, it can consume your life rather than just provide a means of sustaining it. Doing a job can often mean using it to avoid other things in one’s life, like being connected to others and embracing love. Or, it can simply prove to be a distraction when we’re thinking about the more life-changing aspects of our lives; often the mundaneness of work routines provides an escape hatch to making the real decisions in our lives with the illusion that our jobs are the things which define us, not our relationships or even our character.

Glen Campbell’s 1968 recording of this song by composer Jimmy Webb of “MacArthur Park” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” fame, evokes a man at work not at a job which is particularly dangerous or oppressive, so much as one which is ultimately defined by how isolating it is. “Witchita Lineman” is a song about someone who is dedicated to his work, yet always alone, ironically the one to ensure that others are able to literally stay connected. This disconnectedness is a central theme, hearing the one he loves “through the whine”, distracted by his duties and unable to pull himself away. One may get the impression that the Lineman, who has no other name or identity, will always be “still on the line”, out on a lonely Midwest plain, and connected to no one.

King Harvest (Has Surely Come) – The Band

The BandTo many, work is not just the pursuit of a career, it is literally life and death. This is particularly true when we’re talking about the disappearing family farm, and old-fashioned dependence on the earth itself to provide success, or doom efforts to failure. By the turn of the century, the plight of the farmer created the need to organize into unions in order to consolidate the efforts of entire communities, to avoid the isolation faced by many farmers up until that point.

The Band regularly mined the richness of North American history to tell tales of common people and their struggles – Virgil Kane in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, Ragtime Willy from “Rocking Chair”, the migrant droves of francophone refugees from “Acadian Driftwood”, just to name a few. In this song, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” from their self-titled sophomore album in 1969, we get the first person view of a farmer who turns to the power of the union to empower him in an uncertain profession. Work here is about protecting one’s livelihood at any cost, aligning oneself to something greater in order to weather the storms of uncertainty attached to taking your living from the ground.

Listen to singer/pianist Richard Manuel’s lead vocal on this one – a key example of a singer who brings out the character in the song’s first-person voice, like a stage actor who wins your sympathy by the strength of their commitment to the material. Add to that the musicianship of the others, and you’ve got one of the group’s most powerful tracks. Incredible!

I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work – Tom Waits

Tom Waits Small ChangeMuch like the Band, Tom Waits also provided portraits of characters common to American myth in his songs. But instead of sepia-toned historical settings and rural characters, Waits made those who inhabited the city after sunset his reference points, particularly in the first half of his career; the denizens of a seedy, unadorned nightlife of after-hours bars, cafés, and strip joints. The pathos found in Wait’s collection of hard-boiled, urban characters is what makes his work so vital. The yearnings of humanity found in his tale of a lonely late-night worker found in “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work” still center around connecting with others, and finding that the mundane tasks of a job taken to pay for a life with another are becoming intrusive to that life.

The song is taken from his 1976 album Small Change, arguably his best collection of songs recorded during his “barfly” phase. Waits’ grizzled vocal adds to the atmosphere of the after-hours work environment, cleaning up after those who have been out for a good time, and yearning to leave it all in favour of the loving arms of someone waiting at home. There is a sweetness about this song, and rough-around-the-edges tenderness which has the power to turn even the hardest boss’ heart into melted honey.

Car Wash – Rose Royce

Car WashOne thing that working a job that could be considered “dead end” is that sometimes the connections with others that are so important in any circumstance can come about through sharing a situation like this too. Dead end jobs which bring people of various backgrounds together often provide something that is often the thing which pulls us through in any scenario – friendship and camaraderie due to a shared struggle. This song by Rose Royce is the theme song to a 1976 film Car Wash written by Joel Schumacher (of all people!), with musical direction from Motown’s Norman Whitfield. It’s arguable maybe, but the title song tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the movie, with goof-offs, would-be stars, and Indian chiefs aplenty!

I’ve always liked this song, with the funk-infused disco beat undulating under Rose Norwalt’s androgynous-yet-sexy lead vocal. The soundtrack to the film is kind of a curio piece in many ways, placed as it is between the blaxploitation era and the disco era of Saturday Night Fever. It uses the best sounds of each era to make working at the Car Wash almost preferable to anything, never mind ditch-digging. C’mon y’all, and sing it with me…

To Have and Have Not – Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg Life's a Riot With Spy vs SpyThe message “stay in school” has been a popular slogan for the importance of education. But in Billy Bragg’s 1983 song “To Have and Have Not”, which is taken from one of his earliest releases Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy, “stay in school” may also have other connotations – that in school, you’re the top of your class, while outside, you’re “top of the scrap heap”. This is the point of view of the disillusioned young person out of school, promised a career after working hard there, yet ultimately finding no reward in the working world. Bragg was speaking here in the context of Thatcher-era Britain, which many in the working classes remember as being a time of union-smashing and economic repression among depressed areas of the country which traditionally relied on natural resource and manufacturing jobs which were rapidly disappearing.

Billy Bragg called himself “the One-Man Clash”, actually operating more like a Bob Dylan with an electric-guitar from the Essex district of Barking. His music would incorporate what many would consider to be ideas associated with left-wing, pro-union politics. He has been quoted as saying that he was not a natural political writer, but that his government at the time he began to promote himself as a songwriter had encroached so negatively on his life to the degree that his approach was clear.

Love On a Farmboy’s Wages – XTC

XTC Love on a Farmboy's WagesThis song could very well have been added to my 10 Love Songs Without Cheese list, in that this is a song about putting everything one has into love, including work. At least, that’s one interpretation. In this song, taken from XTC’s 1984 album Mummer, it’s easy to swap out the idea of a poor rural worker gathering the funds to marry his true love with pretty much any specialized profession like, say, a songwriter in an under-promoted cult rock/pop band like XTC. This song is another one which talks about work as a means to an end, but with inhospitable return which becomes intrusive to that end. Soon, doing”the only job I do well” becomes a force which, according to our Farmboy hero, is “breaking my back”. Maybe Partridge wrote this song as a simple love song. But, I suspect that there is more to it than that.

The band were never satisfied with their lot when it came to their record company at the time. In fact, it came to a point that, after their 1992 Nonsuch album, they went on what Partridge called “a strike” for seven years, meaning that they held back releasing new material until they were let out of their contract. Could this song be an earlier attempt to communicate their frustration with the record company who didn’t support their releases or promote them as a group? I think it’s entirely possible. If so, this is more a protest song rather than a love song. But, whatever the motivation, this song has always struck me as coming from someone who loves their work – “Shilling for the fellow who brings the sheep in/shilling for the fellow who milks the herd/Shilling for the fellow with the wife for keeping…” – yet knows that he will never be rewarded in the way that he feels he should.

We Work the Black Seam – Sting

Sting The Dream of the Blue TurtlesWorking life, like other aspects of life, is in constant motion in terms of how work is done and by whom, a lot of the time driven by technology. This song which is taken from Sting’s 1985 debut solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles comes from the point of view of the industrial worker who finds the life he’s come to know is slowly fading from view with the onset of technology with a pointer to a future when all life may come to an end because of it. There is an undercurrent here that our innovations in technology which are meant to make life easier ends up making it harder for many, and less predictable when we think about where it may take us. There are some good old-fashioned 1980s fear of nuclear power sentiments here – a means to provide the “cheap and clean” energy down to “machines that we can’t control”.

In this song, people are forgotten, the ‘grimy faces’ that are ‘never seen’, well-hidden while agendas are pushed forward without their input. This song is about a lack of control, and the inability to control one’s own destiny. Beyond the fears of technology for technology sake, the real undercurrent here is the lack of contact and communication between people to set a plan for the greater good, which should be the real objective of work in a healthy society. This is the picture of people being dehumanized, and the results that are born out of trying to make short cuts to prosperity on the backs of others. I don’t think Sting is rewriting the Communist Manifesto here. But I do think that he’s discussing the gap between economic and social progress as needing to be inclusive of all that feed it, rather than making such persons among the faceless.

Bright Future in Sales – Fountains of Wayne

Fountains of Wayne Welcome Interstate ManagersFinding one’s self in a job that we hate is a pretty common experience. And in this song by Fountains of Wayne, taken from their 2003 album Welcome Interstate Managers, we get the story of a burnt-out sales manager who is beginning to realize that the lifestyle associated with his chosen profession is slowly killing him in more ways than one. Adrift in a haze of business lunches, airport bars, and alcoholic misadventure, our hero is a man barely hanging on, losing numbers to “brand new accounts”, and trying to figure out his computer and what “all the little flashing lights mean”. And the theme of disconnectedness runs through this song as wel. This time, the narrator is disconnected from his own true ambitions, caught in the inertia of what he feels he’s meant to be pursuing, instead of what he actually wants to pursue.

The bright future in sales that is spoken of here is ironic in that it’s clear that any bright future for this guy is worlds apart from the path he’s on. And while the trials of a job that is beginning to consume him may be a pretty strong force to keep him where he’s going just by sheer inertia , what he does have is one thing which many in his situation do not – self-awareness. He knows exactly what he needs to do – “get my shit together” – and why he needs to do it – “’cause I can’t live like this forever”. In this there is always hope that the world of work which is not suited to the worker, and which keeps that person disconnected from themselves and to others need not be a life sentence.


Work; we all complain about it, but we all have to do it. And judging from many of these songs, one might think that work is the enemy of happiness. But, this is too simple to be true, like most important things. One thing I’ve discovered personally is that for all of the challenging or even unpleasant things I’ve had to do while working, I’ve pulled out a number of weapons in my personal arsenal which I didn’t think I even had. And, I’ve been able to use a lot of what I’ve learned in my career and apply it to my life – commnunicating better, managing a schedule better, and thinking about how best to use resources better as well. And with regard to these songs, most of them are pretty hopeful in the end, because they are about people on this very same curve – under seige, and learning to deal with what reality throws at them.

Ultimately, songs are snapshots of life which reflect little shards of our own lives at times, which is why I think they’re so powerful. I think the Seven Dwarves had it right when they sang “Whistle While You Work” – songs remind you that reality isn’t that one sided either, and that what makes them such binding forces is that they reflect common experience. there is more than just comedy in hearing someone sing “take this job and shove it”. There is good, old-fashioned catharsis and empathy too.

How’s that for a bottom line?

10 Songs About Getting Older

Photo: Alexander Bolotnov

However young and agile we are, there will come a time when both youth and vitality will fade. There’s no way around it, people. We’re getting older.

There is a process of coming to terms with one’s own sense of mortality which hits everyone sooner or later. Usually, this comes out in the form of shifting perspectives on the nature of life and might also have an element of reflecting over times past in ones’ own life to discover what remains to be truly valuable, and what doesn’t. Often too there are feelings of regret, maybe because of the fact that the marrow of life could have been more enthusiastically relished during one’s youth. Sometimes people make embarrassing attempts to compensate for burgeoning age with sports cars and affairs with younger partners. Sometimes, we end up feeling that we’re just doing time.

Even when we’re young, we think about what it will be like to be grown up, and free of the shackles of school and home life with our parents. And there are moments even in childhood, where it suddenly feels silly to still be thinking about ‘kid stuff’, realizing that our interests suddenly and mysteriously lie elsewhere.

Everyone is aging, even now, no matter how old they happen to be. And once again, popular song steps in as vehicle for these kinds of thoughts common to all, young and old. Here are 10 songs about growing up, getting on, growing old.

above image courtesy of snlash.

Puff the Magic Dragon – Peter, Paul & Mary

Peter, Paul, and MaryThis is a classic children’s song about childhood and the nature of growing up. The song is a folk favourite, a story of a boy and his dragon, which is really a metaphor for childhood itself. There is a certain melancholy here, a sadness that when a child gets to be of a certain age where the once cherished silliness and imagination of childhood become sources of embarrassment, or simply get pushed aside due to developing interests in other areas of life, something about that child which had been so intrinsic to their personalities becomes less easily seen. In some cases, it disappears entirely. This to me is what this song is about; that as we grow, we add to our own experiences and pick up treasures along the way. But, much which is just as valuable is often lost too.

Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version is probably the most famous. I wonder if in this context, that the song couldn’t be applied to the changing times of the 1960s, the era in which it was first recorded by the group. Even if times were getting better in many ways with civil rights and the women’s movement, there must have also been an aspect that a nation was losing its innocence too, with the Norman Rockwell world of America slowing slipping into the aspect of a myth, even to those who held it up as fact. Maybe in this context, this version of the song was meant to soothe the thought that change was a threat, and not just a part of a nation’s maturity.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice – The Beach Boys

I remember being very young and wondering what it would be like to be a grown-up. One of the key thoughts I had was fairly common, I guess; that grown-ups are free to do whatever they want. I think Brian Wilson was hinting at this with his paean to teenage love, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” from the landmark Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. The idealized vision of adulthood here is about romance, a time when goodnight kisses on the porch wouldn’t be the end, but would rather be a start to life together. In this song, age is hoped for because it allows the narrator to believe that there will be a time when one is free of obligation, and is also free to live the way one feels life should be lived with the ideal partner.

This song could well have gone on my 10 Songs of Optimism list, of course. Love and marriage are not that simple, and with some freedoms won, there are many more obligations and responsibilities which come with those freedoms. Yet, this song even when it was written was not about that perspective; it is about capturing the essence of how it feels to be young, hopeful, and hungry for the future in the same way many yearn for the past. Being together in a partnership with someone you love and who loves you is what defines freedom in this song. If only we could retain this child-like wisdom, when our connections with those we love are often taken for granted.

Changes – David Bowie 

David Bowie Hunky DorySometimes, the young are very much aware of the passage of time, just because such awareness is made pretty evident by what was once called the “generation gap“.  This was a phenomenon mostly centered around the 60s and early 70s, when the social norms of parents and those of their children were so disparate that it made it seem like one generation thought the other had gone “a bit mental”, to use the psychological term.  So, it wasn’t just that people were getting older, the whole world was, culturally speaking.  Morality, gender roles and identities, sexuality, and many other areas of life were all being revised and experimented with by the baby boomers.  And like a lot of times of growth, or in times of such experimentation which leads to it, it was a painful period for many.

David Bowie’s 1971 song “Changes” from his superlative Hunky Dory album touches on this phenomenon, among others.  If anyone could talk about change, it was Bowie, who experimented with personas, and cast them aside just as easily as they suited his purposes.  Another thing he touches on of course is that “time may change me, but I can trace time”.  Once again, personal history here is a powerful force, even if the past is pushed aside to make way for a self-determined future.  And he leaves us with a musical warning to those who think that things will last forever  – “Look out you rock n’ rollers/pretty soon now, you’re gonna get older…”.

Hey Nineteen – Steely Dan

Steely Dan GauchoThere is an odd paradox which often happens as one gets to the point where they reckon their lives are half over. There is a drive to recapture youth by embracing it in the form of a younger lover. Yet, when the pursuit of this bears fruit, it’s often realized that the attempt to recapture youth by entering into a tryst with someone half of one’s age actually makes one feel even older. That’s what’s happening here in Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”, the biggest hit off of their 1980 Gaucho album.

In this song, all of the cultural reference points the narrator holds dear is completely lost on his 19 year old lover. And there is subtle sadness here, a kind of tragedy maybe either that he is very lonely in not being able to share what is important to her, or that there is a shade of a hint that the person who might have shared his love for “the Queen of Soul“back in the days when he was “the dandy of gamma chi” is long gone, maybe because he never took the time to foster a lasting relationship. Of course, this being Steely Dan, we’re not shown the whole story. This is just a snapshot of an aging philanderer, and his brief flirtation with the idea that his once-charming womanizing is turning him into a cartoon of himself as he gets older. This is one of the many effects the passage of time has on us; it often gives us a kind of clarity which is often not welcome, causing some to retreat even further into self-delusion, and self-parody.

Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody – Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell Wild Things Run FastThey say that parenthood changes everything, and it does. This is often meant as a condemnation, that the wild impetuous things which concerned you when young are instantly swept aside, and middle age and middle class sets in. But in this song by Joni Mitchell originally recorded for her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast, these kinds of things are only part of the story, with the narrator musing on how everything changes in any case, that it’s difficult to make connections when things shift so quickly, and more difficult still as one gets older. In the song, her ‘child’s a stranger’ to her, the children of her former partner-in-crime are ‘growing up straight’, and both ‘look like their mothers did now, when we were those kids age’.

The world which is shifting into the future is becoming more and more alien here. This leads the narrator to think about how it was when she was younger, when songs on the jukebox meant the world, and thoughts of age were as just as alien as the unfolding world will become to her in the present. This song is about how disorienting the passage of time can be, that the wildness and cocksure attitudes one had when young are so easily lost before one knows they’re gone. This is a darker side to the idea that one gains wisdom as one ages. This is more about being tamed than it is by becoming wise. As such, there is an element of tragedy in this song, that somewhere along the line, elements of the narrator’s personality have been misplaced.

This song was re-recorded for Mitchell’s 2002 album Travelogue, with a 70-piece orchestra backing her. So, the song itself has aged, ironically like a fine wine, much like Mitchell’s beautifully coarsened voice.

Cherry Bomb – John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp The Lonesome JubileeMuch like Mitchell’s tune, this is a song about becoming a new person simply by getting older and gaining some new perspectives. Perhaps this is the lighter side to Mitchell’s musings on middle-age, when “17 has turned 35”. You get the impression that in this song, taken from Mellencamp’s 1987 album The Lonesome Jubilee, the narrator is shaking his head in awe at how far he’s come, amazed the “we’re still livin'”. There is a declaration of nostalgia for times past, when “sports were sports” and “groovin’ was groovin'”, a time to be treasured no matter how old one gets, with memories of friends making the best of life by getting into trouble framed here like memories of the garden of Eden. The conflicts of the past are things which can be laughed about as the years roll forward, making light of old rivalries, and also of foolhardy choices.

The last verse of course reveals that the narrator is now a dad himself, still finding that on some days he still has to muddle through his new role, with his children amused at the thought that he was once their age, doing the things which they may well be doing themselves. Because of this, this song is about the irony that the rambling troublemaker now has the responsibilities of an adult, of a father. Sometimes the most important jobs go to some of the most unqualified (on paper at least…) candidates. Yet, perhaps here, the clarity of times past and lessons learned cast a light on the path forward.

Pacing the Cage – Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn Charity of NightLife is busy for the involved; work to do, people to meet, places to see, causes to defend. Bruce Cockburn is one such individual, diversifying his career as a singer-songwriter-guitarist by traveling the globe and investigating socio-political events and the people who are directly affected by them. For all of the activity though, there still appears to be a sense of waiting as described in an earlier song from his 1979 Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws album called ‘Hills of Morning’; “underneath the mask of the sulphur sky/a bunch of us were busy waiting.” Yet in this song from 1997’s Charity of Night the waiting is something he does alone; “Sometimes you feel like you’ve lived too long/days drip slowly on the page/and you catch yourself pacing the cage”.

In this song, it becomes evident that in the flurry of activity which can dominate our lives, it’s easy to find oneself trapped in moments when it feels like those activities become blotted out by an overwhelming sense that one is just running to stand still (as another group of songwriters once put it, although in another sense…). The passage of time only adds to the yearning one feels for knowing the reasons for living, the old-fashioned hunger for the meaning of life. This is prime Cockburn introspection, an attempt to navigate the murkier waters of human experience which only seem to get murkier as time passes. Yet, by the end of the song, he discovers that “sometimes the darkness is your friend”, that mystery and yearning are an intrinsic part of the package.

Help the Aged – Pulp

Pulp This is HardcoreIn many of the songs so far, age is a thing which sneaks up on you; suddenly, you’re older and the world ceases to make sense in the same way that it once did. But in Pulp’s 1998 song from their album This is Hardcore, the realization that the light of youth is constantly dimming is played out by the portrait of someone still relatively young recognizing that the elderly once got up to the things which he and his contemporaries get up to – “drinking, smoking cigs, and sniffing glue”. The song starts out by the the titular request, which seems banal and trite until you realize that the request to help the aged is ultimately about the fear of age, that one day the narrator will need the compassion and sense of dignity which is often lost when one reaches their “sunset years”.

It’s when the song starts talking about this fear of age, that ‘nothing last forever’, that things really take flight. The terror of a young person looking “behind those lines upon their face/you may see where you are headed/and it’s such a lonely place” is palpable, even if the song has a certain levity to it as well. It certainly frames the excesses of youth in a certain light, the embrace of those things which make us forget that we’re not going to stay young forever.

The song’s title is actually a reference to a charitable organization. Help the Aged is a British charity, with chapters all over the world including here in Canada.

John Mayer – Stop This Train

John Mayer ContinuumAs a companion piece to the Pulp song, this tune by John Mayer is a less subtle, less satirical take on the fear of aging. Yet in some ways, it’s a more respectful view of age and the aged in a misplaced sort of way. This is the point of view of one who realises that getting old isn’t for wimps, that it takes guts which he’s not sure he has. Taken from his 2006 album Continuum, the terror of age is not so much about the vanity of youth, but is rather about feeling overwhelmed by the pace of the world, which burns youthful energies at a faster rate than the narrator is prepared for.

When musing on the lyrics of this song, I can’t help but think that the sentiments can be applied to our culture as a whole, that we are plagued by a fear of the future, no longer knowing whether we’ll gain the wisdom to be able to deliver ourselves from the foolishness of history – wars, greed, religious tension, and environmental degradation. In some ways, we have a basis to fear growing older as a species, and it seems that we have a tendency to retreat to mythologised ideas of home to be found somewhere in what we think is the past, while neglecting the work to be done by building the real thing in the present.

Hands of Time – Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith Time BeingA song by Ron Sexsmith, this one from the 2007 release Time Being, is the perfect way to conclude this list, being as it is (like most, if not all, of Sexsmith’s work) rooted in intelligent and respectful optimism. In this song, the reality of age, and of change is not something to be feared, just something to be accepted as it is. The fear of aging, and ultimately of death too, is all-too present in this song as it is in real life. But, here that fear is eradicated by love which is rooted in the here-and-now. The song acknowledges the mercurial nature of time, that “it’s a fool who reaches out to the hands of time”, that the mysteries to be found in the true nature of time are ultimately unreachable. But, that’s not the end of the tale.

What is the emphasis here is what does remain within our grasp; the love of another, the celebration of friendship as we move through the years together, and the liberation from grief by allowing ourselves to say goodbye to those we lose as we get older, finding acceptance in the loss all of those things which pass away as a matter of course. In Sexsmith’s song, it’s the present that counts – the movement of a “snow white hand in mine”, the palpable substance of inhabiting the moment as opposed to worrying about the future.


Time, as the poet Alan Parsons once said, keeps flowing like a river, and we’re left to make of it what we will. This elicits all kinds of human emotions and expressions of character – fear, acceptance, humility, and sometimes even wisdom. All of these states of mind can be found in popular song, each musical example itself often resting in an eddy of time, coated in memories of times past. Yet the kernel of truth can be found in the simple expression that unpredictability and change are the only things we can really count on until we board the Mystery Train, sixteen coaches long. Until then if we’re smart, we hold the hands of those we love, we spend time with our kids and enjoy every stage of their lives, and we keep a sense of perspective that if life is short and youth passes away, then our currency of years is best spent on that which gives us the most joy in the present.

10 Songs About Death

Part of what makes life interesting, and sometimes infuriating and terrifying too, is that we know that someday it’s going to end. This much we can all agree on. Wars are fought over the details of what happens after we die, but ultimately we will face the reality of our own end sooner or later, no matter what we believe it means, or what we think might or might not come after. This of course can be quite a weighty, even morbid, thought. Yet for many, the fact that this story will end someday is part of what adds to its meaning; that our life is not defined by the fact that we’re going to die, but rather is made more valuable in that each moment is precious in its evanescence. Is this too heavy for a simple top ten list? Yes? Fair enough.

How about this. There have been many songs and songwriters over the years which have written about death from various perspectives. Since there’s really no way to nail down the nature of death and what it means in any definitive way, that makes it a pretty fertile area for songwriters to bring forth their bounty of songs about it. Kinda weird that I made a metaphor there about growth and creativity to describe the matter of death? Maybe so. But, many would argue that death is as much a part of the growing process as any other stage. And for songs to be made out of our musings about death perhaps can lend some perspective, if not comfort, to the thoughts about the inevitable.

So, here are 10 songs about the Great Void, the Gateway to the Afterlife, The Big Sleep, The Dirt Nap, served up for your Gothic curiosity, your existential angst, your hopefulness that the shadow death is no reason to stop living. And hopefully out of all this, you’ll discover some cool music too.

See That My Grave is Kept Clean – Blind Lemon Jefferson

There is a balance kept in the early blues tradition, with the carnal world of booze, sex, and riches (or lack thereof) on one end of the scale, and matters of the eternal soul on the other. In Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1928 recording of ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, we get a portrait of a dying man making a request to his loved ones to celebrate his life by being reverent in his death. There is a certain sense of hopelessness here, that the toling bells are those of doom and sadness, and that the hope of redemption, once scoffed at, is now a treasure which is out of reach.

Blind Lemon Jefferson

The song is written in a certain tradition which is linked to the gospel churches, the warning to the living to abide by higher powers before it’s too late to rely on their mercies; ” Well, my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold/Now I believe what the bible told”.

On her 2004 album Have a Little Faith, Mavis Staples recorded a stripped-down version of this song; see the above clip to view a live performance. And where the song itself could be looked upon as being somewhat manipulative, I personally look on it as a reminder to celebrate the little moments in life, the little details, to a greater degree than we’re often allowed in a busy life. Because in the end, it won’t be one’s appointment book which defines what one’s life has meant.

Mystery Train – Elvis Presley

This song is one of a few which defines Elvis Presley’s early career at Sun Records in Memphis. It’s actually a cover version of a song by Junior Parker co-written with Sun producer/owner Sam Phillips and released in 1953. When Elvis recorded the tune in 1956, it was done in the typical slap-back echo production style of rockabilly, which adds to its mysterious atmosphere. This is largely down to Scotty Moore‘s insistent guitar riff, which is as rhythmic as any train moving down the track.

The extra element of the song is the implication that the long, black train which takes the narrator’s loved one is on a one way journey into the unknown, never to return. As such, this is a song of mourning, and a common metaphor for death; a train bound for the Great Mystery.

The song has become a rock n’ roll and pop music standard, covered by such diverse acts as Ricky Nelson, The Band, The Neville Brothers, Dwight Yoakam, and The Soft Boys. It seems that the image of a fearsome, unstoppable train as an image for death resonates across all kinds of genres, eras, and cultures. Yet in Elvis’ version, the train takes loved ones away, but it also delivers them, making it a mixed blessing of sorts that even when loved ones depart, that there going on their own journey elsewhere.

Teen Angel – Mark Dinning

Mark Dinning Teen AngelAt the end of the 1950s and early 60s, there was an odd sub-genre of pop song called the death ballad, or teen death song which usually centered around a tragic accident which separates teen lovers. This could have its roots in the country and western murder ballad, which was also a popular and grisly sub-genre which had been popular in the 20s and 30s. There are a number of songs which can be counted among this sub-genre – ‘Tell Laura I Love Her”, “Dead Man’s Curve”,”Leader of the Pack”, and many others.

Possibly the most maudlin, the most contrived, and manipulative of these is Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel” which is the king of them all, released in 1960. It’s got everything; tragedy, emotive delivery, and (perhaps most importantly) silly choices that the characters in the song make which cause their undoing.

Who knows why this type of song made such an impact. It could be that the tender psyche of early-60s youth was ripe for this kind of thing, fearing the loss of love more so than the loss of life in the years where mortality is something only the elderly are concerned with. This brings out the tendency to look upon death as slightly Romantic (note the big “R”), in that the rule of love is the prime focus here, that not even death can change the power of true love.

There must have been a sense of catharsis at the time which translated to money spent on hit singles by teenagers. Of course now, there are songs about death which teens gobble up with not a whiff of Romanticism in sight. If death is a constant, then everything else sure isn’t when it comes to how we think about it.

And When I Die – Laura Nyro

Laura NyroLaura Nyro was not appreciated by the 60s counterculture, mainly because she was looked upon as a traditionalist which was a capital offence to the turn on, tune-in, and drop out crowd – she was booed when she played the Monterey Pop Festival! Part of what made Nyro’s approach to songwriting world’s apart from that of her contemporaries was that she leaned on the traditions of the spirituals (among other influences, like tin pan alley and show tunes). These are songs written from the standpoint of straight-forward peoples who ponder the great questions of life and death using very conventional, yet very potent means; their imaginations and their faith.

Probably the most upfront of her songs along these lines is her song “And When I Die”, which was featured on 1967’s More Than A New Discovery. The sentiment toward death here is not romanticized, neither is it something to necessarily be dreaded. But rather, this is about seeing death as something unavoidable and being sustained by the idea that if something is natural, than it must ultimately be good too.

The fact that ‘the world will carry on’ after our deaths is a comforting thought here, that the experiences and memories of the human race as a whole adds up to something we can all claim as a legacy. As a footnote, Laura Nyro would pass at the early age of 50 from ovarian cancer in 1997. Even still, another thing which carries on are her songs, which is the little something extra artists of her stature get to leave behind. Her song would be a hit by Blood, Sweat & Tears, who recorded it in 1969 to make it a major radio staple for many years, up until today.

All Things Must Pass – George Harrison

George HarrisonOf all of the Beatles, George was the one who most found the riches and fame resulting from his job as guitarist in a pop group something of an absurdity. This is particularly true in light of his spiritual leanings toward Eastern Mysticism which looks upon all things on the material plane as being cumbersome to the spiritual journey, so long as we remain attached to them. As such, the thought behind the song was a central one to his worldview.

In this song, George acknowledges that everything changes, that we are creatures in time, moving forward through it toward an eventual end. Yet, like Laura Nyro’s song, this is not something to be dreaded; it is the natural state of things.

My favourite version of this song is the one to be found on The Beatles Anthology, Vol. 3, which George recorded solo on his birthday, February 25, 1969. Why it wasn’t included on the Let It Be  is anyone’s guess. It’s just him and his guitar – a beautiful, poignant song which demonstrated the remarkable thoughtfulness of a man who had only just turned 25 years old. It would of course serve as the title track of his first post-Beatles solo album, and perhaps was also a means to speak to Beatles fans, who were mourning the loss of their four heroes playing together.

(Don’t Fear) the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult

Blue Oyster CultIn many ways, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult from their 1976 Agents of Fortune album was a throwback to the teen death ballad as exemplified by Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel”. This has the whiff of Romanticism to it as well, going so far as to namecheck Romeo & Juliet as the poster children for eternal love as consummated in death – the ultimate teen death ballad couple.

The song is full of Gothic imagery of Death as a comforting figure who gives power to those who shuffle off this mortal coil. Some of the lines are cinematic, right out of the horror movies of the time – doors opening, candles blowing out, and fluttering curtains as Death appears.

Despite the relative pop nature of this song, with an infectious guitar riff which remains to be as memorable as any in rock history, the song has an unsettling quality to it. There is something dreadful in the idea of making death into something attractive, that ‘being able to fly’ in this song is preferable to living a life.

The instruction not to fear the reaper becomes blurred a bit here, as the song becomes more and more open to interpretation as it goes along. Is this a song about a comforting presence at the time of death, or is it one about the temptation of the despairing, an attempt by malevolent forces to lure the downhearted into the darkness by promises of release and relief? Whatever the interpretation here, this is a song about death which certainly has an impact. Maybe it’s all of the cowbell?

The Birds Will Still Be Singing – Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet

Elvis Costello and the Brodsky QuartetFor some, the idea of an afterlife is very comforting; the chance to see their loved ones who have passed on, and to possibly discover what lies beyond our seemingly random existence on earth. Yet, for others, the hope of oblivion is just as comforting, to know that life is ultimately meaningful and valuable, because this is the only shot we have of defining that meaning for ourselves. It is this latter idea which collaborators Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet are exploring here in the final song of their 1993 album The Juliet Letters.

In this song, “eternity stinks”. Taking the time to notice the things in this life, to celebrate it in the present, not to build monuments to it after loved ones die is what is most important. The funereal accouterments spoken of in this song – the lillies, the ‘pretty words to say’, are mingled with the idea that even these are subject to the ravages of time, the ‘perfume of decay’.

The comfort here, the banishment of “all dismay/extinguish every sorrow” is that the world will continue as it has done, with all the beauty to be found in it. In this sense, the sentiment in this tune is the same as that in Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die” although in this case, humanity is not a given. In this song, with sweetly arranged cello, violin, and viola shrouding Costello’s low voice that carries its hymn-like melody, it’s the singing of the birds which is the constant, not the birth of children. Maybe this singing is the music of an otherwise silent world which has seen humanity come and go – strengths, foibles, and all.

Death is Not The End – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Interpretation is everything, kids. And in this song, written by Bob Dylan and recorded for his 1988 Down in the Groove album is given a tweaking-by-delivery on this 1996 version by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, with guest vocalists Kylie Minogue, PJ Harvey, and Shane MacGowan. The song was the closer for Cave’s Murder Ballads album, which was a series of covers of traditional songs within that tradition.

In many ways, this song which might have been looked upon as somewhat incongruous on an album with songs of such violence to them. But, because of the company this song keeps, it ceases to be about the abiding peace to be gained in the afterlife, which is what Dylan intended it to be. The escape from the sufferings in this life – cities on fire/with the burning flesh of men – with the hope of moving on to another plane is removed by implication. Instead, Cave’s take on the song promises that death is no escape at all, that the lack of an end also extends to the suffering which is described – that death will not be the end to that suffering. So, Cave turns the song on its head without changing a single line, just by putting it on an album which deals with death’s cruelty and menace rather than its role as a transition to a removed afterlife where suffering is ended.

P.S You Rock My World – Eels

Eels1998’s Electro-Shock Blues by Eels is a chronicle of loss from songwriter E, otherwise known as Mark Everett, after the deaths of several of his friends and family members in a short span of time. In his loss, E turned to writing a concept album about death and mourning, and this song “P.S You Rock My World” was the album closer, and an effective conclusion of the process of getting over the loss of loved ones and moving on.

This song is about a change in perspective with regard to the details of one’s existence in the light of the finality of death, that when faced with the small moments, even the unpleasant or annoying ones, moments are a gift no matter what their nature happens to be.

The tune represents an acknowledgment of loss, yet also feels like light at the end of the tunnel. The deaths of those around one in this song is not a reason to fold, but proves to be a reason to enjoy life to its fullest, even to the point where a sense of thankfulness is felt even when short changed at the till of a convenience store, or while being honked at by an impatient old lady who wants you to fix her car. The musings here are about moving forward regardless, “taking a walk” instead of “dodging bullets”. It is one of the most insightful, and respectful songs about the subject ever written.

Keep Me In Your Heart – Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon knew he was dying. As a result, he was in the position that many are not in as a songwriter in these circumstances; he could say goodbye through song. On his final album The Wind released in 2003, Zevon does just that. This could easily have been a “My Way”, a song of regret, or possibly one of self-pity too.

But, this is not about the man himself. It’s about his living friends, family, and fans; it’s a song for those left behind, a message of love from a dying man to the people he loves and who love him. The understanding of immortality here is one which relies on such love, the memories and remembrence of the man as the best way to soothe them in times of grief.

This song is not only touching because it shows just how ready Zevon appeared to be by the end, but because we’re reminded how connected he was to those in his life, like all of us are to some degree. It reminds us that when someone dies, there is a hole in our lives which we have to look to, to face in order to make sure that the person who once filled that hole doesn’t become defined by it. That’s the whole point of mourning. And Warren Zevon had the chance to remind us of that in the face of his own death, making this more than just a song to those who knew him and loved him.


Death; the real final frontier. Or, maybe just a gateway to some other frontier. We really don’t know. But what can be determined fairly well is that having to face death is something everyone has to experience. A lot of the time, it makes no sense at all. Sometimes, one gains a new perspective on what each moment, each breath, is worth. Others make a fantasy out of the possibilities of life after death.

And once again, popular song has allowed the expression of all of these, adding dimension, meaning, and sometimes even comfort in times of loss. A good tune often gives substance to the old saying that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, even if a lot of the time, we’re fumbling around in the dark trying to find the matches.

10 Songs About God

God. The Big Guy. The Man Upstairs. The Creator and Ruler of the Universe. The Sacred Mother. A Concept By Which We Measure Our Pain. Anyway you express the idea of god, the fact remains that god has made quite a few appearances in pop music through the decades, being as he is an important aspect of human existence.

Even in the so-called Devil’s music, God doesn’t escape the attention of songwriters. Some artists declare their own faith in all of His mysterious works. Others look upon god as being a figment of the imagination, or a cruel hoax of humanity’s own making. Still others associate God with the idea of an ideal version of how the world should be if we were to be more godlike.

So without further ado, here are a choice few songs about, or relating to, God.


In My Time of Dying – Blind Willie Johnson, and others

There is an interesting dichotomy in the blues, much like there is in early rock n’ roll, between the sacred and profane. If Robert Johnson told tales of hellhounds on his trail, then his namesake Blind Willie Johnson was talking about how to find the soul of a man. In Blind Willie Johnson’s “In My Time of Dying”, the preparation for the next life is counterbalanced between what is done in the current one – a recurring theme in the gospel-blues tradition.

The song’s immensity has been covered by a lot of rock artists, most notably Bob Dylan on his self-titled debut, and Led Zeppelin who made the song into an 11+ minute epic of slide guitar and thundering drums on their 1975 Physical Graffiti album. In the link above, you can watch Zep playing a snippet of the song on their recent show at London’ 02.

Spirit in the Sky – Norman Greenbaum

Norman Greenbaum Spirit in the SkyNorman Greenbaum listened to a lot of country music on the radio, most notably the Grand Ol’ Opry which often featured gospel songs on the closing numbers. So in the, um, spirit of that tradition he wrote his homage to this tradition in his sole hit song “Spirit in the Sky” which combines the sentiment of airy-fairy Christian escapism with a John Lee Hooker-like stomp. The song would be a number one for Greenbaum, and later make a – if you’ll excuse me- second coming in the mid-80s when Doctor & the Medics also became one-hit wonders on the back of the song.

All The Diamonds in the World – Bruce Cockburn

Bruce CockburnA lot of songs don’t mention God directly, but rather describe how easily one’s point of view can change when faced with the beauty of nature and all of the power in metaphor to be found there. For some years, singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn had been working toward an aha moment in pursuit of this phenomenon.

This song, taken from his 1974 album Salt, Sun, and Time is the expression of that moment. Cockburn would later take the strength of it and turn it into activism in the 1980s, with the attitude in mind that one can’t love one’s neighbour, if one doesn’t know who one’s neighbour is.

Every Grain of Sand – Bob Dylan

Much like Cockburn, Bob Dylan had an aha moment. His was in a hotel room in 1978 while touring his record Street Legal. He claims to have had a visitation from Jesus, which initiated what he described as a born again experience. It was the beginning of the “Gospel Bob” era, which produced a trio of albums starting with 1979’s Slow Train Coming, closely followed by 1980’s Saved and 1981’s Shot of Love.

“Every Grain of Sand” is a straight-forward gospel song, no longer obscured by Dylan’s elusive use of imagery on which he’d built a reputation. This time around, the richness of the imagery reveals the writer, instead of hiding him. Although these albums are not considered to be among his best, this song is certainly one of the most notable of the era. Emmylou Harris recorded it for her superb Wrecking Ball album.

Dylan would return to less overt references to god on subsequent releases. But spiritual references are still very much a part of his work, with images of spirits on the water cropping up every so often, as much a part of the blues and gospel music which inspired him to become a musician in the first place.

Wake Up Dead Man – U2

U2U2 have had an interest in Christian faith since their inception, with enthusiasms for it being relative to which band member you’re speaking to. But one undeniable thing is u2’s political stances and social consciousness, which both wins fans as well as repell potential ones. “Wake Up Dead Man” from their 1998 concept album Pop seems to merge both interests – a plea for help in the middle of a “fucked-up world”.

As critically panned as the album was, it was quite a move away from the stadium anthems of the past which to me makes it worth noting. It was also a move away from their take on the Psalms, “40” too. This new prayer is fearful, and angry, wondering why the world is so inhospitable. If the concept of the album was the superficiality of our western culture, than this song may stand as a single ray of hope that in times of darkness, the best thing to be is honest in one’s helplessness.

Blasphemous Rumours – Depeché Mode

Depeché Mode’s bread and butter at one time was teenaged angst to a synthesised beat. But this track is when they were beginning to grow up, and to face their own thoughts about larger issues. I was a Christian in the mid ’80s, and this song shook me up; the idea that God was playing a trick on us, that devotion to Him didn’t mean that we were in any way safe from harm was unbearable. I hated this song because it frightened me.

But maybe that was the best message I could have received; that my devotion to anything other than common decency and sense was secondary, and that any faith that I had should serve that purpose, and no other. It took me a long time to start that journey and where I certainly don’t have Depeché Mode or this song to thank for it, I can certainly understand that what they’re trying to say is extremely important.

God’s Comic – Elvis Costello

Elvis CostelloThe theme of absurdity when it comes to the world and the God who purportedly made it is a pretty strong connection. On Costello’s “God’s Comic”, one of the best tracks from his Spike album, God is a misrepresented figure who scratches his head at humanity, making him wonder whether he “should have given the world to the monkeys”.

You can kind of understand this point of view in many ways, given how much evil and unthinking cruelty has been carried out in his name. Costello frames this very well, with a parallel between metaphysics and show business that shows that humanity’s image of God has been reduced to that of a figure of celebrity. Or at very least a confusion with Santa Claus; “it’s the big white beard, I suppose,” says a beleaguered God.

I Need Love – Sam Phillips

Sam PhillipsOne thing which the best songwriters with faith are able to do is draw a distinction between the idea or even person of God, and the systems which are built up around them. Sam Phillips and her husband T-Bone Burnett are two such writers. This song, taken from the 1994 album Martinis & Bikinis proclaims a direct message – I need love/Not some sentimential prison/I need God/ not the political church”.

So much paraphernalia is attached to faith, so much extra weight that has become attached to it, like barnacles on the side of a ship. But, Phillips’ song cuts through it. It almost makes you think that if every person of faith thought this way, there would be no need for religion at all. Loving one’s neighbour would just be best practice.

Dear God and The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead – XTC

XTCSometimes, different takes about God and the value of faith can be reflected in the work of a single writer. Take Andy Partridge, for instance. His 1986 song (later added to pressings of the band’s Skylarking LP) “Dear God” deals in disappointment. It’s a prayer to a God who is seemingly uninterested in the state of a world He created.It’s an angry song about throwing down one’s own graven images, and moving on.

And it caused a lot of stir when it was released too. Yet, this is a pretty popular and compelling view; that free will is one thing, but this “evil” thing is becoming more than just an alternative to good. Children are dying of hunger, wars have started because of conflicting views about sacred texts, and we’re left to wonder what it all means.

I love that Partridge wrote another song about Peter Pumpkinhead on XTC’s 1992 disc Nonsuch; a Christ figure who doesn’t adhere to the rules of conduct, because they get in the way of doing what really matters; feed the starving, house the poor, and show the Vatican what gold’s for. Where the absurdities, and murderous intent of religion go undiminished in this song, this is a story about how Christianity and faith should have worked systematically – that the crucified Christ looks a lot like you and me, that we should also feed the starving, house the poor, and show the establishment what gold’s for.


So there we are; God. The Biggest There is. The Major Dude. The Master of Ceremonies. It makes sense of course that there continue to be songs about God and about our relationship to the eternal. And maybe art – song, story, visual art – is one of the better ways of making sense of it.