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Three albums and six years was all it took for Scotland’s The Big Dish to create a few ripples and take its final bow. Centered around Steven Lindsay’s lovely melodies and gorgeous,velvety voice, the group should have fared better, but for some reason never built up enough of an audience to convince their label, Virgin Records, to think long-term. The label released the incredible Swimmer in 1986 and Creeping Up on Jesus two years later. A third album, Satellites, helmed by Deacon Blue’s producer Warne Livesey, showed up in 1990 on Warner-Elektra-Atlantic’s EastWest imprint. And then…poof.
Which is a shame, because exceptional, catchy songs like Swimmer’s “Prospect Street” and “Christina’s World” and Satellites’ “Miss America” and “25 Years” don’t come along at every turn around the pass. Neither do songs like “Waiting for the Parade” or the miraculous pop song’s pop song, “European Rain,” both from Creeping Up on Jesus.
“European Rain” is the kind of song a writer wishes for and hopes desperately to bring into the world–a song that, without question, will make his career. It’s the kind of song that seems borne perfectly formed, a golden creation whose melody is almost God-like, whose construction is without a single shred of excess. A perfect specimen, if you will–a lucky strike for a writer adept at the best, most lasting kind of song craft.
This is the kind of song that invites–no, demands repeat listens. Ushered in with a quick, commanding mash of snare drum, the enchanting verse melody leads naturally into the quick, hooky chorus. Come to think of it, the verses are as hooky as the chorus, the second instance of which is followed by a lovely horn part that slides into a tasteful electric guitar reiteration of the main melody. And so it goes–more verse, more chorus, and more instance of the hook. The pizzicato guitar notes that ever-so-gently play atop the hook near the end of the song add another layer of mesmerizing charm. If it’s true that great songs sometimes fall from out of the sky into the laps of waiting artists, this is more than ample proof. It’s another example of the perfect pop song.
People whose lives are pretty much defined by music hear all manner of great song. It’s hard, over so many years and so many spins, to latch on to a number that rises above all others, a song that the memory can call up with just a whiff of a trigger. But when such a song comes about–a song such as “European Rain”–it’s easy to let the memory take you to another place. The best songs–the greatest songs–do that.
The best songs are well-drawn maps to your heart that trigger long suppressed memories, memories that swell to great heights as you remember that warm, beautiful glow you felt when you were eight and your father patted your head, smiled and told you not to worry about what the kid next door said because everything was going to be all right and that was enough for you, enough to last a lifetime.
The best songs–the greatest songs–and the best and greatest songwriters know how to unravel just enough of a tale to function as emitters of clues that lead to the emotions they’re wanting to convey and wake up in you. The best songs change you in sometimes mysterious ways, ways you never can see coming. The best songs solve puzzles you’ve been taking apart and putting back together in your brain for so many years–puzzles and problems stored in the little compartment in your noggin that stay there, figuratively and literally, until the time comes to solve them and move on.
Imagine that your father–the man who taught you how to throw and catch a ball; who sprinted along next to you on your street as you passed in a rickety manner from training wheels to full-fledged bicycle tires but stopped after 30 or 40 seconds and claimed victory anyway; who snapped pictures of you and your prom date in the hallway by your front door and embarrassed you in that soon-he’ll-be-grown-up-and-away-from-my-gaze kind of way; who upped your weekly allowance to $1.25 from $1.10 after you promised, with tears welling in your eyes, to be a better brother to your sister; and who went with you to the library to stand up for you to the bitter librarian who wouldn’t let you take out a book marked with an “adult content” stamp that didn’t really need one and who didn’t know you were an advanced reader but you were and your father knew it.
The best songs open a flood of memories to your consciousness and light up your brain with effusive fireworks that celebrate with glee the times in your life that were so alive. In “Put It There,” Paul McCartney looks back on times spent with his father. “I want to show you I’m your friend,” Jim Mac says. “It’s all that matters in the end.” “Put it there if it weighs a ton,” he relates, and Paul remembers “That’s what a father said to his young son.” “I don’t care if it weighs a ton,” Jim Mac notes. “As long as you and I are here, put it there.”
Everything is going to be alright. Everything is going to be alright no matter what happens, because fathers can fix anything. Anything! “The darkest night and all its mixed emotions is getting lighter,” McCartney sings, urging the listener to become part of his memory. “Put it there if it weighs a ton,” he sings, and all of a sudden you remember that day in the park when your kite flew away, and that time at the ballpark when you almost caught a ball in your official Little League glove but got beaned just a hair instead and you cried and your father put his arm around you and said “Almost! Good job!”. You remember those winsome moments–the ones that caress you and hold you tight and give you hope.
The beautifully understated, emotive arrangement of “Put It There” starts sparingly with some acoustic picking, a shaker, some perfunctory percussion, and McCartney singing towards the upper edge of his register alongside Hamish Stuart’s bass, basic with a bit of a pack of flash as the tale unravels, some gorgeous, assured orchestration from McCartney and old salt George Martin, as the grown man remembers the way he was assured that life would treat him well, that he could traverse through course changes with confidence, even if his stomach rumbled just a bit and the road ahead looked potentially treacherous. “If there’s a fight I’d like to fix it,” Jim Mac explains. “I hate to see things go so wrong.” Go on and wear this invisible suit of armor and go forth–nothing can hurt you.
And because we know that nothing can really hurt us–not really–we go forth, the simple memories of our fathers smiling at us as we recall them passing around plates of sloppy joes at the dinner table, explaining why Uncle Joe shows up in every picture taken at family functions. These memories happily swirl around the inside of our beans as we make our way, the soundtrack of our lives playing with knee-slap percussion, a bit of acoustic guitar, and that voice that conveys any emotion it chooses.
In Paul McCartney’s “Put It There,” there is a mound of emotion, and if we listen carefully, we can take so much from it. Because that’s the magic of great songs composed with that special spark that opens up a well of memories and changes you for all time. That is the well-drawn map, the one that you follow as you pedal to new destinations on your path. That is the song, the song in your heart.
When the soundtrack to the Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine was released in January 1969, fans were gifted with four brand-new songs and two they already had–“Yellow Submarine,” which originally appeared on Revolver in 1966; and “All You Need is Love,” which was included on 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour, released in the U.S. as an album on November 27, 1967 and in England as a double-pack EP on December 8, 1967.
Although one of the new songs (“Hey Bulldog”) was finished in February 1968, the other three were recorded in 1967. One of those songs was a seemingly simple and catchy little ditty from Paul McCartney entitled “All Together Now.” It served as the closing number to the film, beginning hot on the heels of the only scene in which the actual, human Beatles appeared. After George, Paul and Ringo show off souvenirs they picked up on their journey (George had the submarine’s motor, Paul had a little “Love,” and Ringo had a hole in his pocket (“Well, half a hole, hanyway”). Then, the Beatles gave the enthusiastic countdown–Ringo: “One!”, Paul: “Two!”, George: “Three!”, John: “Four!”–and, as they gave their shout out, the acoustic strum of “All Together Now” began.
Using “All Together Now” as the closing number of the movie was a masterful stroke by the filmmakers. Following a lively, if brief, onscreen appearance by the Beatles, the song seemed more important and, perhaps, mysterious. “Newer and bluer meanies have been sighted within the vicinity of this theater,” John warned. “There’s only one way to go out.” “How’s that?” asked George. “Singing!” said Lennon, smiling a deeply, broad smile.
“All Together Now” is basically a children’s song full of nonsense lyrics (“One, two, three, four/Can I have a little more?/Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten/I love you”), although a later verse is aimed directly at the adults in the audience: “Black, white, green, red/Can I take my friend to bed?”, which is followed by the psychedelic wash of nine simple words: “Pink, brown, yellow, orange and blue/I love you.”
On screen, the song’s title is translated into a variety of languages and, at the song’s end, the tune honks and the movie is over. The song speeds up a bit towards its finale, engaging the audience and inspiring them to applaud, to stand up and cheer, which is what I remember doing way back in 1968 when my family went to see Yellow Submarine at a movie theater in Syosset, Long Island. I was 13 and a, b, c, d and all of the other letters swirled around me. I had just seen a wonderful film, full of wonderful Beatles music, and the real, honest-to-God Beatles were actually on the screen! I looked around to see if any Blue Meanies had indeed infiltrated the theater. I might have looked under the seat! Thankfully, they had not. They had, however, infiltrated my imagination. Would my father have known how to defend us against their bluish attack? I don’t think so.
When the question is asked–“What are your favorite songs that Paul McCartney wrote while in the Beatles?”–I would highly doubt that “All Together Now” is listed very often. It would be on such a list if I were making it, though. It takes a whole lot of natural talent for a songwriter to put pen to paper and create a song so seemingly simple yet utterly complex–a song that people would be singing to themselves on the way out of a movie theater and then again at home, singing along with the record. “All Together Now” is magically catchy–a song that sinks its hooks deep into your soul. It showed another side to McCartney’s talents, and let’s face it, to go from the rough-and-tumble wildness of “Helter Skelter” to a catchy children’s song is no easy task.
For people of a certain age, the experience of seeing Yellow Submarine was quite special. Mom and Dad may not have “gotten it,” by the kids did. And after the pace of the film ramped up as “All Together Now” reached its final seconds, and the theater lights brightened and the crowd started heading for the exits, entered their cars with the kids in the back seat, there was quiet in the vehicle. The vinyl upholstery was quiet as a mouse, in fact, as the parents wondered if their kids were going to be good citizens and go to bed with little or no fuss. Secretly, on the ride home, and as they fell asleep in their beds, the kids were singing the songs to themselves, reveling in some of the best scenes swirling around in their head. All, actually, was great and so spectacular.
After so many years of crawling inside the Beatles’ golden catalog, I never get tired of reliving the thrill and majesty of the first time I heard, say, “Lady Madonna” or “Hey Jude.” “All Together Now” reminds me of being in that movie theater, going on such a wild and imaginative adventure along with my favorite group in the whole wide world. Even now, as I type these words, in my mind I am munching on popcorn and singing along.
Amongst the parade of sad sacks, losers and miscreants that populate the breadth of Fountains of Wayne’s considerable catalog, the guy who gets a gnarly tattoo in an effort to woo and then snag a girl he’s got his eye on is top of the screwy, creepy guy molehill. Never has anyone worked so hard with so little brain power to make romantic things happen. The doofus in “Red Dragon Tattoo” is so wrongheaded and lightly starched that a game of Candy Land would be beyond his capabilities. Imagine, then, that a song about a walking fit of nothing could be so cheery and bright and catchy–a melodic, power pop classic from Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway album.
The song bops along in a carefree way, lightly percussive, guitars and drums keeping the steady beat. I love the way the lyrics work in tandem with the melody. And I love the portrait of the song’s subject, the poignantly-misguided you’ve-got-to-feel-sorry-for-a-loser-so-sure-of-himself dude.
This guy’s a champion plotter. He’s got the day picked out, the route mapped with certainty–a robber without a purse. “With the money I saved/Gonna get me engraved,” he sings, happily, forthright and stout. He downs a backyard pool’s worth of some fancy shmancy Basil Hayden’s bourbon to get himself ready to do the deed, even as he presupposes that he will get “kicked out” of the tattoo parlour “when” he “can’t see straight.” A tax planner or life coach in the making? No, probably not.
Armed with a solid plan to put into rubbery motion, this dude’s either talking to the tattoo he hasn’t yet gotten or he’s hearing wobbly voices. “In you I confide/Red Dragon Tattoo/I’m fit to be dyed/Am I fit to have you,” the guy sings, perhaps unsure of himself or just plain dumb from the start.
Upon entering the tattoo shop, the guy is given some design choices: “A mermaid and a heart that says mother,” but he’s a little weary because he doesn’t “know from maritime” and “never did hard time.” This genius then divulges that he “brought a .38 Special CD collection” (missing the coolness factor by leaps and bounds) and, in a moment of health conscious self-reflection and possibly a scary premonition that the folks who work in the tattoo shop don’t practice cleanliness next to their Godliness, “some Bactine to prevent infection.” And if that weren’t enough, on the off chance that he might “get queasy, a photo of Easy Rider.” Dude’s a thinking man’s man, after all.
The Red Dragon tattoo inked, applied and resplendent on his person, the guy pleads with his intended: “Will you stop pretending I’ve never been born/Now I look a little more like that guy from KorN/If you came a little bit closer/You’d see it isn’t painted on/Oh no no.” Cool, manly tattoo equals gold-plated boyfriend material, indeed.
Does this guy get the girl in the end? That’s left up to the listener. My guess? As Bon Jovi sings in “You Give Love a Bad Name,” “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame/Darlin’ you give love a bad name.” And, as Pete Townshend wrote in the song “Tattoo,” ” Welcome to my life, tattoo/I’m a man now, thanks to you.” But this guy really doesn’t know who he is. Really, it doesn’t much matter. Perhaps someone should put up a plaque somewhere–possibly the tattoo shop–with the words “He tried, He failed, Didn’t get the girl although he took a whirl.”
The act of looking back to simpler, happier times, to times fondly remembered, to snapshots taken by one’s mind and brought to the fore by photographs arranged as artifacts of a life gone by is the subject at hand in Ray Davies’ “Picture Book,” a bouncy, wistful song that appears on the Kinks’ November 1968 album, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.
Wistful, perhaps, because the happy, peppy tune belies the almost tossed-off intent of the lyrics. In the song, an older person, thumbing through a picture book, is spying snapshots of his life, of his mama, his papa, of him in his birthday suit, on vacation, as a baby–days when happiness prevailed. He’s reliving “those days when” he was “happy, a long time ago.”
This person is gazing at photos in a “picture book of people with each other, to prove they love each other…” Implying that they weren’t sure? Or they weren’t in love in the present? Are the people in the pictures unsure of their bond? And what of being “happy, a long time ago”? Is he not happy now? One can certainly look back with fondness on the past, on that day at the beach or that time when junior hit his first home run in his little league baseball game, and attach an associated moment onto the memory that saddens it–weighs it down just enough to elicit a tenuous sigh.
Drums strong and definite in the mix, the joyous song glides along with a smile on its face. Kicking off with a strong drum bounce and followed by an ascending acoustic guitar line (softening the sounds) and harmony lead vocals, “Picture Book” asks the listener to think of himself getting old, sitting “by the fireside a-pondering on” and looking at snapshots of days gone by. And after the various particular visions are thumbed through and the second-to-last chorus comes along, the song’s entire notion almost gets tossed aside with a well-placed a-scooby-dooby-doo.
Further obscuring “Picture Book”‘s suppressed subtext, the song was used as the soundtrack for an HP Digital Photography commercial (during which a guy fiddles with photo printouts as they turn into frames that he pulls over his head), giving a whole new meaning to the lyrics which, in this clever presentation, was buy an HP digital product. Get that out of your head, will you?
Dual meanings have been a staple of pop songs for the longest time. Mixing minor chord melodies with happy, poppy choruses is a tried and true method of getting a point, or points, across. But here, in “Picture Book,” one of the greatest of the early-to-mid-period Kinks songs, the point offered is happy memories stalled in the past can sometimes be looked back on when maybe being not so happy in the present. And in the future? Well, there must be a Ray Davies song that encapsulates that bit of looking ahead.
I heard the most wonderful sounds coming from my radio. “Waterloo” immediately struck me as such a perfect pop song, with its insistent beat and that wonderful, hooky melody, punctuated by Benny Andersson’s classically-influenced piano stabs. And that chorus: kind of an amalgam of fifties, sixties and contemporary influences. It all sounded so good, so sweet, so charming coming out of those speakers, like a gift settled before me that came from heaven.
And then, when I got the album and dropped the needle gently upon the first track on side one, I found that heaven, all 11 songs of it, was indeed within my ears’ grasp, nestled comfortably within the commanding sleeve which depicted the four members of Abba (and a reasonable facsimile of Napoleon). I loved it all, from that glorious hit single and the pounding “King Kong Song” to the soulful, rhythmic bounce of “My Mama Said” and the jangly, poppy “Suzy -Hang-Around.”
But the song that I especially loved–the one that caught my ears in a take-no-prisoners kind of way–was the side two opener, the luscious, entrancing “Honey, Honey.” That upbeat number started in overdrive with a runaway bass guitar, swirling orchestration and a percussive bottom. The melody, crafted with care by Andersson and his songwriting partner Bjorn Ulvaeus, surrounded me and hugged me tight, especially during the middle section which started at 1:04: “I don’t want to hurt you baby, I don’t wanna see you cry…” Those notes, full of life and taking me somewhere other than here, simply slayed me like so many songs I have heard since have failed to do. It’s hard to explain, but when that middle section repeated at 1:59, and the words in the first lines of the lyrics were replaced by orchestration, my knees became weak and my legs turned to jelly, such was the enormity of the effect.
I found, perhaps for the first time, what is was like to be in love with an ABBA melody line. The group, of course, went on to record many more exciting, wonderful songs and albums, but, for me, as much as I loved all of their output, no song of theirs ever topped the effect that “Honey, Honey” had, and still has, on me. “There’s no other place in this world that I’d rather be.” Those words were as true as a sunny sky back then. They still ring true today.