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Paul McCartney stunned and delighted the crowd at this past weekend’s Desert Trip classic rock festival in California by playing live, for the first time, the Beatles’ legendary track “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” Aiding and abetting Paul was classic rocker Neil Young, who seemed to be overjoyed at essaying this beloved track from the Fabs’ 1968 self-titled double-album.
Here is the dynamic duo, pounding out a beat-heavy rock take on “Road”:
The only thing that surprises me about this performance is that it took so long to happen. I have long loved this track. In fact, I wrote about it extensively in January 2015; it was the seventh entry in our ongoing series, I Love that Song!. Check it out for the first time, or revisit it, by clicking here.
I’m keeping a close eye on any surprise performances Paul might include in future live shows. I’m fairly certain that a wild and woolly take on “Wild Honey Pie”is just around the corner!
One of Paul Simon’s best songs, lyrically astute and honorably charged, “America” is the third track on Simon and Garfunkel’s album Bookends, fading up out of the long goodbye of “Save the Life of My Child.” “Oh my Grace, I’ve got no hiding place,” comes the lyrical cry over a bed of ghostly, harried vocal lines and more sturdy pop instrumentation. It comes to pass that perhaps, just perhaps, the child is saved, but there is this that suggests an otherwise flawed end: “In an atmosphere of freaky holiday/When the spotlight hit the boy/And the crowd began to cheer/He flew away.”
From that might-be cryptic vision, Simon’s pen turned from chronicling a search for a panacea for men and women paralyzed with fear to a chronicle of men and women searching for answers that would quantify their yearning. Where, exactly, is their America?
After descending vocal lines sung on top of a bed of guitar strums and accented notes comes the observational, opening salvo of “America”: “Let us be lovers/We’ll marry our fortunes together,” Simon sings delicately. “I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.” With that somewhat, likely tenuous firmament in place, the man and his female companion (name of Kathy, also the name of an actual figure in Simon’s early musical life) prepare to begin their journey, purchasing a pack of smokes and some Mrs. Wagner’s pies. After hitchhiking a fair enough distance, the man tells Kathy that he’s “…come to look for America.” An explorer, a truth seeker, on a mission.
Boarding a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh, the couple play almost childlike games to pass the time. Kathy remarks that “…the man in the gabardine suit was a spy.” The man traveling with her counters with an equally playful and mindfully obtuse observation: “Be careful. His bow tie is really a camera.” Which, if true, might hold some of the answers the couple is looking for. Has this spy gathered proof of the existence of America? How fast can these images be developed?
There is gazing out of the window and some magazine reading, after which Kathy’s companion reaches an epiphany of sorts. “Kathy, I’m lost,” he tells her, as she sleeps. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” After looking out over open fields as the bus passes around and through towns large and small, the journey seems to culminate, even as the bus continues on, in the man’s realization that he and everyone on the bus and everyone in the cars passing by them are all, as it turns out, looking for America, for their dreams to come alive.
“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America,” the companion sings. Cars from near and far and most certainly in between; campers and pickup trucks and cars that double as boats, and station wagons and automobiles with faulty transmissions and leaky oil pans, all pointed toward the lands of milk and honey and prosperity and, above all, safety, all are looking for their America. A place to call home, where it feels like home from the second the lawn sprinklers turn on in the morning till the moment they turn off at night. Everyone on the road, whether real or imagined in the course of everyday life, is looking for America. For their America.
Covered by all manner of artists through the years, “America” was most recently and, perhaps, best interpreted in an emotionally charged performance by First Aid Kit, a sister duo from Sweden. They performed the song with creative, lovely, acoustic guitar picking, piano and an equally emotional, live string section in a showstopping version on one of the last broadcasts of The Late Show with David Letterman (see below).
Discussion of “America” seems appropriate on this day, Memorial Day, a day during which our thoughts turn to those who served in the armed forces and lost their lives protecting our freedoms. Listening to “America,” as performed by Simon and Garfunkel or First Aid Kit or any of the artists who have covered it with sound artistic expression and passion, is still a powerful experience, and so it shall be for as long as we all continue to look for our Americas.
If power pop fans ever needed a reason to believe in Bruce Springsteen, if only for three minutes and 46 seconds, “Where the Bands Are” is that reason–a balls-to-the-wall power pop number stacked high with electric guitars; punctuating, popping bass; four-and-a-half-to-the-floor drumming, and a catchy chorus with an indelible hook. The split second it kicks off with a single, call-to-arms snare shot and the full band comes right in, you are drawn into another world.
And you already know that world. It’s a world where music consumes you, where you can let it all hang out and show your girl how great it all can be–where you just live for the moment, and the moment is alive.
“Yeah, tonight I wanna break my chains/Somebody break my heart/Somebody shake my brains,” the boy sings. “Downtown there’s something that I wanna hear/There’s a sound, little girl, keeps ringing in my ear,” and that is the sound of the beat, the guitars turned up so loud that the paint is peeling off the walls, the sweat pouring into imagined buckets all around you. It’s the sound of the beat, of the fire inside of you when you’re taking it all in even before you get there. It’s the sound of impassioned singing into microphones–the sound of a power pop rodeo where the crowd is being roped in to feel the heat rising from the stage.
It is the quintessential mind over matter trick that heightened sensitivity plays on you when you’re knee-deep in the thick of it. It is the best you can do–the only thing you can do–when two worlds come together as one. “Tonight I wanna feel the beat of the crowd/And when I tell you that I love you/I wanna have to shout it out loud/Shout it out loud” is the cry in the night. Your arm is holding your partner tight as the singer is bringing the both of you into his world.
You know the score. You know why you’re in that club or that bar. You know why you’re dressed to the nines and impressing your partner as the music plays and the electricity is pulsing through you. You know why you’re there. “I wanna be where the bands are,” you shout. “I wanna be where the bands are…” And here comes the power pop version of a Greek chorus: “Where the bands are…” and you answer: “I wanna be where the bands are.”
Springsteen is remembering what moved him in the first place when, in his early days, he wanted to be right there in the center of the action with his girl by his side while those beautiful notes were flying freely throughout the space, drawing him in and getting him to sing along with the chorus that he will never, ever be able to get out of his head. “I wanna be where the bands are,” he sings out loud, shouting, reaching for the stage and wishing he were on it.
Recorded in 1979, “Where the Bands Are,” a song that, like many Springsteen numbers, had floated around in collector’s circles for years before seeing legitimate release on the Boss’s Tracks collection in 1998, is an anthem quite unlike the other anthems he had recorded. It is an anthem drawn purposefully for the boys and girls of the live music nation, the people who gather together to celebrate the feelings that move them.
“Where the Bands Are” is a song that moves in straight-ahead, upbeat fashion. It reveres the hook all the way through. It invites the constant head bob whether or not you can hold to the beat. The drums take charge. The saxophone punctuates. The guitars rock and roll with the best of them. It’s impossible to forget the melody, even if you’ve only heard it once. It gets in there and becomes part of your DNA. Really, you’d be powerless to stop it.
“I wanna be where the bands are,” Bruce proclaims just before the song comes to an end. It’s a tremendous song and a tremendous power pop record and it speaks to the heart of the matter–that the music that speaks to you can move you like nothing else and give you a reason, a reason to believe in the power of the song, in the power of power pop. – Alan Haber
The subtly pounding, lithe piano run which appoints itself at the start of the Davenports’ achingly beautiful new song, “Don’t Be Mad at Me,” now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio, is joined by a gregarious, almost romanticized string section pleased to acquaint itself with a very “Martha, My Dear” ambiance in tow, an ambiance that later trades off with a lovely pop melody and, at the end, an even harder-edged, slightly manic, giddy even, melodic electric guitar attack straight out of the Carpenters “Goodbye to Love” school, but for now leads into the first words of the opening verse, which themselves lead to a cautionary plea: “Betty, don’t be mad at me, Betty,” delivered by the always soothing and satisfying voice of Scott Klass as he seeks to make it all better with more than a few dollops of sincerity. “Don’t cry girl, I’ve got your keys,” he sings, because the time has come to take pause and leave the driving to someone else.
“It’s not conspiracy, revenge or trying to hurt your feelings, Betty,” Klass asserts, lovingly. It’s just the way it is, is what it all means, and you barely wrestle with the idea that at a certain point in everyone’s life–yours, for example–time will come to change the course and allow a loved one or a friendly neighbor or someone else with the power of love in his or her pocket to help, just help, just help steer the course. “But it’s clear now that you’re mixing up your Christophers and Larrys…”
And so it goes as Klass, who wrote the song, sings a litany of wise words that make it all clear as we tumble along the way in our lives. This gorgeous creation, just such a grand achievement and a raise of the bar in the ongoing songwriting life, blinks brightly with all the hallmarks of a Davenports song: the way the words match the rhythm of the melody around quick breaths; the seemingly disparate instrumental elements that come together perfectly to create a winsome, winning musical base; and the idea that a whole life, and all its twists and turns, can be communicated quite clearly in only four minutes and 13 seconds with lively invention and the truth of the songwriter’s craft.
Yes, this is a pop song with strings and a catchy melody and percussion and swooping background vocal harmonies reminiscent of the closing sections of Andy Partridge’s “1,000 Umbrellas,” and it just begs, literally begs that you sing along with it (and you can, because the video, which you can watch below, includes some of the lyrics right there on the screen) and, even if there wasn’t any begging going on, you’d want to sing along anyway, because it’s that kind of a delightful number and that’s what great pop music does: it includes you as if you’re a member of the family, and, of course, you are.
The Davenports have never been anything less than top-flight purveyors of fanciful, melodic pop songs. Here, as stated above, they have upped their game and delivered a momentous achievement. There is nothing like this song in the whole wide world–a world, as depicted in this song’s video, that is alive and well within the confines of a View-Master lying in a box left silently on a sidewalk. A young girl, curious as to the box’s contents, takes hold of the View-Master and there is Betty’s, or someone’s, life, conveyed to the girl in one snapshot after another; little wisps out of time that tell a story.
“Generally,” it is said on the band’s website, this song is “about salad days to sad days, youth to old age, power to weakness, forefront to backdrop. ‘Betty’ is an old great aunt who was once almost like a matriarch of the family–strong, with style, a leader, who drove a huge old Caddy. The narrator is a younger relative who has to take away the keys to the Caddy because Betty has grown old and demented.”
“Betty, don’t be mad at me…” Undoubtedly, this song could be about someone in your life, which makes the message universal. Betty, well, could well be you, some day.
Buried near the end of side two of the Beatles’ 1968 self-titled masterwork (more commonly known as the White Album), and coming right before the sweetly sung romantic ballad “I Will,” “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” finds Paul McCartney posing a musical question still not properly and conclusively answered so many years later.
“Why don’t we do what in the road?” Why don’t we have a bit of a frolic, play catch, dig for buried treasure or reach for the stars on a hot summer’s day? And what are the chances of being caught? “No one will be watching us,” McCartney assures. So there’s that guarantee of walking, or perhaps limping silently, away scot-free.
McCartney has explained the song’s meaning before, or answered the question with a loaded retort. Quoth Wikipedia: “McCartney wrote the song after seeing two monkeys copulating in the street while on retreat in Rishikesh, India, with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He (marveled) in the simplicity of this natural scenario when compared to the emotional turmoil of human relationships.” So that theory goes. It’s the “fish and finger pie” thing all over again–a smutty little joke…a wink wink, nudge nudge between singer and listener and, you know, say no more.
Or is it? If McCartney were asked today about this song, he’d probably say he doesn’t remember what in God’s name it was about. “That was so 46 years ago,” he would probably opine. Or he might suggest that Ringo has the skinny. But Ringo would probably laugh and, with the wave of his hand, dismiss the question outright. “Don’t we have better things to talk about?” he might ask. Ha ha, and all that.
And so, I ask: What’s more fun than playing the “What is Paul talking about?” parlour game? Nothing, really. So, as we’re doing that, let’s up the ante a bit more and note that “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” is only four seconds shorter than “I Will.” Believe it or not, it takes McCartney about the same amount of time to express his undying love for his woman as it does to comment on copulating monkeys. Or preparing a will. Or having a contest to see who can suck a lollipop down to the stick in less time.
The song, musically speaking, is simply, yet powerfully, stated: basic percussion, piano, bass, guitar and McCartney’s in-and-out Little Richard vocal stuck together for less time than it takes to fry an egg. “Why don’t we d-do it in the road? Why don’t we do it in the road? Uh, why don’t we do it in the ro-oad, mmm, why don’t we do it in the road? No one will be watching us, whyyy don’t we do it in the road?”
And one minute and forty-one seconds later, the song ends suddenly, abruptly–defiantly even, with a last “Why don’t we do it in the road?” The simultaneous slam on the piano, a fat pat on the snare drum, and a rigorous crash of the cymbal are all it takes to clear the aural decks and move on.
I must admit that I was one of those people who spent hours on end dissecting the obviously intended backwards messages in “Revolution 9,” stalling the motors on two, count ’em, two Symphonic all-in-one, fold-’em-up stereo turntables. I spent hours trying to figure the meaning of it all: Was Paul dead? Had my fab Paulie left this mortal coil? “You try to play that record backwards again,” my father warned, “and you won’t see another turntable in your room until you’re 25!” So I settled on letting other devoted Beatles fans figure out what the state of the Paul union was and concentrated instead on what it was that Paul, or his stand-in, was doing in the proverbial road.
It’s funny, really, how these odd, eccentric abnormalities associated with Beatles records stay with us in our creeping-up-slowly old age. In truth, it was all so silly, but it sure kept us busy and fixated. The prize at the end of all of the detective work was that all was well. Paul was alive and well and pouring a bucket of water on Life magazine’s photographer at his Scottish farm. I got another Symphonic turntable.
Perhaps the answer to the musical question, “Why don’t we do it in the road?”, is, simply, “I Will.” There. That takes care of another mystery in this life. You’re welcome.
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.