I noticed that looking at older songs is somewhat more interesting than current songs. The problem with current songs is that it is hard to find anything new to say, since most of them talk about the same things in the same way. Which is something I also notice when I look at songs from a particular year, like 1973, but that helps getting an idea for the feel of that time. Anyway, this time I was really struck how similar the themes found in the songs are and how well they fit into that period (and also fit to everything else I am looking at for this theme week). Let’s go!
The Rolling Stones – Angie (#1 in US, #5 in UK, #4 in Germany)
I mostly tried to avoid songs that are too well-known, one, because many people have written about them before and two, not everyone wants to have these songs stuck in their head all day. But this is one of the most successful songs of 1973 (maybe the most successful one) and it has some interesting lyrics. It is basically a break-up song, but my takeaway is the hopelessness of the protagonist.
When will those clouds all disappear? […]
Where will it lead us from here? […]
With no loving in our souls
And no money in our coats
You can't say we're satisfied
But, Angie, Angie
You can't say we never tried
All the dreams we held so close
Seemed to all go up in smoke
Sure, you can just read them as break-up and relationship lyrics, but if you read them as a general observation of people at that time, you see a disillusion and bitterness that’s hard to deny and easy to associate with the zeitgeist of this year. Something you see in songs from 2014 (and probably will see in 2015), is the idea of not finding satisfaction in our lives. Back then this was still seeping with sadness and the knowledge of at least having tried. Today, it is more of a clueless apathy. You’ll see more of this in further songs here.
Carly Simon – You’re So Vain (#1 in US, #3 in UK, #12 in Germany)
The lyrics fascinate me because of their effective use in Nine Inch Nails’ Starfuckers, Inc. and I had always thought they were original lyrics for that song. But no, Trent Reznor montaged them in his celebrity-hating song quite seamlessly.
The song describes a rich man and you find this decadelong speculation over who the song is about, but that’s the clever part of these lyrics (and why they worked so well for Nine Inch Nails), not specifying who it is, so that all rich and arrogant are accused at the same time and that they accuse themselves if they think it’s them.
You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you
You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you
Don't you, don't you?
It is also about growing up and seeing the world with different eyes, after having experienced the terrible things the world has to offer.
You had me several years ago
When I was still quite naive.
Well, you said that we made such a pretty pair
And that you would never leave
But you gave away the things you loved
And one of them was me
Connected to the loss of this “naivety” is also a loss of dreams, again. The future looked so much brighter in the past, but in 1973 there didn’t seem to be a lot of hope left. And dreams go up in smoke or…
I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee
Kris Kristofferson – Why Me (#16 in the US)
This is an obviously religious song, but the protagonist is so self-hating, feels so bad about his life, feels so much that he doesn’t deserve anything good.
Why me Lord what have I ever done
To deserve even one of the pleasures I've known
Tell me, Lord, what did I ever do
That was worth lovin' you or the kindness you've shown
Lord help me, Jesus, I've wasted it so
Help me Jesus I know what I am
But now that I know that I've needed you so
Help me, Jesus, my soul's in your hand
I think it’s the way he makes himself so small, so meaningless, so undeserving of love that is shocking to me and off-putting. The religious angle doesn’t help, of course, but even apart from that, it shows an individual totally rejecting any capability of dealing with his own life, of asking for direction or (might I say) control.
Elton John – Crocodile Rock (#1 in US, #5 in UK, #4 in Germany)
Now we get into a strange territory. Not strange per se, but there is an odd trend in 1973 and that is looking back at the past with this nostalgia that also is a longing for something better that has been gone.
I remember when rock was young
Me and Suzie had so much fun
Holding hands and skimming stones
Had an old gold Chevy, a place of my own
But the years went by and the rock just died
Suzie went and left me for some foreign guy
Long nights crying by the record machine
Dreaming of my Chevy and old blue jeans
It’s American Graffiti all over again. The good old times of Chevys and rock’n’roll, but now it has all died, it’s not fun anymore, life sucks and people are stuck dreaming of the past. This is such a silly pop song, but how sad is that idea of people reminiscing their youth with this kind of longing, of really wanting to feel that way again but never being able to?
Gilbert O'Sullivan – Get Down (#7 in US, #1 in UK, #1 in Germany)
So, people have accused O’Sullivan of having written a misogynist song about treating a woman like a dog and he and his defenders countered by saying, well, it is about a dog. If you look at the lyrics, it’s hard to believe that. Part of the reason people don’t want to believe it’s a woman-hating song might be that the song is joyful and entertaining, it doesn’t sound mean at all.
Told you once before
And I won't tell you no more
Get down, get down, get down
You're a bad dog baby
But I still want you 'round
Once upon a time I drank a little wine
Was as happy as could be, happy as could be
Now I'm just like a cat on a hot tin roof
Baby what do you think you're doin' to me
The “What do you think you’re doin’ to me?” part seems impossible to be directed at a dog, right? All of the lyrics reek of desperation and helplessness and I just don’t see why you could feel this way about a dog and then write a song about it. It’s odd.
Elton John – Daniel (#2 in US, #4 in UK)
Now, this song is actually about Vietnam and it shows all the bitterness and sadness many people felt after all those terrible years of pointless war.
Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain
And I can see Daniel waving goodbye
Oh it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes
There are the clouds yet again.
Daniel my brother you are older than me
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal?
Your eyes have died but you see more than I
Daniel you're a star in the face of the sky
“Pain of the scars,” you can see that in so many of those songs, in one way or another. Everyone seems beaten up and waiting for salvation, for something to make them feel better. Escaping to the past or Spain, but just somewhere else.
The Carpenters – Yesterday Once More (#2 in US, #2 in UK)
I don’t need to add much here, just let the lyrics speak for themselves.
When I was young
I'd listen to the radio
Waitin' for my favorite songs
When they played I'd sing along
It made me smile.
Those were such happy times
And not so long ago
How I wondered where they'd gone
When they get to the part
Where he's breakin' her heart
It can really make me cry
Just like before
It's yesterday once more.
Lookin' back on how it was
In years gone by
And the good times that I had
Makes today seem rather sad
So much has changed.
The title says it all here and the lyrics hammer it home even more. N-o-s-t-a-l-g-i-a. The one that hurts. It’s so strong in all those songs and, again, if you were happy with the way things are, you wouldn’t long for the past and cry.
Maureen McGovern – The Morning After (#1 in US)
Here, again, the lyrics of a love/break-up song can be easily adapted to a general mood for its time.
There's got to be a morning after
If we can hold on through the night
We have a chance to find the sunshine
Let's keep on looking for the light
There's got to be a morning after
We're moving closer to the shore
I know we'll be there by tomorrow
And we'll escape the darkness
We won't be searching anymore
Escaping the darkness = escaping the present. At least this time, the hope lies in the future, not in the past, but still, what gloomy thoughts.
Paul McCartney and Wings – Live and Let Die (#2 in US, #9 in UK)
That’s a classic song people know of course, but again, the theme rears its disillusioned head.
When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
But in this ever changing world in which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
It’s funny that it calls the world only “ever changing”, but that seems to mean something really terrible. Which is so strange, but it depends on your point of view. For people in the 60s change was everything they wanted, but if the world has changed in a way that makes change hard to come by again, a world where people don’t care about others anymore and are less tolerant (as the song seems to suggest), then that’s not a change anyone wanted.
Timmy Thomas – Why Can't We Live Together (#3 in US, #12 in UK)
Tell me why? Tell me why? Tell me why?
Why can't we live together?
No more wars, no more wars, no more war
Just a little peace in this world
No more wars, no more war
All we want is some peace in this world
No matter, no matter what color
You are still my brother
Such simple lyrics, maybe almost too simple. But they too of course speak for their time and for the hope that this nightmare people seem to be living in might stop. The song probably doesn’t expect an answer, but at least it’s asking “Why?”
Billy Paul – Me and Mrs. Jones (#1 in US, #12 in UK)
I decided to end on a different note, after all this nostalgia and zeitgeist angst, we need a little change.
Me and Mrs Jones, we got a thing going on
We both know that it's wrong
But it's much too strong to let it cool down now
We gotta be extra careful
That we don't build our hopes too high
Cause she's got her own obligations and so do I
Well, it's time for us to be leaving
It hurts so much, it hurts so much inside
Now she'll go her way and I'll go mine
But tomorrow we'll meet the same place, the same time
It’s a nice story of adultery, which I find interesting because it avoids most of the clichés. And it’s somewhat positive about the whole affair. They really seem to love each other, but don’t move ahead because of “obligations.” It’s somewhat tragic and you don’t often see that in depictions of extramarital affairs. We feel for them, their pain and longing (yes, it’s still here, trying to escape their reality) and no matter what you think about affairs, I appreciate the attempt of finding a different, not judgmental perspective.
That’s enough for now and I know it’s a lot. But I could have written about many more songs because there is a lot to find here. Yes, actually more than I can find nowadays, but I try to avoid the “everything was better back then” mistake. Still, as I said before, as much as people seemed to be suffering, there doesn’t seem to be as much apathy yet. There is a certain edge to all of it, even if it is unfocused, but still, people show their scars and their pain openly. It’s the same edge found in the last seconds of American Graffiti and in other things I looked at already for this week. Only three days in, I feel a thread for this theme week stronger than in past weeks. It's fascinating.