Songs of innocence, regret, anxiety, failure and punishing ennui…
by Gordon Campbell
For obvious reasons, there are a lot of songs out there that celebrate sexual bragging and gangsta cool. In this column though, I’d like to focus on the opposite kind of sentiments – anxiety, regret, boredom, innocence and self-deprecation. The immediate inspiration for this being some very recent tracks by a guy called London O’Connor, a 24 year old New York couch surfer come fashion model and musician, who’s been earning a ton of music media attention over the last few months. More on him later. For now, here’s a toast to songs of innocence and social estrangement. We’ve all been there.
1. The genius of Brian Wilson has been shouted from the rooftops a good deal of late, so I thought we could start with a clip from Brian’s pre-genius phase. “The Monkey’s Uncle” comes from a moment in time when the Beachboys were just a backing band in Disney movies featuring America’s teen sweetheart, Annette Funicello. Almost certainly the only glimpse of mean Mike Love doing The Swim, on camera.
2. Feeling fed up with those 1960s Motown clips of hyper-proficient dancer singers, and/or screaming Beatles era audiences ? Well, here’s the exact opposite. The Impalas were one of the hundreds of 1960s bands named after cars and “ Sorry (I Ran All The Way Home”) was their one big hit. It had everything : brackets in the title, a catchy “Uh-oh” in the intro and in the outro, a good brass section…. and “Lets make amends /after all we’re more than friends” was considered to be a fairly racy lyric for the early 1960s. What sets this particular clip apart though, is the bored, gum-chewing audience and the endearingly clunky choreography. (Keep your eye on the blond-haired guy in the group.) Anthropologically speaking, this clip offers compelling evidence that white people (a) can’t dance and (b) can’t clap on the two and four.
3. OK, here are a couple of London O’Connor clips. As mentioned, he’s been depicted as a kind of gypsy fashion model guy around NYC, and his just-released debut album – the title is an unpronounceable symbol, meaning exploration – makes a meal of an innocence crafted to sound casually offhand. It isn’t offhand of course, but that’s part of what makes it interesting. Thanks to Pitchfork, I can tell you that O’Connor is not an idiot savant, or a fashionista who lucked his way into a recording contract. Reportedly, he moved from San Marcos, California in order to attend the Clive Davis music institute in NYC, and the arranger/collaborator on these tracks is Nick Sansano – who produced Daydream Nation for Sonic Youth, and engineered Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. This guy is heavily connected.
4. Beck Hansen offers an interesting comparison for O’Connor, in the sense that both of them project/used to project a semi-serious-but-winking take on emotional slackerdom. Here’s a couple of tracks from that early 90s stage of Beck’s career, when he was collaborating with a guy called Carl Stephenson. Together, they wrote “ Loser” and Stephenson went on to do an interesting record of his own, under the name Forest For The Trees. “Dream” is a favourite track from that album. Once cool, now a time capsule. It goes like that.
5. OK, back to the pre-drug conditions of innocence. The Paul and Paula who recorded the 1962 hit “ Hey Paula” were actually Ray Hildebrand and Jill Jackson. Like many people from that era, they looked a lot older than they were. The song is very serious about marriage being the goal and zenith of human experience – which is what you might expect from two students from a Bible college in west Texas.
Here’s how hits could be made in those days. On a whim and because Jill’s mother told them to, Ray and Jill drove to Fort Worth, called in at a recording studio without an appointment, waited around and then – when the booked artist didn’t show up – wangled the studio time to record this song. Within months, it was on the top of the US charts. According to Hildebrand’s website, nary a day has gone by since 1962 when somewhere in the world, someone isn’t playing “Hey Paula.” Happy to do my bit.
6. Girlpool are a couple of 19 year olds from California – Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker – who’ve put out a string of sharp tracks over the past year ( eg “Alone At The Show” and “Jane”, which is a good song about punching out your no good motormouth boyfriend ) but this one is a slightly more serious song…about growing up and missing the way the old neighbourhood used to look, and what it felt like wearing the same dorky clothes.
7. You want a song about feeling worried ? This next track is a short blast of anxiety about being 28 and single and therefore (obviously) on the shelf for good, and desperately in need of cosmetic help. Toni Basil is mainly remembered for that hit song “ Mickey” but to my mind, “I’m 28” was her masterpiece. It was written by Graham Gouldman later of 10cc, and a hit-writing machine (“Yummy Yummy Yummy” “Bus Stop” I’m Not In Love” etc ) “I’m 28” was one of the few songs that Gouldman wrote at the time that didn’t make the charts. Too close to the bone, perhaps.
8. Doo-wop was a genre based on innocence, and the purity of the human voice. The ones I’ve chosen are a mixture of the sublime and the insane. For sublime, we have Nolan Strong and The Diablos and their wonderful 1954 hit “ The Wind” – and then Nolan comes back again circa 1960 with an a capella group called the Velvet Angels. “Take A Tip” was an accidental treasure, recorded during a rehearsal in their hotel room.
The Monotones had only one hit, but it was a monster : “ The Book Of Love. ” This is an irresistible performance, before a very, very white audience with interesting haircuts. Finally, the insane : “No One To Love Me” by the New Orleans doo wop act, the Sha-Weez. Apparently when starting out in about 1950, the group had a theme song called Cha –Pakka Shaw-Weez – which phonetically in Creole is said to mean “We aren’t raccoons.” So the name was part of a pretty clever anti-racist jibe.
I first heard their 1952 track “No One To Love Me” on a compilation culled from the record collection of the late Bob “Bear” Hite, of the group Canned Heat. As delivered by their lead singer James “ Sugar Boy” Crawford, this is maybe the worst/best spoken (and acted) performance of romantic misery ever recorded.
9. Here’s London O’Connor again. “Nobody Hangs Out Anymore” is a near-perfect expression of generalised ennui, and the feelings that end up getting blamed on who-ever’s around to be blamed. “Love Song” is that same feeling wistfully projected onto the (lack of) romance, and is nailed down with a killer last verse.
10. Finally and obviously, Talking Heads made an entire career of songs about anxiety and disconnection. Here’s the best of them “ Once In a Lifetime” caught in a great live performance …alongside “Failure” – a track by Swans that’s so crushingly depressing that it achieves almost the same giddy effect.