Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Blue is the colour

I have some 1,500 favourite songs stored on my phone. These represent the musical background to my life so far, from age twelve onward. With very, very few exceptions, they were the pop chart successes of their day, the only music I was ever exposed to, and some people have been rather sniffy about the fact that these songs were so popular, as if this damns them. But I don't care. My songs all stir a memory, or conjure up a state of excitement, or recreate an atmosphere, or in some way are personally important. And that's all that really matters. They are the soundtrack to my life, not anyone else's. So if anyone is disdainful about any of these 1,500 songs, and dismisses them as commercial fodder for the uncritical and easily-satisfied, it's not going to bother me.

My collection is not complete; I occasionally hear songs that I've long forgotten, and want to add them. I also hear the odd contemporary song that I want too. And one of the joys of living in 2017 is the ease with which you can buy the mp3 track from Amazon, and download it onto the phone, and then copy it to the laptop. I do prefer to buy and 'own' my music, in the form of files, rather than subscribe to a music-streaming service.

To be frank, I am not interested in most of the new music now available on subscription. I find a lot of it unappealing, lacking in originality, and (given lyrics that are audible and comprehensible) the 'message' or 'meaning' is often irrelevant to my developed personal view on what really matters in life. And I'm certainly not prepared to pay for a zillion songs, most of them mediocre.

There's no dross in my modest collection of 1,500-odd songs. They come mostly from the 1960s and 1970s; but the collection actually spans over a hundred years, from Scott Joplin's ragtime of around 1900 to the likes of Paloma Faith in 2015. Plus some classical and operatic.

It's very unfashionable to say so, but I need to emphasise that music isn't central to my life, not at all. It's only on the edge. I admire musicality in friends, and their skill if they can play a musical instrument well. I enjoy set-piece things like the Last Night of the Proms. But I'd never voluntarily go to a gig to hear some live rock band. So please don't ever ask me to.

I do listen to my own music collection every day - while I'm in the bathroom, say, or ironing - but on my phone. I don't do 'serious listening' with a full set of hi-tech equipment. Buying expensive audio equipment would be pointless, anyway: my hearing isn't the best. A phone with earbuds will do, or just the sound that comes out of the phone's little speaker.

Most of the time I prefer silence. I live in a quiet house. The sound meter installed on my phone sometimes registers only 15db in my lounge. That's pretty quiet. Bliss.

I was fortunate enough to begin taking an interest in popular music from age ten, from 1962. That was too late to know Rock and Roll, but Easy Listening was in full swing, and I was in time to catch the rise of the Beatles and the entire 1960s music explosion in the UK and the USA. What a privilege to live through all that, and not this present age of banality and endless remakes. I was, despite being deaf to anything cool, an avid follower of the charts right through to the early 1980s. After then, only whatever accidentally came to my attention.

The song lyrics of decades ago were not the same as they are now. For one thing, you could generally hear them very distinctly: they were properly sung. And they included words and concepts that you won't hear nowadays.

Consider the lyrics of The Teddy Bears' 1958 hit To Know Him Is To Love Him:

To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
Just to see him smile, makes my life worthwhile
To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
And I do (and I do, and I do...)

I'll be good to him, I'll bring love to him
Everyone says there'll come a day when I'll walk alongside of him
Yes, just to know him is to love, love, love him
And I do...

Why can't he see, how blind can he be
Someday he'll see that he was meant for me, oh yes...

To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
Just to see him smile, makes my life worthwhile
To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him
And I do (and I do, and I) yes I do (and I do, and I) yes I do...

Hmm. Rather narrow ambitions here! To be fair, the late Amy Winehouse's 2007 version kept to the same lyrics. Although surely her prime concern was to re-create the sound of the song, rather than promote its 1958 attitude.

Another example. Susan Maugham's 1962 hit Bobby's Girl, which had lyrics that went like this:

I wanna be Bobby's girl 
I wanna be Bobby's girl 
That's the most important thing to me-ee
And if I was Bobby's girl 
If I was Bobby's girl 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be 

When people ask of me
What would you like to be 
Now that your not a kid anymore-ore
(You're not a kid any more)
I know just what to say
I answer right away 
There's just one thing I've been wishin' for-or

I wanna be Bobby's girl 
I wanna be Bobby's girl 
That's the most important thing to me-ee
And if I was Bobby's girl 
If I was Bobby's girl 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be 

Each day I stay at home
Hopin' that he will phone 
But I think Bobby has someone e-else 
(You're not a kid any more)
Still in my heart I pray
There soon will come a day 
When I will have him all to myse-elf 

I wanna be Bobby's girl 
I wanna be Bobby's girl 
That's the most important thing to me-ee
And if I was Bobby's girl 
If I was Bobby's girl 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be 
What a faithful, thankful girl I'd be-ee

Staying at home? By the telephone? And this boy is all she wants from life? Really?

Perhaps I am missing something - something called Being Young. But it remains my impression that girls have much more choice nowadays, and although securing a man may be among their ambitions, it's not the only or overriding one, and certainly not being his eternal devoted emotional slave.

Songs featuring 'girl wants boy' or 'boy wants girl' lyrics took a long time to shuffle off the stage. Many of these songs included a word that I have never heard anyone say in real life: 'blue'. Meaning 'sad' or 'despondent' or 'heart-broken'. Perhaps it was always too much of a cliché to say to someone 'I'm feeling blue' when feeling unloved or rejected. So, face-to-face, lovers suffering emotional shipwreck said something else.

Why 'blue' anyway? It's true that colours are often used to describe emotional states, as in:

Black with thunderous bad temper
White with anger
Purple with rage
Red with embarrassment
Green with envy

So why is blue the colour for lovelorn sadness? Why not yellow? Or orange? Or grey? Somehow an irrational convention must have got established. Songwriters would of course be pleased to use 'blue' in lyrics, as it rhymed with 'do', 'who', 'new', 'too', 'two', 'woo', and of course 'you'. But it was an easy, empty formula word, acceptable in 1960 but not so by 1980. I was surprised that the lyrics of many ABBA songs of the 1970s continued to use it. And it seems a very dated word now. If I asked an upset friend nowadays, 'Are you feeling blue?' they would surely give me a strange look, and wonder whether I was really making a serious attempt to empathise and comfort them, or just taking the mickey.

I don't want this post to become a general discussion of long-abandoned words and expressions, but there have been many words used in songs that will puzzle future generations, not just 'blue'. Take, for instance, 'gas', as in the phrase 'it's a gas'. This was current slang around the late 1960s, just as 'sock it to me' was, and by the time 'it's a gas' had been taken up for general use (by my generation, not my parents') it was already dead among its originators. I came across it the other day, when listening to The Rolling Stones singing these words from their 1969 hit Jumpin' Jack Flash:

I was born in a cross-fire hurricane
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain,
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right. I'm jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! Gas! Gas!

I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag,
I was schooled with a strap right across my back,
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, I'm jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! Gas! Gas!

I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead.
I fell down to my feet and I saw they bled.
I frowned at the crumbs of a crust of bread.
Yeah, yeah, yeah
I was crowned with a spike right thru my head.
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, I'm jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! Gas! Gas!

Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash, it's a gas
Jumping jack flash

Something being a 'gas' sounds as if it might be a Good Thing, but at this remove it's hard to know what that goodness actually consisted of. I'm guessing it was 'good' in the druggy 'good trip' sense, but I'm probably wrong. Future historians may have no idea at all. I hope they won't feel blue about it.

1 comment:

  1. Maintaining your blue theme, how about buying a Bluetooth receiver to plug into your sound system? Mine cost about £15 from Amazon. You could then relax in your lounge to Bobby's Girl in glorious hi-fi.

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