By The Landlord
“First the doctor told me the good news: I was going to have a disease named after me.” – Steve Martin
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” – Mel Brooks
“I only hate two things – living things, and objects.” – Jerry Sadowitz
“The bad news is nothing lasts forever. The good news is nothing lasts forever.” – J. Cole
Must the best sad songs always sound downbeat? And are happy songs, by necessity, always jaunty? Music and lyrics often work well when form and content are similarly matched, but they can be far more potent when polar opposites. As Charles Dickens, that grand narrator of optimism through grim Victorian times, puts it in The Pickwick Papers: “There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.”
So this week the topic is songs that have wonderfully uplifting music but their lyrical content touches on, or delves into the darkest matters - heartbreak, death, illness and misery in its many forms. But we are not swallowed by those emotions or stories described, because the music that delivers them simultaneously lifts us up, inspiring laughter, and unlocks comedy, tragedy or empathy – and that contrast, often the starker the better, is where the magic lies.
Such songs can have a peculiar effect on us, but often the equation of the depressing plus the upbeat equals the inevitable result of black humour and complex feelings. So this week, to set the ball rolling, I’ll offer a few songs that have mostly been chosen for other topics that do this. To begin with, you can’t get much darker and funnier than an upbeat song during crucifixion, as brilliantly whistled (see songs about whistling) by Eric Idle and the Monty Python team in The Life of Brian. Why?
“For life is quite absurd,
And death's the final word,
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin
Give the audience a grin
Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.”
The key thing here is that the perspective may be upbeat, but the topic is grim, and most of all the music is remorselessly cheerful.
Plenty of performers and writers have entered the Bar this week with a spring in their step, but a doleful message in words. “The rest of us can find happiness in misery,” say the band Fall Out Boy. “There's always this weird dark humour within a lot of Depeche Mode songs that people miss, tongue-in-cheek and also very British,” says Dave Gahan. “Bad news has good legs,” meanwhile reads Richard Llewellyn from his book, How Green Was My Valley.
Now a couple of dead comedians are hear to confirm what this is all about. “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious,” announces Peter Ustinov, drolly. “Yes! Comedy is acting out optimism,” says Robin Williams.
But perhaps the true master of contrasting music and lyrics is that witty deliverer of bad news, the American singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer, who, during this live performance later titled An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, did this in 1959, when nuclear holocaust really felt on the horizon. He tells us, with that jaunty piano style and grinning voice delivery:
“And we will all bake together when we bake
There'll be nobody present at the wake
With complete participation
In that grand incineration
Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak.”
The “optimism” here, apart from the music of course, is in the idea that we will not need to attend each others' funerals or grieve, although, when you think about it, going up an a sizzling nuclear inferno is a quite a big price to pay. By contrast however, the wonderfully dark film Harold and Maude, about a relationship between a 79-year-old woman and a death-obsessed young man, has dark humour running through it like lines through a stick of rock. They meet at a funeral of someone neither of them know, simply because they enjoy the aesthetics of coffin processions, and Harold constantly rehearses suicidal scenes to attract the attention of his cold-hearted, indifferent mother. A dark shadow plays across the plot, but in the meantime, the film is decorated with the funeral flowers of enjoying life while you can, and wonderful songs by Cat Stevens:
Perhaps though the most potent and common form of music-lyric contrast in heartbreak over relationships, and best of all in the era of Motown, which will surely feature highly this week, with hundreds of terrific songs about lost love but delivered in the most uplifting music ever written. Side-stepping this for now, here’s parallel one by the British band, The Foundations, with Build Me Up Buttercup, one of the most uplifting songs every way in its music, putting a true spring in the step, but really it’s all about relationship disappointment:
“Why do you build me up (build me up) buttercup, baby
Just to let me down (let me down) and mess me around?”
Meanwhile Outkast’s wonderful Hey Ya! is less about being messed around or failing to get into a relationship, more about the sadness around how breakup might be inevitable. But you’d never imagine so by listening to the music:
“Then what makes love the exception?
So why, oh, why, oh
Why, oh, why, oh, why, oh
Are we still in denial when we know we're not happy here.”
Pop songs work on many levels of perception, and often they are successful because they are uplifting despite lyrical content, or because those lyrics are shrouded or ignored. Moreover, many songs not even understood on a deeper level because listeners may only pick up on certain hooks or phrases, or because their commercial success is about the sounds of the words, not their meanings. The Monkees were put together to sell records for that very reason, but in Last Train To Clarksville, the romantic farewell to has a very dark side. Written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, it pertains to heading off to the Vietnam War because with that telling final line: “I don't know if I'm ever coming home.”
Talking of Vietnam, can there be any song that makes you want to dance more, but tells a more tragic tale than that of this by Jimmy Cliff. The description of the mother receiving the official letter is heartbreaking.
Not all music-lyric contrast songs are about war, death or relationships. Morrissey’s lyrics are famously depressing, but perhaps the true secret of The Smiths’ success is how his words were such a deep contrast to the extraordinarily positive, life-affirming style inherent in the guitar work of Johnny Marr. You only need to read their autobiographies to see the contrast. In Rusholme Ruffians, we hear of urban fights and walking home alone, but Marr’s guitar and the rest of the music is perhaps here at its most potent by contrast:
Loneliness, in especially mental health problems can be powerful in lyrics, but there’s nothing more difficult to listen to than a depressing-sounding song about depression. So by contrast, let’s have a song on that subject, but delivered in the very opposite by Lawrence, formerly of Felt and Denim, but here from the recent album by Go-Kart Mozart, which no doubt contains some level of autobiography by the talented songwriter who has no doubt had more than his fair share of dark times:
We began with Monty Python and dying, and so let’s end with the Monty Python and dying. From The Meaning of Life. It takes a lot to stop the jaunty stiff upper lip of a posh English dinner party or the chatty optimism of American guests. So let’s see what happens when, by stark contrast, the Grim Reaper arrives. Beware of the salmon mousse.
And so then, this week’s upbeat optimist conducting songs about the downright depressing is the highly perceptive philipphilip99! Welcome behind the pumps! Deadline (an exceptionally appropriate word on some lyrics) for your upbeat-sounding songs is 11pm UK time on Monday, for playlists published next Wednesday. I’m sure the contrasts coming in will not only be stark, but also superb.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.