By The Landlord
“Many individuals have, like uncut diamonds, shining qualities beneath a rough exterior.” – Juvenal
“When life is real, it's not going to be smooth.” – Mary J Blige
"Textures apply to everything I do. Even within my music, I like smooth things, and then hard and fluffy things, all giving them their place to shine.” – FKA Twigs
Roughly three weeks ago, this coming week’s guest guru and other readers joked, following the then, admittedly massive topic of funk songs, which I opted to curate, that the next time he took the chair, the subject would be the even more vast landscape of “rock songs”. And so it is, partly! But this week’s topic is not restricted to that musical genre, nor is it centred on the obvious joke of rocks, as in geology. Instead, we turn to qualities associated with both, but actually reaching into all strands of music and life. So with that, I invite you, dear friends and readers, to use your considerable musical knowledge and talent for imaginative, lateral thinking to unearth, from the smooth pebbles to the rough sands of your collections, all manner of music related to these qualities, whether they be, in lyrics – idiomatic, metaphorical or literal.
What could that be? First, in nominated song lyrics, which hopefully will be evocative, we could touch on any kind of surface, entering a tactile world of anything from marble to gravel, rabbit fur to shark’s skin, wood to wool, bobbles to brambles, silk to sandpaper, beards to baby or other bottoms. The essential thing is that lyrics mention these or any other surfaces in reference to their rough or smooth qualities, our any sensual quality in between. To get you closer, let’s take a look at a video that shows how rough looking many apparently smooth things can be, including the mountainous alien world of vinyl, the prickly forests of eyelashes, the ropey mess of dental floss, the spikiness of a fly’s eye, the rough, rocky surface of a human nail, and even the ribbed roughness of apparently soft, strong toilet paper. Perish the thought what that rough, crinkly stuff many of used to be forced to used in our early school days would look like:
Look under the surface, or get close up, and all things that seem to be smooth are rough. Life is like that too. In a famous passage of the second part of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel’s, A Voyage to Brobdingnag, where instead of being a giant in a land of tiny people in Lilliput, our hapless hero is suddenly a tiny figure in a land of giants. Among other adventures, including fighting a giant wasp, and carried off by a monkey, he is brought into the service of the queen. There in her chambers he is adopted as a plaything by her female staff, who treat him as a toy, and toss him around, undressing in front of him and even bouncing them on their breasts. In close-up, instead of being erotic, their smooth skin, “so coarse and uneven”, is full of pockmarks and bulbous blemishes. He describes the nursemaid like this:
“I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast, which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the curious reader an idea of its bulk, shape, and colour. It stood prominent six feet, and could not be less than sixteen in circumference. The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug, so varied with spots, pimples, and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous.”
This reminds me of a rather different scene in a Woody Allen film. But don’t let this put you off. I’m sure there will be plenty of songs which describe the smooth, sensual texture of skin and sexy other things without that rather unique perspective.
And what is the smoothest surface in the world? Apparently it is the "quantum stabilised atom mirror" an innovation used in the design of the world's first atomic microscope. That’s certainly a smooth operation, as even a mirror under a microscope can look bumpy and blemished.
What we call rough and smooth varies considerably, and this perspective makes this subject all the richer. Collie dogs all look fluffy and soft to me, but there are smooth (shorter hair) and rough (longer) furred varieties, perhaps not unlike the difference between sheep’s wool and rabbit fur.
Nature then is a perfect balance of rough and smooth, from fur to claws, from bark to leaf, from water to rock, glass to sand. Smooth and rough are inextricably linked, just as rough sandpaper applied to surfaces makes them its opposite. The world needs friction and grip as much as it needs to glide. And our own designs employ that same combination, mimicking nature. We use loofahs and pumice stones in our bathrooms to smooth our rough skin.
Table tennis bats, for example, are double-sided (marked by colours), one for smashing the ball, the other with tiny bobbles to allow for spinning and slicing. And cricketers continuously rub one side of the ball on their trousers, making one rough and one smooth, to help the ball apparently reverse swing through with this handy uneven quality. Some even take it further with "ball tampering". Either that, or it’s some weird, masturbatory ball-scratching ritual from our primate days when we just copy each other for social reasons.
But aside from the sensual sensual world, your song examples of rough and smooth will at least as much touch on other associations. As Shakespeare put it: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Like is tough and rough, and we constantly battle with it in order to make it smooth. As Jimmy Cliff put it, it’s a rough, rough way to go:
People of course take on these qualities too. Are you, for example, a smooth operator or a rough boy. A diamond in the rough or a smooth criminal? Again it is a combination of such qualities that make the world go round. A mixture of roughness and smoothness in masculinity seems to be attractive, and many songs capture that. “I will stir the smooth sands of monotony,” said Peter O’Toole. And Jerry Hall has now popped into the bar to describe when she first met the Roxy Music front man:
“When I was young, I was a sucker for smooth men. Bryan Ferry hired me, at 19, to be painted blue and dress up as a mermaid for the cover of his album 'Siren.' It was love at first sight.”
It was a good job she didn’t marry him though. Otherwise she would have had the rather ridiculous name of Jerry Ferry. Having said that, while a no doubt intelligent woman, who had a long relationship with Mick Jagger, what the hell is she doing marrying Rupert Murdoch? Diamond in the rough? Or just a multi-billionaire?
Lady Gaga, in one song, says she “likes it rough”. I’m sure she likes it smooth too. Here’s Dana Bryant, for example, describing a smooth character who no doubt can also treat his ladies rough:
In turn, there are no doubt many references, in song to the smoothness and roughness of the female species, both in form, and behaviour. You can’t have one without the other, and take both.
Musical styles of rough and smooth? That’s very much a secondary and subjective angle. If your suggestions accompany this with the lyrical subject or content of the song, then that’s good, but what we want to avoid is endless examples of ‘smooth’ jazz or fusion, or ‘rough’ metal that have nothing to do with the topic.
Life may be a bumpy ride, but this week’s smooth operator, I’m delighted to say, is the terrific takeitawayGuru, who will no doubt polish all of your suggestions into smooth sculpture, hewn from the rough musical rock of ages. Place your suggestions in comments below in time for the deadline on Monday evening 11pm UK time, for playlists published next Wednesday.
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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.