Monday, 14 November 2016

The Sadness of Sixties Songs

I barely listen to the charts now, but the last time I did, most of the songs seemed to be about a) getting laid, b) getting high, c) how wonderful the singer thought his unstable, overweight girlfriend was. Or maybe I just heard too many songs written by Keisha and James Blunt.

Because we had real songs back when I was a lad at school. Oh yes. Like the Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Suzy, in which the singer tells his girlfriend that they've overslept and their reputations are shot. Or Gary Puckett singing, on family US TV, about nearly getting tricked by some jail-bait into a statutory story.

Like that would get past the legal department now.

But mostly the songs were about unrequited love, loneliness, heartbreak and death. Ode to Billy Joe was a chart song and Bobby Gentry is loved for it. It's about the suicide of the singer's boyfriend and the callous reactions of her family.

Real family entertainment. These weren't indie cult songs. These were concert-hall filling acts whose records sold in the hundreds of thousands. This was what played on the radio and the juke-box. Mainstream.

The Seekers, a hugely popular Australian band, and as apple-pie as you could wish. Island of Dreams is about someone trying to forget a love affair on “the island of dreams”, and life in the real world cannot compare to the life there.

And as for the boppy escapism of A World of Our Own?

Traffic’s first hit single was Paper Sun in May 1967.

It’s the story of a young girl who winds up abandoned on the beach after a summer affair with a young man who spends all her money. That’s almost as upbeat as John Boorman’s 1965 masterpiece Catch Us If You Can, written by Peter Nichols (who went on to write other upbeat movies such as Five Easy Pieces), and is nowhere near as much fun as the song. Except that song isn’t really about fun, since the second verse says
Now we gotta run, mmmm-mm-mm
No more time for fun, mmmm-mm-mm
When we're gettin' angry, mmmm-mm-mm
We will yell with all of our might
Despite that, it reached number 5 in the UK and number 4 in the US in 1965.

One of the brightest, shiniest songs there is, The Happening, sung by The Supremes, was actually about the moment you find out that life is not a fairy tale, but is a little bit of a disappointment. That’s “the happening”. Check the lyrics.

Exhibt Two: The Hollies’ Bus Stop for one. They balanced that with the breezy Carrie Anne, who only went out with the older boys, had no time for the pining singer and has the immortal lines: “you lost your charm as you were ageing / where is your magic? Disappearing”. As for Stop Stop Stop, it’s about a man over-reacting to a stripper and being thrown out of the club. And in case you think Look Through Any Window is an upbeat celebration of everyday life, remember that the singer is inviting us to look through the window, so that we are on the inside looking out, and the singer is asking "Where do they go? / Moving on their way / Walking down the highway / And the by-way". Real life is out there, and we're behind the window.

What they hey was going on?

Regret, loss, sadness, emotionally distant, compromised lives lived far from an island of dreams are adult experiences. Don’t Sleep In The Subway is about a reasonably stable grown-up telling a more volatile one that whatever the row was over isn’t worth sleeping in the subway or standing in the pouring rain.

These were songs for adults dressed up with bright tunes and some sparkling misleading imagery. Films, songs and novels were still aimed at adults, since they made up the largest market. I grew up then, and one thing we were clear on: being a grown-up was no fun.

One function of culture is to provide us with emotions and thoughts we would not ordinarily have in our daily lives. If we are caught in a dull routine under grey skies, a sad song about an Island of Dreams can be as much a support or a means of escape as a jolly tune. If not more. It says there is something out there that is more and better, even if it is out of reach, and the idea of it can provide hope. If it is dangerous to feel sad about our actual lives, we can more safely feel sad about the distance between our lives and something easier and more pleasant. Nobody wants to be a full-time beach-bum, but if it's only for one summer, how bad could it be, when reality is a long bus-ride to a job in the town's only department store? At the end of Catch Us If You Can, the advertising mogul says to the runaway model "I got here in the end", and the model's reply is "Yes, but you missed the journey". If dull adulthood awaits us all, can't we have some fun on the way there?

And then we have Goffin and King’s 1966 song Going Back. Sung by Dusty Springfield, it takes on an emotional depth far beyond the music and lyrics.

Dusty sings with sadness and vulnerability that says she is choosing to return to the simpler feelings and truths of childhood because the compromises and isolation of adulthood have exhausted her. That's not the song that Carole King wrote. Going Back says that adulthood is not worth it. It's the song of a young person who has taken a look, had a brief taste, and cannot see any benefits. We cannot avoid growing older, but we can stay young in heart and mind, and see the world in simpler terms. That way we "can play the game of life to win" and "live our days / instead of counting our years". That was how my generation felt, and we were barely teenagers.

It turns out that the dreary adulthood of the Golden Age depends on some very specific economic conditions: near-full employment, job security, some opportunity for promotion, seniority-based pay scales, and the promise of a decent pension. With those you can trap people. And when everyone is living like that, one song can speak to millions. Under the present exact conditions of really existing Capitalism, we are broken up into economic micro-segments, each with its own fears and resources, each generating its own emotional needs and lacks, each unable to identify and act or feel in solidarity with the other, and each with its own special music to add to the highs and fill in the lows. One song cannot now speak to millions. But once it could.

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