DRAW BACK YOUR BOW
Love, the most used word and subject in popular music. An industry was built on it. From the ecstasy of a goodnight kiss to the agony of a break-up. It has all been documented in a three-minute song. But why are there so many? Simple answer. They’re relatable. Most will experience love. And because a heart is too easy to break.
The love song came into its own in the mid-fifties with the birth of the teenager. Record companies employed songwriters to tap into the feelings of their audience. The young songsmiths, working for publishers in New York’s Brill Building, would be chained to pianos churning out songs that told of the purity of dreams in a young girl’s heart.
Goffin and King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Mann and Weil’s You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling and Greenwich and Barry’s Be My Baby are just a drop in the ocean of what was written in the Brill Building. Little love symphonies for the kids – but so, so much more. Oh to see Theodor Adorno dismiss the latter two songs as just capitalism. Produce packaged and sold, purely, for financial gain.
At the same time there was another bunch of writers reflecting the ups and downs of love through music. The genius song craft of Holland, Dozier and Holland et al. Motown: The Sound of Young America. The Tracks Of My Tears, Stop! In The Name Of Love, (Love Is Like A) Heat Wave etc. Most Motown music, the great 7”s, dealt mainly with romance. And these records shifted big numbers. A band from Liverpool knew this. The Beatles’ debut single, Love Me Do, was one of the first songs Lennon and McCartney wrote together. Their first number one, on both sides of the Atlantic, was She Loves You.
Not all these songs are, “I love you, you love me.” There are many existential positions that cloud the picture. Distance: “I love you, you love me … but we’re far apart. Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Jimmy Webb’s By The Time I Get To Phoenix is another example. A man crossing states and imagining what his girlfriend is doing while he travels further and further away from her. Mortality and ageing: “I love you … wherever you are.” John Prine’s Hello In There. Prine sings of a relationship fading as the years go by. The unrequited love torture song: “I love you, you don’t love me, and so I’m going to cut my head off.” OK, maybe not so severe as that, but you get the picture.
These songs are not only reserved for the monster hit with equally monster production. They’re found everywhere. Punk band The Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve). Love Will Tear Us Apart by, post-punk band, Joy Division. Bands signed to small independent labels wrote the most achingly beautiful love songs throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. You’re The One Lee by Miracle Legion, R.E.M.’s You Are The Everything, The La’s There She Goes, Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You and a song that always floors me -Michael Head’s Somethin’ Like You.
It’s all about the connection to the song. Some songs resonate straight away. Some take on new meanings when shared.
The following ten songs are the soundtrack to the first ten minutes of any relationship you’ve ever watched blossom before your eyes and also the soundtrack to the last ten minutes of any relationship you’ve ever watched crumble before your eyes. Music for the romantic and ruined romantic in all of us.
1. Terry Callier – What Color Is Love
“Is it wrong, or is it right/Is it black or is it white/ What color is love?”
If ever confirmation is needed that music is the greatest art form, Terry Callier’s finest work silences that doubt. The power of the song lies in its fragile nature. It asks questions but fears the stability of the answers.
2. Jackson Browne – Late For The Sky
“Awake again, I can’t pretend/And I know I’m alone/And close to the end of the feeling we’ve known.”
You know, you just do, when a song starts and it’s going to have you in bits. From the opening piano arpeggios, to David Lindley’s crying guitar licks, it’s game over. A man madly in love, striving to make that love work. Late For The Sky captures the nuances of the last gasp.
3. John Prine – Hello In There
“Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more/She sits and stares through the back door screen/And all the news just repeats itself/Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.”
A lifetime condensed to under five minutes. Ageing, loneliness, and death. A person fading away, not asking for much – just to be acknowledged. The killer is when the song’s narrator stops communicating with the love of his life. A subject rarely addressed in song – the loneliness of old age. Sometimes, the price of a memory is the sorrow it brings.
4. Aretha Franklin – Never Let Me Go
“Cry your eyes/No tears no sorrow/Cling to me/With all your might/And never let me go.”
Great soul – no gap between the singer’s emotions and their music. If this doesn’t pierce your being, then a visit to the doctor is in order. No gimmicks, no synthetic enhancements, just pure undulated greatness – special doesn’t even come close. A song about embracing the now, because who knows what tomorrow will bring.
5. John Martyn – You Can Discover
“Sometimes our story’s just too beautiful to tell/Like the bells on a Sunday, blues on a Monday, go together well.”
John Martyn had an incredible gift of turning what his heart was feeling, into song. A musician with very few equals. His music draws you into relatable situations, and illuminates and poetically heightens them. You Can Discover chronicles the darkness and light of a relationship, with its capacity to bring joy, but also inflict hurt.
Part 2 of top 10 love songs for Valentines Day is HERE.