My taste in music has been largely informed and influenced by my family. Anyone who has seen my work on Fictionpress (or even at University) can see how important music is to me. The truth is, it’s important to my whole family. In this house, in the morning, there’s sometimes three radios on; Nation Radio playing in the bathroom and my bedroom, and Radio 2 in my parent’s bedroom as me and my mum get ready for work. As a kid, I remember the house always being full with music of various kinds. Trips to my great-grandparents (most likely about half hour, but back then it felt like it took half the day) meant Queen playing in the car, despite Dad’s objections. When we discovered Napster, Mum, my two brothers and myself downloaded everything and anything we could get our hands on. From that point, car trips meant playing the CD we had burnt for my dad, involving some of his favourite hits. Most of these were pretty sad – heartbreak and death being the main theme running through them. Thinking about the songs that were usually played when I was growing up, it’s no surprise really that I’m drawn, even now, to songs with real stories behind them. Maybe it’s partly the writer in me, too. Either way, I decided to compile a list of five songs with great stories to them, mostly from the sixties and seventies, and the ones that make up just part of my dad’s music collection. Enjoy!
1. Keith West – Excerpt from a Teenage Opera (Grocer Jack)
If you haven’t yet heard this song, or never really listened to the words, please listen now. I’ll wait. Done? Okay, good. This is one of those songs that I heard countless times as a child, but it wasn’t until I was a bit older – and hadn’t heard it for years – that the words really struck me. As a kid, I thought Jack had simply left town. In reality, his heart was weak and after years of working for the townspeople with no affection or thanks from them, he dies. It’s a sad, sad story, and one of the most powerful things about the song is the use of the kids. They don’t understand what’s happened to him, as much as I didn’t understand it years ago. It draws out a great emotional response, especially at the end.
Best line: Is it true what Mummy says, you won’t come back?
2. Bobby Goldsboro – Honey
One of the reasons I think this song works so well is because some of it does sound light-hearted, especially the parts in the song that talk of stories revolving around Honey, including her worrying about his reaction to the car, or being embarrassed that he will find her watching sad shows in the afternoon. Throughout it all, there’s such a sense of love between the two. Their story is told in just under four minutes and, yes, it is a much better love story than Twilight. Their relationship is revealed to the listener through little tales, and there’s a nice sense of subtly when he tells of coming home early one evening. It works because he has made you feel for Honey as much as he does, in the same way you would feel for any character in any book, and it makes it that much sadder.
Best line: I came home unexpectedly, and caught her crying needlessly, in the middle of the day.
3. Ricky Valance – Tell Laura I Love Her
Well, I had no idea he was Welsh. One up for us, I guess. Moving on…as the video explains, Ricky Valance bucked the tread for ‘death songs’, and did pretty damn well with this one. It’s a beautiful, haunting story of a man so in love with his girlfriend he risks his life in order to give her an expensive engagement ring. He doesn’t really even get to speak to his beloved one last time. The image of him riding to his death in a car race is simple but oddly powerful, and his echoes in the chapel as Laura prays…there’s also a bittersweet feel to it. I doubt Laura would have wanted something expensive. Of course, in songs like these there’s little we really get to know about the characters, meaning we fill in the blanks. Which means I can say Laura wouldn’t have minded a piece of rope for a ring, and someone else could say Laura was a selfish cow who wanted an expensive ring and therefore killed him, but we’d both be right. Yet I doubt it’s the second one. There’s too much love there, from Tommy, and as it says at the start, ‘he wanted to give her everything’. It’s sad because in love, you do want the person to have everything.
Best line: No one knows what happened that day, how his car overturned in flames…
4. John Leyton – Johnny Remember Me
This song is pretty haunting. The imagery is enough to make any writer jealous, in a over-the-top sort of way. Mainly because songs can actually do that sort of thing effectively, whereas in writing it would just fall flat. Anyway, the descriptions work to create a scene in a short space, important for any song. And the addition of the female in the background…again, haunting. You can imagine a lone man wandering through some woods, trapped in his own memories and trapped by his past. That’s what’s so sad about it; not just the death of his loved one, but the fact that she’s always there with him, reminding him. There’s almost a touch of hope in one line, where he sings about finding a new love, but you know any relationship he has in the future is going to be overshadowed by her death. It is, in essence, the story of a man who cannot move on.
Best line: Yes I’ll always remember, till the day I die, I’ll hear her cry, Johnny, remember me…
5. Meatloaf – Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad
The only song on this list that isn’t about death. Instead, it’s about something that at times can be just as devastating. Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad has the ability to make me tear up every time I hear it. Anyone who has ever loved and lost can relate to the words. It’s the breakdown of a relationship, of a man who just can’t love the girl he’s with. And you can feel the pain, for both of them. Again, it’s easy to picture; him, reaching for her, her – curled up, perhaps – refusing to look at him or acknowledge him. The thing is, who’s to say what he feels isn’t love? And who’s to say you could stay with someone, if they’ve already told you love – as far as they know – isn’t something they can feel? It’s hard, and painful, because there’s so much emotion there. Let’s face it, Meatloaf’s love songs are powerful. He does have a great voice, and he manages to convey so much here. The saddest thing about this isn’t what’s happening during the song; it’s the before and after. It’s the creation of this vicious cycle, the idea that he’s still in love with a woman who’s still in love with somebody she used to know, so what happens to the girl he’s singing to here? Two out of three may not be bad, but it depends on what the missing factor is – it can easily outweigh the other two he – or she – can offer.
And, after being in any break-up, the song hits home even harder. That’s what makes it so God damn powerful. You can relate to it; you can see where he’s coming from and you can feel her pain.
Best Line: She kept on telling me, I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. Now don’t be sad, ‘cos two out of three ain’t bad.
Notable Mentions: Meatloaf – Not A Dry Eye In The House, The Shangri-Las – Leader of the Pack, Dr Hook – Sylvia’s Mother, Driver 67 – Car 67, Johnny Preston – Running Bear
So, what about you? Any great stories, hidden in songs (sad or happy) that you want to share?