It sure was great seeing Paul McCartney perform on the David Letterman show recently. It brought back lots of great memories of some great songs from my youth. It was an inspired touch to have him performing on top of the building marquee, recalling the Beatles’ final public performance on a London rooftop 40 years ago. He looked great for a guy in his sixties; a little jowly maybe, but hardly deserving of the steel girders propping up the marquee beneath him.
As a baby boomer, the soundtrack of my youth included a stunning variety of the most innovative music ever produced. Much of what we still recall today justly deserves the designation of “classic.” However, there are quite a few compositions that would be better off lost.
Some of these songs just had unfortunate titles. There was a Journey hit of the seventies, a soaring melody sung by Steve Perry, one of the best power ballads of the time until it came to the chorus of “So now I come to you, with broken arms.” There was the Boston classic “Four-Letter Feeling,” truly great guitar rock unnecessarily spoiled by the suggestive title. Even the Beatles themselves, widely acknowledged for three generations now as the greatest pop group of all time, stumbled with the unfortunately titled “Hey Jew.”
Other songs may have seemed like a good idea in an earlier, less-sophisticated time, yet just don’t fit the politically correct sensibilities of today. Take “Young Girl,” a number-two smash from 1968 by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap:
Young girl get out of my mind
My love for you is way out of line
You better run girl
You’re much too young girl
With all the charms of a woman
You’re just a baby in disguise
And though you know that it’s wrong to be alone with me
That come-on look is in your eyes.
It might be easy to dismiss a little-known band trafficking in pedophilia like the Union Gap, but even some of the greats had moments of questionable judgment. John Lennon wrote lyrics to “Run for Your Life” that included the line “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to see you with another man.” Neil Young penned “A Man Needs a Maid,” reacting to a fictional breakup with the reassuring thought that he could always pay “someone to keep my house clean, fix my meals, and go away.”
There is a difference, I would contend, between popular songs about misogyny and sex crimes with minors, and the songs that are bad for more innocent reasons. These are the so-called “guilty pleasures” that populate many of our iPod playlists, mine included. When you’re looking for a certain beat, a catchy interlude or a fond but distant memory to inspire your workout at the gym, quality of composition is not a prerequisite.
So here I come clean with some of the favorites from my music player, along with an attempt to justify my choices. If no justification is possible, I’ll admit that too.
“I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” by Abba. Answering the musical question “Do you realize how many people loathe your music? Do ya? Hunh? Do ya? Do ya?”
“The Stroke” by Billy Squier. A rhythmic masterpiece (or master-something) containing the unforgettable lyric “stroke me, stroke me, do it, stroke me, stroke me.”
“The Good Ship Lifestyle” by Chumbawumba. Inexcusable.
“Life in a Northern Town” by the Dream Academy. If the makers of Ambien set up a charter school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, this might be their senior class project.
“1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky. Originally composed for a cereal commercial in the 1960s (“this is the cereal that’s shot from guns,” for those of you under 50), the piece was later adapted and expanded for use at the conclusion of the annual Boston Pops Fourth of July concert. I’m pretty sure it’s the only song on my playlist that features a solo for cannons, and makes me wish Abba had thought to write more music for medium-range artillery.
“All We Like Sheep” from Handel’s Messiah. A celebration of our relationship with the Lord, or, a discussion of the many advantages of domesticated herd animals (wool, mutton, milk, nursery rhymes, etc.). In either case, an inspiring example of Handel’s genius, regardless of whether you’re a Christian or an animist.
“Wind It Up” by Gwen Stefani. What do you get if you combine the yodeling song from “Sound of Music” with a dance-club beat, then throw in the occasional voice of a black guy noting that “she crazy”? My sad, sad attempt to enjoy the latest sounds in pop.
“Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. A breezy summer hit that captured the spirit of warm-weather efforts at “tryin’ to feel good,” until later connections to a certain killer hurricane with 25-foot storm surges dampened Katrina’s career.
“Beautiful Stranger” by Madonna. Indefensible.
“Word Up” by Melanie G. Former Spice Girl tries to go urban but instead ends up in the central business district.
“Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield. Hypnotically repetitive, this piece is best known as the theme from the movie “The Exorcist.” The only lyrics are spoken introductions of the musical instruments – bagpipe guitar, glockenspiel, mandolin, fuzz guitar, Farfisa organ – capped off with the triumphal announcement of “tubular bells!”, apparently a kind of chime.
“Kicks” by Paul Revere and the Raiders. An early anti-drug anthem that would’ve been a lot more effective had it not been sung a band that sported tri-corner hats.
“Grand Hotel” by Procol Harum. Most regrettable.
“Livin’ La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin, “YMCA” by the Village People and “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. There’s just something about the heresy of listening to gay anthems like these while watching Fox News on the Y’s treadmill that gives you a tremendous energy boost.
“El Condor Pasa” by Simon and Garfunkel. This ethereal but little-known piece, featuring ghostly Andean flutes, is either about the endangered scavenging vultures of South America, or Paul Simon’s disappointment at losing a bidding war on a condo in Manhattan.
“Something in the Air” by Thunderclap Newman and “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum. I always thought of these songs as being a paired set, but didn’t realize why until I typed them here and considered the similarities in the titles. They’re both incredibly pretentious.
“Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis. A must for any treadmill runner who looks as bad in shorts as I do.
“Clones (We’re All)” by Alice Cooper. A wonderfully clever song from late in his career, except for The Title (Being Too Clever With).
“How to Kill” by Art of Noise. Inexplicable.
“Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles and “Venus” by Bananarama. These could easily be the same song – “Walk Like a Venutian.”
“How Can I Keep From Singing?” by Enya. One might suggest this now-aging new-age ingénue consider stuffing a large, wet sock in it.
“Flying Dutchman” by Richard Wagner. Not sure you can characterize Hitler’s favorite composer as a “guilty pleasure.” This is also the tune used in the Looney Tunes classic wherein Elmer Fudd, another of history’s homicidal maniacs, sang “kill the wabbit.”
“Circle of Life” by Elton John. I forget now where the circle started for Elton but I know it ended up on a tour with Billy Joel performing before half-filled arenas.