Monday, 25 February 2013
Dear all, sorry about the unexpected gap last week (when our computer Dell Boy was at the doctor’s), but the good news is that A) we’re back again this week and raring to go and B) I’ve put the time to good use by completing this year’s April Fool’s Day article ahead of schedule. You should get your entrance tickets in about a month’s time (heh heh heh there’s a cryptic introduction for you...)
While we’ve been away a number of things have happened. On the website front we’ve now rattled past 47,000 where we left you hanging last time and have now passed 50,000. Woo-hooh! We’ve done particularly well in Sweden the last fortnight (near enough 500 hits) which is now 4th in the ‘countries most addicted to AAA music’ list! I’m not sure if it’s a whole lot of you suddenly tuning in at once or one of you reading one heck of a lot of articles but either way, thankyou very much for reading and we’re very pleased to make your acquaintance! That goes for all you old fans too by the way! We also had another record day last Wednesday when 971 people all logged in within 24 hours would you believe (some major official websites with a proper budget and everything don’t get that, so we’re particularly thrilled!) For some reason Wings’ ‘Venus and Mars’ album seems to have really taken off and now sits at top of the ‘most viewed articles’ column – we really can’t anticipate what will be popular in advance (that review’s been sitting on 16 views for some time now and was written over four years ago!!) Hello to all the new viewers we made that day too!
In other news, hurrah to Cait Reilly, the Geology graduate who took the Government to court over their illegal ‘workfare’ scheme and had her claim upheld on appeal! Forget all the negative things the papers have been saying about people not wanting to work – she was already doing her town a great service with her unpaid volunteer work and quite rightly thought being forced to do unpaid work at a shop that could have been employing people and giving them wages at the risk of losing her benefits and any income she needed to live off amounted to slavery. We’ve been saying for sometime now that workfare broke the law as it stood in the UK and indeed breached every European Rights charter you can think of, so its wonderful news that a judge had the guts to stand up to Cameron and his cronies to disagree, whatever our ill-informed papers seemed to think. And yes, it is slavery not laziness: I’m all for work experience when its paid and there’s a possibility of a job at the end of it, but interrupting someone’s career opportunity for a company that never have any intention of hiring you and is trying to make some free money on the side by hiring unpaid staff is ridiculous. The idea of voluntary work is also that it is, well, voluntary – mandatory work experience positions like this one, where you have no choice if you want enough money to live, are so obviously illegal head of welfare Duncan Smiths’ defence shouldn’t have had a chance of standing up the first time this mess made its way to court. Hopefully this Government will lose every welfare battle they fight now, even with Duncan Smith trying to close up the gap in the law as we speak but, heck, that’s still an outright moral victory to us – and any Government that has to change the law when one of its subjects wins a court case against them clearly has something nasty to hide...We repeat, well done Cait Reilly, far from being ‘an example of everything wrong with this generation’ as the Torygraph said the other day (hopefully they’ll be forced to print another huge apology after their big cgaffe on chronic fatigue a month back) she really is our modern-day Rosa Parks, someone who stood up to a big monster and said ‘no!’ Here’s a far more eloquent discussion on the same topic dealing with all of I ‘Dunce’ S’ mis-truths: http://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/ian-duncan-smith-workfare-propaganda.html. Incidentally, a big boo! To the Poundland shop in London who decided to take down and sell a mural by leading artist Banksy showing a poverty stricken child creating bunting for the Queen’s jubilee weekend, although the adverse publicity they gained as a result is probably making them wish they hadn’t bothered...
As ever, please click on this link for this week’s ‘other’ news stories from lots of AAA bands (well, hopefully, we had a piffling two last week I noticed and one of those wasn’t anything to do with music...)
You can now buy 'Solid Rock - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Dire Straits' by clicking here!
“DIRE STRAITS” (1978)
Down To The Waterline/Water Of Love/Setting Me Up/Six-Blade Knife/Southbound Again//Sultans Of Swing/In The Gallery/Wild West End/Lions
Most of my reviews on Dire Straits thus far have concentrated on how closely the best-selling British band of the 1980s comes to representing their era (long songs, big hair, extended guitar solos, politically edged songs and a return to the spirit of the 1950s) without actually sounding like any other 1980s band that ever existed (a decade when guitars were out and horrid nosiy synths were in). This discussion of the band’s debut album is going to centre largely round a very 1980s theme: money. Many bands think about money, of course, even the rose-glasses hippie believers going-to-run-a-commune ones, but Dire Straits in particular seem fixated by the idea: ‘Money For Nothing’ ‘Love Over Gold’ , the idea of capitalism comes under scrutiny again and again in Mark Knopfler’s lyrics. Even the band name (meaning ‘skint’) shows more thought has gone into the band’s bank balance than in ideas of freedom and love (although there’s plenty of that in their songs too).
Perhaps the circumstances of this under-rated debut record explain why. The band was called what it was by an unknown friend of Knopfler’s in jest, not as an ironic joke but because that’s what they always seemed to be in: Mark had tried several times to break into music with and without the other three in the first line up of the band and at the (by music standards) ancient age of 29 seemed highly unlikely ever to make it in an industry obsessed by youth and looks. Stints working as a teacher and as a journalist specialising in music at the Yorkshire Evening Post (shockingly I once had an interview there and no one on the panel had any clue what I was talking about when I mentioned he had worked there) got him by for a few years, but a heartbreaking and costly divorce when Mark was just 27 found him at a very low ebb and faced with perhaps the ultimate humility, having to bed down on the settee in his younger brother David’s flat after losing his own home to alimony payments (future bassist John Illsey lived next door and, for a time, fellow Newcastlian and Lindisfarne guitarist Simon Cowe lived upstairs in only slightly richer accommodation).
Not for the first time, this lack of prospects and a nasty future led to Mark re-doubling his efforts in the music industry, desperate for a shot at the big time that had so far eluded him and roping in his two new room-mates for extra support. Now that’s not so unusual: many a debut record is made in these similarly impoverished circumstances, but usually these records (including such AAA examples as The Beatles’ ‘Please Please Me’, ‘Stay With The Hollies’ ‘The Kinks’ and later Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’, chiefly made by an ex-roadie and his unemployed younger brother) are written and recorded in a rush of energy and enthusiasm, with a determined sense of ‘we’ll-show-you’ about them. By contrast Dire Straits’ eponymous first record sounds older and wiser, hardened by a harshness and misery that could only have come from years plugging away at these songs in small seedy pubs and bars, desperately looking for a solution but never quite finding one. Only Noel Gallagher himself (at 27) went through anything remotely similar and yet he took the other tack, with a fiery belief that eventually all would be well and put right – by contrast the characters in these early songs are nearly all suffering and nearly all of them seem to be doomed, including the obvious parallels between the band on big hit single ‘Sultans Of Swing’ and the Straits themselves. This malaise will hang around Knopfler’s subconscious for quite a while, long after he could be considered to have ‘made it’ with the overnight success of this album, before gradually working its way to attacking world politics on albums like ‘Love Over Gold’ and ‘Brothers In Arms’ and eventually fading (I’m as convinced as ever that Dire Straits’ sudden end, at the near-peak of their fame, came because the hunger, drive and fear of failure heard so strongly in this album just isn’t a part of Mark’s life anymore and robs him of much of his inspiration and ‘heavy fuel’, great as his many of his more laidback, sanguine solo albums are).
‘Dire Straits’ stands out a mile amongst other albums released in 1978, the year when punk hit new wave and new romantics head on, partly because it’s just about the only example of a strong-selling guitar-bass-drums album from that year and partly because it takes music oh so seriously. Punks hated anything musical that pretended to have all the ‘answers’ or any ‘guide’ to navigating life, reducing life to two minutes of frustrated adolescent bile, but the new romantics didn’t take music any more seriously than their forebears, making ‘pop’ music again all about melody and costumes, with stars of the day effectively ‘dressing up’ to play pop stars. By contrast ‘Dire Straits’ is a ‘heavy’ record, arguably the most serious and sombre of their whole (if brief) career. I’m amazed in retrospect that there was never a ‘run’ of copycat/similarly influences bands around at the same time (as there was with The Beatles circa 1963, Bowie in 1973 and Madonna in 1983) despite the band’s heavy sales but then this album really did come out of nowhere and was created with a sigh of relief by all the ‘oldies’ who’d been left behind by the punk revolution of 1977 and wanted a return to ‘proper’ music, although in its own way this spare, bare-bones, few overdubs debut album is as punk as any AAA record till – wouldn’t you know it? – Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ in 1994 and as such pleased quite a few youngsters too who wanted a version of their dad’s record collection with at least some of the lessons learnt in the punk era.
If you can, do try and get hold of Dire Straits’ six-song early demo tape (not officially released yet – please release it officially soon! – but available several times over on Youtube), which the band taped right in the middle of this frustrating patch in early 1977 and will show you what I mean. Having been turned down several times over the band had given up sending in their work to record companies, but figured they needed advice and sent it into a disc jockey they really respected named Charlie Gillett (then hosting a programme called ‘Honky Tonk’ on Radio London). Asking for nothing other than a few tips on how to commercialise their sound, they were taken aback when Gillett announced it as his ‘recording of the week’ and played the tape incessantly, particularly ‘Sultans Of Swing’. There’s a handful of differences compared to the demo tape and the record (interestingly the demo tape makes up the first six songs on the record, suggesting the slightly lighter toned ‘In The Gallery’ ‘Wild West End’ and ‘Lions’ were written later). Knopfler sounds far less sure of himself than in any of the ‘final’ recordings and actually a closer fit for the down-and-out characters he sings about, musically staring at his shoes instead of staring out the camera with a steely grin of determination. The band sound much more 1950s too, not quite having developed their sound yet, and the tempos are slightly slower, emphasising the minor keys that most of them are written in (the finished album sounds much more ‘upbeat’, possibly because the drums are louder, emphasising the ‘traditionally happy’ 4/4 rock tempo). ‘Water Of Love’ sounds especially different, more an anguished howl of pain than a feelgood calypso, with a vocal that actually cuts off with a growl on the evocative line ‘been too long lonely and my heart feels pain’, with Knopfler singing in a deeper ‘bluesier’ voice that sounds more like Big Bill Broonzy than the Harry Belafonte of the finished version. ‘Southbound Again’ features the other extreme changes, with a curious stop-start rhythm that sounds like the train caught in a siding mid-step, as if the narrator is debating whether to start a new life or try again with his old one. Again Knopfler sings his vocal husky and deep, more desperate than the often defiant narrator of the finished record. ‘Sultans’ sounds closest to the finished version, clearly a song of escape even back in 1977, but even here the happy ending seems less than certain, ‘sultans of swing’ only in their heads not on stage. Whilst I’d never choose the demo tape over the finished product (it just doesn’t have the same delightful swing and energy rush), it’s nevertheless a fascinating insight into how the band would have sounded in these early days and just how desperate they were sounding before growing with the confidence of a band discovered.
Whilst hardly autobiographical in the John Lennon or Ray Davies sense, the misery of Knopfler’s life in his mid to late 20s sifts through all the songs to some extent. Every figure in these songs are shadows of their former selves. The album starts with the line ‘sweet surrender’ and had the band not wanted to use their own name this would have been a strong title for the album: this record is all about being forced to give in to circumstances and the bittersweet feeling that the hard times you’re going through make you stronger for the future. Note, too, how many of the characters in these songs aren’t just restless but homeless, wandering deserted quaysides and empty funfairs (‘Waterline’), industrial streets filled with skyscrapers (‘Water Of Love’), arty roads bursting with coffee shops (‘Wild West End’), a ‘dirty town’ with a church (‘Lions’) or are simply ‘Southbound Again’, travelling against their will because ‘I got no money, I’ve got no place to go’. Generally speaking future Dire Strait albums are rich and warm, full of texture in the sounds and the layer of overdubs, occasionally to a fault, but here the musical worlds that surround these characters are every bit as bleak as the songs themselves. Seen today in context ‘Dire Straits’ works as well as it does exactly because of this brave attempt to keep things simple in age when needless complexity was back in vogue and even producer Jerry Wrexler was unsure about the album, half-heartedly telling the band ‘we’ll put this one out, but next we’ll make a real record’. Given that this second album was the unloved and arguably weakest of the six Straits records ‘Comunique’ you have to ask yourself whether the band should have stayed with their decision to keep things so film noire.
Then again the one moment of colour here is ‘Sultans Of Swing’, by far the album’s best known song and after being taken to heart by so many fans was clearly the template that the band were going to be asked to build on by any right-minded producer. A thinly veiled autobiographical slab about a band dreaming of a glorious future but surrounded by an all too low-brow present in a seedy club, it’s a song that actually makes even more sense heard here in the context of the album than it did as a single. I’d love to know how far through his songwriting period Knopfler came up with the song, whether it was the first song here or the moment that marked the end of his slight depressional period, because it makes sense of all the other tracks, which nearly all find the narrator’s searching for something to put into words. ‘Sultans Of Swing’ doesn’t really finds the words either, but the sheer pizzazz and sparkle of the playing elevates the band long past their surroundings of a group of fans sheltering from the rain or longing for a different band to play, while an indifferent club owner cuts off a cooking jam session to send everybody home. This song feels like the solution to the question the other songs pose and in this context it makes perfect sense that ‘Sultans’ is at the very heart of the record, track six out of nine, perhaps the sound of Mark Knopfler writing a letter to himself and persuading him that he was right to continue whatever his various bosses, friends and his first wife all thought about him settling down and getting a ‘real’ job.
‘Setting Me Up’ and ‘Six Blade Knife’ are among two of the nastiest AAA songs on record, uncharacteristically angry songs about arguments between two former lovers and while Knopfler does his best to pose them in a more generic light parts of the ‘true’ story seem to pour out of both of them. ‘You better give it up, quit your messing around’ is the chorus of the former song and is actually shouted by the narrator to his partner but together with lines where the narrator proudly declares that he’s ‘bound for glory’ it sounds suspiciously like first wife Kathy telling him to give up music as its given him up first. ‘Six Blade Knife’ is more obtuse, a surprisingly graphic song about the narrator’s wife’s love being like a ‘six blade knife’ that cuts into his soul deeper and deeper each time, ‘something that you just can’t see’. Dire Straits will follow this up a little into ‘Communique’ (especially the eerie album highlight ‘Where Do You Think You’re Going?’) and admittedly Knopfler is never known for his happy love songs, but at least when ‘Romeo and Juliet’ part you get the sense they did have a love for each other and ‘Skateaway’ is at least a happy encounter even if its a passing one, with the girl literally speeding away at the end. The curious album cover – lifted from a painting by artist Chuck Loyola - says it all: a girl seemingly waits for the narrator, her head bowed, bored of waiting in what looks like an empty concrete car park with early morning daylight soaking through the windows; surely the most unglamorous portrait of a romantic meeting ever made, if indeed that what it is (for all we know the girl in the photo could be waiting to serve divorce papers).
For all of its surly, often negative attitude, however, this 1978 album must have sounded like a breath of fresh air right slap bang in the middle of two other similar world-changing rock songs ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ (in 1964) and ‘Live Forever’ (in 1994) must have done. When Knopfler sings lines like ‘no money in our jackets and our jeans are torn’ he’s entering into a pact with the audience that he know where they’re coming from because he’s been there too, dreaming of a bigger, brighter future they can all share in. Oasis are always quick to say that they picked up on this feeling first with their slightly younger generation, but actually if anybody got there first its Bruce Springsteen and his early anthems like ‘Born To Run’ (actually released first by Hollies singer Allan Clarke, who fell in love with Bruce’s demo when no one else would touch him). Springsteen’s pull over audiences is largely unique to America however (almost every song mentions the ‘American Dream’ somewhere) and to some extent the generation that came immediately after the ‘failed’ 60s takeover, which is why you don’t often hear his name mentioned outside a particular age group these days. By contrast Knopfler’s songs about poverty are as universal as they come and seemingly take in every ‘class’ from quayside dockers and seedy bars to art gallery and coffee house types to tiny villages where inhabitants can never escape the sound of the church bells. Even his accent is remarkably ‘neutral’ here, something fellow Geordies Lindisfarne only really nailed with their 1978 ‘comeback’ album ‘Back and Fourth’ (and then never quite so successfully as Dire Straits). All the characters on these songs hurt and they hurt in the same way, whether their fall has come from on high or they were close to poverty anyhow. The sense of injustice that comes to fruition on later, greater songs like ‘Telegraph Road’ and ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ is here too, unspoken for the most part, willing fate to give these characters a redemption of some sorts.
Thus far we’ve been speaking about the band as if they’re a solo group. To some extent that’s true – even on the demos Knopfler’s vocal and guitar are centre-forward and while the band did play cover songs in their early days I’ve heard, Knopfler writes the whole of this album singlehanded (it’s quite impressive that original record label Vertigo took such a chance with an unknown writer instead of, say, getting the band to record a few covers or persuading Mark to write for an established act first). However, the bare, dry texture of the record arguably gives the rest of the band a greater share of the sound than ever before. There’s no keyboardist in the band as yet, but younger brother Dave is arguably the best second foil his brother ever did. Unfortunately like another band with a younger brother called Dave the future between the Knopflers will be rocky and Dave will have his marching orders as early as the third album, but I’ve always rated his rhythm guitar work highly and its slightly jazzy, pleasantly skewed sound is arguably as relevant to the band’s sound in these early days as Mark’s staccato lead frills. John Illsey and Pick Withers, slightly stodgy on Dire Straits’ mid-period recordings, are right on the ball for this bare bones album, playing with a restrained air that gives you the feeling that each note is being rationed, as if the cash-tight, emotionally vulnerable characters in these stories really are desperate to keep their feelings closed. I still miss the keyboards (Alan Clark being about the only 1980s-era synth player who made those horrendous instruments sound an integral part of the band), but you can tell that the ‘other three’ are as committed in their own way as their main writer, vocalist and guitarist.
Overall, then, ‘Dire Straits’ is strong for a debut album by a bunch of unknowns whom even the record company reckoned hadn’t a chance of making the big time, being too old and with music too unfashionable to ever have a chance of success. Not for the last time the band know better, however, and it’s that belief that leads to many of the album’s best moments: the sudden flowering into first gear of ‘Sultans Of Swing’, the superb guitar solo that turns ‘Water Of Love’ from a generic blues-ballad hybrid into a cry from the heart or the poetic, advanced lyrics on album closer ‘Lions’. Not everything on this album works and there’s a fair few cul-de-sacs on the way to a unified sound here (‘Setting Me Up’ and ‘Six Blade Knife’, neither of which sound like anything the band will do again) as well as a nagging sense that the band’s sound is already falling into a pigeon-hole of its own making (a different guitar sound would have been nice). In the pantheon of great ‘Dire Straits’ albums this one clearly hasn’t got the legs of better known and regarded albums like ‘Making Movies’ ‘Brothers In Arms’ or my personal favourite, the note-perfect ‘Love Over Gold’. But given how different everything on this album sounds to anything else before it and how much of the band’s sound is developed on this album, it’s safe to say that ‘Dire Straits’ is arguably the most important album and that it was an overnight runaway success for a good reason. It’s relatively easy to have a success when everyone is supporting what you do and believing in you and you’ve already proved to yourself and others that you’ve got what it takes. It’s quite another thing to invent something completely new and keep honing that something into a fully finished and varnished product when everyone thinks you’re too long in the tooth, too out of fashion and that you haven’t got a hope in a million of competing with people younger and trendier than you. Not for the first time on this website, ‘Dire Straits’ is evidence that good, intelligent, heartfelt music can transcend its time and fashions and that talent will always out, however long it takes to get noticed and however many pitfalls there are along the way.
Most of ‘Dire Straits’ is made up of bursts of primal energy. However, the opening lick of ‘Down To The Waterline’ – the opening track on ‘Dire Straits’ – is the only prog rock moment on the album, a curious mix of low-fi feedback and some languid, laidback plucked lines from Knopfler’s guitar. It’s as if this opening represents the ‘past’, both for music in general and for the characters of these songs who had everything in the past and threw it all away. Most opening tracks on debut LPs deal with the glorious potential future in a burst of glorious enthusiasm (‘I Saw Her Standing There’ ‘Astronomy Domine’ ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’), but Dire Straits are already looking back over their shoulder here, Knopfler’s narrator a ghostly figure watching his former loved one walking round old places that used to mean a lot to them and wondering where it all went wrong. It’s as if Knopfler’s just heard about his first wife taking a walk round their old haunts and is imagining what she might have seen. The title of the song is something of an extended metaphor. The girl in the song is physically walking ‘down to the waterline’, the abandoned quayside that used to mean so much to them both, but metaphorically this is a love affair when the tide has gone out, leaving the couple with nothing in common except some shared memories and ‘down to the waterline’ in their love for each other. The song is urgent and desperate, Knopfler flying his guitar round some amazing runs on a song that sounds straightforward on first hearing but actually never goes where you expect it to, modulating keys like a man in a hurry, desperate to break through the fourth wall of the memory and join his loved one in song. Curiously constructed, ‘Waterline’ is full of exotic lyrical imagery that seems at odds both with the rockabilly feel of the melody and the humdrum landscape surrounding the two lovers, kissing in ‘darkened doorways’ and hiding from policemen along the way. There is no chorus and the title line is heard only twice in the song, but its the hook that stays in your head long after the song has finished playing, with the memory the only thing in the song that sounds like a safe return to ‘home’. A compelling and memorable opening to an album full of such surprises ‘Waterline’ is one of the album highlights and the band performance is exceptional – a long way forward from the demo of the song tapes the year before – although I would have liked a mix that had Knopfler’s vocal up loud and central in the aural storm of the recording.
‘Water Of Love’ is another excellent song, a cod-blues that alternates a catchy chorus with verses that are the closest the band ever came to gutbucket blues. Like the last song water is redemption here, offering hope for rebirth and with the extended metaphor of the friendless, loveless narrator barren like a desert without love in his life. Like The Who’s ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ there’s an image, too, of water being a sign of baptism, a chance to begin again and make up for old mistakes. Both songs could have become highly clichéd but both are clearly delivered from the heart – in Knopfler’s case it’s the unexpected shift of key every third line that gives the song an unsettled, eerie air. Most of the lyrics fail to live up to the strong idea at the heart of this track, but there’s some striking imagery in the last two verses. ‘There’s a bird in a tree sitting up high, waiting for me to die’ seems unusually harsh for Knopfler’s writing, harking back again to the album theme about nobody expecting Dire Straits to have any chance of any future and the memorable closing couplet ‘Once there was a river, now there’s a stone, you know its evil when you’re living alone’, the sudden emphasis on ‘evil’ suggesting how deeply Knopfler was feeling the sentiments in this song. Considering there’s not much melody in the song to be had until the chorus bursts forth like a rainstorm, the band turn in a great performance again. Pick Withers’ drumming is never better than on this track, leaving the song bare and open like a massive desert, clicking his drumsticks together at key moments in the song to give it a dry, barren sound. This is still Knopfler’s masterwork, though, turning in one of his best career vocals, nicely husky and on its last legs and singing what could have been a tongue-in-cheek song admirably straight. The only thing that really lets this song down is the sheer amount of times the chorus is repeated (five by my count), especially the curious ending where the band sing the quite lengthy four lines through two times straight. Still, ‘Water Of Love’ is another excellent song and another composition admirably unlike anything that had ever come before it.
‘Setting Me Up’ isn’t quite up to the first two tracks of the album, talking about the clashes in the Knopfler marriage rather more explicitly than the poetry of ‘Waterline’ and ‘Water Of Love’. A howling rock-blues song, it sounds very close to the sort of thing every band from Humble Pie to The Yardbirds had been doing five years before, even if Knopfler’s distinctive pick work on his guitar is quite unlike any similar band from the past. Mark is clearly living his vocal, too, turning in more venom than we ever hear from him again. Unfortunately the rest of the band performance isn’t quite there and I actually prefer the demo version of this song, one where the band are quietly seething rather than outwardly venomous. Illsey’s bass, exemplary elsewhere on the album, also sounds a little too tongue-in-cheek here, with a direct 1-2-3-4 bass walk copies from every blues record this side of 1975. The lyrics are intriguing though: rather than being a straightforward you-hate-me-and-I-hate-you argument, the opening lines tell us that ‘she’ used to believe in the narrator, think he was ‘bound for glory’, before pulling away. In turn the narrator knows he has to ‘leave her alone now’ – so so far so good, where’s the problem?! The chorus lines about ‘setting me up to put me down’ sound like more of an argument, but even here she’s agreed to stay away so the argument seems to be over. Knopfler even ends the song by sneering that ‘you think I care about your re-action?!’ two verses after she’s agreed to leave, suggesting that the problems lie with him not her – he clearly does care or he wouldn’t still be ‘in conversation’ with her, even if its just to argue! Overall ‘Setting Me Up’ is arguably one of the weakest tracks on the album, far more generic than the other eight songs on offer here, but even this song is rescued by a stabbing guitar riff that sounds like a whole lot of fun to play!
‘Six-Blade Knife’ sounds like a more reflective re-write of ‘Setting Me Up’, this time with a girl who can’t help herself sticking a metaphorical knife into the narrator’s back. So far so average, but the idea of a ‘six-blade knife’ that does differing amounts of damage depending on her mood elevates this song above other similar ideas and there are some strong individual lines on this song (‘Everybody got a knife...a needle or a wife, or something that you just can’t see’ the song ends philosophically). There’s even a hint that the same knife can do a s service for good as well as ill and that the same knife was used to ‘tear away a stone from my soul when I was lame’ – it’s just that the knife-owner never knew when to stop. Despite being another blues-derived number, there’s a certain majesty about the performance that rises above the average, too, a slurred-voiced Knopfler turning in another strong vocal that gets as emotional as we ever hear it on the howled line ‘I want to be free of it now, I don’t want it no more!’ The effect is not far removed from the blues hybrids Stephen Stills was working on in the early 70s, a song that sounds like it might have started out as a novelty and a spoof/homage to old blues songs before the writer found himself tapping into emotions that are all too real. What’s admirable about this song is that it achieves so much despite being so low-key you have to turn the album up loud even to hear it and that even playing cat-and-mouse with our emotions on when the tension is finally going to burst the band don’t make a big thing of it – this isn’t a gaping wound the narrator will die from straight away, it’s a small wound slowly getting bigger with every tear of the knife. Not the most immediately arresting song on the album but there’s much to admire about the slow burning fuse of ‘Six Blade Knife’.
‘Southbound Again’ rounds out the side on a noisier, slowed down version of the riff from ‘Setting Me Up’. Musically this song is boisterous and energetic, in stark contrast to the last track, but the lyrics are hardly happier: this is a narrator finding his life travelling in reverse, forced to go back to the scene of unhappiness against his will. It’s easy to imagine this song being written by Knopfler on a train to his brother’s house back in Newcastle to plead for his spare bed, having lost his job, his childhood sweetheart and his independent living in their own house all in one go. The relentless choppy staccato rhythms of Knopfler’s guitar make a good double for the sounds of travelling, although we never actually find out if the narrator is travelling by car, train or by foot. David’s curious rhythm guitar part sounds like a train whistle too, going ‘woo-woo’ deep in the bottom of the right-hand speaker, which is highly effective. Lyrically the narrator tries to put a brave face on things, as if to join in the snappy finger-clicking music, declaring ‘this boy was bound to roam!’ as if this is a song of wanderlust. However it doesn’t take long for the facade to crack: ‘I’ve got no money, no place to go...that woman’s with her lover boy’ sings Knopfler, the smile fading from his face. There’s an AAA pleasing reference to the ‘rolling river Tyne’ (the only time Dire Straits refer to their home town, in stark contrast to the dozens of times fellow Geordies Lindisfarne sang about it) and the idea that every time he crosses it ‘I get the same old feeling I’m moving down the line’. Unfortunately this time Knopfler is travelling in the wrong direction, going back to his pre-success years metaphorically as well as physically. Simpler than most of the record and arguably less developed or important, there’s still much to love about ‘Southbound Again’s hypnotic riff and another strong band performance.
Side two begins with ‘Sultans Of Swing’, the one moment of happiness on an otherwise quite bleak album. The most famous song on the album by some margin, it’s a wonderful salute to the healing powers of music and its ability to make everything come right, even for a band who – according to these lyrics – are playing to an audience who aren’t listening, for a promoter who doesn’t care, in a town with too many competing venues to draw up a crowd and who can offer nothing more than a brief distraction to the pouring rain outside. Knopfler’s first band, formed at school, were called ‘The Sultans Of Swing’ and this song might be about their progress more than that of ‘Dire Straits’, complete with references to band members who aren’t as committed (‘He’s got a daytime job, he’s doing alright!’ – the scourge of many a fledgling band) and the guitarist whose ‘old guitar is all he can afford’. Given how long and how hard Knopfler in particular fought for recognition and to be taken seriously as a musician and writer, this song is clearly close to his heart, an insight into how ‘right’ music felt for him even when nobody gave him a chance at all. Whilst this song is merely a description of a band playing, with no real resolution or even admiration, it’s clear that this song is a manifesto of sorts, a chance for him to get across his feelings on how great it was to play whatever venue the band were in and however low down the pecking order they were. This is clearly a band going places, whether their audience can tell that or not and its deeply fitting that Dire Straits’ big breakthrough should be a song about a fictional band that so closely fitted their own circumstances. Interestingly the song is told not from the point of view of the band but from an audience member, stumbling on the band ‘South of the river’, with a ‘shiver in the dark’ in a memorable first verse. The rest of the verses aren’t far behind either, each one ending with a memorable rhyme for the title (‘ring’ ‘thing’ ‘anything’), even though like most songs on this album (and unlike about 95% of successful singles) there’s no actual chorus to ‘Sultans’, simply a mere title line. The lyrics talk about the band in terms of ‘jazz’ too, even though this is a song clearly born for rock musicians with its hypnotic riff, its spaces for some majestic guitar picking from Knopfler who excels himself on the brief fade-out and a real swinging tempo. No wonder so many fell for this song in particular – it’s a highly memorable creation and perfectly delivered by the band, with one of music’s greatest ever riffs. Frankly the ignorant audience in the song don’t know what they’re missing! Easily the highlight of the record and one of the more deserving hit records out there, ‘Sultans’ may be one of Knopfler’s earliest songs but its right up there with his very best work topped off by another stunning band performance who nail a pretty complex song with just the right amount of laidback charm.
‘In The Gallery’ isn’t so strong, unfortunately, a curious melody-free rant about the different approaches of different crowds passing through a trendy gallery. One of the last songs written for the album, it might be that this song is Knopfler’s re-action to getting a recording contract and being made to think like an ‘artist’ with something to say, albeit a message that can be understood by partying, fun-loving rock fans too. ‘Harry made a bareback rider proud and free upon a horse’ must surely be a candidate for one of the strangest opening lines to any AAA song and the song doesn’t get any more normal, although that’s a good fit for the oddball Harry and his urge to create art in the out-of-fashion medium of ‘clay’ in an era when paintings are king. It’s tempting to see this song as Knopfler’s response to recording such a retro guitar-bass-drums sound in an era stuffed with exotic noises and a changing of the guard from punkish thrashes to airy fairy new romantic pop, although in that case the pained cry that the artist didn’t find himself ‘hanging in the gallery’ at the end of the second verse seems false. The song gets stranger in verse three when Knopfler takes a side swipe at phony art posing, claiming that there’s no difference between an artist too lazy to paint and one that finds all the answers he needs in ‘an empty canvas wall’, although the pot shot at dealers ‘deciding who gets the breaks’ sounds mightily like a dig at music managers. The song ends on an uncomfortable note, too, with the narrator ‘unable to compromise’ and finding that all the lies he’s ‘subsidised’ down the years don’t mean a thing because he’s not a part of the ‘in’ crowd. The last couplet offers a hope of redemption, however, with critics praising Harry for his brilliant creations after his death and putting him in the gallery after all, clearly a bitter remark from Knopfler after years of banging his head against the doors of the music business. Had this song been given a proper, memorable melody this could really have been something, but sadly it ends up being six and a half minutes of posturing from a surprisingly gravelly Knopfler enlightened only by the occasional stinging guitar solo. One of the weakest songs on the record, even if the lyrics do read well in the lyric sheet.
‘Wild West End’ doesn’t have much of a tune either and is also clearly about the lyrics, but it has a certain lazy charm and a catchy near-alliterative chorus (especially the way the band sing it: ‘walking win-cha Wild West End’) that overcome this defect better. Arguably out of all the nine songs on the album this is the one that best resembles a template for Knopfler’s future writing, a story-song about the narrator’s journey round town where not very much happens. Interestingly this is the only song on the album not to mention a past upset love and looks forward hopefully to the future, the narrator flirting with a waitress while he ‘buys a pickup for my steel guitar’. There’s a cute rhyme in the middle here that sums up much of this song’s quite charm (‘I saw you walking out in Shaftesbury Avenue, excuse me talking I wanna marry you!’) but the narrator makes it plain that he’s not in love with her, just free and single and without responsibility for the first time in years, with his new friend ‘just another angel in the crowd’. The third and fourth verse undo much of this magic, dealing again with the seedier side of life (‘In the backroom it’s a man’s world, all the money goes down’) and ending up cuddling a go-go dancer, becoming more about the place than the person which is a shame (it’s a common problem with Knopfler’s writing too for me – songs like ‘Portobello Belle’ and ‘Les Boys’ try the same trick without quite as much success). However, taken as a whole it’s great to hear Knopfler happy at last and it’s nice to have a break from all the tension and urgency heard across the rest of the album; it’s just slightly unfortunate that the song was so well received at the time that it became a template for so many future, less interesting songs.
The album then closes with ‘Lions’, another of my personal favourites that’s really grown on me since first buying this album a long time ago. The lyrics are some of Knopfler’s best, depicting any sleepy English town or village where not much seems to happen but where tension is so high that anything could happen at any moment. The titular lions are sleeping for the most part or are seen on statues, memories of past heroic deeds, but come to life in the characters of a ‘drunken old soldier’ prowling the town looking for action. There’s a reference to horoscopes, too, that make more sense when you learn that Knopfler is a Leo (‘the lion’) even though it’s never referred to in song, as if romance is sleeping in us all too (the positive feedback the Capricorn female in the song receives means the stars ‘give her just enough light to get home’, an excellent line with the pun on ‘light’ and ‘stars’ giving the character hope to get through another empty day where nothing happens). There are other great lines dotted through this track, too, from the inhabitants so used to hearing the church bells chime in the background that they’ve forgotten what they mean and being replaced by grumpy passengers ‘praying for trains’, industrial capitalism overtaking religion and spirituality. Musically this is another of those album songs that never quite comes to life – I don’t know for certain but I’m willing to bet Knopfler wrote these lyrics first and then got stuck for a tune to sing them to – but ‘Lions’ is a fine song in the vein of Paul Simon’s ‘My Little Town’ about the restrictions that are around all of us everyday and yet can be broken in an instant when the inner ‘lion’ awakes. There’s a fine minute long fadeout too that’s sublime, three overdubbed Knopfler’s calling to each other from the left and right speakers and straight down the middle, playing a dance with each other as if communicating the inner thoughts of the town inhabitants. ‘Sultans’ excluded, this is my favourite song on the album, with Knopfler’s lyric writing never better, even though I ignored it for far too many years hidden amongst songs that shout louder and have catchier choruses.
Overall, then, ‘Dire Straits’ is a memorable creation and one that deserves better than to be overshadowed by million sellers like ‘Making Movies’ and ‘Brothers In Arms’, even if it doesn’t have quite the universal appeal of either of those works. All that said, it’s easy to forget that this album was a huge hit in its own right, reaching number one and staying in the British charts for over a year on and off. Occasionally grumpy, sometimes tuneless and often sombre and melancholy, it’s quite unlike anything else in Mark Knopfler’s canon and is clearly a reflection of the difficult period the band had as unknowns making it. Few band ever came to fame this fully formed, however, with Knopfler’s guitar sound already so distinctive and memorable it’s easy to see why the band were a runaway success from their first release, however many years that was in coming. At least three of these songs are among the best Knopfler ever wrote as well, even if they might come as a surprise to those who know the ‘template’ of other Straits albums better. ‘Love Over Gold’ might have the better songs, ‘Brothers In Arms’ the memorable hits and ‘Making Movies’ the better production, but this debut record is so much more than merely a stepping stone to later, even better selling works; it’s a highly personal and memorable record by a writer who clearly has a lot to say and has already worked out most of the lessons he needs to learn in order to say it. Sultans of Swing? Perhaps not quite yet, but the band are already sitting in the court and already have the attention of their people. A much under-rated record.
Girl's Names In AAA Song Titles, From 'Angie' to 'Yoko'! (Top Twenty For News, Views and Music Issue 183)
You may be anonymous when you pass through my site but I know you’re not faceless – and you’re certainly not nameless. Unless you’re the Band With No Name who played at Woodstock anyway. This week we’re looking at nothing else but names – girl’s names to be exact because, well, that’s what an overwhelming majority of AAA songs using names are about. This week we’re looking at 20 of the names that have been mentioned the most in song titles by AAA artists (not lyrics or I’ll be here another month researching...) and their definitions. Now, most people who give names to their children have no idea what those definitions are – and I’m willing to bet a lot of these writers didn’t either so it will be fun seeing how close they got with their characters (note: Lennon seems to know his stuff though – ‘Prudence’ meaning caution and ‘Julia’ meaning ‘youthful’ are spot on for his two songs on the same subject).
But then, who decided these characteristics in the mists of time? Why do we place so much weight on labels at all? And isn’t it deeply unfair that you go through life having never had a chance to choose your own name? (we at the AAA reckon a ‘naming’ session should take place at a ceremony at the age of five). Anyway, we’ve limited this list to include names used in the context of being a ‘name’ (so no inclusion for ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ or ‘Penny Lane’) and album titles have been left out because we could only think of one girl’s name (The Kinks’ ‘Lola versus Powerman’, with a nomination for album predecessor ‘Arthur’). Interestingly some groups (like The Beatles, The Hollies, The Kinks, The Monkees and Simon and Garfunkel especially) often used girl’s names as titles of songs in their career, while other examples are comparatively few. Note, too, the amount of times John Lennon crops up on this list (both his Beatle songs and his solo ones): so much for his disdain for partner McCartney’s ability to ‘write about other people’ rather than himself! Who knows though, we might have included your name, dear reader – do drop us a line if we have (and you want to hear the relevant song). Chances are with something of this scope and size we’ve missed out one or two AAA songs too so drop us a line about them if you think of any. Oh and to finish, for those who say the definition of names are a load of hogwash, the name ‘Alan’ is meant to mean ‘harmony’, a lovely musical term very apt for this site, so there you go; then again ‘David’ as in ‘David Cameron’ means beloved so they can’t always be right!
First, however, is this long long list of names that only appear once in the AAA canon, together with the albums they appear on and the ‘meanings’ of each name; ‘Amber Jean’ (Neil Young ‘A Treasure’ 2010): ‘a jewel/God’s gift of grace’; ‘Bernadette’ (The Kinks ‘State Of Confusion’ 1983: ‘brave as a bear’); ‘The Ballad Of Ole Betsy’ (The Beach Boys, ‘Shut Down Volume 2’ 1964: consecrated to God); ‘Candy’ (‘Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde’ 1968: pure); ‘Carol’ (A Chuck Berry song covered by both The Beatles and The Stones 1964: ‘champion’; ‘Cecilia’ (Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ 1969: ‘blind’; ‘China’ (Grace Slick’s song for her baby of the same name from ‘Sunfighter’ 1971: named after the crockery/country); ‘Claudine’ (The Rolling Stones – deluxe edition of ‘Exile On Main Street’ 2010): ‘lame’; ‘Deidre’ (The Beach Boys ‘Sunflower’ 1970): ‘sorrow’; ‘Donna’ (‘10cc’ 1972): ‘lady’; ‘Dear Eloise’ (The Hollies ‘Butterfly’ 1967): unknown; ‘Grace’ (‘Crosby*Nash’ 2005): ‘graceful’; ‘Guinnevere’ (‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ 1969): Medieval Queen; ‘Heather’ (Paul McCartney 2001 ‘Driving Rain’): ‘flower of the moors’; ‘Helen Wheels’ (a 1974 single by Paul McCartney and Wings): ‘light’; ‘Poison Ivy’ (‘Poison Ivy’ on ‘The Hollies’ compilation 1985): ‘the vine’; ‘Julia’ (‘The Beatles’ aka ‘The White Album’ 1968): ‘youthful’; ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (‘Romeo and Juliet’ Dire Straits ‘Making Movies’ 1981): ‘youthful’; ‘Precious Kate’ (The Byrds ‘Father Along’ 1972): ‘pure maiden’; ‘Kathleen’s Song’ (‘Byrdmaniax’ 1971): ‘pure maiden’; ‘Kathy’s Song’ (Simon and Garfunkel ‘Sounds Of Silence’ 1966): ‘pure maiden’; ‘Kitty’ (Cat Stevens ‘New Masters’ 1968): ‘pure maiden’; ‘Darling Lorraine’ (Paul Simon ‘You’re The One’ 2001): ‘the Queen’; ‘Pictures Of Lily’ (a single by The Who 1966): ‘lily’; ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzie’ (a Larry Williams song covered by ‘The Beatles’ on ‘Help!’ 1965): ‘consecrated by God’; ‘Lola’ (a single by The Kinks 1970): ‘lady of sorrow’; ‘Louise’ (The Hollies, ‘Russian Roulette’ 1977): ‘battlemaid’; ‘Lyla’ (a single by Oasis 2005): goodness only knows!; ‘Magnolia Simms’ (The Monkees ‘The Birds The Bees and The Monkees’ 1968): named after the colour; ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’ (10cc ‘How Dare You!’ 1976): ‘worthy of love’; ‘Marcella’ (The Beach Boys ‘So Tough’ 1972): ‘belonging to Mars’!; ‘Dear Margaret’ (The Kinks ‘UK Jive’ 1988): ‘pearl’; ‘Matilda Mother’ (Pink Floyd ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ 1967): ‘strength in battle’; ‘Michelle’ (The Beatles ‘Rubber Soul’ 1965): ‘like unto the lord’; ‘Crazy Miranda’ (Jefferson Airplane ‘Bark!’ 1971): ‘greatly admired’; ‘Naomi’ (a B-side by The Hollies 1993): ‘pleasure’; ‘Natalie’ (David Crosby ‘A Thousand Roads’ 1993): ‘born at Christmas’; ‘Polythene Pam’ (The Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ 1969): ‘honey-like sweetness’; ‘Dear Prudence’ (‘The Beatles’ aka ‘The White Album’ 1968): ‘caution’ (making this the single most spot-on song of the whole list!); ‘Help Me Rhonda’ (a single by The Beach Boys 1965): ‘grand’; ‘Lovely Rita’ (The Beatles ‘Sgt Peppers’ 1967): ‘pearl’; ‘Sexy Sadie’ (‘The Beatles’ aka ‘The White Album’ 1968): ‘princess’; ‘Sally G’( a single by Paul McCartney and Wings 1973): ‘princess’; ‘Thelma’ (Paul Simon, bonus track on ‘The Rhythm Of The Saints’ 1991): unknown, ‘Valerie’ (a track from ‘The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees’ 1968): ‘strong’; ‘Vera’ (Pink Floyd ‘The Wall’ 1979): ‘truth’; ‘Victoria’ (The Kinks ‘Arthur’ 1969): ‘victorious’; ‘Wendy’ (The Beach Boys ‘All Summer Long’ 1964): ‘white’ and ‘Yvonne’s The One’ (10cc/Paul McCartney ‘Mirror Mirror’ 1995): ‘yew wood’. Right, I’m off for a long lie down now – in the meantime have a read of this lot!
(a track from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album ‘Sometime In New York City’ 1972 and a track from The Rolling Stones’ album ‘Goat Head Soup’ 1973)
We start off with two songs that couldn’t be more different, despite coming from every so nearly the same period. Lennon’s song ‘Angela’ is a bitter protest song against the imprisonment from a ‘black panther’ rebel sent to prison for simply providing a false alibi for her husband, her non-political plight summed up by John and Yoko in the lines ‘you’re one of the many political prisoners in the world’. ‘Angie’ is a slow-burning Stones ballad that might or might not have been based on David Bowie’s wife of the time (who often spent time with Mick and Bianca Jagger) which is simply a tear-jerking emotional ballad about a couple who split. Both characters are, in their own ways, ‘messengers’ – pawns in games bigger than themselves made to do other’s bidding.
‘Anna (Got To Him)’ is an Arthur Alexander song covered by The Beatles on their album ‘Please Please Me’ in 1963 and ‘Carrie Anne’ a single by The Hollies in 1967)
‘Anna’ was one of Lennon’s favourite songs, a new recording back in 1963 by under-rated soul singer Arthur Alexander (better known for the songs ‘Soldier Of Love’ and ‘You Better Move On’). A tearful goodbye to a girl, that the narrator ‘sets free’ because he knows she doesn’t love him as much as he loves her, the original is sung detached and despondent, while Lennon’s cover is a heart-wrenching outpouring of grief. As far as we can tell, neither composer nor interpreter ever knew an ‘Anna’ in real life, although some Beatles writers have claimed that ‘Anna’ represented either Astrid Kirchherr or fiancé Stuart Sutcliffe (John and Stuart competed for her attentions before Lennon realised how serious the latter was – and he effectively ‘lost’ best friend Stuart to her). ‘Carrie Anne’ meanwhile is name plucked at random by The Hollies (or at least their writing team of Clarke Hicks and Nash) to ‘fill in’ a riff they’d just nicked from The Byrds ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (note the rhyme of ‘man’ and ‘Anne’). Neither character is particularly ‘graceful’ – but then both ‘Annas’ are passive characters in these songs which are really more about the narrator and his love for them.
(‘Barbara Ann’ is a track from the ‘Beach Boys Party!’ album of 1966 and ‘Barbara’ is a song by Dennis Wilson, included on the Beach Boys rarities compilation ‘Endless Harmony’ 1998)
Meaning: ‘beautiful foreigner’
Two Beach Boys songs for you now – one well known, the other obscure. ‘Barbara Ann’ isn’t based on a real person and isn’t even by the Beach Boys (the forgotten original was made by The Regents in 1961). It was revived at the last minute during the making of the ‘Party!’ record, rushed through in hurried speed in one fun-filled evening to give Brian Wilson more time to work on ‘Pet Sounds’; looking for easy-to-play songs that wouldn’t take much rehearsing this fun song simply seemed an obvious choice. The name ‘Barbara’ had much bigger connotations for brother Dennis however – Barbara Lamm was the love of his life and the two were married (twice!) for the longest period of any of his five wives. Sadly Dennis never did record a full orchestral version of his beautiful song ‘Barbara’ (which would have been a natural fit for either of his solo records) but this piano demo is one of the most beautiful things he ever made, a gorgeous love song with a troubled, confused middle eight that gives way to a fabulous confident melody line. I don’t think either ‘Barbara’ qualified for the title of a ‘beautiful foreigner’ though!
(‘Clair’ is a single by Gilbert O’Sullivan from 1974 and ‘Marie Claire’ a track by 10cc (released under the name ‘Wax’) on the album ‘Magnetic Heaven’ 1986)
Gilbert’s ‘Clair’ was a song inspired by a night babysitting his manager Gordon Mills’ toddler daughter – the twist in the song being that we don’t until the last verse that she’s that young (every other line is ambiguous enough for it to be a girl the same age on a date). That is the real ‘Clair’ on the famous music video for the song by the way! The single ended up making Gilbert’s name and is still his biggest selling – unfortunately a spectacular falling out with Mills (who ended up suing Gilbert in a court case that lasted years) means that Gilbert has only recently started performing the song again. ‘Marie Claire’ is by contrast one of the most obscure songs of Graham Gouldmann’s career, one started with 10cc (hence the inclusion on this list) but released under the ‘Wax’ name Gouldmann used with friend Andrew Gold. Chances are the ‘Claire’ in this name is simply a strong rhyme for ‘somewhere’ and she doesn’t really exist, but there’s no doubting that someone who inspired this song is real as its one of Graham’s career-best songs, a turbulent tale of a spurned lover, sung with a long flowing vocal line that sounds like the musical equivalent of tears. In this context Gilbert’s ‘Clair’ sounds pretty close to the dictionary definition of a ‘light’ or joy in someone’s life, although Wax’s version seems more like the opposite.
(‘Diana’ parts 1 and 2 are songs from the album ‘Sunfighter’ by Paul Kantner and Grace Slick in 1971 and ‘My Dianne’ a song by The Beach Boys from the album ‘MIU’ in 1978)
Meaning: ‘Goddess of the moon’
Both Dianna/e’s here are based on real people, although both are very different. ‘Diana’ is another political activist, this time a member of the san Franciscan hippie rebels ‘The Weathermen’ with author Paul Kantner (of the Jefferson Airplane) comparing their actions with the fated actions of the pre-biblical Diana, ‘Goddess of the moon’. However unlike the Greek original, this Diana has the humanity to worry about the hurt caused to those she leaves behind and by part two is worrying over her actions. The Beach Boys ‘My Diane’ is Brian writing his heart out about his split with wife Marilyn – and no, you didn’t read that name wrong; to hide his true feelings Brian used the name of Marilyn’s younger sister Dianne, actually the sister he started dating first before meeting and falling in love with her bigger sister! A howling torment of grief where ‘everything is wrong and nothing is right’ it was plainly still too difficult for Brian to sing so he gave it to his brother Dennis, who turns in a harrowing, gripping performance that’s the highlight of a pretty awful record. As we’ve heard the first character is loosely based on the ‘Goddess of the Moon’, but the second probably isn’t, being all too earthly, fallible and real.
(‘Eleanor Rigby’ is a track on the Beatles album ‘Revolver’ 1966, ‘Lady Eleanor’ is a track on the Lindisfarne album ‘Nicely Out Of Tune’ 1970 and ‘Eleanor’s Castle’ is a song on the Hollies outtakes compilation ‘Rarities’ from 1988)
Meaning: an Elizabethan alternative for the name ‘Helen’
‘Eleanor’ isn’t the most obvious name in the world but I’ve always liked it, probably because of its inclusion in three of the most-loved songs in my collection. To take them in turn ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is one of Paul McCartney’s finest creations, one where his knack of seeing life through the eyes of ‘other people’ is put to good use in a haunting tale of a widower, ‘picking up rice in a church where a wedding has been’ in distant memory of her own. Macca has since said that he struggled to thing of a name that would scan and miss Rigby was almost ‘Olna Na Toyngy’ before he remembered the name of Eleanor Bron, an actress who’d worked with the fab four on ‘Help!’ (‘Rigby’ came from an outfitters in London Paul passed one day). Lindisfarne’s ‘Eleanor’ isn’t based on a real person either – composer Alan Hull thought the name was suitably Medieval to match the haunting olde-style melody he’d just written. A more active presence than The Beatles’ character, she slowly seduces the narrator at an Elizabethan banquet, leaving him gradually helpless to her charms. Finally ‘Eleanor’s Castle’ is a sweet but rather dated Hollies song that aims to rhyme ‘castle’ with ‘hassle’ which features a similarly pro-active female – who this time hates the narrator (who fails to reach her ‘turrets tall’). The band, probably wisely, chose to keep it in the vaults after deciding that it sounded a little dated by their new-look post-Nash 1969 standards, but it sounded pretty darn wonderful in 1988, a delicious slab of vintage pop. Apparently the name is ‘an Elizabethan derivative of ‘Helen’ which apparently means ‘light’ – none of the three songs here really apply, although the ‘Elizabethan’ bit is right!
(‘See Emily Play’ is a single by Pink Floyd and ‘For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her’ a song from the Simon and Garfunkel album ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’, both released in 1967 while ‘Emily’s Song’ is a track from the Moody Blues album ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ from 1971)
‘Emily’ seems like a Victorian name to me rather than one from the psychedelic sixties, but that’s when these two rather different songs date from. ‘See Emily Play’ is the Floyd’s second single and the high point of their early years with Syd Barrett the main focus of the band. The ‘Emily’ in this song is more like an ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and could be interpreted as having an ‘acid trip’ – at first joyous, then misunderstood before being told she’ll ‘float on a river forever and ever’. An impossibly ethereal, dream-like spirit, Emily seems the perfect match for the ‘swinging London’ event ‘Games For May’ in 1967. Equally ethereal, although less adventurous, is Simon and Garfunkel’s beauty – one that Art Garfunkel has a fine time trying to conjure up into reality from a dream he has (‘pressed in augundy’). After dreaming of such beauty he’s mortified to wake up in reality and think that no one that special could ever be alive on Earth, only to roll over and find his special girl lying next to him. ‘Eager’ seems like a good fit for both these Emilys, even though one is an adventurous advocate of the darker, scarier side of psychedelic life and the other is a fragile porcelain beauty. As for ‘Emily’s Song’, it was written by Moody Blue John Lodge as a lullaby for his baby girl, still a toddler in 1971. The song tries to work out what she might become and what she in turn might teach her father as he looks at life anew via her eyes. In this context, then, it’s the narrator whose ‘eager’ not Emily herself, impatient for her to grow up and go on adventures with him as instead he gazes on sadly with parental responsibilities which mean ‘into your world I cannot go’.
(‘Lady Jane’ is a track from the Rolling Stones album ‘Aftermath’ 1966, ‘Jane’ is a track from the Jefferson Starship album ‘Freedom At Point Zero’ 1979 and ‘What’s The New Mary Jane?’ is an outtake included on the Beatles compilation ‘Anthology Three’ in 1997)
Meaning: ‘God’s gift of grace’
I don’t know if the Rolling Stones’ graceful, proper maiden of Elizabethan times can even comprehend the antics of the 1970s Jefferson Starship lass: the narrator of the former (Mick Jagger in his most plummy and aristocratic voice) spends an age courting and wooing her and ends the song with the line ‘life is secure’ when he finally tracks her down; by contrast the Starship’s Jane is firmly in control of her relationship, ‘playing a game’ of ‘cat and mouse’ with the narrator’s heart (Mickey Thomas at his screechy best) and leaving him scratching his head over whether she ever truly loved him at all given that she runs off with anyone else at a moment’s notice. Despite being a mere 12 years apart in date, these songs are centuries apart in setting. As for the Beatles’ Mary Jane, well, she’s as crazy as they come, having a pain at a party and having the musical equivalent of a nervous breakdown along the way (it might not surprise you to learn that ‘Mary Jane’ was a Beatles slang term for ‘marijuana’). Of these three only the Stones’ distant maiden is truly fitting of a name that apparently means ‘God’s gift of grace’; goodness what gift the other two possessed!
(‘Joanne’ is a single by Mike Nesmith from 1970 and ‘Say It Ain’t So, Jo’ a track from the Hollies album ‘5317704’ from 1978)
Meaning: also ‘God’s gift of grace’
‘Joanne’ was former Monkee Mike Nesmith’s biggest solo hit after ‘Rio’ and is a simple tale that could well have been an ancient folk song. Joanne ‘leaves near a meadow by a pond’ and like many of Nesmith’s songs is far more worldly wise than her lover from the big city who is completely out of his depth when he falls in love with her. Presumably she too would have been worthy of the ‘God’s gift of grace’ moniker (as this name is another variant of ‘Jane’). So too might the Hollies’ ‘Jo’ who puts an end to a relationship only after years of suffering, poverty and hardship. The tearful narrator is unwilling to let it end even now but there’s a certain gracefulness about the character who lets him down gently and after a long series of setbacks.
(‘Jennifer Eccles’ is a 1968 single by The Hollies and ‘Jenny Wren’ is a track from the 2003 Paul McCartney album ‘Chaos and Creation In The Backyard’ )
Meaning: ‘white phantom’
I love ‘Jennifer Eccles’. I don’t think she loves me back, though, because she’s a fictional character based on the Christian name of Allan Clarke’s wife and the maiden name of Graham Nash’s. A deliberately childlike single designed to see The Hollies safely back into the charts after the poor-selling experimental but oh-so-wonderful ‘King Midas In reverse’, Jennifer is a likeable lass who may or may not be clever enough to pass the eleven-plus (an exam in Britain at the time which dictated whether you went to an ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ secondary school). McCartney’s Jenny Wren is far less easy to love. A poor man’s ‘Blackbird’, this was deliberately written as a sequel and features a hard-done-by character ‘taking wing’ and flying off to pastures new (if you take out the lame bird metaphor then this song is actually more of a sequel to ‘Lady Madonna’ in its woman-character-done-well stance). Neither really fit the definition of ‘Jenny’ as a ‘white phantom’, but then what does? And how the heck did such a sweet name get associated with ghosts and spectres in the first place? (perhaps they were thinking of ‘A Song For Jenny’, Steve Marriott’s tearful song of family life written on a Humble Pie tour where ‘I can’t believe that you’re still there, ‘cause I ain’t been home in years’; sadly being a ‘Humble Pie’ song its a fraction too late to be included as a bona fide AAA song, although I had to mention it as its one of its creator’s finest ever songs).
(‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ is a track from the eponymous debut album by Crosby, Stills and Nash and ‘Judy and the Dream Of Horses’ a track from the 1996 Belle and Sebastian album ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’)
Stephen Stills was indeed full of ‘praise’ for Judy Collins, the singer-songwriter he fell in love with in the late 60s and whose name or image (usually as a ‘sparrow’) fills up many of his songs to come. ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’, the first track on the first CSN album, is probably the best known example: an agonised poem set to music, it passes through tormented section after section mixing declarations of love with reality checks about the chaotic life the pair might have together. Many still rate it as Stills’ greatest ever song. Belle and Sebastian, meanwhile, are full of more empathy than praise for their character Judy, who is a character who appears on many songs on the band’s first two albums but is only mentioned in the title of this one, where Judy’s dream brings her freedom and relief in her own life. However, there’s more than a little of author Stuart Murdoch in Judy’s actions, writing ‘sad songs’ and ‘being a teenage rebel’ while the chorus line ‘Judy never felt so good except when she was sleeping’ makes perfect sense to me now after learning that, like me, Stuart Murdoch was a sufferer of chronic fatigue that left him bed-ridden for seven painful sleep-deprived years.
(‘Don’t Listen To Linda’ is a track from the Monkees album ‘Instant Replay’ from 1969 and ‘The Lovely Linda’ a track from the 1970 LP ‘McCartney’)
Naturally enough Paul McCartney wrote several love songs for his wife Linda, though perhaps oddly only one ever mentioned her by name (there is a second, ‘Lindiana’ from 1987, but I won’t count that here as it still hasn’t officially been released yet in 2013). You’d expect the song that did to be a deep epic symbolising the pair’s deep bond but, no, it’s a thirty second throwaway Macca wrote to test the tape recorders he’s just got from Apple are working (anyone else would go ‘one two one two’ but Macca has to make an eight track recording!) The song is sweet, though, nonetheless and being ‘lovely’ with ‘flowers in her hair’ is probably as good a match for the dictionary definition of ‘pretty’ as you can get. The Monkees’ Linda is less so, a moody teenage angst ballad from chief writers Boyce and Hart that finds Davy Jones warning a close friend ‘don’t listen to Linda, or you’ll end up like me’ (ie dumped and dead miserable. Boyce and Hart admitted later that they ‘borrowed’ the name from the wife of the boss of the Colgems record label because they liked the ‘alliteration’ – and had to placate her when she complained about the song! An earlier version of the song, with a much younger sounding Davy, can also be heard as a bonus track on ‘More Of the Monkees’ but this finished, slower version is the ‘keeper’. We never do get to find out what this second ‘Linda’ looked like, but ‘petty’ seems a better fit than ‘pretty’!
(‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ is a track on the Beatles LP ‘Sgt Peppers’ from 1967 whilst ‘Rubber Lucy’ and ‘Lucy’ are both tracks by The Hollies from their albums ‘The Hollies’ 1974 and ‘Another Night’ 1975 respectively)
‘Lucy’ is a name that’s forever associated with The Beatles now – you may remember that when the supposed ‘missing link’ nicknamed Lucy was discovered by archaeologists she too was nicknamed ‘Lucy’ because ‘Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds’ was playing on the radio at the time! For years scholars wondered what the symbolism meant, before John’s son Julian sheepishly admitted that the title was one he gave to a drawing he’d done at nursery for his friend Lucy O’Donnell and that he’d shown it to his dad. In this context, though, five-year-old Julian clearly got the idea spot on: where better to find ‘light’ than in the ‘sky’? Old rivals The Hollies, meanwhile, paid tribute to the name not once but twice during their 1970s career, for no apparent reason that I can find (‘Lucy’ is a hard name to rhyme and none of the band members were married to a ‘Lucy’ at the time). ‘Rubber Lucy’ (‘who ain’t choosy’ in a rather optimistic rhyme) is an odd song by their or indeed anyone’s standards: the title may imply sado-masochism tendencies but the narrator is actually annoyed by her rigid manner and inability to enjoy the ‘lighter’ side of life. The second ‘Lucy’ is a lot nicer; a sensitive tearjerker about a beloved wife on her deathbed with the narrator wondering ‘how’m I going to tell the children that Lucy’s gone away?’, it’s full of real pathos and concern and a beautiful tune. There’s not much reference to ‘light’, though, unless its the light of Heaven that Lucy is passing into.
(‘Martha’ is a track from the Jefferson Airplane album ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ from 1967 and ‘Martha My Dear’ is a track from the 1968 album ‘The Beatles’ also known as ‘The White Album’)
Well, who’d have thought an old-fashioned name like ‘Martha’ would make it onto our list? (and before the Dr Who assistant made it a popular choice again too!) The Jefferson Airplane version isn’t old-fashioned at all however: it’s a whizz-bang wallop psychedelic frenzy from a candidate for one of the most psychedelic LPs of all time. Their Martha has a sixth sense, in tune with nature and the universe, born with reservoirs of patience the narrator wants to learn from and who, when they’re together, finally feels ‘free’ without the usual pressures of maintaining a relationship. In reality, Martha was the 16 year old daughter of the San Franciscan Mayor who ran away from home to live with David Crosby! The Beatles version is actually based on a real figure: Paul McCartney’s sheepdog! ‘Martha’ was a lovely warm ball of fun that Macca used to talk for lots of walks while thinking up songs and, in his haste to remember a new riff that had come into his head, Paul came up with the line ‘Martha my dear’ and never got round to writing anything to replace it. The song sounds like two stuck together though: at first Martha is ‘an inspiration’ the narrator is trying to woo, the next she’s a ‘silly girl’ who won’t make the most of the opportunity he is offering her. Both ‘Martha’s are clearly ladies in their own way (even if one started out life as a dog!)
(‘Mary Mary’ is a track from the 1967 album ‘More Of The Monkees’ and ‘Mary’ is a track from the 1981 Jefferson Starship album ‘Modern Times’. A song called ‘Mary’ was also intended for the Who album ‘Lifehouse’ in 1971 but has so far only been available via a limited edition Pete Townshend download)
Meaning: ‘star of the sea’
The first band original most Monkee fans took notice of was this Mike Nesmith song - sung as ever in these early days by Micky Dolenz - and helped the band become taken semi-seriously when the Paul; Butterfield Blues Band recorded their own version of it for their seminal ‘East-West’ LP. Mary Mary (the melody of this song isn’t that far removed from ‘Contrary Mary, of How Does Your Garden Grow? fame) has abandoned the narrator without a second glance and he’s trying anything to woo her back. There’s no mention of the ‘sea’ though or of Mary being a ‘star’. Jefferson Starship’s song is one long pun on the words ‘I will never marry Mary’, although its set to a great riff and features one of the band’s most deliciously OTT performances. There’s still no mentions of ‘sea’ or ‘stars’ however. One final note: Pete Townshend’s song ‘Mary’ was originally a key part of Who concept album ‘Lifehouse’ – later abandoned and re-made as ‘Who’s Next’ – left unheard for 30 years. It’s not much of a song but is by far the best fit for the definition of the name: declaring that ‘his’ Mary is special, he announces that ‘the stars don’t shine on every man’ and that he’s overjoyed to have been this lucky.
(‘Mona’ is a track from the first eponymous album by The Rolling Stones in 1964 and a track from the 1977 album ‘The Beach Boys Love You’)
Our second unexpected name on the list, you just don’t hear the name Mona around nowadays do you? And no, it doesn’t mean ‘moaner’: it does in fact mean ‘noble’. Presumably the Mona of Rolling Stones fame (via writer Bo Diddley under his real name Ellis McDaniel) is noble too, because she won’t give in to the narrator’s advances, even with a fabulous hypnotic beat that’s the clear highlight of the first Stones LP and Mick Jagger at his sultry best. Brian Wilson’s Mona (sung on record by brother Dennis) is much more ordinary, an impressionable teenager that sounds more like someone from Brian’s deep and distant teenage youth (the song was written during his ‘bed bound’ years). Cajoling her into all the things he wants to do, Mona’s name is repeated several times during the course of the song until the pair fall exhausted onto a chair – Dennis’ narrator reaching to put a romantic record on and promising ‘I know you’re going to like Phil Spector...’
(‘Lightning Rose’ and ‘Rose Goes To Yale’, both songs by Jefferson Starship from the 1979 album ‘Freedom At Point Zero’ and the 1984 album ‘Nuclear Furniture’)
Meaning: named after the plant
Rose is a recurring character in Paul Kantner’s vision of the future, a world leader who can ‘grow’ out of the ashes of the corrupt, materialistic 20th century into a land based on freedom and equality. Sadly that vision of the future only ever came true on record, but at least Kantner correctly guessed the end of the cold war (reaching a peak when the second of these two albums was made). The former song, written some five years earlier, is more of a siren, a mythological creature who comes into the world to put things right but the second is a more earthly creature still with the same spirit burning in her eyes.
(‘Rosemary Rose’ is a track by The Kinks from 1968, released on the deluxe edition of ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’, ‘Rosemary’ is a song from the 1969 Grateful Dead album ‘Aoxomoxoa’ and ‘Rosemarie’ is a song by The Monkees first released on ‘Missing Links’ in 1987)
Meaning: ‘sea dew’
Is ‘Rosemary/ie’ a different name to ‘Rose’? Apparently so, and it’s not named after the herb either whatever Simon and Garfunkel seem to think on ‘Scarborough Fair’! It’s an unusually popular name in song too, with three very different songs – none of which have anything to do with the ‘real’ definition of ‘sea dew’. Perhaps The Kinks’ most famous outtake (available on a semi-legal compilation in 1972 and only widely available in the 1990s) is a typical Ray Davies character assignation of the period, a teenager trying to act beyond her years, ‘chewing on your liquorish gum and cigarettes’ whilst ‘looking nothing like a child – but you’re such a little baby!’ The Grateful Dead’s Rosemary is much more ethereal and possibly Elizabethan again, left waiting for suitors and friends in life and as an abandoned ghost still walking round her psychedelic sounding garden (‘all around the garden grew scarlet and purple and crimson and blue’). The varispeeded vocal on Jerry Garcia’s voice makes him sound even more prematurely old than normal and does indeed sound like a ghost intoning her last will and testament to us mere mortals. The Monkees’ ‘Rosemarie’ (originally unreleased but intended for the ‘Instant Replay’ album of 1969) was in author Micky Dolenz’s words ‘just a riff and not even a song’ but what a riff! Goodness only knows what the quick-stepping lyrics mean (‘information, registration, aviation, easy nation, occupation, connotation, revelation, education!’) but at least this song comers closest to the definition of ‘sea dew’ with the line ‘Rosemarie gone to sea...’
(‘Susannah’s Still Alive’ is a single by Dave Davies released in 1967, ‘Sorry Suzanne’ is a single by The Hollies released in 1979 and ‘Peggy Sue’ is a Buddy Holly cover sung by both The Beach Boys in 1978 on ‘MIU’, The Hollies on ‘Sing Holly’ in 1980 and John Lennon on ‘Rock and Roll’ in 1974)
Susans tend to be painted in books as the motherly, maternal, adult-before-their-time sorts don’t they? Well, not in music it seems: two out of three of these ‘Susans’ are real party animals. Dave Davies’ second (and best) solo single ‘Susannah’s Still Alive’ is to some extent a true story, the tale of the 15 year old girlfriend Dave fell for at school and got pregnant, with both pupils expelled for the deed and both families conspiring to cut the ties between them. In his autobiography ‘Kink’ the character of Sue haunts Dave like a ghost for the rest of his life and is clearly his ‘one true love’, although this is the only time she’s properly referred to by name. In this remarkable song Dave imagines his beloved pining for him as much as he does her, sleeping in bed with the covers down so ‘somebody can get in’ and drinking herself under the table as a substitute for the tears she’s too upset to cry. Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue (covered by no less than three AAA members over the years ) and the sequel ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ (also covered by The Hollies) is also something of a party animal for the times (the late 1950s), inspiring a fast-talking jovial party song (‘pretty pretty pretty pretty Peggy Sue!’) in all three versions (of which The Hollies’ is arguably the best). Perhaps The Hollies were making up for their earlier portrayal of a ‘Suzanne’ on probably their worst ever song, their first post-Nash single that made it all the way to #3 in the charts. Sickly, sweet and schmaltzy this Suzanne is a drag and seems to deserve everything she gets! None of these three songs ever make any allusion to the dictionary definition of ‘lily’, but then that is quite a hard subject to work into a song!
(‘Oh Yoko’ and ‘Dear Yoko’ were released by John Lennon in 1970 and 1980 respectively, on ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ and ‘Double Fantasy’)
Well, there’s no surprise who wrote this pair of songs, with John Lennon serenading his greatest muse and soulmate with two very different songs from two very different periods in his life. In 1971 ‘Oh Yoko’ was a childish nursery-rhymey song of love for the only bright spot in Lennon’s life whose always there to put things right (no wonder Lennon’s nickname for his second wife was ‘mother’!), leaving the narrator to call out for her in the middle of all his daily activities. Reprising his line from ‘A Day In The Life’ this time its love, not drugs, that Lennon promises ‘will turn you on’. The 1980 song ‘Dear Yoko’ is one of Lennon’s last before his untimely death and by this point the pair of lovebirds have gone full circle, now five years past the difficult ‘lost weekend’ split and are now responsible parents. Another uptempo song with a definite 1950s spirit Lennon writes this song in the form of a postcard, having left for a holiday in Bermuda with son Sean while Yoko stays in New York to ‘cope with the business’. The name Yoko means ‘good’ in Japanese, something Lennon would no doubt agree with – as a bit of trivia for you the name ‘Ringo’ in Japanese means ‘Apple’, although that wasn’t why the Beatles named their business company after the fruit (it was inspired by a Magritte painting ‘A is for Apple’).
And that’s enough name-calling for one week. Join us again in a week’s time for more news, views and music!