You can make fun of Paul McCartney all you want, but he’s just going to shrug and whistle all the way to the bank. If you had written a tune this catchy you would say “This is it, lads, this is our golden ticket out of obscurity!” And then you would spend the rest of your life trying to leverage your one moment on inspiration into a steady paycheck. But Paul McCartney can just take one of the catchiest tunes ever written by anyone ever and throw it away as a novelty song about stinky feet. Because he can. That is all.
This Jethro Tull song is barely over a minute. That makes it a tiny speck in the universe of a band given to epics in the 15 to 25 minute range. A minute is barely enough time for Ian Anderson to draw a deep breath before a mighty flute solo. It’s a blink of an eye, a fruit fly’s lifespan. Yet, there have been artists aplenty, from the Ramones to Tierra Whack, who’ve said all that they needed to say entirely in one and two minute songs. There’s time enough to say all you need to say in one minute, and if you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to be writing epics in the first place. Ian Anderson, for all of his ambitions, knows this. He can slide a quiet slip of a song in between all of the big thoughts and say what he has to say. I’ve always loved this, as a breather, a small moment of contemplation. And if nothing else, I love the line “and you press on God’s waiter your last dime, as he hands you the bill…”
It doesn’t get much bleaker than this. When Marianne Faithfull decided to finally and forever stop being a dollybird and become a real songwriter, she ended up writing one of the great drug epics of rock, an ode to deathly chemicals on par with Lou Reed’s Heroin. It was, of course, banned and pulled from shelves, while The Rolling Stones re-recorded it and took all the credit. (Faithfull says that it was a matter of copyright issues and that they did in fact pay her royalties, and it was those royalties that kept her alive during her worst years.) Faithfull always insisted that she wrote it before the worst of her drug addiction, and she was just trying to be literary, but she came to know the truth of her own writing soon enough. Besides the lyrical foresight, the song shows a singer literally metamorphosing as we listen from ingenue to rock star. She’s already done enough to herself that her voice is cracking. She wavers like pubescent boy between her old high vibrato and the husky croon we now know her for, and she doesn’t know what to do with it yet. That in itself belies any claim that of pure literary exercise. Marianne Faithfull was burning herself out, and she knew it. Years later she sang it again, now in full command of that barrel-aged croak, but it didn’t have the same fragile poignancy. The Rolling Stones, meanwhile, mined many of the same trenches, although with considerably more cash in hand, and they turned Sister Morphine into their own confessional. It’s probably the most explicit look they’ve ever taken into the dark side of their hedonistic lifestyle, and it is, in its own way, almost as poignant. Mick Jagger, tough guy that he is, doesn’t do confessionals, but he watched the closest people in his life sacrifice themselves to addiction, and the hurt shows, sometimes. Sticky Fingers was one of the great drug records, and Sister Morphine was the sad centerpiece that highlighted the theme most starkly. It was a fitting coda for a tainted love story, and an era.
Leonard Cohen can give anyone a run for their money when in comes to portentous narrative ballads, except that his narratives don’t tell stories as such. Cohen really doesn’t get enough credit for his use of surreal imagery; so much of his writing evokes the fever-dream quality of art house French movies (that drives a lot of people away, I know, I know.) The man started his rock career already a published poet and novelist, for goodness sake, he knows his way around a deft metaphor. He knows how to sound like a bard in a Medieval alehouse, he knows how to take the same dumb topics all poets have danced around for millennia and make them sound like they’ve never been touched before, and all the while the bard has the weariness of the modern man who knows that his millennium may be the very last one.
You can be a hard-drinkin’, hard-ridin’, hard-livin’ highwayman, but that oughtn’t stop you using the Queen’s grammar. Kris Kristofferson has made a music and movie career playing the charming (and increasingly grizzled) country boy with mud on his boots, but he also made to it no secret that he was smarter and better educated than any of his Nashville peers. Which not only made his more charming – for who can resist a real man’s man who also wields formidable book smarts? – but also one of the wittiest and most interesting songwriters in his field. That too helped him break out of the genre and appeal to rock’n’roll fans, making country rock a popular new genre in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Kristofferson has got a lot of things going for him, but I’d say the main one is, damn, the man writes good lyrics.
Young women with long blonde hair singing plaintively about nature. That very specific sub-genre was definitely big a thing in the 60’s, and Mary Hopkin was a key figure in it. See also, Marianne Faithfull, Judy Collins, Sandy Denny, etc. See also, long billowing dresses, peter-pan collars, obscure Medieval string instruments, wildflower bouquets, etc. Yes, the English folk music revival really loved its virginal-but-wise damsel cliches. It might look a little twee and silly to our modern American eyes, but I suppose that it really made the British feel like they were touching base with their pagan folklore and whatnot. And that’s actually rather lovely. Everyone should be able to delve into the ancient heritage of their people. That’s something a lot of Americans are unfortunately lacking and can’t relate to, so on these shores the English folk music thing never caught on. Some of the figures of the movement went on to become well-known for other things, but Mary Hopkin married Tony Visconti and didn’t work under her own name again for several decades. She’s actually recorded more in the 2000’s than she did in 60’s, and she’s now part of a movement by the Welsh to rediscover and preserve their culture. There is still very much a market in the UK for plaintive singing, long-sleeved gowns, dulcimers, and all things referring to faerie earth magic and other such folklore. Obviously, the ageless Fae damsel is a figure of deep identification and eternally relevant, and folk music is more than a fad that happened 50 years ago.
Speaking of cult favorites… In a just and fair world Shocking Blue’s Mariska Veres would be known as one of the greatest female rock vocalists of the 60’s and 70’s. There weren’t very many, so it’s not a matter of being overshadowed by too much competition. Veres had a big brassy voice reminiscent of Grace Slick, drag queen looks and a sexy European accent – all the makings of a rock icon. Shocking Blue enjoyed some consistent Continental popularity and one big international hit (you know the one.) Unfortunately, they didn’t stay together for very long, and while they made some great singles they never made an album that really held up as an artistic statement, those being the years when the grandly ambitious statement album was an unquestionable requirement for cachet and respect. Mariska Veres also missed her pop icon opportunity by her own personal choices i.e. she did not live a rock star kind of life. She didn’t date any fellow rock stars or hang out with celebrities or get up to controversial hijinks in her spare time. She just lived a normal life when she wasn’t performing, and while that’s admirable in its own way, it’s hardly fascinating. It’s hard to be remembered for talent alone when you’re not willing to be a slave to the fame, and posterity rewards those who do wild and crazy things, not those who do their job and go home.