The Top (Insert Arbitrary Number) Classic Nasty Songs

There’s plenty of silly love songs out there.  In fact, you’d think that people would have had enough of them.  How refreshing, then, to change the mood sometimes with a bitter, spleen-venting, point-scoring, revenge song.  What I especially love about nasty songs is that people don’t always recognise them for what they are.  OK, you wouldn’t struggle to guess that Bob Dylan is having a go at someone in Like a Rolling Stone, but at least three of the following list feature regularly as request songs, one imagines, for loved ones.

This list makes no claim to be contemporary, so you won’t find Taylor Swift here.  But feel free to suggest any others you think should be included.  In no particular order, here we go.

One – U2  (1991)

On a casual listening, when we hear the lyric “One love, one life”, it’s easy to think that we’re hearing a happy, upbeat warm-hearted song, perhaps in the same vein as Bob Marley’s “One Love”.  Uh-uh.  Try these lines for size:

“Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus?
To the lepers in your head?”

Bitter enough?  I shudder to think how many people have requested it romantically for their loved ones without ever having listened properly.

How Do You Sleep – John Lennon   (1971)

“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” says John ungrammatically, as he settles old scores with Paul, referring to the 1960s “Paul is Dead” rumour.  John was not happy that Paul beat him to the punch in initiating the break-up of the Beatles, or that the other three Beatles were not as smitten with Yoko as he was.

Typically, though, beneath the vitriol Lennon does still manage to hit the target when he sings “since you’re gone you’re just another day” and “the sound you make is muzak to my ears”.  McCartney’s early post-Beatle output was very disappointing: there were a few good songs, but it wasn’t until the release of Band on the Run in 1973 that he found any real form.  But Lennon couples the first of these with the outrageous lie that “the only thing you done was yesterday”. 

Perhaps the cruellest jibe is “jump when your momma tell you anything”. Perhaps, charitably, we can read this as a reference to Linda McCartney: if not it’s particularly vicious, because Paul’s mother died when he was fourteen.  John should have known better: his own mother died when he was seventeen.

Reputedly Ringo was upset when he visited the studio during the recording of the song and said “That’s enough, John”.

Paul showed no sign at all of losing any sleep: if he felt any guilt, he hid it well.  Diplomatically, he made no public response, although many felt that his song Let Me Roll It on Band on the Run was an affectionate Lennon pastiche.

Easy – The Commodores   (1977)

A staple of those schmaltzy Sunday morning (of course) request shows.  Sounds all sweet and romantic, doesn’t it?  But really?  Let’s have  a closer listen, right at the beginning:

“Know it sounds funny but I just can’t stand the pain
Girl I’m leaving you tomorrow”

Tomorrow?  Mate, if she’s got any sense she’ll tell you to sling your hook right now.  You wanna be free, and high, so high, and you’re way too cool to stay with one person.  She can help you with that.  Your stuff is on the sidewalk in the rain.  Hats off, though, for the tenderest, sweetest “you’re chucked” song in history.

Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan   (1965)

“How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Just like a rolling stone?”

No-one could write a nasty song like Dylan.  And it was probably safer, in those years, to be a known “enemy” at some distance (eg an arms manufacturer) than to actually know Bob.  The song, which spearheaded his move from acoustic to electric folk, came from a long typed rant of Dylan’s, and has never been definitively linked to a particular person – although it has at times been suggested that it was intended for Joan Baez or Marianne Faithfull.  Dylan has even hinted that in part, it might have been directed at himself.

Dylan’s biographer, Howard Sounes commented “There is some irony in the fact that one of the most famous songs of the folk rock era – an era associated primarily with ideals of peace and harmony – is one of vengeance”.  In any case he seems to have enjoyed writing and performing it: soon after this he came up with a similarly vitriolic song, Positively 4th Street.
My Little Town – Simon and Garfunkel   (1975)

“And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colours are black
It’s not that the colours aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack”

Paul Simon wrote My Little Town for Art Garfunkel some five years after the duo split. Simon explained “It originally was a song I was writing for Artie. I was gonna write a song for his new album, and I told him it would be a nasty song, because he was singing too many sweet songs.”  However, the story goes that Simon had fallen in love with it, so they decided to record it together.  Art Garfunkel has said that it described his youth, saying he “grew up in an area where a career in music was not seen as either desirable nor exciting”.  Oh, and

“Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town”.  Sweet.

Hi Ho Silver Lining – Jeff Beck Group   (1967)

Ironic that Jeff Beck, regularly featured in poll lists of best ever guitarists, is most remembered for this (often drunken) singalong which gives him little opportunity to display his virtuosity.  Beck’s record became much better known than British band The Attack’s version, which came out a few days earlier.

“Flying across the country, and getting fat
Saying everything is groovy, when your tires are flat”

I’ve always found this a rather dreary, predictable song.  But we owned the single, and back in the day we used to flip singles over.  This time I was rewarded by the astonishing Beck’s Bolero, a thunderously exciting instrumental.

This was performed by an ad hoc supergroup including Beck, Keith Moon, Nicky Hopkins, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – the last two, of course, later became half of Led Zeppelin.

19th Nervous Breakdown – Rolling Stones   (1966)

“When you were a child you were treated kind
But you were never brought up right
You were always spoiled with a thousand toys but still you cried all night”
Here young Mick shares his thoughts on how to bring up kids.  Jagger first had the phrase “19th Nervous Breakdown” in his head, and then wrote the lyrics around it.  The detail and invention of the lyrics are reminiscent of the best of Chuck Berry or Lieber and Stoller:
“Your mother who neglected you owes a million dollars tax
And your father’s still perfecting ways of making sealing wax”.
The girl at the end of Jagger’s abuse seems more of a victim than a bad person, but these were tough times.  One more gem from this song:
“On our first trip I tried so hard to rearrange your mind
But after a while I realized you were disarranging mine”.
Before we leave Messrs Jagger and Richards, let’s take a peak at Stray Cat Blues, their 1968 celebration of underage sex from Beggars Banquet: (1968)

“I can see that you’re fifteen years old
No I don’t want your I.D.
And I’ve seen that you’re so far from home
But it’s no hanging matter
It’s no capital crime”

Well that’s a lyric that wouldn’t get written in 2018.

Every Breath You Take – Police   (1983)

Another song often casually assumed to be romantic.  That’s hardly Sting’s fault:

“Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you”

Does that sound like a love song to you?  It’s quite clear from the lyrics, from the stressed vocals and the taut, menacing music that we’re in creepy, jilted stalker country here.

Sting started writing the song at Ian Fleming’s writing desk on the Goldeneye estate in Oracabessa, Jamaica.  Sting later said he was disconcerted by how many people think the song is more positive than it is. He insists it is about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow. “One couple told me ‘Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!’ I thought, ‘Well, good luck.’  I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.”

So no, mate, she doesn’t want that played as a request for her.

A Well Respected Man – Kinks  (1965)

If you were ever tempted to invite Ray Davies to join you in a game of golf, pay attention. Davies was on holiday in a hotel in Torquay when a wealthy hotel guest recognized him and asked him to play a round of golf.  Far from being flattered by the invitation, he took great offence. “I’m not gonna play f–king golf with you,” he told him. “I’m not gonna be your caddy so you can say you played with a pop singer.”

This incident was the inspiration for A Well Respected Man:

“And he likes his own backyard,
And he likes his fags the best,
Cause he’s better than the rest,
And his own sweat smells the best,
And he hopes to grab his fathers loot,
When pater passes on”

Davies was later at pains to point out that “fags” in this context referred only to cigarettes and/or younger personal servants at public school.  In the UK, Pye Records refused to issue this as a single, preferring to play safe by sticking to the rockier style of their earlier hits.

This song deserves a special mention for rhyming regatta with get at her.  And neither should we forget Warren Zevon who instead rhymed regatta with persona non grata.

Dedicated Follower of Fashion was also considered for inclusion in this list, but failed to make the cut because it’s a little bit too affectionate.  But it does have the wonderfully risqué line:

“And when he pulls his frilly nylon panties right up tight
He feels a dedicated follower of fashion”.

Little Boxes – Pete Seeger   (1963)

“Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes
Little boxes
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same”.

I’d always assumed, on casual hearing, that this song was aimed at the houses which poor people lived in.  Which always seemed mean-spirited: the cool and successful folk singer sneering at the modesty and uniformity of the architecture.  There, it seemed, spoke someone who had never gone without indoor toilets, a home which could be kept warm, electricity, or hot and cold running water – all the things which standardised modern housebuilding brought to ordinary people.

But on more thorough listening…

“And the people in the houses all went to the university
And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers
And business executives
And they all get put in boxes, and they all come out the same”

So the song, written by Seeger’s friend Malvina Reynolds, is actually taking aim at the prosperous middle classes.  Who, typically live in large boxes, usually much more varied and interesting than the houses occupied by poorer workers.  And pretty well built, not made out of ticky tacky at all.  There are many reasons why you might want to have a pop at the middle classes, but the architecture of their houses seems a pointless target.  When you listen to this ditty, it’s worth bearing in mind that this was the same year in which Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind”.  Personally, I’m with satirist Tom Lehrer, who allegedly described “Little Boxes” as “the most sanctimonious song ever written”.

Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa – Gene Pitney

“Oh I was only twenty four hours from Tulsa
Ah, only one day away from your arms
I hate to do this to you but I love somebody new, what can I do?
And I can never, never, never go home again.”

Bacharach and David were great songwriters, but really guys, what were you thinking?  The singer has been unfaithful, so now he is letting his partner know that he’s dumping her.  Does he do this in person?  Does he call her up?  No, he’s writing.  So unless the US Mail is super efficient, she will have noticed his absence before she has any explanation.

Ok, he’s met someone new.  That happens.  But it doesn’t justify the self-pitying tone of the song, like he’s the victim here.  Not helped either by Pitney’s whiny voice.  If he was really concerned that he could never – never – go home again, he could have tried:

1) not telling her about being unfaithful

or even

2) not being unfaithful

but I guess that as he’s already told his new love he’d die before he would let her out of his arms, those options didn’t occur to him.

Like most writers, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here, and must pay tribute to Ian McMillan of the Yorkshire Post, who has established beyond reasonable doubt that Pitney was writing his letter from Darfield, South Yorkshire.

One wonders, too, whether Gene has many possessions back home which are important to him.  We have already established that he can never – never – go home again, so it sounds like he will be relying on his ex to ship his stuff back to him.  Good luck with that, pal.

2 thoughts on “The Top (Insert Arbitrary Number) Classic Nasty Songs

  1. “I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best
    I can’t keep track of each fallen robin
    I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
    That’s all, I don’t think of you that often.”

    Like

  2. Ah yes, Chuckles. Although maybe a whiff of denial there? Why did he even bother to write the song if he doesn’t care? As in:

    “I keep your picture
    Upon the wall
    It hides a nasty stain that’s lying there
    So don’t you ask me
    To give it back
    I know you know it doesn’t mean that much to me”.

    Like

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