Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Road Songs

Aside from love and death and possibly a couple of other things, I feel like touring is one of the most written-about subjects in pop music.

It makes sense: once an artist has hit the big time, such go-to subjects as having no money, having no friends, and wanting to get the hell out of this two-bit town become somewhat inappropriate, and the pressures of being on the road become a far richer and more sincere source of inspiration. Sure, you could do what Bruce Springsteen did and just carry on singing about your blue collar, but nine times out of ten, your fans will see through this ruse and your career will crash and burn (just as Springsteen's did).

Little wonder, then, that so many artists drop their previous themes like hot potatoes and instead start writing about travelling the world, playing to legions of fans, and...uh, how sad that makes them. Here are three of my favourite examples:

Super Trouper by Abba (from Super Trouper)
We'll start - and why not? - with one of the single greatest pop songs of all time. We find our protagonist, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, "sick and tired of everything" while holed up somewhere in Glasgow. She has been on tour for quite some time; all she does is "eat and sleep and sing", and she's "wishing every show was the last show".

Clearly, she's ready to pack it in and head back to Sweden. But tonight's show is different, see, because you are there. Playing a gig is a very different experience when you know (at least one of) the people you're singing to, and while Anni-Frid has just about had enough of singing for strangers, this homecoming show will be lot more enjoyable for the presence of her much-missed love interest.

I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light by Brand New (from Deja Entendu)
Here's a quick snippet from Deja Entendu's Wikipedia page: 

According to drummer Brian Lane, "Jesse [Lacey] wrote a lot of the lyrics about different things than 'I just broke up with my girlfriend' for the new record."

And so, nestled among those 'different things' was - obviously - a song about being on tour. The Jesse of I Will Play My Game... is very homesick indeed - he states that he would "kill for the Atlantic", but cannot return home yet since he is "paid to make girls panic" while he sings. He notes the passing of the seasons ("the time has come for colds and overcoats") but ruefully acknowledges that he "won't see home 'til spring", which presumably means that he'll be away from his family for Christmas.

Interestingly, both this song and Super Trouper contain references to stage lights - spotlights and spin lights make pretty handy synecdoches for gigs in general, I guess.

UK Blues by Sun Kil Moon (from Among the Leaves)
We'll end with the ultimate 'pity me because I am a successful touring musician' song. Among the Leaves contains several songs about Mark Kozelek's experiences on the road, but the shimmery, shiny, and rather beautiful UK Blues is the pick of the bunch, even if it doesn't reflect particularly well on Great Britain.

Over the course of this song, we follow Mark through Scandinavia and the United Kingdom as he miserably drags himself from one gig to the next, sardonically noting each town's defining characteristics as he passes through it:

London, London - it's all the rage if your favourite colour's beige.
Bristol, Bristol - cobblestone streets, people missing teeth.

In fairness, this is perhaps the only song of today's trio that actually complains about the gigs, rather than just the travelling and the being away from the people you love. Sure, Mark is "homesick as fuck", but that's not his only grievance. Here are some choice excerpts:

Tried a few new songs, they looked at me like, 'What? Where's Katy Song, Mistress and Grace Cathedral Park?' [Nice ROPSWED there!]

Got up on the stage, people gathered 'round, retro '80s band drowned out my sound.

Had a show on a boat, it was half full. Guy in the front heckled me all night - skin was a sickly mix of grey, pink and white.

Poor Mark - no wonder he's so grumpy all the time.

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