Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published August 15th 2018
You don't need a book to tell a tale
I am a writer… well, attempting to be a writer. Of fiction, I should add. Over the past 10 years or so, I've had more than 40 short stories, poems, etc published and even one novel (as lousy as it is). I have a collection of over 1000 unpublished short stories, poems and essays on my hard drive, plus more than 50 novels and novellas and even a number of songs. (Anyone know a publisher? Seriously – message me.)
What this bit of self-promotion says, though, is that I really like stories. I like being caught in the moment of a good short story, losing myself in a great novel, living someone else's life in an autobiography, feeling the emotion of poetry anthology and – as regular readers may have guessed – getting into a really good song.
A pretty good approximation of my study (morguefile.com)
I particularly enjoy it when a song tells a story. A definite story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And there are surprisingly few of them. Most songs don't tell a story, per se – they are of a time, of an emotion, of a person, of an incident but they are not of a story. Or sometimes the story becomes so bogged down in hidden meanings and literary allusion that the actual meaning is lost on future generations.
Some, however, do tell a good, strong story. And this is a collection of my favourites. Oh, I have decided not to include comedy songs (as much as Homecoming Queen's Got A Gun is awesome!) or songs about the Vietnam War (that's a future column! Stay tuned!) or songs from musicals where the plot is advanced, just because it is my list and that's what I've decided.
Oh, of course, then some people can turn songs into really good stories of their own…
1) Shooting Star by Bad Company Written by: Paul Rodgers / Paul Bernard Rodgers
Bad Company in 1976 (Wikipedia)
The story of Johnny, hearing the Beatles, deciding to become a musician, making it to the top and then dying of a mixture of alcohol and pills is almost a sad morality tale, done in a singularly awesome Bad Company track.
The story-telling is quite straightforward. He was still at school "When he heard his first Beatles song". That inspired him to buy a guitar and form a band. And then he leaves his mother to go and try to crack the big-time. He recorded a record that "Went straight up to number one" and he realised he'd made it. But then he "died one night / Died in his bed" and that was it. His career was brief – the "Shooting Star" of the title and chorus, and this guaranteed he would be remembered and loved. Was the death accidental or intentional? It doesn't say.
It is a sad song and a sad story but it is a great song.
2) Copacabana (At The Copa) by Barry Manilow
Written by: Barry Manilow / Bruce H. Sussman / Jack A. Feldman
Single cover (Wikipedia)
The story of two men fighting over Lola at the titular night-club has become a staple of 1970s compilation albums and was even done in awesome fashion by The Muppets, but none of that takes away from a striking story of a group of people whose destinies were set to entwine tragically.
Lola was a "showgirl" at the night-club in question and she and the bar-man Tony had a little something going. After all, "They were young and they had each other / Who could ask for more?" Enter Rico, a wealthy guy who took an instant shine to Lola. Tony grew jealous and jumped him. Someone was shot – "But just who shot who?" – and then… Well, fast forward 30 years and now the Copa is a disco but Lola, "Still in dress she used to wear", sits there, alone, drinking "herself half-blind" as she goes out of her mind.
It is a sad song and it is a tragedy, but sometimes the lyrics get lost in the happy-go-lucky sounding chorus and the kitsch appeal of the song.
3) Kelly by Del Shannon
Written by: Del Shannon / Maron Mckenzie
Del Shannon in 1965 (Wikipedia)
This song was originally the B-side to 'Two Kinds Of Teardrops' but it became popular on its own, especially in Australia where it became a staple of Del Shannon's live concerts. Again, a surprisingly simple song that actually has a definite story.
The singer and Kelly "meet secretly" because she is the girlfriend of his best friend. However, they are in love. The singer has to put up with his friend describing Kelly's charms, even though he knows about them already. But the friend is out of town, "coming home tomorrow", after being "gone so long" and so they have to decide whether to run there and then. The story leaves us with what is essentially a cliff-hanger – do they go or do they stay and tell the other man or do they continue their secret affair?
The actual song and its story often get lost in its simplicity, but the song is a nice open-ended tale that has been repeated in countless films, TV shows and books over the years: the Affair and where does it go from here? Without this story arc, Days Of Our Lives and Bold And The Beautiful would not exist.
4) The River by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Written by: Bruce Springsteen
The River album cover (Wikipedia)
Many of Springsteen's songs have a narrative flow of some sort. He paints word pictures that are recognisable and accessible to the masses while maintaining a strong musical element that means he will be remembered as fondly as Dylan when musicologists of the future look back. And, seriously, if Bob Dylan can get the Nobel Prize for Literature for his body of work, Springsteen should be in line at some point as well. His songs are more accessible and tell a tale of a part of the world and its people that is often neglected by those in power.
The River is the story of a young man whose whole life is ahead of him. He has his future ahead of him, but "Then I got Mary pregnant / And man that was all she wrote." His life was no longer his own. He got a job, the economy saw work dry up and he and Mary started going through the motions of a married life. However, his mind cannot help but go back, but "those memories come back to haunt me / They haunt me like a curse." He remembers the good times and rues the decisions he made, and goes back to the river where they used to go to think about better times.
It has one of my favourite lines from a song ever in it: "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true / Or is it something worse."
This is a fantastic song, sad and poignant and one all too many people can relate to.
5) Stan by Eminem feat Dido
Written by: Paul Herman / Dido Armstrong / Marshall Mathers
CD Single cover (Wikipedia)
Probably Eminem's most popular and mainstream song, this tale is one that, on the surface, seems very straightforward, but is actually a warning or message to his fans that he is just a person, not a god, and that blind worship of celebrity is insane. At least, that's how I read it
It is an epistolary tale, with the Stan of the title writing to "Slim" but getting no response. The letters grow increasingly desperate, showing how vicariously Stan is living his life through his idol, and even saying that his younger brother "wants to be just like you, man, he likes you more than I do." He starts abusing Slim for not writing or calling, for perceived slights outside concerts and things like that. He also says his girlfriend is getting jealous and it is clear that he's becoming obsessed. Then he takes it a step further, driving with his pregnant girl "screamin' in the trunk" and killing both him and her by deliberately plunging off a bridge. It finishes with Slim trying to calm this fan by letter but too late.
It is such a powerful piece of writing. The emotional build-up to the final denouement is done perfectly, with Eminem's voice getting that perfect mix of hysteria and anger, and then calming right down for the final verse. And Dido's calming voice throughout as a juxtaposition to Stan's increasing insanity.
Eminem is often derided for being just a sweary white boy rapper. Not true. His lyrics are often autobiographical and confrontational and he wears his emotions on his sleeve. And he is still doing it. The song 'Bad Husband' from 2017's Revival album (a damn fine album, by the way) is carrying on that tradition.
When watching the video, be aware – it's Eminem, he swears, you know what you're getting.
And there you have it, 5 songs that tell a story. There are many more that didn't quite make the cut – Deep Purple's 'Smoke On The Water', 'Leader Of The Pack' by The Shangri-Las – but these are my personal favourite five. What about yours? Come on – fill in the comments section!