25 June 2010

Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven

Yes, you read the title correctly—this week’s installment of Lyrics, Weakly takes on a rock icon: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”.

True story: The only time i’ve ever called in to a radio station to voice my opinion about something, it was as part of a discussion on whether “Stairway to Heaven” deserves all the airplay it gets. (I was on the emphatically no side. Not that this surprises you, probably.)

I’ve wanted to do this song for a while now, but i’ve been hesitant to ever since i heard Robert Plant, co-writer of the song, on the NPR program Fresh Air, where he admitted that he actually appreciates the many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many parodies that the song has merited over the years. (The discussion of “Stairway” starts around the 14:30 point of the interview.)

However, i’ve finally decided that this song’s lyrics really do need to be discussed in this forum, mainly because so many people seem to think that this is The Single Greatest Rock And Roll Song Of All Time, or at least classic rock radio station after classic rock radio station has told me so by placing it #1 on their Memorial Day/​Labor Day/​whatever other long weekend “Top 100/​500/1,000 Songs of All Time” lists.

Another story: Every few years, i get into listening to classic rock stations as part of my neverending hopscotch through musical genres. Well, in the early days of the world-wide web, the classic rock station i was listening to at the time (not the one i called into to protest their overplaying of “Stairway”, by the way) decided to let its listeners vote on its top-songs list—people could go to the station’s homepage during the month before a particular long weekend, send in their top-ten lists, and the station would compile those lists into a top-500 list to play over that weekend. (A listener’s #1 song would get ten points, their #2 song would get nine points, and so on to their  #10 song, which would get one point—and then they’d play the songs in countdown format, with the highest point-getting songs being ranked higher.)

Anyway, part of the shtick was that they updated the list of songs every day, taking the previous day’s top-ten lists into account each time. Well, the list started out with the station staff’s lists (which gave “Stairway to Heaven” the top slot and “Hey Jude” by the Beatles the second slot), and then each day there were updated lists. It was actually kind of fun to watch, with new songs popping onto the bottom of the list each day as people nominated songs that nobody else had thought of before, and with some shuffling of the songs up higher on the list.

So about a week and a half before this top-500 countdown was supposed to begin, “Stairway to Heaven” fell out of the top slot—and over the next few days it fell down to the bottom of the top ten, and then out of the top ten completely. Interesting. And then, a couple days before the weekend countdown, the updated-daily list was taken down, with a message in its place urging people to listen to the countdown itself. Also, at the same time—and i noticed this because i found it quite striking—the station’s promotions for the countdown stopped saying that it was a countdown based on listeners’ votes. In fact, a few times during the countdown itself, we were told that the ordering of the list was based on listeners’ votes and the “judgment” of station staff.

Given that, you won’t be surprised to hear that “Hey Jude” was the #2 song, and “Stairway to Heaven” the #1 song.

Not saying that there was anything untoward going on, but it does seem a bit odd, you know? (And it’s not like it would have killed the station to place it lower—even Rolling Stone placed it at #31 in their 2004 list. Of course, they placed Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” at #1, so it’s not like their vote ought to count either.)

Anyway, this has been a long intro. On to the lyrics.

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold

So we start with some woman who’s inexperienced enough that she’s never seen silver. Or copper. Or quartz. Or diamonds. Or…I’ll stop there, but you get the idea—we’re starting out by straining credulity to the point of breakage. Not an auspicious beginning.

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

There’s probably something deep to say here, but i get stuck trying to imagine what the cost of materials for such a building project would be.

When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for

Well, if what she came for was the chance to window shop without buying anything, then yes, she can easily get what she came for.

Really, the only way i can read this verse is as an attempt to sound deep by playing the counterintuitive situation card, but really not saying anything at all.

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

But the stores are closed. Too bad for her—well, unless a neighborhood general contractor is available. Then she might be able to work something out.

There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
’Cause you know sometimes words have
Two meanings

No, “no parking any time” means no parking. Sorry, you’re going to get towed, and no amount of postmodernist reasoning is going to get you out of it.

In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are

First of all, did Mr. Plant really just rhyme two meanings with misgiven? ’Cause that’s a pretty amazingly bad rhyme.

Second, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven? That’s not deep, that’s just bizarre and nonsensical.

And finally, does it seem to anybody else like Robert Plant simply had some random ideas for verses that sounded interesting by themselves, and then strung them together without any thought for whether they were logically coherent when put together? Yes? Good, i’m glad to know i’m not alone in that.

Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it makes me wonder

Oh, Mr. Plant, it makes me wonder, too—but not in a good way. But, of course, like you said, sometimes words have two meanings.

There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying
For leaving

For leaving this song, most likely.

And the feeling i get when i look to the west is generally a perception of brightness at sunset, shadow at other times of day.

In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees

So what Mr. Plant is saying is that he has a pretty good imagination, and can imagine fog in the woods, or the remnants of a forest fire.

In other news, one of the best ways to pad a song to, say, longer than seven minutes is to talk about abilities you have that are completely normal, but to present them as if it’s some sort of mystical experience.

And the voices of those
Who stand looking

Mr. Plant hears voices in his head. Ask me if i’m surprised.

(Answer: No.)

Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder

Yes, Mr. Plant, we all do. Again.

And it’s whispered that soon
If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason

I’m very happy that Mr. Plant has seen fit to give us a geography lesson: The town of Reason is located fairly near the German town of Hamelin. This is impressive knowledge on his part, since i can’t find any other mention of it anywhere on the web.

And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long

Well, even if you started right after the previous dawn, a new day will dawn if you stand for only twenty-four hours, give or take a few seconds. Whether that’s long or not depends on your point of view, i suppose.

Well, unless you’re in Barrow, Alaska. Then you’d have to stand a really long time, and you’d get pretty cold while you were doing it.

And the forests will
Echo with laughter

The laughter comes from Mr. Plant’s agent, collecting his cut of the royalty checks for every time this song is played on the radio.

Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, ooh, whoa, oh

Can you feel the excitement building? With an intro like that, the next verse must be amazing!

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean
For the May queen

Or maybe it'll just be utterly opaque.

I actually heard Robert Plant claim, in an interview, that this is an environmental message—something about the need to protect and commune with nature or somesuch.

You know, if doing this blog has taught me one thing, it’s that nonsense songs that try to justify their existence by tacking on an alleged environmental message are actually simply nothing but nonsense songs.

Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change
The road you’re on

Though depending on how close the exits are, it might take you quite a while to get to the road you missed.

Of course, this song was released in 1971—with the widespread adoption of in-car GPS navigational systems, this isn’t nearly as much of an issue as it used to be.

And it makes me wonder
Aw, uh, oh
Your head is humming and it won’t go

I’d actually never really tried to parse all of the lyrics to this song before sitting down to write this up. So now my head is humming, but it’s the sort of humming that precedes passing out, so i don’t think that’s a good thing.

In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him

You know, i’m not really into wrestling, but even if i were, such an invitation would scare me.

Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow?

As a man, i feel incompletely qualified to answer this question. However, that said, the weather here at this moment is at a dead calm (despite the rain), so the answer is no.

And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?

You know, the children’s novel The Phantom Tollbooth was published in 1961, a decade before this song came out, and it has an important though relatively minor character named Reason (her sister’s name is Rhyme), and her castle in the air is reached via a windy stairway. I think Norton Juster should sue for authorship credit.

And then we have a guitar solo that lots of wannabe guitarists believe is The Greatest Guitar Solo ever, and therefore they have littered YouTube with their versions of it. Seriously, don’t click that link—it’ll just make you weep for the future of music.

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul

Obviously, this scene occurs either in early morning or late evening. I vote early morning, since only a couple minutes have passed since we were told a new day will dawn. Yeah, i know, there’s no logical grounding for that conclusion, but compare the utter lack of logical grounding in this entire song, and i’m sure you’ll agree that my crime is not the greater one.

There walks a lady we all know

Oprah Winfrey?

Who shines white light and wants to show

Oprah Winfrey with a flashlight, apparently.

How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The truth will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all

This means, according to Wikipedia, that Mr. Plant believes that truth will come either from the three musketeers, or from Switzerland.

This is not what i would have guessed.

To be a rock and not to roll

True story: My freshman year of college, my roommate was from Japan. (Sort of. He was from Japan, and he claimed Japan as his home, but he’d done all of his schooling at a boarding school in Connecticut.) He had a collection of Japanese pressings of music, and one of them was the Led Zeppelin IV album on vinyl.

The best part of this album was the included lyrics sheet, which included Japanese translations of the lyrics to the songs, and alleged transcriptions of the English lyrics—and this line was rendered To be a rock, a natural.

Really, it makes just as much sense.

And she’s buying a stairway
To heaven…

Which she could afford by now if she’d been receiving the royalty checks for this song.

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Next week, back to the requests!

11 June 2010

Erasure: Always

This week Lyrics, Weakly runs the risk of offending one of its three readers.

A few months ago, Mariana posted a comment in response to my take on the Atlantic Starr song “Always”, saying she’d initially thought the post was going to be about the Erasure song of the same name. Well, it wasn’t, but it got me thinking that that song really does need to be discussed here—and now i’ve finally gotten around to it. So this week’s entry is the 1995 Erasure song “Always”.

(By the way, you really should click on that last link and watch the video—it’s visual LSD. Not saying it’s perfectly bizarre or anything, but if there’s a video that cries out for a literal treatment as badly as Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, it’s this one.)

“Always” was a top-twenty hit in 1995 (top-ten in the United Kingdom), but, to be quite honest, i missed this song back then—i was in the midst of one of my periodic classic-rock phases at the time, and so while i was vaguely aware of the whole grunge thing, i missed this little synthpop gem. (And it really is a gem. Musically, that is. Lyrically, it has its moments, many of them not quite so gemlike.) Since then, it’s gained some notice from the soundtrack of the Adult Swim game “Robot Unicorn Attack”, which can only be described as a really, really weird bit of pop culture.

So let’s go back to 1995 (or, alternatively, to the land of the robot unicorns) and let ourselves get carried away by the somehow stark yet lush synthesizer intro, as Andy Bell begins to sing…

Open your eyes
I see
Your eyes are open

So open your eyes, please—oh, wait, never mind, already done. Okay, cool.

You’re just trying to make this easy for me, aren’t you, Mr. Bell?

This is the sort of exchange that takes place every day in households across the world—you know, maybe people are getting ready for dinner, and one of them says “Could you get the butter out of the fridge for me? Oh—you already got it. Thanks”

It’s not the sort of thing that really makes sense in a song, though, you know?

Of course, it’s one thing to have odd lyrics, but it takes serious confidence to actually start your song with them. So i guess you’ve got that going for you.

Wear no disguise
For me
Come into the open

You know, if you can tell the person you’re singing to has open eyes, they’re probably already in the open.

Basically, this song seems to be all about stating the obvious.

When it’s cold (when it's cold)
Outside (outside)
Am I here in vain?

This is the beginning of the chorus, and i’m finding it impossible to parse the grammar here. I mean, it’s got to be one of the following…

  1. When it’s cold outside. Am i here in vain?
  2. When it’s cold outside, am i here in vain?

…but option 1 contains an incomplete sentence, and option 2 makes even less sense.

The best i can figure is that, for some reason, now that i live in Alaska something is more in vain than it was when i lived in Florida.

So basically, in the move into the chorus, we lost the whole obviousness thing. Now i’m not sure whether i like obviousness or obscurity better.

Hold on to the night
There will be no shame

First of all, you can’t hold on to the night—the night is a period of time, not a concrete object.

That aside, there will be no shame about what, exactly? Is this saying there’s no shame in a warm night? Well, sure, but there’s no shame in a cold day, either.

Really, it’s prettily sung, but it makes no logical sense whatsoever.

I wanna be with you
And make believe with you
And live in harmony harmony oh love
I wanna be with you
And make believe with you
And live in harmony harmony oh love

This all sounds good (and, in fact, Mr. Bell apparently thought it sounded so good it needed to be repeated, as you can see), but really, you don’t want to always be with anybody—it would almost certainly lead to some very uncomfortable situations.

Melting the ice
For me
Jump into the ocean

This is actually good advice—before jumping into the ocean, it’s always a good idea to melt the ice there first. Otherwise you end up surrounded by icebergs and being really, really cold.

It’s possible to go too far, of course—if you melted all of the ice, then ocean levels would rise about 180 feet, give or take (according to some quick googling), enough to place twenty stories of the Empire State Building under water. Let’s hope Mr. Bell’s friend isn’t quite as successful as that.

Hold back the tide
I see
Your love in motion

See, here we get confusion again. Even leaving aside the fact that love is a noncorporeal entity and therefore its motion can’t be observed, this seems a bit self-contradictory. It would take a great deal of inertia to hold back the tide—a moving liquid can be pretty powerful. Therefore, in order to hold back the tide, it’d be more efficient to be very massive, and very much at rest. Here, though, the person holding back the tide is in motion.

First melting the ice caps, then changing tidal patterns in unexpected ways. I’m thinking Mr. Bell may need to rethink the physical science underlying this song a bit.

When it’s cold (when it's cold)
Outside (outside)
Am I here in vain?

Maybe Mr. Bell feels like he’s there in vain because it’s cold, meaning that the person he’s singing to was unsuccessful in melting the ice in the ocean? That makes as much sense as anything else i can come up with, really.

At least this would mean that Manhattan isn’t under water, so that’s a good thing.

And then we get repetition after repetition, which i’ll spare you, except to note that we get eight instances of this…

I wanna be with you
And make believe with you
And live in harmony harmony oh love

…as we get to the end of the song.

I mean, it’s a nice sentiment, Mr. Bell, but would it have killed you to have written a third verse instead?

Maybe that’s the point of all the making believe in the chorus—we’re supposed to all make believe the song is longer and telling a coherent story.

And speaking of not writing things, Lyrics, Weakly will be taking a break next week, since i’ll be away visiting friends. Two weeks from now, though, i’ll be taking on what some people believe is The Greatest Song Ever Recorded. They’re wrong, of course, but it’s been too long since i had someone get properly annoyed by one of these.

04 June 2010

Gabriel and the Angels: That’s Life (That’s Tough)

This week’s installment of Lyrics, Weakly is another request, a now (mercifully) mostly forgotten top-40 song from 1962, “That’s Tough (That’s Life)” by one-hit wonder Gabriel & the Angels.

How obscure is this band? They’re so obscure that, despite having had a hit (the song under discussion here), they don’t even have a Wikipedia page, and as far as i can tell their one hit has been released on CD on all of two compilations, one of which was released only in the United Kingdom and the other went out of print really, really quickly. Just for fun, though, here’s the b-side to “That’s Tough (That’s Life)”, a fun little song called “I Don’t Wanna Twist No More”, in which the singer laments that there is no physical contact when one performs the twist. (And to think that some people thought the twist needed to be banned, when in fact it was helping enforce community moral standards.)

Anyway, there’s very little information about the band or the song anywhere. I found one claim that the band was formed by members of the Five Sharps, but if you listen to their recording of “Stormy Weather” (warning: the sound quality is poor—it’s from an old 78 rpm record), it doesn’t sound even remotely like Gabriel & the Angels. Also, i managed to find an online resumé for Richard Kellis, where he lists being the leader, arranger, and performer in Gabriel & his Angels, and there’s no mention of the Five Sharps anywhere on it, so that makes me even more skeptical of the claim. (And yes, this means that David B is willing to commit stalkery in researching these songs. That’s right—Lyrics, Weakly, going the extra mile for you!)

I also found a couple pages on the web that claim that Gabriel & the Angels are “frequently confused” with another band called Gabriel’s Angels (who also don’t have a Wikipedia page). However, I was unable to find any evidence for this confusion aside from those two pages, so maybe it’s just that the authors of those pages frequently confuse those two bands.

In other news, Gabriel & the Angels have occasionally been confused with Led Zeppelin. Well, that is, they have been at least once, in the preceding sentence.

Anyway—since i don’t have anything more of substance to say in the introduction (assuming that what you’ve just read could be called “of substance”), let’s move directly to the music. This song has an interesting but relatively straightforward structure, with a brief introduction, then three verse-then-chorus pairs followed by a bit of vamping as the song fades out at the end. There’s a bit of call and response to add some interest, with a male lead singer and female background singers (at least i think they’re female, not men singing falsetto). The background vocals are in parentheses in what follows, just to make it easier to follow.

When things go wrong this always happens to me
And I never get no answers or sympathy
They just say
(Oh oh that’s tough)

Rough, Gabriel—so allow me to be the first to offer sympathy. No answers, though, i’m afraid.

So, putting on my sympathetic hat, what sort of things happen to you?

One time in school I failed in history
Said to the teacher “Why’d this happen to me?”

Ooh! Ooh! I know this one! I mean, i teach for a living (though not history), and so i know why people fail classes: Generally, it’s because they have a very low level of aptitude for the subject, or they don’t apply themselves to the class enough to merit a passing score (or, quite often, both).

Oh, wait—i’m supposed to be sympathetic. Sorry—i’ll try better next time.

It couldn’t be my fault the test was too rough

Or maybe i won’t.

Come on, Gabriel, just accept that you biffed the test and move on. Or, if you like, i could provide you with a makeup exam.

She said
(Oh oh well that’s tough)

Well, okay, i’ll give you that that’s a pretty heartless response on her part. Now, it’s completely understandable if you’ve pulled this sort of line in the past, but i’ll give you the benefit of the doubt (remember, i’m being—well, trying to be—sympathetic here) and assume that she was just being a bit overly vicious.

Ah! And so we come to the chorus.

What’s tough?

Presumably in reaction to the end of the first verse. It’s a silly question to ask—i mean, Gabriel himself is the one who outlined the situation that’s tough, so he’s the one who you’d expect to have the answer already, but fine, whatever. We’re transitioning from a verse to the chorus here, so a little bit of weirdness might be expected.


Harsh, but a reasonable answer.

What’s life?

Wow—we’re getting pretty existential here. I wonder what sort of deep, philosophical answer the Angels are going to give in response to that question.

(A magazine)

Oh, wow.

Well, that was unexpected.

Well how much does it cost?

And i think that the part of my brain responsible for processing logical consistency in language just exploded.

Really, this is not the way a real conversation would go—not even remotely. Think about it: Someone’s feeling downhearted, and hears someone else say “That’s tough.” Then the downhearted dude, perhaps as a sarcastic retort, asks “What’s tough?” to which the answer comes “Life.” Well, yes, thinks the downhearted one, life is tough—but, perhaps after more detail, asks the question “What’s life?” which receives the answer “It’s a magazine.”

Now I ask you, what is the most reasonable response to this sort of thing? Maybe, at the mildest, asserting that it was a serious question, possibly walking away (with or without saying “Fine, if you don’t want to talk about it seriously, don’t bother”), possibly losing it and throwing a punch.

Certainly not, though, asking how much it costs.

(It costs twenty cents)

Just as an aside, consider that when Life ended publication as a monthly magazine in 2000, it cost $3.99 or $4.99, depending on whether it was a “special issue” or not. I checked, and 20¢ in 1962 was the equivalent of $1.14 in 2000, which means that the price of Life increased much faster than inflation.

Which i suppose is very true, no matter what definition of life you’re using.

But I only got a nickel (a nickel)
(Oh oh well that’s tough)

No, that’s not tough, it’s basic economics—if you don’t have the ability to pay for something, you can’t purchase it.

Of course, since we appear to be talking about a magazine here for some reason, you could always try hanging out in a doctor’s office or an auto repair establishment and see if they have one there. And even if you didn’t find a copy of Life, at the very least you’d be able to compare the editorial practices of Car & Driver and Redbook, which i’m sure would prove enlightening.

But in any event, that’s the end of the chorus, and so we move back into the meat of the song, Gabriel’s explanation of how things are so bad and why he needs more sympathy.

Then I was cheating and my girl saw me
She said that she was gonna set me free

So i’m assuming this is cheating in the romantic sense, not in the academic sense, ’cause otherwise you’d presumably be doing better in school (see verse one), at least for now.

I said “Don’t put me down now it’s you I love”
But she just said
(Oh oh well that’s tough)

This is bad? I mean, i’d have though this was a win-win. Clearly she doesn’t want to be with a cheater, and you don’t want to be with her, so you’re both happy with this, right, Gabriel?

No? Well, it takes all kinds, i suppose. Apparently you should have made your intentions toward your now-former girlfriend clearer, maybe by providing her with a tangible symbol of your commitment, or, you know, something radical like simply not cheating on her.

Oh—and i just realized i expressed no sympathy at all during that verse. Oh well, that’s tough.

And that brings us to the chorus again, which i’ll present here uninterrupted so that it can more easily completely blow your sense of logic.

What’s tough?
What’s life?
(A magazine)
Well how much does it cost?
(It costs twenty cents)
But I only got a nickel (a nickel)
(Oh oh well that’s tough)

And now to the third verse, where we get to national politics. I suppose that if you handle this carefully enough, you could get sympathy on a national scale, so that’s not necessarily a bad move. Like i said, though, you’ve got to be careful—but i’m sure Gabriel has thought this through deeply enough that that won’t be a problem. So let’s follow along, shall we?

And then I got a call from Uncle Sam
Went into town to see the draft board man

You know, Gabriel, considering that the first (scattered!) organized protests against the Vietnam War occurred in 1963 and you’re singing this in 1962, and considering that public support for the war didn’t drop below 50% until 1968, i don’t think this was the right issue to bring up.

I thought if I told him of all my luck
But he just said

My guess? He said “Well kid, no wonder your number got drawn. Go see the psychiatrist, room 604.”

(Oh oh well that’s tough)

What’s tough?
What’s life?
(A magazine)
Well how much does it cost?
(It costs twenty cents)
But I only got a nickel (a nickel)
(Oh oh well that’s tough)

True story: I didn’t know anything about this song while i was growing up, but on road trips every once in a while one of us kids would say that something was “tough”, and my parents would launch into this chorus, turning it into a song that never ends sort of thing—they’d get to the Oh oh well that’s tough and cycle back immediately to What’s tough, starting the whole insane cycle over again.

This experience probably explains something about my personality, but i don’t know what it is.

Anyway, then we get to the vamping, as this adventure in conversational rules fades to its end.

Is that all you’re gonna say to me?
(Well that’s tough)

Yes, Gabriel, yes it is.

Won’t anybody ever listen to me?
(Well that’s tough)

No, Gabriel, no we won’t.

You’re all against me all of you why don’t you say so now?

Okay—i’m against you, and i offer no sympathy about it.

And i have to say, after listening to you whine through this whole song, that felt nicely cathartic.

(Well that’s tough)

You know what’s really tough? Listening to this song the number of times i needed to to write up this post.

The difference is, i expect no sympathy. Pity, maybe, but certainly not sympathy.