Ten Songs That Made Me Love...
published: 26 /
Lisa Torem, who began writing for Pennyblackmusic in 2008, reflects back on some of her favourite artist interviews and related songs in celebration of the upcoming twenty year anniversary.
Having now reached the ten-year mark, or thereabouts, I have accumulated a lot of memories of conversations with my favourite artists and of their explanations of their best songs. That said, part of my list will be based on the fact that I had the honour of speaking to the songwriter or performer directly or simply based on the song.
1.‘Bus Stop’ by Graham Gouldman, single released in 1966,
In the 1960s, British songwriter Graham Gouldman wrote this bittersweet ballad which became a hit for the Hollies. If it sounds mildly familiar, it is because he based the chord progression on ‘The House of the Rising Sun,’ which charted for the Animals. Perhaps what makes this song so fresh and unpretentious is the back story. Graham took the same bus route daily to get to his job at a clothing store. There at the stop, he developed a crush on a neighborhood girl, who stood there in the pouring rain. He saves the day and wins over the girl, we find, when he invites her to stand “under my umbrella.” I love the stellar harmonies, the clanky strumming and the fact that this universal story has such a happy ending. Graham would go on to co-write songs with 10cc, such as ‘I’m Not in Love,’ which also won me over. But at this time in history, this one truly hit the spot.
I interviewed Graham for the first time on May 3, 2014. He was excited about being inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in New York City. We talked about collaborative writing as opposed to solo writing. I related very much to his familial inspirations, as I had been close to my father, and he had been close to his. In fact, Graham spoke fondly of times when his father made suggestions for lyrics.
Although we chatted about the later stages of Graham’s career, especially with 10cc, I particularly felt a kinship to him when discussing those early years, when production was still relatively simple and players got great big sounds out of just a couple of stringed instruments and a kit.
2. ‘I Parade Myself’ by Andy Gill and Jon King, (‘Shrinkwrapped,’ 1995)
Being an American writer, I am not necessarily savvy when it comes to British slang or even the most essential infinitives. The first time I heard the expression, “I’m parading,” was in ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ when Ringo Starr, wearing an oversized coat walks along the river, aimlessly. I had never heard the expression until then. The next time I heard a variation of it was in this song by Gang of Four. When I heard it live, singer John Sterry was performing it.
I love this song, as it conjures up a picture of someone pompous, proud and deliriously confident, who, at the same time, does not take himself that seriously. In America, we have “parades,” but not people who “parade.” To me, this expression is like a clever turn of phrase and when put to a beat it’s even more exhilarating.
When I initially had the opportunity to interview lead vocalist/songwriter/guitarist Andy Gill backstage after an especially exciting show, I declined. I was still reeling from the performance and hadn’t had a chance to process the audience reactions and the diverse set list. Still, I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision: what if that had been my one and only chance?
As luck would have it, about a year later, I had the good fortune of getting that second chance for an interview that would be published on November 8, 2016. This time, I’d done my homework and didn’t smell like flat beer and cheap cigarettes, not that it mattered, as we did a phoner, but still…
We covered a lot of ground and I discovered some cool things over the course of our talk. One, was that Andy had strong feminist leanings, which often influenced his world view and lyrics. Being a female journalist, that was encouraging news and it enabled us to establish immediate common ground. As our dialogue continued, I gained an understanding of how on fire the man gets from politics, pop culture, etc., and that these themes often propel his discography, too.
Of course, ‘I Parade Myself’ demonstrates only one aspect of Andy Gill/Gang of Four’s rich repertoire, but it’s blissful, fun and positively alluring.
3. ‘Sucker for Punishment’ by Ashley Reaks, (‘Melancholia’, 2008)
There is no way I would have come across this one-off song had I not begun writing for Pennyblackmusic. I interviewed Ashley first on March 19, 2009 and then on October 6, 2010. He is a talented multi-instrumentalist who does vocals and plays guitar, bass and keyboards and who possesses a great flair for creating irony. This song imbues multiple characteristics. There is a whiny electric guitar that sits beneath the vocals, which sound weightless and hollow, as though they’re being chanted from a wind tunnel. It’s also got a bottom heavy feel; a low, groaning bass line. The bridge, in part, consists of spectacular vocals by expressive soprano, Maria Jardardottir. Like much of Ashley’s material, the song rattles the nervous system. I’m not exactly sure if this song was meant to be a celebratory ballad or a torch song, seeded by deep misgivings. Perhaps the listener bears the task of figuring that out--I’m still trying to figure it out, but nevertheless, I don’t care if I actually do so. I enjoy the mystery and the buzz.
I was intrigued by Ashley’s far out productionstechniques and multi-dimensional website. Being a brassy, visual artist, his album covers, paintings and videos shout out deep emotion.
I couldn’t wait to pick the man’s brain—he wrote so freely about depression and even suicide on his bio statement. I respected his frankness, and in contrast, felt I paled in comparison, being a more emotionally conservative type of person. So, I believe that’s why ‘Sucker for Punishment’ felt and still feels so liberating and magical to me. I wish I could see the world through Ashley’s lens. I wish I could push through my own restrictive barriers, as he does. Or then again, I could simply enjoy his ingenuity and call it a day!
4. ‘Wear Your Love Like Heaven’ by Donovan (‘A Gift from A Flower to a Garden’, 1967)
I liken this song to the perfect party dress, the one that fits snugly around the waist, yet is easy to move in, and that can be dressed up or down for any occasion. This is the perfect song. You can probably add a tambourine or zither or even take away the bass line and it will still retain its beauty.
I don’t remember the exact time in which I heard it, but I do know that I heard it several times when I was caught off guard, maybe in a café with a juke box, or in a film, but Donovan’s voice, is so romantic and full of promise that it honestly makes me swoon no matter how many times I do hear it.
The verses burst and swirl with colour. I had to concentrate the first few times I heard it to wrap my head around the tongue-twisting images. I couldn’t decipher those words, at first. Somehow Donovan sings them flawlessly.
“Colour in sky, Prussian blue,
Scarlet fleece changes hue.”
But then on the chorus, it is all passion. There is no room for intellectual hopscotch. When I interviewed Donovan about the title, he said he heard the expression from a man at a pub.
“Lord, kiss me one more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more,”
I can’t imagine anyone where I live speaking quite that poetically over a beer; I’d love to go where he went. But in any event, the way the harmonies float in and out, the way Donovan seems to be speaking to his perfect love, seals it for me.
I always admired Donovan’s sincere vocals and delicate themes, as well as his rocker renditions. I eventually ended up having a couple of interviews with him over the years: Feb. 21, 2011 and October 3, 2013 and also reviewed CDs and other related projects.
I had my “a-ha-” moment when he revealed that his father read poetry to him nightly. We both love alliteration. Speaking to him on the phone was a heart-stopping treat: his Scottish accent is so crisp and, to my ears, extremely melodic, and his phrasing is as poetic live as on the page.
But ‘Wear Your Love Like Heaven’ really hits the spot because it encapsulates Donovan’s best traits, as a poet, storyteller and arranger and I remain a real sucker for deep romance.
5. ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks. (‘Kinks,’ 1964)
The story goes that Dave Davies was really mad at his parents for forbidding him to see the girl of his dreams. He tore a hole in his amp, and as a result his guitar sounded really angry, too. That is the sound that I can’t get enough of: Dave’s ferocious riff.
The whole song has this erratic beat. It’s not a terribly long song, so when I hear it I feel sort of pressured. I want to shut the world out because I know it’s going to end very soon and that is a very disappointing feeling. Nobody wants a song like this to end. It’s too moving. It’s too human.
It’s about being overwhelmed by love or maybe about being stuck and being tired of being stuck. Ray Davies sings, “You got me so I can’t sleep at night—you really got me.” In the middle, there’s a cool solo. That’s where I take a breath and brace myself, because when that riff comes back, my pulse races and there it will stay until the very last chord.
My interview with Dave Davies was published on May 25, 2013. I was struck by the gentle way this songwriter expresses himself; it really put me at ease. When I met him once, after a show, he was no different. He treated everyone he came across as a dear friend.
And yet there’s that other human side to him, that of a thrashing, youthful rebel. We talked about Los Angeles and how the streets at night made him homesick for the UK. It was an epiphany for me. I’d always imagined rock stars loving every minute of our bustling American cities, but here was proof that there’s always the other side: Desolation, isolation, the fear that often accompanies getting lost in a new place. I have felt this, too, of course, the minute I step off a plane or navigate customs…
So when I hear ‘You Really Got Me’ shoving its angst at me in a mall or in a big yellow taxi, I think of the guy who came up with the word’s most rebellious riff.
6. ‘The Great Mandala’ by Peter, Paul and Mary, (‘Album 1700’, 1967)
The ultimate in anti-war songs, this ballad is told from the fasting prisoner’s perspective with grace, spirituality and a deliberately spare pentameter. I believe it’s a song that defines a generation. Written during the Vietnam war, Peter Yarrow, from a pacifistic point of view, croons over quiet, intricate strums. Paul Stookey and Mary Travers join in on the haunting chorus.
“Take your place on The Great Mandala
as it moves through your brief moment in time.”
The A section is almost sing-song, but the chorus (above) is more stretched out, creating even more tension. My heart feels like its either going to explode or stop when the trio harmonizes on that telling phrase.
The story then continues:
“Tell the jailer not to bother
With his meal of bread and water today.”
against that spare, but brilliant arrangement. I feel so drawn into this web of emotion every time I hear the first few bars and I melt by the time it ends.
I spoke with Peter Yarrow for an interview published February 13, 2010. Of course, I asked him about this moving ballad. “The Great Mandala was part of the anti-war movement, of course. It was a song about a hunger strike. … it was emblematic of the time,” he reflected.
I met Peter Yarrow in a suburban coffee shop years before our interview. On that warm night, remarkably, he stayed late to converse with a line of long-haired guitarists after the show. He patiently watched each one pull the instrument out of its case and play for him, their eyes wide with expectation. As dead tired as he might have been, he appeared delighted to act as the audience. I never forgot that moment in time: his generosity with the next generation, his hopefulness in posterity. He completely won me over, and I’m guessing his fans would echo the sentiment.
7. ‘The Ballad Of Dwight Fry’ by Alice Cooper (‘Love It to Death’, 1971)
I’m the eternal sucker for minor chords strummed cavalierly on an acoustic guitar, as well as primal, gut wrench lyrics. I’ve heard few songs like this one. It’s about a man going insane. The little voice asking, “Mommy, where’s daddy?” makes it as eerie as fuck.
“See my lonely life explode/I see it every day.” That’s how the famed chorus begins.
I get chills every time I hear it, whether live or from the ‘Love It to Death’ album. For me, this song illustrates a yearning, something untouchable, invisible. I can’t really put my finger on why this song moves me. I guess it’s the vulnerability, the exacting sadness, the fact that, while it’s based on fantasy, it really isn’t at all. It’s about not being able to always keep it together. It’s like life.
The first time I heard it, I knew I would become quickly addicted to it. I played it repeatedly. Six minutes and thirty-three seconds of blasphemy. Six minutes and thirty-three seconds of heaven. It’s a coin toss.
Last year, with my colleague Phil, I saw the original line-up of this legendary group perform many of their greatest hits in Nashville, New Jersey and finally Birmingham, England. Their vitality was palpable and their fan base was overjoyed to witness their reunion.
I also had the opportunity to interview and commiserate with Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith over the course of 2017 and early 2018. (I had multiple interviews with bassist Dennis Dunaway (July 22, 2015, August 23, 2016, February 9, 2018) and one with Michael and Neal.)
At first, I wondered if actually meeting these musicians would change my opinion of their music in any way. Would I be able to enjoy their music after that point, or would I be too conscious of their contributions? I needn’t have worried. Before OR after, I have to admit that I gained an even better appreciation for their angular melodies, hip beats and often bizarre wizardry. I feel that ‘The Ballad of Dwight Fry’ is the tall, cool drink with paper umbrellas for which you waited all night and now you have to have one more…
8. ‘Until It’s Time for You to Go’ by Buffy Sainte-Marie (‘Many a Mile’, 1965)
Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie’s voice floats above the flickering guitar lines. This is definitely another song that defines the peace-love era.
“Don’t ask why/Don’t ask how/Don’t ask forever/Love me now.”
There is no nagging possessiveness here, no stalker vibe, no declaration of freedom from relationship bondage; nothing sensationalistic. It’s about being in the moment, enjoying a relationship fully because you can and not because you are obligated to do so. This is an illuminating song that does not rely on a hidden agenda.
I fell in love with it because of the poignant, unflashy, sincere lyrics. Buffy’s voice
tells this story in such an honest, gentle manner. When I interviewed her last year, I heard that same frankness and openness in her melodic voice. It’s the kind of song I listen to and think, “May everyone experience this kind of love.” ‘
My interview with Buffy was published on February 9, 2018. She seemed delighted to talk about her new album as well as past hits. There was an optimism in her voice that surprised me, as her career path has not always been an easy one. She works tirelessly for the cause of indigenous peoples and over the years her music has reflected her ideologies. Although I have a soft spot in my heart for many of those numbers, I couldn’t get past the fact that ‘Until It’s Time for You to Go’ has a dreamy quality that’s hard to come by these days.
It was very satisfying to speak to Buffy about her material. She’s been a pioneer in the field of electronic music and has lots to say about her influences ther, too. I hope when I look back at my life that I will feel some of the pride she exudes. And I hope I will have earned it. What speaking to Buffy Sainte-Marie triggered in me was a sense of wanting to do more, artistically and humanely, as well as allowing myself to appreciate what I’ve already sown. I think the lovely chorus of this ballad says the rest.
9. ‘Jesse’ by Janis Ian, (‘Stars,’ 1974)
I love the way singer-songwriter Janis Ian walks you through her home: up the stairs, the floorboards, as she sings about loneliness, “There’s a hole in the bed where we slept/Now it’s growing cold…”
“All the pictures are fading, and shaded in gray,” she complains to an absentee lover. There’s a fluidity and movement in this song that’s impossible to resist. I’d almost be afraid to listen to it if I were in the process of saying goodbye; it’s that powerful.
I’m not surprised that ‘Jesse’ has been so widely covered and even sought out by the U.S. Armed Forces, as a song about healing. It has the feel of a French ballad, the kind that Charles Aznavour might have sung in a backlit lounge in Montmartre. (As a matter of fact, the French vocalist did translate this very song). But if not France, then anywhere else for that matter. It’s simply universal.
But I also love that there’s space to grow in this beauty. We don’t know the ending. Does the lover return? Do they forever part? Is the lover as entwined as the narrator of the song?
When I need a catharsis, I turn often to the songs of Janis Ian. She gets loneliness in a big way, or at least she seems to, according to her canon.
We spoke a number of times over the years, including on October 31, 2017. Here’s what she said about ‘Jesse’. “I think it’s just a song about loss, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, or yearning of a loved one…”
I was always struck by Janis Ian’s sharp sense of humor and overall curiosity of other people and life styles. She speaks highly of the touring circuit, especially when it lands her in her beloved Japan, where the fans unabashedly value her innate sense of style and emotional outpouring.
It was terribly hard to pull just one song from her canon. Ouch! But, ‘Jesse’ it is!
10. ‘96 Tears’ by Question Mark and the Mysterians (’96 Tears,’ 1966)
This band stands proudly as one of the first Latino bands to have a hit record in the rock arena. It’s a simple song that builds and is easily recognized by its repetitive electric keyboard riff, that resounds like a woodpecker’s beak, over a steady beat and pulsating bassline. Question Mark, who swears Mick Jagger stole his choreographed moves, has this really pliable voice. Snipe. Purr. Whisper. Repeat.
When I hear it, I have to dance, wherever I am. Or at least, I want to jump up on a bar stool and wave my arms. There’s something so contagious about that riff and Q’s flirty intonation. I could sip cheap liquor and savour this one all night. It was garage band before garage band was garage band.
I’ve seen the band play live. I don’t think that happens these days anymore., I haven’t heard much about Q and have no idea whether he’s out there still, but can testify that this is a group made up of real showmen and that this song is a one-off rabble rouser.
For Pennyblackmusic, I met up with Q at the green room at Reggie’s in Chicago. He’s the original fashionista, blending colourful scarfs and jewels and entertaining smoothly with a sly smile and turn of the hips. The band recorded a few other songs, but ’96 Tears’ will always be my main squeeze.
My interview with Q was published on October 4, 2011. He couldn’t wait to elaborate on the hit, “Whoever was thirty-years-old, forty-five-years old, whoever was three-years-old, they liked ’96 Tears’.”
So, here is my list of ten songs that made me love Pennyblackmusic. And now I have to admit, these gems have opened my eyes and ears to worlds far beyond the magazine too.
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