In the tradition of circus impresario P.T. Barnum’s famous phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” here are a few headlines this morning to rock the popular music world:
“KEITH RICHARDS TO TOUR WITH MILEY CYRUS”
“A SEQUEL TO DON McLEAN’S CLASSIC ‘AMERICAN PIE’: ‘CANADIAN CAKE'”
“SONY TO ISSUE NEW RELEASES AS MICROCHIPS EMBEDDED IN CONSUMERS’ BRAINS”
You have to love April Fool’s Day, the 24-hour period when friends, co-workers and loved ones dupe each other with practical jokes, and media outlets stage elaborate hoaxes to stir up the public. All in good fun, of course.
It’s a tradition that dates back many centuries when nobles would send servants on “fool’s errands” to mark the beginning of Spring following the vernal equinox. The first printed reference reportedly occurs in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” (1392) when the vain rooster is tricked by the fox on March 32nd (April 1st).
In recent times, radio and TV stations have sometimes fooled their listeners and viewers into believing fake announcements and news stories broadcast during the early morning hours of April 1 in hopes of generating buzz and perhaps publicity for the responsible media outlets. In 1961, the BBC announced a concert featuring the “distinguished and experimental” pianist Lirpa Loof that very evening. Of course, no concert occurred, as Lirpa Loof is “April Fool” backwards.
I recall one instance in the mid-1980s when the DJs on the “Morning Zoo” program at WMMS-FM in Cleveland generated outrage among their devoted rock and roll listeners by announcing a change in format from album-oriented rock to light jazz. The phone lines lit up like they were on fire until the prank was revealed an hour or two later.
In honor of today’s commemoration of fools everywhere, I offer a playlist of songs by rock artists from decades past that touch on the overall themes of fooling someone, playing the fool, and embracing foolish things.
“Everybody Plays the Fool,” The Main Ingredient, 1972, Aaron Neville, 1991
This classic #3 hit single was nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Song in 1973 and then enjoyed a second life when Aaron Neville’s version went to #8 in the early ’90s. The lyrics speak of the universal truth of what happens when you love someone, and that feeling is not reciprocated: “Everybody plays the fool sometimes, there’s no exception to the rule, it may be factual, it may be cruel, I ain’t lyin’, everybody plays the fool…”
“Fool to Cry,” The Rolling Stones, 1976
Lead guitarist Mick Taylor had just left The Rolling Stones when this Jagger-Richards ballad was recorded in late 1974. It ended up as the first single from the group’s “Black and Blue” album and reached #10 on the US singles chart. The lyrics describe a man who has the love of family and should be happy, but nevertheless feels sad: “I put my head on her shoulder, she whispers in my ear so sweet, you know what she says? ‘Ooh, daddy, you’re a fool to cry’…”
“Chain of Fools,” Aretha Franklin, 1968
This excellent soul tune composed by Don Covay was one of The Queen of Soul’s signature songs, which rose to #2 and won a Grammy that year for Best R&B Song, ending up #234 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Songs of All Time. The legendary Aretha, who recorded the track in one amazing take, wails about the betrayal and humiliation she feels when she learns her man has many lady friends: “For five long years, I thought you were my man, but I found out I’m just a link in your chain, chain-chain-chain, chain of fools…”
“Poor Little Fool,” Ricky Nelson, 1958
A 16-year-old girl named Sharon Sheely wrote this tune about her disappointment over a short-lived relationship. In hopes of meeting pop star Ricky Nelson, she drove to his house and pretended her car had broken down. Nelson came to her aid, she casually pitched the song to him, he liked it and recorded it, and it became his sixth Top Five single and first Number One, with lyrics full of self-pity and betrayal: “She played around and teased me with her carefree devil eyes, she’d hold me close and kiss me but her heart was full of lies, poor little fool, oh yeah, I was a fool, uh huh…”
“These Foolish Things,” Billie Holiday, 1936, James Brown, 1963, Rod Stewart, 2002
This jazz/blues standard by a pair of Brits dates clear back to 1936, and was first recorded by Billie Holiday that year. Dozens more renditions have been recorded through the decades by the likes of Nat King Cole, Etta James, Sam Cooke, Aaron Neville, and, believe it or not, James Brown (1963), Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry (1973) and Rod Stewart (2002). The lyrics feature a man rattling off a number of “foolish things” that bring back memories of his lost love: “The winds of March that make my heart a dancer, a telephone that rings but who’s to answer, oh how the ghost of you clings, these foolish things remind me of you…”
“A Fool’s Paradise,” The Blasters, 1983
This hugely underrated band from Southern California was part of the rockabilly revival movement in the early ’80s, highlighted by The Stray Cats and others. Brothers Phil and Dave Alvin headed up the tight four-piece that offered great early rock ‘n roll and blues, including this snappy number from their now-deleted second LP, “Non-Fiction” (Even the album cover art is unavailable; pictured here is their debut album). The band placed a few songs in movie and TV soundtracks of the ’80s and ’90s (“So Long Baby, Goodbye” was used in “Bull Durham”), but they otherwise missed the charts.
“I Played the Fool,” Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, 1978
Steve Van Zandt, guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, produced and wrote many songs for this fabulous Jersey Shore band that never seemed able to make the charts, despite a killer catalog of great soul/R&B tunes like this one. The lyrics bemoan how it hurts to be duped: “I’m just the kind of guy who never learns, I guess you had to go, why was I the last to know, I played the fool, girl, I did just what you expected…”
“Get Yourself Another Fool,” Sam Cooke, 1963
One of the greatest gospel and soul vocalists of all time, Cooke could also wrap his voice around a smooth blues number like this one from his 1963 LP “Night Beat.” You can also find it on the superlative compilation album “The Rhythm and the Blues.” The lyrics speak of learning how his lady has mistreated him: “Oh, at last I’ve awakened to see what you’ve done, what can I do but pack up and run, now I know the rules, get yourself another fool…”
“What a Fool Believes,” The Doobie Brothers, 1979
Singer/songwriters Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins combined forces in 1978 to write this hugely popular song. Loggins recorded it first on his “Nightwatch” LP, but it was The Doobie Brothers’ version featuring McDonald that became a worldwide #1 hit in 1979 and won Grammys for Record of the Year (for The Doobies) and Song of the Year (for Loggins and McDonald) in 1980. The lyrics explore the feelings of a man who attempts to rekindle a romantic relationship with a woman from his past before learning no relationship ever really existed: “No wise man has the power to reason away, what seems to be is always better than nothing, there’s nothing at all but what a fool believes he sees…”
“Fool for You,” James Taylor, 1972
A little snippet of a song (only 1:42) from Taylor’s underrated “One Man Dog” album, the follow-up to his multi-platinum “Mud Slide Slim.” This whimsical number, one of 18 that Taylor recorded in his then-new home recording studio on his woodsy Martha’s Vineyard property, offers some breezy lyrics about how he’s head over heels for his lady (at the time, his fiancee, Carly Simon), despite the fact that she scolds his bad behavior: “I love her so, just can’t stand it no more, I’m a fool for you, don’t you know…”
“Foolish Games,” Jewel, 1995
This track was an enormous hit and the third single from the Canadian songstress’s debut album, “Pieces of You.” Jewel’s lyrics paint a poignant picture of how devastating it is to be in love with someone who is careless and mean-spirited: “These foolish games are tearing me apart, and your thoughtless words are breaking my heart, you’re breaking my heart…”
“Fortunate Fool,” Jack Johnson, 2001
Buried deep on this Hawaiian troubadour’s first album (now out of print, but a real find if you can locate it) is a great little song about how some people kind of stumble along life’s path and continually happen upon good luck: “She’s just too good to be true, she’s such a fortunate fool…”
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, 1956, Diana Ross, 1981
One of rock ‘n roll’s earliest tunes, this classic reached #6 in early 1956 for the New York-based group when Lymon was only 15. Twenty-five years later in 1981, Diana Ross had a #7 hit with her vivacious rendition. The pessimistic lyrics regard love as a dangerous place for gullible types: “Love is a losing game, love can be a shame, I know a fool you see, for that fool is me!…”
“Fool on the Hill,” The Beatles, 1967, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, 1968
This wistful Paul McCartney ballad showed up in a scene from The Beatles’ haphazard experimental film project, “Magical Mystery Tour,” which followed the spectacular success of the “Sgt. Pepper” LP in late 1967. The Beatles never released “Fool on the Hill” as a single, but the Latin/jazz/bossa nova combo led by Sergio Mendes had a #8 US hit with their version the following spring. McCartney said the lyric refers to a solitary man — “kind of like the Maharishi with his giggle” — who is not well understood by others but is actually wise. “The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still, but nobody wants to know him, they can see that he’s just a fool…”
“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” The Who, 1971
One of the iconic anthems of rock ‘n roll is this seismic finale from The Who’s best LP, “Who’s Next.” The eight-minute track, one of the first to successfully integrate the synthesizer into a rock song, was edited down to 3:35 for the single, which reached #15 in the US. Many have interpreted composer Pete Townshend’s lyrics as pro-revolutionary, but he insists otherwise. “Don’t expect to see what you expect to see, or you’ll just get fooled again,” he said. As we brace ourselves for what is shaping up to be a momentous presidential election season, it might be wise for us to heed Townshend’s words of warning about political leaders: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”