Let’s talk about sex, baby

Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll.  The notorious hat trick of vices.


It’s been a familiar phrase since at least 1977, when British punk rocker Ian Dury had a mildly popular single by that name.  There was even a cable TV comedy series a few years back called “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.”

So let’s explore the connection between sex and rock & roll.  You’ll note that sex is the first thing mentioned, and that’s no coincidence.  From the very beginning, even before there was a genre called rock and roll, the black communities in this country were grooving to rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie and gospel, and they certainly weren’t sitting down.  They were, as they liked to call it, “rockin’ and rollin'”  — swaying, dancing, bumping and grinding, and yes, having sex to the relentlessly contagious rhythms.

So the very term “rock and roll” is actually a euphemism for sexual intercourse.  Disc jockey Alan Freed was well aware of that when he started using the term “rock and roll” on his Cleveland radio show in 1951 to describe the new musical hybrid that combined elements of rhythm and blues, country, gospel and swing.  He often chuckled to himself when he thought about how mainstream America would soon adopt the term and use it liberally to describe this new music, without knowing that it really meant SEX.

The country’s relatively Puritan culture in the 1940s and ’50s forbade mention or depiction of sex in films and popular music, but if you spoke in code and kept it mild, you could sneak in a song now and then.  Dozens of blues tunes featured lyrics about sex (“I Want a Bow-Legged Woman,” “My King-Sized Papa,” “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion”), but these were certainly not songs you found on the Hit Parade.

Perhaps that era’s most overt example of a mainstream hit about sex was “Makin’ Whoopee,” written way back in 1928 but popularized by Ella Fitzgerald in 1954 and Frank Sinatra in 1956.  It really wasn’t all that racy; its lyrics began with the pleasures of married sex but soon devolved into the tedious routine and responsibility of spouse and kids, all resulting from the aforementioned whoopee:  “Another bride, another June, another sunny honeymoon, another season, another reason for makin’ whoopee…He’s washin dishes and baby clothes, he’s so ambitious, he even sews, so don’t forget, folks, that’s what you get, folks, for makin’ whoopee…”

In 1959, a country singer named Floyd Robinson took it a step further with a rock and roll song entitled “Makin’ Love,” whose lyrics leave no doubt:  “What would people think?  What if people knew?  Instead of being off to school, all day I was with you, makin’ love, makin’ love…”  It was yanked from the airwaves in many markets but still managed to reach #20 on Billboard’s Top 40 chart.

For the most part, any reference to sex in rock song lyrics during its first decade (1955-1965) was buried deep in vague language.  Witness “Wake Up, Little Susie” by The Everly Brothers:  “The movie’s over, it’s four o’clock and we’re in trouble deep…We fell asleep, our goose is cooked, our reputation is shot, wake up, little Susie…”  Nothing ever happened, but they’re still afraid of the public perception.


Starting around 1967 (about the same time veiled references to drugs started appearing, too), taboo topics and more blatant references began showing up in popular music lyrics.  Van Morrison’s classic “Brown-Eyed Girl” spoke of “making love in the green grass behind the stadium with you.”  The Who’s hit “Pictures of Lily” is all about how dirty magazines help a young man learn about self-pleasuring:  “Pictures of Lily made my life so wonderful, pictures of Lily helped me sleep at night, pictures of Lily solved my childhood problem, pictures of Lily made me feel all right…”

Leave it to The Beatles to be among the first to come right out and say it with these lyrics from the 1968 “White Album”:  “Why don’t we do it in the road, no one will be watching us, why don’t we do it in the road?”

In 1969, master songwriter Bob Dylan offered a #8 song which made no bones about the narrator’s wishes:  “Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed, stay lady stay, stay with your man a while, until the break of day, let me see you make him smile…”

Even the introspective Paul Simon was capable of a boldly whimsical song like “Cecilia,” which seemed to hint at a threesome:  “Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia up in my bedroom, I got up to wash my face, when I come back to bed, someone’s taken my place…”


The culture started changing considerably in the Seventies, as the sexual revolution gathered steam and the music and film industries pushed the boundaries of acceptability. I’ll never forget the first time I heard an instrumental track called “Jungle Fever” by a Belgian group called The Chakachas in 1972.  It offered no lyrics about sex, in fact no lyrics at all, but with the intermittent heavy breathing and orgasmic moaning, it was easily the most blatantly sexual song ever at that point.


And then there was Barry White.  His lyrics weren’t overtly sexual, graphic or profane in any way, but his songs and their delivery were so steamy hot and sensual, I’d wager to say there were more babies conceived to his music than any other artist of his time.

Under the mainstream radar, plenty of deep album tracks pushed the envelope on sexual lyrics (see “Dinah-Moe Humm” by Frank Zappa).  But even on the Top 40 charts, lyrics about sex were suddenly everywhere, coming from hard rock bands, disco divas, power pop groups, soul music artists, singer-songwriters…even MOR acts like The Captain and Tennille and Olivia Newton-John.  Some were suggestive, some were romantic, some were naughty, even nasty.  A sampling:

“Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zeppelin:  “Way, way down inside, I’m gonna give you my love, I’m gonna give you every inch of my love, want a whole lotta love…”


“Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” James Brown:  “Get on up like a sex machine…get on up, then shake your money maker…”  

“Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones:  “I’m no schoolboy but I know what I like, you shoulda heard me just around midnight, brown sugar, how come you taste so good?  Brown sugar, just like a young girl should…”

“Brand New Key,” Melanie:  ” I’m okay alone, but you got something I need, I got a brand new pair of roller skates, you’ve got a brand new key, I think that we should get together and try them out to see…”  


“Go All the Way,” The Raspberries:  “She kissed me and said, ‘Baby, please go all the way, it feels so nice being with you here tonight’…”

“Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed:  “In the back room, she was everybody’s darling, but she never lost her head, even when she was giving head, I said hey babe, take a walk on the wild side…”

“Let’s Get It On,” Marvin Gaye:  “I’m asking you, baby, to get it on with me, I ain’t gonna worry, I ain’t gonna push, come on, come on, stop beating around the bush, let’s get it on…”  


“Love to Love You Baby,” Donna Summer:  “I love to love you baby, do it to me again and again, you put me in such an awful spin, in a spin, I love to love you, baby…”

“Feel Like Makin’ Love,” Bad Company:  “You know I would give you both night and day, love satisfyin’, I feel like makin’, feel like makin’ love…”

“Midnight at the Oasis,” Maria Muldaur:  “You won’t need no harem, honey, when I’m by your side, and you won’t need no camel, no no, when I take you for a ride…”

“Miracles,” Jefferson Starship:  “I had a taste of the real world, didn’t waste a drop of it, when I went down on you, girl…”


“Sexy Mama,” The Moments:  “I wanna open up them love gates…I think in just a moment there’s gonna be a love explosion, go ahead and let your jones get good and funky…”

“Get Down Tonight,” KC and the Sunshine Band:  “Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight…”

“Afternoon Delight,” Starland Vocal Band:  “Rubbin’ sticks and stones together, make the sparks ignite, and the thought of loving you is getting so exciting, sky rockets in flight, afternoon delight…”


“Tonight’s the Night,” Rod Stewart:  “Come on, angel, my heart’s on fire, don’t deny your man’s desire, you’d be a fool to stop this tide, spread your wings and let me come inside, tonight’s the night, gonna be all right…”

“Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf:   “Ain’t no doubt about it, we were double blessed, we were barely 17 and we were barely dressed, we’re gonna go all the way tonight, we’re gonna go all the way, and tonight’s the night…”


“Do That to Me One More Time,” The Captain and Tennille:  “Once is never enough with a man like you, do that to me one more time, I can never get enough of a man like you, whoa, kiss me like you just did, oh baby, do that to me once again…”

“Physical,” Olivia Newton-John:  “There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally, let’s get physical, physical, let me hear your body talk…It’s getting hard, this holding back, if you know what I mean…”

By the time the Eighties rolled around, the old barriers seemed to have been completely obliterated.  Heavy metal groups (Quiet Riot, Def Leppard), R&B artists (Teddy Pendergrass), mainstream divas (Sheena Easton, Madonna) and early hip-hop bands (Salt-N-Pepa, 2 Live Crew) were utterly brazen in the way they used sex as a lyrical topic.


“Sugar Walls,” Sheena Easton:  “Blood races to your private spots, lets me know there’s a fire, you can’t fight passion when passion is hot, temperatures rise inside my sugar walls…”

“Turn Off All the Lights,” Teddy Pendergrass:  “Let’s take a shower, shower together baby, I’ll wash your body and you’ll wash mine, yeah, rub me down in some hot oils, baby, and I’ll do the same thing to you…”

“Like a Virgin,” Madonna “Touched for the very first time…Feels so good inside, when you hold me and your heart beats…”

“Push It,” Salt-n-Pepa:  “Can’t you hear the music’s pumpin’ hard like I wish you would, now push it, push it good…”


“I Want Your Sex,” George Michael:  “Sex is something we should do, sex is something for me and you, sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it, but everybody should…”

“Pour a Little Sugar on Me,” Def Leppard:  “You gotta squeeze a little, tease a little more, easy operator, come a-knockin’ on my door, sometime, anytime, sugar me sweet, I’m hot sticky sweet, from my head to my feet…

“Love in an Elevator,” Aerosmith:  “In the air, in the air, honey, one more time, now it ain’t fair, love in an elevator, livin’ it up when I’m goin’ down…”


The late great Prince may have been the boldest practitioner of the dirty sex lyric, starting with his “Dirty Mind” album right up through tracks like “Head,” “Jack U Off” and the infamous “Darling Nikki,” which is generally regarded as the match that ignited the fuse for Congress to slap parental warning stickers on albums with offensive lyrics.  Here’s why:  “I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine, she said, ‘how’d you like to waste some time?’, and I couldn’t resist when I saw little Nikki grind…” 


As the Nineties arrived, well, many older music fans started longing for the days when there was at least a modicum of discretion about sex in song lyrics.  I’m no prude, that’s for damn sure, but holy crap, I can’t even quote from songs like 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny,” Ginuwine’s “Pony” or Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” or hundreds and hundreds of others released in the past 20 years.  You’ll have to look ’em up yourself.  

I’ll just say this:  Is there no filter anymore?  Is there no boundary that won’t be crossed?  Is it really necessary to be so damn graphic and ugly in our lyrical expressions of sex?  It’s kind of like the difference between scantily clad and naked — leaving something to the imagination can be much sexier…

Needless to say, we’ve come a long way from ’60s songs like The Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” or Tommy James and The Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now”:  “Trying to get away into the night, and then you put your arms around me and we tumble to the ground and then you say, ‘I think we’re alone now, the beating of our hearts is the only sound’…”

You can hear the progression of sex lyrics over the decades on the Spotify list below:

I think I’ll go back to the family

One of the lessons learned (or, more precisely, re-learned) during this extraordinarily challenging time has been “It’s all about family.”

Some of us lost loved ones to the Coronavirus. Some of us were quarantined in confined spaces for many months with family members, which was perhaps a combination of heartwarming and exasperating. Many of us were separated from family by travel restrictions and/or the inability to visit safely.

Now that many of us have been vaccinated and restrictions are being eased or lifted, we feel safer about hopping on an airplane for Ohio and finally reuniting with those we love most. Sad to say, my parents have both passed away, but my wife’s parents are still doing great, as are my wife’s siblings and their families, all living in Cleveland, our home town. My in-laws (affectionately known as “the out-laws”) are my family now, and have been for nearly 37 years.

There are a few missing faces, but here’s the gang of “out-laws” I call my extended family. (December 2018)

Sure, there is some degree of dysfunction, irritation and complexity to nearly every family relationship, but there is also love, wisdom, laughter and a trunkful of memories to unpack and share anew. And we’re so looking forward to that part of it all.

To honor the importance of families, I have assembled a playlist of 15 songs with lyrics that celebrate familial bonds. This being Father’s Day weekend, there are several Dad tunes in the mix but also a few about grandparents, sons, daughters, cousins and others who make up the patchwork quilt of the family unit. I’ve focused primarily on songs that offer a positive outlook, but I’ve snuck in a few with a more irreverent take on all this. Doesn’t every family have a crazy cousin?


“We Are Family,” Sister Sledge, 1979

This international #1 hit, one of the biggest tunes from the disco era, is the perfect song to kick off this playlist. Sister Sledge is a vocal group consisting of Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy Sledge, four sisters out of Philadelphia who received their vocal training from their grandmother Viola Williams, a lyric soprano opera singer. They flirted with success throughout the ’70s but had their breakthrough once paired with the great Niles Rodgers, who produced and wrote “We Are Family”: “All of the people around us, they say, ‘Can they be that close?’ /Just let me state for the record, we’re giving love in a family dose, /We are family, I got all my sisters with me…”

“Good Mother,” Jann Arden, 1994

Arden has one of those puzzling singer-songwriter stories about being very successful in her native Canada but barely making a dent among U.S. listeners. Since 1994, every one of Arden’s 11 albums has reached the Top Ten in Canada, and she has won several Juno Awards (Canada’s Grammys), but her excellent “Living Under June” LP is the only one to chart in the US, peaking at only #76. On that album is “Insensitive,” which reached #12 in the US, but there are also six other big singles that were curiously ignored here, including the heartfelt “Good Mother,” which speaks to the importance of having caring parents: “I’ve got a good mother, and her voice is what keeps me here, /Feet on ground, heart in hand, facing forward, be yourself…”

“Father and Son,” Cat Stevens, 1970

From the breakthrough LP “Tea For the Tillerman,” this poignant track helped establish Stevens as a songwriter to be reckoned with. Its lyrics frame a testy exchange between a father not understanding a son’s desire to break away and shape a new life, and the son who cannot really explain himself but knows that it is time for him to seek his own destiny. Said Stevens/Yusef: “Some people think that I was taking the son’s side, but how could I have sung the father’s side if I couldn’t have understood it, too?” Father: “It’s not time to make a change, just relax, take it easy, /You’re still young, that’s your fault, there’s so much you have to know…” Son: “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen, now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away…”

“Grandma’s Hands,” Bill Withers, 1971

Withers, who had a stuttering problem and got picked on a lot as a kid, said, “Grandmothers tend to gravitate toward the weak kid. I learned how to be kind and really just love somebody from a nice old lady. My favorite song that I’ve written has to be about this favorite old lady of mine.” His record company didn’t care for it, but he insisted, and it has gone on to be covered by multiple artists, from Barbra Streisand and Al Jarreau to Keb’ Mo’ and Livingston Taylor: “Grandma’s hands used to hand me piece of candy, Grandma’s hands picked me up each time I fell, Grandma’s hands, boy, they really came in handy…”

Musgaves (right) and her mother

“Family is Family,” Kacey Musgraves, 2015

Most of my readers know I’m not much of a fan of country music, and Kacey Musgraves debuted in 2013 with “Same Trailer, Different Park,” which won Country Album of the Year. But country music isn’t anywhere near as cornpone and excruciating as it once was, and Musgraves is a wonderful singer and whimsical songwriter who I’ve grown to admire. On her “Pageant Material” LP is a marvelous “tell it like it is” tune about the yin and yang of family relationships: “You might look just like ’em, that don’t mean you’re like ’em, but you love ’em, /Family is family, in church or in prison, you get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ’em, /They might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys, /Yeah, friends come in handy, but family is family…”

“Daughters,” John Mayer, 2003

Although Mayer was pegged early in his career as a singer-songwriter, he always wanted to pursue his passion for blues rock as a very fine electric guitarist. When it came time to release another single from his 2003 LP “Heavier Things,” he resisted selecting the mellow “Daughters,” but it ended up being a #19 hit, and won the Song of the Year Grammy. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated the award to his grandmother, who he said had raised wonderful daughters. He said the lyrics were inspired by an ex-flame who hadn’t had a loving relationship with her father, and it had lasting negative effects: “Fathers, be good to your daughters, daughters will love like you do, /Girls become lovers who turn into mothers, so mothers, be good to your daughters too…”

Urban and his father

“Song For Dad,” Keith Urban, 2002

Urban is another artist who leans mostly country, but his brand also includes plenty of rock and folk elements that make his music appealing to me. On his fourth LP, 2002’s “Golden Road,” there’s a really touching song called “Song For Dad” that tugs at all the heartstrings, especially from the point of view of a son who now has a family of his own and, as he ages, he sees his father in his own mannerisms, habits and behaviors: “In everything he ever did, he always did with love, and I’m proud today to say I’m his son, /When somebody says ‘I hope I get to meet your dad,’ I just smile and say ‘You already have’…”

“Mother and Child Reunion,” Paul Simon, 1972

On his debut solo LP, Simon took a stab at bringing reggae rhythms to the US Top 40 when he made “Mother and Child Reunion” his first single, and it worked, reaching #4. Simon recalls, “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant one night and on the menu was a dish they called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It was chicken and eggs. I thought, ‘Oh, I gotta use that one.'” He had a friend who had recently lost his mother, and it occurred to Simon how fleeting life could be, and how the two could be reunited in the blink of an eye: “I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day, /But the mother and child reunion is only a motion away…only a moment away…”

“Back to the Family,” Jethro Tull, 1969

In Tull’s early years, the band struggled, playing small towns or cheap clubs while living on the road, away from home and loved ones. Songwriter Ian Anderson turned that into a song for their successful second album, “Stand Up,” which gave an honest assessment of how returning to see the family can have its good and bad points, but it begins with that homesick feeling: “Living this life has its problems, so I think that I’ll give it a break, /Oh, I’m going back to the family,`cause I’ve had about all I can take…”

“My Father’s Eyes,” Eric Clapton, 1998

Clapton never knew his father, a Canadian soldier who got Clapton’s British mother pregnant and then disappeared. He later received word the man had died in 1985, and has always wished he had had the chance to meet him at least once. Clapton’s four-year-old son died in an accident in 1991, and at that point, he wrote “My Father’s Eyes,” in which he “tried to describe the parallel between looking in the eyes of my son, and the eyes of the father that I never met, through the chain of our blood”: “As my soul slides down to die, how could I lose him? What did I try? /Bit by bit, I’ve realized that he was here with me, I looked into my father’s eyes…”

“Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” John Prine, 1971

Prine, who died last year at 73, was best known for his songwriting skills, particularly the way he fashioned a beautifully descriptive lyric with just a few phrases. One such song, “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” appeared on his third album, “Sweet Revenge,” in 1973. It’s an affectionate tribute to his grandfather, “a simple man full of wisdom and honest values,” as Prine once put it. The lyrics provided hints that allowed the listener to piece together a picture of the man: “He built houses, stores and banks, chain-smoked Camel cigarettes and hammered nails in planks, /He was level on the level and shaved even every door, and voted for Eisenhower ’cause Lincoln won the war…”

“Teach Your Children,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970

It always seemed to be Graham Nash whose songs were selected to be the singles from the many gems written by David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young during their relatively brief time together. “Marrakesh Express, “Our House” and “Just a Song Before I Go,” all written by Nash, did well on the charts, but the one that really captures the tender side of this iconic trio/quartet is “Teach Your Children,” with Jerry Garcia’s sweet pedal steel guitar and those trademark harmonies. Its lyrics remind us all to treat our children and parents alike with love and kindness: “Teach your children well, their father’s hell did slowly go by… Teach your parents well, their children’s hell will slowly go by… So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you…”

“Family Man,” Hall and Oates, 1982

Mike Oldfield, the British musician known chiefly for his 1973 tour de force “Tubular Bells,” wrote this tune in 1981 with help from three others and had some chart success in the UK with his own recording of it. Daryl Hall and John Oates recorded a more aggressive cover version that peaked at #6 in the US in the summer of 1983. The lyrics describe a man in a bar who’s approached by a hooker, but he turns her down because he’s a family man. By song’s end, he’s thinking about accepting her offer, but she’s gone: “She had sultry eyes, she made it perfectly plain that she was his for a price, /But he said, ‘leave me alone, I’m a family man, and my bark is much worse than my bite…”

“Cousin Dupree,” Steely Dan, 2000

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the brilliant songwriting duo behind Steely Dan’s catalog, were known for creating edgy, sometimes creepy characters to inhabit their songs, from drug dealers (“Kid Charlemagne”) to porn stars (“Peg”). On their 2000 reunion album, “Two Against Nature,” they came up with a classic called “Cousin Dupree,” which focuses on a sketchy relative who lusts after his pretty cousin he hasn’t seen since they were young kids: “When I see my little cousin Janine walk in, all I could say was ouch, /Honey how you’ve grown, like a rose, /Well, we used to play when we were three, how about a kiss for your cousin Dupree… What’s so strange about a down-home family romance?…

“Granny Got a Boob Job,” Rowdy Cousin, 2010

Using the moniker Rowdy Cousin, an informal group of fun-loving Oklahoma rednecks started writing, performing and eventually recording original music and comedy in the country rock vein around 2010. Their success has been limited to the Plains region, but I ran across their repertoire on YouTube and Spotify and decided it would be fun to wrap up this “family playlist” with this bawdy, funny tune about what happened in Grandma’s life once cheapskate Grandpa passed away: “Granny got a boob job, Granny got a face lift, Granny not a new Corvette, the frame around her license plate says ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!”, /Granny got her teeth fixed, Granny got a belly ring, Granny got a new water bed, when somebody asked her why, she said, ‘Cause I ain’t the one that’s dead!”…


Honorable mention:

Hey Big Brother,” Rare Earth, 1972; “Sweet Li’l Sister,” Bad Company 1976; “Son Of Your Father,” Elton John, 1970; “Somebody’s Daughter,” Tasmin Archer, 1992: “Cousin Kevin,” The Who, 1969; “Uncle Salty,” Aerosmith, 1975; “Your Auntie Grizelda,” The Monkees, 1967; “Me and My Uncle,” The Grateful Dead, 1971; “Cousin of Mine,” Sam Cooke, 1961; “Dance With My Father,” Luther Vandross, 2003; “Daughters of the Sea,” The Doobie Brothers, 1974.

My immediate family: Rachel, Judy, Bruce and Emily. (April 2021)