In his first big hit, “The Sound of Silence,” Paul Simon, one of our wisest and most articulate lyricists, famously wrote, “People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening…”
There’s an important distinction between hearing something and really listening. Hearing may be accidental or involuntary and require no effort. Listening requires intentional focus that often takes sustained concentration.
It’s a sad truth about the human race. As a rule, we’re not good listeners. We’re distracted by other things, other thoughts. Sometimes our egos get in the way, so we’re thinking more about what we’re going to say next instead of focusing on what is being said to us.
As my mother once taught me, “Listening is very important. You miss a lot if you don’t listen. Show interest in what others have to say. Listen to your children, and your friends, and your heart. Listen, even if you’re tired, and you’re angry, and you’d like not to, because you will hear things you may never hear any other time.”
When it comes to music, I’ve found that you’ll get much more out of it if you give it your full attention and really listen, especially to the words, perhaps with headphones or earbuds.
The lesson about being a good listener hasn’t been lost on the lyricists of popular song through the years. I have scoured the vaults and selected 15 classic tunes about listening from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and I have written a little about each one. As always, there is a Spotify playlist at the end that allows you to, well, listen to the songs as you read along.
Thanks for reading and listening!
“Listen to the Music,” The Doobie Brothers, 1972
Tom Johnston was a talented, inventive guitarist who wrote and sang most of The Doobie Brothers’ early singles, and recalls how their first big hit came to be. “The chord structure of it made me think of something positive. It occurred to me that if the leaders of the world got together, sat down and just listened to music and forgot about all this other bullshit, the world would be a much better place. It was very utopian, but it made for a fun song that’s still popular 50 years later.” It appeared on their “Toulouse Street” album and reached #11 on the U.S. Top 40 in 1972.
“Listen,” Chicago, 1969
As the “rock band with horns” that first called themselves Chicago Transit Authority were still playing Chicago area clubs, they were just grateful for the chance to perform. Keyboardist/vocalist Robert Lamm wrote a riveting rocker about how they were convinced people would like their music if they just took the time to hear it: “If it’s good, you can tell us all, /Or you can smile, that’s all right, my friend, /It could be so nice, you know, if only you would listen…” It’s the shortest, punchiest track on Chicago’s debut LP.
“Listen For the Laugh,” Bruce Cockburn, 1994
Cockburn has been a huge star in Canada for decades, but his only chart appearance in the US was 1979’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which reached #21 and earned him a slot on “Saturday Night Live” that year. “Listen for the Laugh,” which came 15 years later, was one of the more philosophical songs he started writing at that point in his career: “It’s not the laughter of a child with toys, it’s not the laughter of the president’s boys, /It’s not the laughter of the media king, this laughter doesn’t sell you anything, /It’s the wind in the wings of a diving dove, you better listen for the laugh of love, /Whatever else you might be thinking of, you better listen for the laugh of love…”
“Listen To Me,” Buddy Holly, 1958
After a debut album as a member of The Crickets, Buddy Holly emerged as the star, with the next record issued under his name, with The Crickets as supporting musicians. On that album, chock full of radio hits like “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday” and “Rave On,” one of the deep tracks was “Listen to Me,” which could have arguably been a single in its own right. Holly co-wrote it with his producer, Norman Petty, who owned a studio in small-town New Mexico where most of Holly’s songs were cut: “Listen to me, hear what I say, our hearts can be nearer each day, /Hold me darling, listen closely to me…”
“Listen to Your Heart,” Roxette, 1988
Per Gessle, the guitarist from the Swedish duo Roxette (with Marie Fredriksson on vocals and keyboards), described “Listen to Your Heart” as “The big bad ballad.” He went on, “This is us trying to recreate that overblown American FM-rock sound to the point where it almost becomes absurd. We really wanted to see how far we could take it.” The lyrics were inspired by a close friend who was “in emotional turmoil, stuck between an old relationship and a new love. A year later, I called him up in the middle of the night and told him, ‘Hey, you’re number one in the States.'” “Listen to your heart when he’s calling for you, /Listen to your heart, there’s nothing else you can do, /I don’t know where you’re going and I don’t know why, /But listen to your heart before you tell him goodbye…”
“Lisa, Listen to Me,” Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1971
David Clayton-Thomas, lead singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears in their commercial heyday, co-wrote this song for the group’s “BS&T; 4” LP in 1971. The lyrics hint at something traumatic that happened to “Lisa” in the past, but she is now in a safer place and can speak freely. The fact that Clayton-Thomas had experienced some parental abuse gives the song more compassion and credibility. The narrator implores her to listen, to share her thoughts and know that he will be a caring listener: “He said, ‘Lisa, listen to me, don’t you know where you belong? /Darling, Lisa, you can tell me, you’ve been silent for too long…”
“Stop and Listen,” Chuck Berry, 1961
Berry had been one of the true pioneers and stars of early rock and roll, but by the time his album “New Juke Box Hits” was recorded and released in 1961, he was in the midst of legal difficulties, which led to a prison term in 1962. The adverse publicity from these legal problems affected record sales, which is a shame, because people missed out on several deep tracks. The slow blues tune “Stop and Listen,” which has a wonderful groove to it, I only recently discovered, in which Berry warns against jumping into a relationship: “Stop and listen, before you make a start, /Stop and listen, before you make a start, /Because if you fall in love, it may break your heart…”
“Listen to Her Heart,” Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1978
Although it peaked at a disappointing #59 upon release in 1978, “Listen to Her Heart” is now considered one of Tom Petty’s best songs. He wrote it at a time when another man had been hitting on his then-wife, and he felt the need to tell him, “Buddy, you don’t even know her.” He played it often in concert during his long career: “You think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine, /Keep thinkin’ that her mind is gonna change, but I know everything is okay, /She’s gonna listen to her heart, it’s gonna tell her what to do, /Well, she might need a lot of lovin’, but she don’t need you…”
“Listen to What the Man Said,” Paul McCartney and Wings, 1975
Author Vincent Benitez, who wrote at length about McCartney’s solo years, said “‘The Man’ in this tune is not explicitly identified, but many interpret it to be God. McCartney is advising us to stick with the basics of life, which to him means love.” Wings recorded the track in New Orleans for their “Venus and Mars Are Alright Tonight” album, with Tom Scott providing a masterful solo on sax. “Listen to What the Man Said” is “another fine example of buoyant, optimistic McCartney pop,” said Benitez. “Love is fine, for all we know, /For all we know, our love will grow, /That’s what the man said, /So won’t you listen to what the man said?…”
“Listen,” Al Green, 1972/1989
Throughout the 1970s, Al Green recorded for Hi Records, a small Memphis record label that specialized in gospel-influenced Southern soul. During Green’s commercial peak when he had three Top Ten albums (1972-1973), many extra songs were recorded but set aside for various reasons. Several of those were unearthed in 1989 and compiled on “South Lauderdale Avenue,” a collection of previously unreleased tracks by Green and others on that label. The best is “Listen,” which could have easily been a hit for him.
“Listen Like Thieves,” INXS, 1985
In this catchy track, INXS frontman Michael Hutchence asks us not to believe everything we read and hear. Band member Andrew Farriss said, “I love that phrase, ‘listen like thieves.’ Thieves have to listen closely lest they be discovered committing a crime. I think Michael’s lyric was saying that discerning the truth takes vigilance. The media haven’t been great watchdogs when it comes to news and politics. To get the real story, we need to listen like thieves.”
“Listen To Me,” The Hollies, 1968
This song was the final Hollies track in which Graham Nash participated before leaving to join forces with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Nash had wanted to move beyond the usual sunny Hollies fare but the rest of the band disagreed. Written by songwriter Tony Hazzard, “Listen to Me” reached #11 in their native UK but went nowhere in the US. Its lyrics ask that we listen as “I’ll sing a song to change your mind” and help us be more optimistic: “Listen to me and very soon I think you’ll find /Somebody wants to help you, somebody seems to care, /And very soon you’ve forgotten that you didn’t care about love…”
“Listen to the Band,” The Monkees, 1969
Written by Michael Nesmith and recorded in Nashville, “Listen to the Band” was released as the B-side of a single with “Someday Man,” a Paul Williams song sung by usual Monkees lead singer Davy Jones. DJs preferred the country music vibe of Nesmith’s tune, but The Monkees were on their last legs at that point (Peter Tork had left), and the song never made it past #63 on the U.S. charts. The song suggests focusing on the band performing instead of getting caught up in a lost lover: “Weren’t they good? They made me happy, I think I can make it alone, /Oh mercy, woman plays a song and no one listens, I need help, I’m falling again, /Play the drum a little bit louder, tell them they can live without her if they only listen to the band…”
“Listen To Me Baby,” Smokey Joe Baugh, 1955
This early rocker is credited to Baugh, but it’s basically the Big Joe Turner classic “Shake, Rattle and Roll” with new words and a slightly altered melody. Baugh was on Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label, and Phillips figured Baugh’s distinctive, raspy voice would appeal to black audiences even though he (like label mate Elvis Presley) was white. Baugh made dozens of recordings for Sun but they were never issued, mostly because Baugh and Phillips never got along.
“Listen,” Tears for Fears, 1985
Ian Stanley, who served as a member of Tears for Fears for the group’s first three albums, was given chief songwriting credit for “Listen,” the mostly instrumental closing track on the multiplatinum “Songs From the Big Chair” album. It has a spooky, otherworldly vibe dominated by guitar and keyboards, and a brief lyric that implores us to simply “listen…soothe my feeling…now I feel it…” Stanley left the group during production of “The Seeds of Love” in 1989 but went on to produce numerous other artists in the 1990s and beyond, including The Pretenders, The Human League and Tori Amos.