Too good to be true, I wanna spend my life with you

There may not be a more frequently explored topic in popular music lyrics than love.  Good or bad, brief or long lasting, love and romance have been mainstays as subject matter for decades:  “Love Reign O’er Me.”  “Love is the Drug.”  “Love Will Keep Us Together.”  “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”  “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”  “Love in an Elevator.”  “Love is Like Oxygen.”  “Love You Inside Out.”  “Love Stinks.”

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Songs about weddings and marriage, though, are less plentiful, perhaps because the music industry isn’t exactly overflowing with examples of life-long relationships.  Still, year in and year out, music lovers everywhere continue to give the institution of marriage a go, and who doesn’t enjoy the warm, festive nature of a great wedding ceremony and reception?

This weekend, my daughter Rachel and her fiancĂ© Johnny are getting married, and, as with other important milestones in life, I love to comb through popular music to find enough songs to build a decent set list to commemorate the day, which I hope she’ll be tickled about.  I’ve selected a baker’s dozen tunes to examine below, via Spotify, along with another 15 “honorable mentions” that also focus on weddings.  For all the the brides and grooms out there, and all those who celebrate their union, this blog’s for you!

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“Wedding Song (There is Love),” Paul Stookey, 1971

In the fall of 1969, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary was planning his wedding and asked compatriot Paul Stookey to write and sing a song for the ceremony.  Stookey, a recently converted Christian, went off to pray for guidance, and both the music and lyrics for “Wedding Song (There is Love)” came forth within the hour:  “He is now to be among you at the calling of your heart, rest assured this troubadour is acting on his part, the union of your spirits here has caused Him to remain, for whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name, there is love…”  Said Stookey, “In the lyrics, I paraphrased a few lines of scripture, specifically Matthew 18:20 and Genesis 2:23, so I felt uncomfortable accepting songwriting credit.”  Instead, he set up the Public Domain Foundation, which has since received songwriting and publishing royalties for charitable distribution.  PP&M broke up in 1970, but Stookey recorded the song in 1971 as a solo artist, and it reached #24 on the US charts.

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“Chapel of Love,” The Dixie Cups, 1964

Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, part of the powerhouse of songwriters that came out of the Brill Building in New York in the early ’60s, wrote a dozen Top Ten hits, including “Then He Kissed Me,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Be My Baby,” “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Hanky Panky.”  Following the first wave of Beatles hits in 1964, a vocal trio called The Dixie Cups had the #1 song in the country with this Barry-Greenwich tribute to wedding ceremonies:  “Today’s the day we’ll say ‘I do,’ and we’ll never be lonely anymore, because we’re going to the chapel, and we’re gonna get married…”

“Wedding Song,” Tracy Chapman, 2000

Emerging from the poverty of a depressed upbringing in Cleveland, Chapman went to #1 with her impressive debut in 1988 and has developed a devoted following over the past 20 years and eight albums.  Although she never married and has been ambiguous about her sexual orientation, on her 2000 album “Telling Stories,” she composed “Wedding Song,” a tender examination of the hopes and dreams behind the institution of marriage:  “For you, I don the veil, by your light, others pale by comparison, I place my faith in love, my fate in this communion…”

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“We Got Married,” Paul McCartney, 1989

Sir Paul had been happily married to Linda for 20 years when he was writing the songs that would become the material for “Flowers in the Dirt,” which was sort of a comeback album for him after a few duds in his repertoire.  It did modestly well here, peaking at #17, and his US tour that year helped boost sales of the album, which included “We Got Married,” an ambitious song about the ups and downs of married life from a man who knew all about that:  “I love the things that happen when we start to discover who we are and what we’re living for, just because love was all we ever wanted, it was all we ever had, it’s not just a loving machine, it doesn’t work out if you don’t work at it…”  David Gilmour of Pink Floyd made a guest appearance as lead guitarist on this track.

“I Wanna Marry You” and “The River,” Bruce Springsteen, 1980

For his1980 double album “The River,” Springsteen wrote two hard-luck songs that focus on tying the knot. The title song tells the heartbreaking story of a couple who married young because the girl got pregnant, which felt to the boy like a dead end that forever limited their life choices:  “Then I got Mary pregnant, and man, that was all she wrote…we went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest, no wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle, no flowers, no wedding dress…”  On the other hand, “I Wanna Marry You” is more hopeful, with lyrics about a man who meets a single mom, and likes and admires her so much that he offers to marry her to ease her burden:  “To say I’ll make your dreams come true would be wrong, but maybe, darlin’, I could help them along, little girl, I wanna marry you…”

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“For My Wedding,” Don Henley, 2000

Larry John McNally, a respected songwriter whose work has been recorded by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart and Henley, sang this song at an in-the-round show at the famed Bluebird Cafe in Nashville in 1998.  Henley heard a tape of the performance and so loved the song that he recorded it for his “Inside Job” LP two years later.  McNally talked about the song’s lyrics for the Songfacts website:  “What does it really mean, marriage?  I believe there are misconceptions about what you are entering into, fantasies and delusions sold through movies, songs and advertising.  Nonetheless, there is no denying that faithfulness, loyalty, the depth of human bonding and support for one another through life’s trials and tribulations, these are good things.  That’s what I wanted to write about in this song.”  A sampling:   “To want what we have, to take what we’re given with grace, for these things I pray, on my wedding day…” 

“Kiss The Bride,” Elton John, 1983

In 1983, Elton reunited with Bernie Taupin, his celebrated lyricist from his hugely popular ’70s albums and singles, and the result was the LP “Too Low For Zero,” which spawned “I’m Still Standing” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” both big hits.  Also on the album was the rollicking “Kiss the Bride,” in which the narrator bemoaned the fact that his love was marrying someone else:  “And when the preacher said, ‘Is there anyone here got a reason why they shouldn’t wed?’, I should’ve stuck up my hand, and this is what I should’ve said, ‘I wanna kiss the bride, yeah, I wanna kiss the bride, yeah, long before she met him, she was mine, mine mine’…” 

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“Take My Hand (The Wedding Song),” Emily Hackett & Will Anderson, 2013

In 2013, Emily’s friends Bobby & Katie asked her to sing at their wedding, anything she wanted.  “I was set on writing something,” she said, “so I sat down with my friend Christian, and we decided to focus on the simplicity of it, the honesty of it, the butterflies, in both the excitement and fear that surface at the idea of becoming one with someone.  It took us a long time to feel like we got that right.  How could it not?  When someone asks you to define love and feelings you have on your wedding day, it’s a very difficult thing to do.  We wanted it to relate to the bride and groom we wrote it for, but we’ve been beside ourselves about how much it relates to so many brides and grooms.  It’s our idea of a perfect snapshot of how you feel on your wedding day.”  Indeed it is:  “So give me your word, and I’ll give you all that I’ve got, no we don’t have much, but it sure feels like a lot, so take my heart and take my hand again and again, right where we stand, /Too good to be true, I wanna spend my life with you…”

“Love and Marriage,” Frank Sinatra, 1955 

In the 1940s and ’50s, lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jimmy Van Heusen teamed up on more than a dozen songs that earned Oscar nominations and wins, and another couple dozen that rode high on the pop charts.  One of those was Sinatra’s rendition of “Love and Marriage,” a #5 hit in 1955 after its introduction on a TV production of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.”  Cahn’s lyrics make the case (despite plenty of more recent evidence to the contrary) that marriage and love are inseparable:  “Love and marriage, love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, this I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other…”  The song enjoyed new life as the tongue-in-cheek theme song for the popular TV show “Married…With Children” in the ’80s and ’90s.

“The Wedding,” David Bowie, 1993

Bowie had married in the early ’70s and divorced in 1980, but in 1990, he was introduced to supermodel Iman and as he put it, “I was naming the children the night we met.  It was immediate.”  They married in 1992, and “The Wedding” was the centerpiece of the hugely underrated 1993 LP “Black Tie White Noise,” which opened with an instrumental version and closed with the full version with lyrics:  “Heaven is smiling down, heaven’s girl in a wedding gown, I’m gonna be so good, just like a good boy should, I’m gonna change my ways, angel for life…”

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“Wedding Bell Blues,” The 5th Dimension, 1969

This classic was written in 1966 by songwriter Laura Nyro and recorded by her for her “More Than a New Discovery” debut LP that year.  Three years later, The 5th Dimension — who had already had success with two other Nyro compositions (“Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Sweet Blindness”) — chose to record “Wedding Bell Blues,” which focuses on a woman who badly wants her lover to propose:  “Bill, I love you so, I always will, and in your voice, I hear a choir of carrousels, but am I ever gonna hear my wedding bells?…”  Perhaps not so coincidentally, group members Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. were engaged at the time but had yet to set a wedding date.  The song rocketed to #1 in the fall of 1969, and in concerts, McCoo would sing directly to Davis.  They married before the year was out, and recently celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.

“Marry Me,” Train, 2009

Since forming in San Francisco in the late ’90s, Train has evolved into one of the most popular roots-rock bands of the new millenium, with six Top Ten albums and numerous hit singles (“Drops of Jupiter,” “Calling All Angels,” “Hey Soul Sister”).  Patrick Monahan, the band’s singer and chief songwriter, said “Marry Me” tells the story of a guy who has a “love at first sight” moment when he spies a waitress in a diner, and the music video for the song depicts that fleeting encounter:  “Promise me you’ll always be happy by my side, I promise to sing to you when all the music dies, marry me, today and every day, if I ever get the nerve to say ‘hello’ in this cafe…”

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“White Wedding,” Billy Idol, 1983

Although he had much bigger hits later in his career (“Eyes Without a Face,” “To Be a Lover”), Billy Idol may be best known for this 1982 song he wrote, which stalled at #36 in the US but made #6 in his native England.  The narrator speaks to a girl who he once loved who had married, apparently unsuccessfully, and now he has returned and hopes she’ll be willing to try again by marrying him:  “Come on, it’s a nice day for a white wedding, it’s a nice day to start again…”  The song’s music video, played heavily at the time on the relatively new MTV channel, was somewhat controversial for its dark gothic images and barbed-wire wedding ring.  The Spotify list includes the longer version (Parts 1 and 2).

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Here are a few “honorable mention” tracks having to do with weddings and marriage:

Let’s Get Married,” Al Green, 1974;  “Marry You,” Bruno Mars, 2010;  “We’ve Only Just Begun,” The Carpenters, 1970;  “I Do,” Colbie Caillat, 2011;  “Down the Aisle (The Wedding Song),” Patti LaBelle & The Blue Belles, 1963;  “Be My Wife,” David Bowie, 1977;  “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” Carly Simon, 1971;  “Legalize Our Love,” Timbuk 3, 1995;  “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” The Beach Boys, 1966;  “I Do,” Jewel, 2008; “Down the Aisle of Love,” The Quin-Tones, 1958;  “From This Moment On,” Shania Twain, 1997.

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Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking, award-winning music video for “Sledgehammer”

We LISTEN to music, right?

In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, we turned on the radio, and we played singles, albums, 8-tracks and cassettes. Now and then, we were treated to seeing our favorite artists perform on “American Bandstand,” “Hullabaloo,” “Shindig,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Midnight Special” and “Soul Train.”

But on August 1, 1981, there was a major paradigm shift in the music universe. Thanks to the spread of Cable TV and the proliferation of a multitude of programming options, suddenly we could see and hear rock music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

We could watch MTV.

The notion that there would be an audience for music videos, sent out on some remote cable channel 24 hours a day, was ridiculed at first, just like other “narrowcasting” ideas of cooking channels, fishing channels, Christian channels, History channels, even 24-hour news channels.  “Who will watch this all day and night?” was the question the businessmen asked.

As usual, many of them were clueless to the changing times.  Even Bob Pittman, one of the executives who helped launch MTV, said, “Frankly, it sounded like an asinine idea.”  MTV was an outlet for a product that barely existed; there were maybe 100 music videos in existence, mostly by unknown British and Australian bands, and the quality was generally abysmal.  Who would care to watch this stuff?

Turns out, teenagers didn’t watch TV much, but they sure were eager to watch this.  They were a great untapped audience, an invisible power.  As my friend Holly put it, “We’d go to our friend’s basement and watch MTV all day long.  It was on in the background, and we didn’t watch it continuously, but whenever a great song came on, we were mesmerized.”

Mike Nesmith, the most intelligent and innovative of The Monkees, was among the first to recognize the wisdom of marrying music and video into a full-flung cable channel that offered 24/7 music videos.  But it was a tough sell.   “Back in 1979, we put together a pilot with a half-dozen clips — Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre” and the like — introduced by comedians like Howie Mandel.  And we were unable to sell it.  The TV guys were resistant.  They said, ‘Music doesn’t work on television.  Never has, and never will.’  And up until then, they were right.  But that was about to change, and in a big way.”

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When The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” debuted as the first-ever video shown on MTV, it ushered in a new age, when songs would be introduced not only aurally, but visually as well.  MTV started out pretty much offering films of bands performing their latest songs in a studio or concert setting.  But within six months, maybe a year, every song that was released as a single had a dramatic, eye-catching accompanying video that MTV could play in their ever-changing rotation.  Songs were no longer audio only.  Now they had a visual component too.

At first, the only videos available were a weird brew of questionable stuff by the likes of Rod Stewart, Devo, Pat Benatar, Men at Work, Andrew Gold and others.  And MTV played them in relentless rotation, because that’s all they had to show.  But it didn’t take long for the record companies and their artists to catch on to this new marketing opportunity.  “Hey, we need to shoot a video of our new song so they’ll play it on MTV!” they said.  And the juggernaut was off and running.

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MTV’s original team of “VJs”

When MTV first arrived, they realized they needed video jockeys — disc jockeys, but on TV. They needed to have stage presence, well beyond what DJs needed on the radio.  And they needed to appeal to all facets of the potential audience.  As executive John Lack put it at the time, “We need a black person, we need a girl next door, we need a little sexy siren, we need a boy next door, we need some hunky Italian-looking guy with curly hair.”

Martha Quinn, the youngest and perhaps most well known of the VJ stars of MTV’s early years, remembers the hiring process.  “I was still involved with my high school boyfriend.  That’s how young I was.  I said, ‘What’s a VJ?’   They said, ‘It’s like being a DJ, but on TV.’  I said, ‘What do I do while the records are playing?’  I was thinking it’s like ‘WKRP in Cincinnati.'”

For quite a while, MTV had scant viewership, and little credibility.  But then, they went to Mick Jagger and got him to agree to go on air and say, with a tear running down his cheek, “I want my MTV.”  And once they got Jagger, they got Bowie, and Pat Benatar and countless others, and suddenly, every cable provider in the country was being pressured into offering MTV in their basic cable packages.

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Michael Jackson’s iconic music video for “Beat It” broke the color barrier in 1983

MTV was a business, and like any business, they catered to their primary audience which, at first, was white suburban kids whose families could afford cable TV.  So the artists MTV featured were almost exclusively white — New Wave, heavy metal, and hard rock — but white.  It was rather extraordinary, really.  There were NO black artists on MTV in 1981-1982-1983, even though R&B and funk music were wildly popular at the time.  And then came Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album, and, more specifically, “Beat It,” which was rock-oriented and featured the hard-rock guitar work of Eddie Van Halen.  That opened the door.

“I loved watching MTV for the dance videos,” said Audrey, who was 19 when MTV first showed up.  “We would tune in to see the newest ones everyone was talking about.  They were like short musicals, and they held our attention.”

To be frank, I’ve never been a fan of the music video revolution, and here’s why:  When I listen to a song, my imagination takes over, and I go to another place where the lyrics and music take me.  “Strawberry Fields Forever,” for example:  “Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields, nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about…”  I don’t need, nor want, some director, some film person, to give me their idea of what that might look like.  I wanted to conjure up that image on my own.

Some bands who didn’t really have all that much to offer still became big because they were fun to look at — artists like A Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, Billy Idol and Culture Club.  As producer Rick Rubin put it, “In some ways, MTV hurt music, in that it changed what was expected of an artist.  You started to see artists break who were stronger visually than they were musically.”

My friend Sean, who was 15 when MTV debuted, said, “I loved the diversity and randomness of it.  You never knew what you would see or hear next.  I remember hanging in with music I didn’t really like, not only because something I did like might come on next, but because I was absorbing all the creative imagery.  And there’s no question that MTV’s influence was massive.  Bands like Men Without Hats were suddenly selling CDs in places like Iowa, where the radio stations were never playing them.”

Metal bands like Motley Crue took the ball and ran with it in a different way, using women in a slutty, demeaning manner that turned on some people but alienated many others. “The videos were poppy, and silly, and we got a kick out of them,” said Holly.  “But then they got sexist and kind of gross, and we were turned off by that side of it.”

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A scene from Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” video

The British band Dire Straits went so far as to use guest vocalist Sting singing the ad tag line “I want my MTV” on its #1 single, “Money For Nothing.”  The song’s lyrics featured two blue-collar guys glancing at MTV and enviously referring to the rock musician this way: “That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it, you get your money for nothin’ and your chicks for free…”

By 1984, the budget for videos went from $50,000 to well over $500,000, and eventually, $1 million.  Everyone wanted to emulate Jackson’s “Thriller,” even if their work didn’t deserve that kind of expenditure.  No one wanted to watch four guys singing into microphones anymore.  There had to be a grand concept, with half-naked women, flamboyant fashion, artsy lighting, or serious choreography, or all of the above.  The music was almost an afterthought.

Some artists saw the potential and went wild with it, most notably those that could include elements of dance and fashion to their presentation, like Jackson, Madonna and Prince.  They all freely admit that their mid ’80s superstardom owed a great deal to their omnipresence on MTV during those years.  Indeed, the debut of the 13-minute video for “Thriller” in 1983 attracted MTV’s widest audience.

Madonna’s “Material World” video

Eventually, up-and-coming film directors saw MTV as a potential entree and resume builder.  Oscar-winning directors like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme saw the value in doing high-quality music videos for top name bands like the Rolling Stones and the Talking Heads in order to boost their reputation in rock music circles.

“The videos gained the artists followers as much for what they were wearing as what they were singing,” said Chris, a music industry insider from Cleveland.  “The videos gave life to some of the songs well beyond the meanings of the words.”

Artists that would’ve otherwise been ignored were suddenly a big deal, thanks to their video exposure on MTV.  Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” and Men at Work’s “Down Under” gave those bands the kind of attention agents would kill for.

Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”

Sure, sometimes the videos were wildly imaginative, well beyond whatever feeble effort our own minds could come up with.  Witness these award-winners:  “Sledgehammer,” Peter Gabriel, 1986;  “Take On Me,” a-ha, 1985;  “Like a Prayer,” Madonna, 1989;  “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Cyndi Lauper, 1984;  “You Might Think,” The Cars, 1984;  “Rhythm Nation,” Janet Jackson, 1989;  “Addicted to Love,” Robert Palmer, 1987;  “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Duran Duran, 1983;  “When Doves Cry,” Prince, 1984.

After four years on the air, MTV diversified, and came up with additional spinoff options like VH-1, which aimed toward an older demographic that enjoyed classic rock bands and vintage footage from “Ed Sullivan” and films like “Woodstock” and “Monterey Pop.”   This not only attracted another older audience but allowed MTV to become even more targeted toward current, younger bands.  As Holly explains, “Once VH-1 appeared, I probably never watched MTV again.”

Indeed, some bands rebelled as. best as they could against the video revolution. The Dead Kennedys, a major San Francisco punk band, released a song in 1985 that includes this lyrical diatribe against music videos: “How far will you go, how low will you stoop, to tranquilize our minds with your sugar-coated swill, /You’ve turned rock and roll rebellion into Pat Boone sedation, making sure nothing’s left to the imagination, /MTV get off the air!…

By the 1990s, even the MTV suits knew the bloom was off the rose.  They watched other cable channels enjoying huge profits from airing original programming, and decided they too should start reaching out to their demographic with something other than music videos.  “We knew we needed to move on, even if it alienated many of our core audience who had come to expect music videos all day and all night,” said Amy Finnerty, an MTV exec.  “We came up with a teen soap concept — ‘The Real World’ — and the numbers were through the roof.”   It started slowly, but within two or three years, Music TeleVision no longer showed music videos, except for maybe an hour a week at a predetermined time.

By then, there were other ways to see music videos, and by the mid-’90s, the Internet was in full bloom, with YouTube and other avenues for viewing music.

Today, many TV shows and most commercials use rock music and the quick-edit stylings that MTV pioneered in the early ’80s.  It’s not necessarily the best thing that ever happened to television, but it sure has had a major impact.