And we laughed until we cried

Can rock music be funny?

h_00427772_lSure it can, in a number of different ways.  We might begin with a couple of jokes about rock bands:

Q:  What do you call a rock musician who doesn’t have a girlfriend?  A:  Homeless.

Or:  “Mom, when I grow up, I want to be a rock guitarist.”  “You can’t do both, son.”

Or maybe:  Q:  Why did Bono fall off the stage at a U2 concert?  A:  He was standing too close to The Edge.  (Cue the rim shot)

Ahem.

But really, the primary way rock music can be funny is in the lyrics.  The rock and pop music pantheon has many dozens of artists from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s who knew how to write words designed to make us laugh, whether it’s just one or two amusing lines or entire songs.  My readers will no doubt be able to come up with many other examples, but the ones I’ve cited below are the songwriters who have impressed me with their ability to write funny stuff.  (And there’s a Spotify playlist at the end that includes some of their best.)

1*YiXJ_jcj1SllwNhxYccVSAJimmy Buffett has released nearly three dozen albums over four-plus decades, each containing at least one whimsical track.  A quick look at a partial list of song titles alone should have you chuckling:  “The Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful,” “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Off to See the Lizard,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw,” “It’s Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About,” “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season.”  He’s even got a song called “Door Number Three” that tells the tongue-in-cheek story of a contestant on the game show “Let’s Make a Deal.”

Frank Zappa and his erstwhile band, The Mothers of Invention, made many dozens of albums featuring a unique blend of rock, jazz, classical and avant-garde, with titles like “Weasels Ripped My Flesh,” “We’re Only In It for the Money,” “Sheik Yerbouti” and “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar.”  In his voluminous catalog are scores of outrageously funny, adult-rated tracks like “Dinah-Moe Humm,” “Stick It Out” and “Penguin in Bondage,” as well as more radio-friendly tunes like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “Valley Girl.”

mqdefaultRandy Newman has used humor in his songs ever since his 1968 debut LP, which includes “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the song (later made into a #1 hit by Three Dog Night) about the awkward boy at a party who wished he’d listened to his mother’s advice.  Ten years later, he had his own hit, “Short People,” which used dry humor to skewer those who discriminate against people who are different than they are.

Arlo Guthrie‘s repertoire includes several funny songs like “Comin’ Into Los Angeles” (a humorous look at smuggling weed), and the legendary “Alice’s Restaurant,” in which he takes 18 minutes to tell a mostly true story about protesting the Vietnam war that starts out with Guthrie being arrested for, of all things, littering.

The great Tom Waits has written numerous tracks that feature wry lyrics, none more than on his 1976 LP “Small Change,” with songs like “Step Right Up,” “Pasties and a G-String” and “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me).”  I love this line from “Better Off Without a Wife”:  “She’s been married so many times, she’s got rice marks all over her face…”

0d8b472ac30ec904aa781f9e690cc19c--simon-garfunkel-paul-simonAlthough known more for lyrics of poignancy and melancholy, Paul Simon has written some funny lyrics as well.  From 1970’s “Cecilia”:  “I got up to wash my face, when I come back to bed, someone’s taken my place…”  From 1973’s “Kodachrome”:  “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all…”  From 1986’s “You Can Call Me Al”:  “Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?…”

Country music has its share of humorous lyrics, and two of the biggest hits by country rockers The Charlie Daniels Band — 1973’s “Uneasy Rider” and 1978’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” — both used humor to tell tales of a long-haired hippie avoiding a beating in a redneck bar, and an absurd fiddle-playing contest between Satan and a young Southern boy.

3fcd8210-2bd2-4edd-ad5a-2f8730942715Joe Walsh employed self-deprecating humor to satirize his rock star lifestyle in the 1978 hit “Life’s Been Good”:  “My Maserati does 185, I lost my license, now I don’t drive… I got me an office, gold records on the wall, just leave a message, maybe I’ll call…” 

Aerosmith‘s 1975 tune “Big Ten-Inch Record” used a sexual double entendre to comic effect:  “She said, ‘Now, stop that jivin’, and whip out your big ten-inch….record of a band that plays the blues…'” 

J Geils Band‘s 1981 song “Centerfold” took an amusing look at a boy who is crushed when the girl he idolizes at school turns up in a nudie magazine pictorial: “My blood runs cold, my memory has just been sold, my angel’s in a centerfold, my angel’s in a centerfold…”

The 1950s song “Twisted,” recorded in 1973 by Joni Mitchell, took a droll approach to psychoanalysis:  “My analyst told me that I was right out of my head, but I said dear doctor, I think that it’s you instead… To prove it, I’ll have the last laugh on you, because instead of one head, I got two, and you know two heads are better than one…”

Johnny Cash had his biggest pop hit with the whimsical “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969, and Commander Cody enjoyed his only foray on to the pop charts in 1972 with his amusing country-pickin’ ode to fast cars, “Hot Rod Lincoln.”

Meat Loaf‘s “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” is a humorous mini rock opera about a couple going through the motions of whether or not to have sex:  “Will you love me forever?…What’s it gonna be, boy?  Yes or no?…Let me sleep on it…” 

8cd5e75d72045a2c079dabfac81b49f2Even rock gods like The Beatles weren’t above knocking off a track that amounted to comedy.  On the flip side of the “Let It Be” single, released as the band was breaking up in 1970, there was a strangely funny piece called “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” which saw the Fab Four horsing around in a variety of voices and styles that put an emphatically comic exclamation point on their otherwise sterling career.

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There was a strange British outfit called the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band that put out some seriously humorous parodies — check out “The Intro and the Outro” for a quickie introduction.

The “rockumentary” film by Rob Reiner known as “This is Spinal Tap” certainly qualifies as a presentation of very funny rock music.

There’s a whole category of (purportedly) funny music known as “novelty songs,” which are usually lame little ditties, often written expressly as a one-off to capitalize on some pop culture trend or figure.  The once-popular craze known as “streaking” — running naked through a public place — sparked country singer Ray Stevens’ big #1 hit “The Streak” in 1974, and the huge success of citizens band (CB) radios in the mid-’70s made 500x500C.W. McCall’s 1976 disgrace “Convoy” a #1 hit.  That same year, Rick Dees rode the tails of the disco craze with the excruciatingly idiotic “Disco Duck.”

Early one-hit wonders like The Rivingtons and Bobby “Boris” Pickett had cultural curiosities in 1962 with their funny camp classics, “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” and “Monster Mash,” respectively.  Brian Hyland, who also had a few typical early ’60s hits like “Sealed With a Kiss,” went to #1 with the amusing 1960 bossa nova novelty track, “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polkadot Bikini.”

The popularity of the “Peanuts” comic strip in the ’60s gave a group called The Royal Guardsmen all the impetus they needed to reach #2 on the charts in 1966 with “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” a slight confection complete with sound effects of WWII airplane dogfights.

R-4647087-1452452539-4366.jpegSinger songwriter Harry Nilsson had a big hit in 1972 with “Coconut,” a silly tune about how a doctor prescribes a drink of coconut and lime to relieve a bellyache.  Rock and roll icon Chuck Berry even found his way to #1 on the charts a few months later with “My Ding-a-Ling,” a throwaway ode to his penis.

Comedy acts have had occasional success with musical bits that became popular enough to reach the Top 40.   The pot-smoking comic duo Cheech & Chong made fun of cheesy R&B songs — first came “Basketball Jones,” a sendoff of the 1973 single “Love Jones,” and later on in the Seventies, “Bloat On,” a parody of the Floater’s #2 hit “Float On.”  “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” was Allan Sherman’s funny 1963 song about the 6-6-KING-TUT-Facebook-300x225trials and tribulations of summer camp:  “All the counselors hate the waiters, and the lake has alligators, you remember Jeffrey Hardy, they’re about to organize a searching party…”  Seventies comic sensation Steve Martin made the hit parade in 1978 with his hilarious single, “King Tut,” a spoof of the Egyptian boy-king:  “Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia, King Tut…”

 

In a category pretty much by himself is “Weird Al” Yankovic, who writes pointed lyrical parodies of popular tunes.  His most famous was the #16 hit “Eat It,” his takeoff on WeirdAl-500x400Michael Jackson’s #1 smash “Beat It,” where he lambastes a kid’s fussy eating habits.  He had plenty more along these lines, poking fun at songs by Madonna (“Like a Surgeon”), The Knack (“My Bologna”), Queen (“Another One Rides the Bus”), Joan Jett (“I Love Rocky Road”), Huey Lewis (“I Want a New Duck”), James Brown (“Livin’ With a Hernia”) and Cyndi Lauper (“Girls Just Want to Have Lunch”), to name just a few from his first few albums in the mid-’80s.

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Lastly, let’s not forget that some rock musicians have a pretty good sense of humor, saying some hilarious things in interviews with the press over the years.

As Keith Richards was facing drug-related charges in a Canadian courtroom, he said, “Let me be clear about this:  I don’t have a drug problem, I have a police problem.”

Frank Zappa, always quick with a caustic zinger, once described rock journalism aspeople who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk in order to provide articles for people who can’t read.”

54ae0542efaaf619106e71d9be745f1d--alice-cooper-classic-rockGuitarist Angus Young of the heavy metal band AC/DC poked fun at the band’s critics this way:  “I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”

Alice Cooper had a big hit in the fall of 1972 called “Elected,” and when he was asked who he supported in the upcoming presidential election, he said, “If you’re listening to a rock star to get your information on who to vote for, you’re a bigger moron than they are.”

George Harrison, commenting on the “new” single the remaining Beatles produced in 1995 from an old John Lennon cassette:  “I think John would have liked ‘Free As A Bird.’  In fact, I hope somebody takes all my crap demos when I’m dead and makes them into hit songs too.”

Joe Walsh, when asked if he still like playing “Rocky Mountain Way” at every concert, replied, “If I knew I had to play that song the rest of my life, I probably would’ve written something better.”

Jimi Hendrix once noted how other guitarists were attempting to mimic his style of playing, saying, “I’ve been imitated so well, I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.”

898578_1323479502140_fullIn defending his many years of excessive bad-boy behavior, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler said, “We believed anything that was worth doing was worth overdoing.”

Paul McCartney, reflecting on the craft of songwriting, said, “There’s nothing like the thrilling moment of completing a song that didn’t exist before.  I won’t compare it to sex, but it sure lasts longer.”

The Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox, commenting on creeping commercialism among rock stars, said, “There are two kinds of artists left — those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.”

images-16Guitar great Jeff Beck, saying he was overwhelmed upon first seeing Jimi Hendrix perform, said, “After I saw Jimi play, I just went home and wondered what the hell I was going to do with my life.”

When reporters asked Elvis Presley some technical questions about music, he responded, “I don’t know anything about music, but in my line of work, you don’t have to.”

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Musicians of other genres could be funny, too:  

Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery:  “I never practice my guitar, but from time to time, I open the case and throw in a piece of raw meat.”

dukeellingtonBig-band bandleader Duke Ellington:  “I never had much interest in the piano until I realized that every time I played, a girl would appear on the piano bench to my left and another to my right.”

Classical composer Igor Stravinsky:  “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.”

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m so glad you came into my life

What comes to mind when you think of rock music lyrics?

songwritingGetting high?  “We’re gonna lay around the shanty, mama, and put a good buzz on…”

Cars?  “I’ve been drivin’ all night, my hand’s wet on the wheel…”

The weekend?  “Monday I got Friday on my mind…”

Rebellion?  “It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want!…”

Basic philosophy?  “You can’t always get what you want…”

Mindless words thrown together?  “Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower…”

love-songs-cassette-mixtape-billboard-650What about love and romance?  Well, of course.  But far too often, the songs seem to center on heartbreak and unrequited love.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, I’ve collected a baker’s dozen of great love songs from years gone by that you and your loved one can sing to each other.  A Spotify playlist below will help you recall the words and melody in case you’ve forgotten them.  Enjoy!

 

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turtles_happy_together“Happy Together,” The Turtles, 1967

One of the most joyous, infectious tunes of the 1960s, in my opinion, is this irresistible song by The Turtles, the L.A.-based group fronted by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (later known as Flo & Eddie).  The team of Alan Gordon and Garry Bonner wrote “Happy Together” expressly for The Turtles, who took it to #1 in the spring of 1967.  It’s one of the Top Ten most-played songs on the radio in the past 50 years:  “I can’t see me loving nobody but you for all my life, when you’re with me, baby, the skies will be blue for all my life, me and you, and you and me, no matter how they toss the dice, it had to be, the only one for me is you, and you for me, so happy together…”

Joni_Mitchell-Both_Sides_Now“You’re My Thrill,” Joni Mitchell, 2000

Joni’s songwriting skills are widely known, but in her later years, she has shown a fine ability to interpret the works of others.  On “Both Sides Now,” a collection of standards that follow a romantic relationship from early infatuation to painful denouement, her time-worn voice poignantly covers such classics as the 1933 chestnut “You’re My Thrill,” first popularized by Billie Holiday.   Remember the exhilaration of new love?  “You’re my thrill, you do something to me, you send chills right through me when I look at you, ’cause you’re my thrill…”

1200x630bb-8“At Last,” Etta James, 1960

Mack Gordon and Harry Warren wrote this classic in 1941 for the Glenn Miller film “Orchestral Wives,” which flopped at the box office.  It languished for nearly 20 years before blues singer Etta James cut her smoldering rendition and made it the signature song of her impressive career.  I still hear “At Last” at weddings when the happy couple takes their “first dance” as husband and wife:   “I found a thrill to press my cheek to, a thrill that I had never known, you smiled, and then the spell was cast, and here we are in Heaven, for you are mine at last…”

MI0000082694“Grow Old With Me,” Mary Chapin-Carpenter, 1995

The late great John Lennon was known mostly as an iconoclastic rocker, from his lusty rendition of “Twist and Shout” to the strident “Revolution” and much of his solo catalog, but wow, he could sure write some beautiful ballads as well — “In My Life,” “Imagine,” “Beautiful Boy,” to name just a few.  In the months before he was killed, he wrote several dozen songs, many of which, sadly, were recorded only in demo form.  The best of these is “Grow Old With Me,” which he intended to be, in his words, “a new standard to be played at 50th anniversaries.”  Mary Chapin Carpenter, among others, resurrected the song and offered beautiful treatment of a real gem:  “Grow old along with me, two branches of one tree, face the setting sun, when the day is done, God bless our love, God bless our love, spending our lives together, man and wife together, world without end, world without end…”

51fWG8ix9fL._SS500“Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Elvis Presley, 1962

Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, seasoned New York songwriters on their own, were commissioned to team up to create a song for Elvis in 1961.  Little did they know it would be not only the best-selling song of 1962, but it also reached the top of the charts a second time three decades later in a rendition by reggae group UB40:  “Like a river flows surely to the sea, darling, so it goes, some things were meant to be, take my hand, take my whole life too, for I can’t help falling in love with you…”

R-3020804-1422913032-9574-jpeg“For Once in My Life,” Stevie Wonder, 1968

Although this upbeat track became one of Stevie Wonder’s best loved among his early works, it was actually recorded first by The Temptation and The Four Tops, but their versions went nowhere.  Wonder’s televised performance of the song on “Ed Sullivan” included an electrifying harmonica solo that took it to another level:  “For once in my life, I have someone who needs me, someone I’ve needed so long, for once unafraid, I can go where life leads me, somehow I know I’ll be strong…”

2030166-38646“How Deep is Your Love,” The Bee Gees, 1977

The Brothers Gibb were writing and recording songs for their next album when producer Robert Stigwood asked them to contribute songs for the soundtrack of a movie he was producing about the disco dance culture.  They offered three dance tracks — “More Than a Woman,” Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive” — and this shimmering ballad, and they ended up as the anchor songs on the most successful movie soundtrack of all time, “Saturday Night Fever.”  Barry Gibb had emerged as the primary lead singer of the trio by then, much to the disgruntlement of Maurice and Robin.  But all three have said this was their favorite from the LP:  “I believe in you, you know the door to my very soul, you’re the light in my deepest, darkest hour, you’re my savior when I fall, and you may not think I care for you, when you know down inside that I really do, and it’s me you need to show, how deep is your love…”

VanMorrisonMoondance“Crazy Love,” Van Morrison, 1970

“Van the Man” is still touring and just released his 51st (!) album, still chock full of jump blues and Irish soul.  In his early years, he was infatuated with poetic imagery (his “Astral Week” LP) and jazzy ballads like “Moondance” and “Tupelo Honey.”  On the “Moondance” LP, he offered a couple of timeless love songs, the best of which is “Crazy Love”:   “And when I’m returning from so far away, she gives me some sweet lovin’ to brighten up my day, yes it makes me righteous, yes it makes me feel whole, yes it makes me mellow down into my soul, she give me love, love, love, love, crazy love…”

51tGMRJ8HIL-1“Only One,” James Taylor, 1985

Taylor has written plenty about love, though mostly wistful tunes about heartbreak.  Every so often, he finds himself in a good enough mood to write a happy love song like “Your Smiling Face,” or cover a familiar one like “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”  Also worthy of your attention is a little-known track from his 1985 LP “That’s Why I’m Here” called “Only One,” which features harmonies by Joni Mitchell:  “You are my only one, you are my only one, don’t be leaving me now, believe in me now, well, I’m telling you now, now you’re my only one…”

whitealbum-500x500“I Will,” The Beatles, 1968

The celebrated White Album showed that The Beatles embraced, and could convincingly perform, a wide variety of musical genres:  blues, country-western, folk, dance-hall, avant-garde, you name it.  Their repertoire also had plenty of love songs, and although both Lennon and Harrison each wrote a few, it was usually McCartney who handled this assignment:  “P.S. I Love You,” “And I Love Her,” “Here, There and Everywhere”… and from The White Album, there’s the short-and-sweet “I Will”:   “Love you forever and forever, love you with all my heart, love you whenever we’re together, love you when we’re apart…”

mzi.klirqvpz.600x600-75“Sweethearts Together,” The Rolling Stones, 1994

There are precious few songs in the voluminous catalog written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that would qualify as romantic, but there are exceptions (“As Tears Go By,” “Wild Horses,” “Angie”).  Much later in their career arc, The Glimmer Twins surprised us by offering their prettiest ballad yet, “Sweethearts Together,” a tender ode to eternal love.  This one is a delightful break from their usual badass rock stance:  “Sweethearts together, we’ve only just begun, sweethearts together, so glad I found someone, sweethearts forever, two hearts together as one…”

MI0003210767“The Best is Yet to Come,” Frank Sinatra, 1964

Ol’ Blue Eyes was known for many great romantic songs in the American songbook, and one of the better ones was this beauty, written in 1959 by Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh.  The songwriters first gave it to the young Tony Bennett, who recorded a decent version, but Sinatra’s 1964 recording backed by the Count Basie Orchestra remains the definitive rendition.  The lyrics celebrate newfound love while positively looking forward to even greater things:  “Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum, you came along and everything’s starting to hum, still, it’s a real good bet, the best is yet to come…”

R-2386642-1400924329-2574.jpeg“Valentine,”  Nils Lofgren, 1991

Ever since he first showed up on our radar in 1970 as the talented backup guitarist on Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” album, Nils Lofgren has quietly established himself as a force to be reckoned with.  He emerged as a remarkable songwriter and vocalist, although it was his guitar skills that took him to loftier heights as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.  On his 1991 LP “Silver Lining,” Lofgren showed his sweet side with the romantic “Valentine”:  “Our differences are part of life, still, love will pass the test of time, I want you every day and night, girl, won’t you be my valentine?…”

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