ROCK ‘N’ ROLL songs, according to a joke now about ten years old, have three types of lyrics: a) I love my baby, b) my baby left me, c) I still love my baby. Even ten years ago, this was far from true; but today, rock ‘n’ roll lyrics have grown so diversified and, often, so interesting, that the Joke ceases even to be funny.
Sure, a top 20 song as I write this is called ‘My Baby Loves Me’, and good lyrics out of Detroit or the West Coast are still somewhat rare, but now there’s a sizable amount of good stuff to balance the crud. And the last year has witnessed a tremendous growth in one of the finest trends ever: sociological rock and roll. From ‘Downtown’ to ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’ to ‘The Sounds of Silence’, the world is listening to, and buying, citysongs.
The tradition goes way back: The Drifters, in particular, have sung the joys of city life (‘Up on the Roof’, ‘Under the Boardwalk’, ‘On Broadway’). Gene Pitney’s ‘Mecca’ is sort of a primitive citysong, as is his more recent ‘Last Chance to Turn Around’. Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ could take place in a small town, but somehow you know it doesn’t; it’s pure citysong. It’s a city concept. City concepts reach back to ‘Penthouse Number Three’ and further; they certainly color much of the songwriting of Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
But the modern citysong really traces its origins from two recent hits: from the summer of 1964, ‘Dancing in the Streets’, and, of course, from the following fall, ‘Downtown’. ‘Dancing in the Streets’ was particularly significant because before that almost all songs were written so that the listener could identify with the singer. In this song, the singer had a message for the listeners, she spoke to them. Moreover, the song offered a new way of viewing the city: its particular joys were mentioned, instead of just presenting it as a location where members of the opposite sex might be found. After ‘Dancing’, Motown pretty much lost contact with the citysong, the city is always locale in a Motown song when locale is indicated; but others took up the idea, and citysongs, both of the message sort and the ones the you could identify with (‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’), gained a place in the market.
‘Downtown’, of course, split everything open. Everybody listened to this song, including many who thought the Beatles were a kind of insect, and one of the things they dug about it were its “Meaningful” sociological lyrics. This song is pure city: “How can you lose? The lights are much brighter there.” Its unbelievable success inspired others in whom citysongs had been latent; aside from Petula Clark’s own ‘I Know A Place’, there was quite a flock of citysongs perhaps prompted by but not at all similar to ‘Downtown’.
One of the interesting things about ‘Downtown’ is that everyone likes it but no one agrees with it. Its theme, “things will be great when you’re Downtown,” was opposed long before the song was written, by the Crystals in ‘Uptown’: “I take his hand… The world is sweet, it’s at his feet, when he’s uptown.” In a song that made the charts a few months ago, Edwin Starr extolls the virtues of the ‘Back Street’: “If I find the back streets of any town, I know I’ll find a friend”. Mick Jagger, in ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’, takes a drive downtown and finds it “quiet and peaceful” until he wakes up with “parking tickets just like flags stuck on my window screen.”
Everyone has his gripes about ‘Downtown’. Pet Clark sings, “linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty”; but Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, in one of their lesser opuses, ‘Magic Town’, inform us: “They said neon lights were a beautiful sight, but how about the one blinkin’ in my room all night?” And Paul Simon, in the best song yet to come out of citysongs, makes the neon light a god created by man that he might worship rather than communicate. “And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made: and the sign flashed out its warning in the words that it was forming, and the sign said, ‘The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls whisper the sounds of silence’.” This is fine writing, good satire and acute perception of what’s going on. Unfortunately. Hatch and Mann & Weil seldom approach Simon’s level, but at least they’re on the right track.
Like all rock ‘n’ roll, then, citysongs range widely, between the sublime and the worse than absurd: ‘Down in the Boondocks’ outsold ‘A Well-Respected Man’. The former is another Mecca bit about the poor boy and rich girl and their respective sides of the tracks. The latter is a marvelous chop at the bourgeoisie by Ray Davies, lead singer of the Kinks, whose hero “gets up in the morning, and he goes to work at nine and he comes back home at five-thirty, gets the same train every time; ‘cos his world is built on punctuality, it never fails…” Meanwhile, we get the other side from the Vogues: “Up every morning just to keep a job, I gotta fight my way through the hustling mob.” The point of this song is that “it’s a five o’ clock world when the whistle blows, no one owns a piece of my time.” You’ll notice that songwriters tend to set up times or places as heroes: 5 O’clock World, Night Time, Back Street, Downtown.
And so it goes. Citysongs may betray an incredible sophistication (in ‘We’re Gonna Make It’ Little Milton says, “If I have to carry around a sign saying help the deaf, the dumb, and the blind”: many city dwellers are still unaware of the extent “to which the dear and dumb bit in big cities is a racket) or a crazy lack of sophistication: “Where’s the magic in this magic town; Where’s the good life they said could be found?” — Mann & Weil. But lest we dump on Mann and Weil too much, it should be pointed out that they also wrote a classic among citysongs, the Animals’ ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’. Eric Burdon wisely cut out all the extraneous words, leaving the simple, powerful message that many see escape as the only way to end a hereditary pattern of failure. The song is about slums, but “Working, working, working, working…we gotta get out of this place,” also applies nicely to college students, 9-5 workers, and you name it.
Very little escapes the citysong writer. The loneliness of the city (“Hello darkness my old friend” — Paul Simon, ‘The Sounds of Silence’): the alienation of the 9 to 5 worker (“There’s a five o’clock me inside my clothes” — A. Reynolds, ‘Five O’clock World’); the ludicrous pride of the bourgeois (“And he likes his own back yard, and he likes his fags the best, and he’s better than the rest, and his own sweat smells the best” — Ray Davies, ‘A Well-Respected Man’).
The citysong is spreading every day, and now there are city-writers, too: songwriters whose roots and interests make them automatically write city-oriented material. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, John Sebastian, Mick Jagger are all greatly concerned with the city as a source of imagery and inspiration, as well as subject matter. The Stones’ recent hits, particularly ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’ and ‘Satisfaction’ express the city dweller’s emotions far better than any New York Times editorials: “This man comes on the radio with some useless information supposed to fire my imagination” or “I sit at home looking out the window imagining the world has stopped” or “It’s three a.m., there’s too much noise, don’t people ever want to go to bed? ‘Cause you feel so good, do you have to drive me out of my head?”
The citysong is not a trend. It isn’t a type of music, or anything like that. It’s one more form of expression, another sign that people are beginning to use pop music to communicate. Citysongs tend to be better thought out, tend to hit deeper, than most rock and roll; and listening to the words and getting at what the authors are really getting at is a groovy experience. The city is where it’s at: the citysong is its prophet.
© Paul Williams, Crawdaddy!, March 1966