This is a post about brilliant love songs – and also about the preponderance of bad ones. It occurred to me, as I was reading the excellent Someday Find Me by Nicci Cloke, that love is something we don’t often represent well. Maybe it’s the nature of love itself – its choppy mix of the mundane and the ecstatic, the way it skews our perceptions, how stupid and blurty and dull it can make us. Perhaps it’s hard to write a song about these things.
Or maybe it’s the insidious influence of Hollywood movies which have reduced love to the sum of two beautiful bodies. In illustration of this, I offer you my second-worst film of all time, The Wedding Planner*. I would also offer you, by contrast, the twin joys of His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story, just to remind us how it might be done differently.
But bad lyrics undoubtedly pre-date cinematic body fascism, and whatever the reason for it, there are very few fabulous love songs out there. The bad ones contain a lazy conjunction of the correct elements, a sort of musical Wedding Planner. They tend to idolise the loved-one, especially her (usually her) physical beauty. James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful represents the nadir of that particular tendency, though Bruno Mars gives him a run for his money in Just The Way You Are, with his thoughts on his beloved’s hair (‘…falls perfectly without her trying’) and lips (‘I could kiss them all day if she’d let me.’)
Bad love songs always deal in generalities, never specifics, and because of this I can never gain purchase on them. They are a soft, undifferentiated mass, untethered to any kind of real life experience. They’re the kind of songs X-Factor auditionees sing. I can listen to ten of those auditions in a row and be unsure whether I’ve just heard ten different songs or the same one, sung ten times.
Great love songs give us specifics – often uncomfortable, prosaic ones. In There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, Morrissey misses his chance ‘in the darkened underpass’. Jarvis Cocker recalls ‘You were the first girl at school to get breasts’ in Disco 2000, and Bryan Ferry – in lavish vibrato – conjures an idyllic existence with his love ‘growing potatoes by the score’ (If There Is Something). Yes, it’s stupid – of course it’s stupid (potatoes?). But there’s also something a little out of control about it, something that feels like desire.
Good love songs require great writing. They are witty, precise, self-deprecating. There’s an honesty in them, about the lover but also about the beloved. They don’t pretend that we live in a perfect world, or have perfect bodies, or are rich or always nice.
Here are my Top Five love songs of all time:
5: Greetings to the New Brunette (Billy Bragg)
God, this is gorgeous. Yearning, gauche, rooted in a real world we might recognise, a picture of an ordinary ecstasy we might all attain. ‘It’s not much of a career,’ admits the lover to his beloved. ‘Trying the handles of parked cars. / Whoops! There goes another year.’
4: Good Lovin’ (The Young Rascals)
A rough-round-the-edges slammer of a song, this has everything: the call and response, the yeah yeah yeah, the love-as-medicine trope (‘I’ve got the fever, but you’ve got the cure’). When I got married, this was my recessional – a fittingly joyous blast.
3: Summer Breeze (The Isley Brothers)
Blissed-out love, not the first flush of passion but years later, when it’s mellowed into something more enduring. Maybe as a feminist I shouldn’t like this quite as much as I do (he comes home ‘from a hard day’s work’ and his woman’s waiting for him. In the kitchen. She’s cooked). But this is authentic and rhapsodic, and I dare you not to want to be there in that jasmine-scented kitchen right along with them.
2: Reel Around the Fountain (The Smiths)
If there’s a more erotic song than this, I don’t want to know about it. In love songs, it’s almost always women’s bodies which are vulnerable and penetrable, almost always men who are unified and strong. Here, the male narrator is weak with desire, emotionally transparent; ‘you can pin and mount me like a butterfly’, he tells his beloved. Set against a mundane English backdrop (‘You’re the bees knees’ he says, begging to be slapped ‘on the patio’), it’s funny (fifteen minutes? Really?) and self-deprecating, and utterly, utterly passionate.
1: All I Really Want To Do (Bob Dylan. But I actually love the World Party cover)
Yes, this is my favourite love song of all time, and it goes against almost everything the love song is usually about. It isn’t about what the lover wants to do with (or to) the beloved. It’s a list – a long, long list – of all the things he won’t do:
‘I don’t want to fake you out
Take or shake or forsake you out
I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me’
It’s about love in its purest form, love as an unconditional setting-free. And if you ever meet someone who deserves this song, you have had a life well-lived.
So: what have I left out?
*I thought you might ask: it’s Sure Fire