I was having a pint with my mate Kendo recently as and as usual the topic turned to music. One of life's little pleasures for Kendo is going to Sainsbury's after work on a Friday and buying a four bottles of beer and a freshly released CD. It's his way of keeping a hand in. Last weeks purchase was the new album by The National. “It's alright” he mused, supping a pint “but how many albums can you get out singing about heartbreak? Christ knows what his wife makes of it all”
Everyone has a personal source of sad songs to sooth in times of distress. My own port of call is End records. After seeing the success of Heartbreak Hotel, label owner George Goldner wisely started to fuse Doo Wop with early rock and roll and started recording and releasing teenage paeans to heartbreak. This was the late fifties, just before Elvis and lust cornered the teenage record buying market. If the kids were still too puritanical to scream blue murder and throw knickers at a stage, they could still express themselves through their post pubescent sadness in the privacy of their bedroom or slow dancing with beau. Jerry Leiber described Goldner as having the taste of a fourteen year old girl. It was meant as a compliment, Goldner's ear for talent and production earning him after hit after hit. It was music for teenagers by teenagers. Crossover smash Frankie Lymon and the Teenager's Why do fools fall in love was one of his, as was Tears on my Pillow by Little Anthony and the Imperials (later unmemorably covered by Kylie Minogue and shmaltzed up on the Grease soundtrack). But by some distance the jewel in his and End's crown is Maybe by the Chantels.
Two minutes and fifty four seconds of absolute wonder, Maybe is a phenomenal piece of work. From the melody (not dissimilar to future weeper Unchained Melody, released eight years later) to the leather lunged, hand wringing plea of vocal by Arlene Smith to the simple yet completely emotionally devastating lyric (the line Maybe/If I held your hand/You would understand never fails, however times I hear it, to cut me to the quick). Smith was reportedly an uncredited co-writer of the song (Goldner, an inveterate gambler, had, co-writing credit on the record, later taken off. It's plausible he needed the royalty money to pay off debt), aged sixteen at the time, her authorship would explain the pain of the lyrics.
It wasn't just teens cashing in on the heartbreak, mind. Released a few months before Maybe and written by a twenty five year old (young obviously, but ancient in the world of pre-Beatles pop) Conway Twitty, Only Make Believe hit the number one spot in the UK and the US and arguably kick started the career of Roy Orbison. It's a terrific record, slowly but steadily ascending to the heart wrenching crescendo of the chorus. How Elvis must have heard it and wept.
The tear jerkers slowly crept their way into R&B and soul too. Released on Wand in 1962, Getting Ready for the Heartbreak by Chuck Jackson (a long overdue reissue of his hits and rarities has just been released on Ace Records) is a truly devastating 45. If the vocal (It's almost like he's just been dragged to the mic after falling asleep whisky drunk in a bus shelter, he constantly sounds on the verge of breaking down and crying) doesn't do the damage, the lyrics will.
Closed up all my windows/so no-one could see
Even told the mailman to pass by me/
Cos' my love is coming today/
And I know what she's going to say.
It's an incredible piece of work. Rarely has being in the shit with the other half sounded so wonderful.
The sadness even came, if stealthily, by more commercial soul. Tucked away on the flip of her 1964 number one smash My Guy, Mary Wells' Oh Little Boy is one of Motown's (and Stateside's) hidden gems. Sad yet sassy, with a gut buster of a vocal, it could have been an Aretha hit. Saucer eyed and bordering on demented, the lyric is almost spat out. When she sing No! No! No! You can almost see her hands go up palms front. If you don't own this record, do your self a favour and splash out a fiver on Ebay. Tell 'em I sent you.
Modern pop has struggled to match the sadness and madness of these records. I'm not sure if it's the production of the early singles or the simplicity of the lyric, but writing a sophisticated modern sad pop hit has proven hard. There are examples of obviously, and when the formula works, be it Unfinished Sympathy, Nothing Compares 2U or Missing by Everything But the Girl, the bonding theme is that you feel the song is written about you, that heartbreak is a universal theme. Where songwriters get it wrong, particularly with indie bands, is the songs are written over egged in angst and lacking in sincerity.
Worst offender is Creep by Radiohead. Now, in his mind, you can see Thom Yorke thinking he is the poet laureate of the dispossessed, but in reality he comes across like a stalker sniffing his ex's tights. Like Lennon's Jealous Guy it's the worst kind of record, self obsessed rather than self assessing. A self love song. See also the Manic Street Preachers. Their quote lead assault of pop nihilism has not dated well (Black Horse apocalypse if you please) and listening to the Manics these days is rather like masturbating. It's perfectly acceptable in your teens abut a bit desperate in your thirties.
One of the only sad indie records to remain unscathed by public and critic alike is Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. From the sleeve to it's pioneering production it's a classic. For all the myths and legends, it's Factory's finest hour. If they had only released this it would still be in the top ten labels. Ever. It's beauty is it's ability to suck you into it's world from the very first drop of the needle. Lyrically it takes punks ability to document the chaos around it into documenting the chaos inside Ian Curtis' mind. I love Tony Wilson, his chutzpah, his talent of praising talent and raising pop music to the level of fine art. But his biggest crime (other than not signing the Smiths) was trying to propel the myth of Curtis into Jim Morrison levels. When he hung himself, we not only lost a musical pioneer, but a young girl lost her 24 year old dad.
The recent biopics and documentaries about Curtis love to tell us about Hooky's Sunday dinner. We love to watch Peter Saville's pained anguish when he tells the anecdote about telling Wilson there was a tomb on the sleeve for the thousandth time, and Paul Morley quip about going to see the Great Rock and Roll Swindle instead of attending the funeral, but what the film makers have conveniently left out his Ian's mother, Doreen's account of her reaction to finding out that her son was dead. Punk it is not, but sincere, honest, down to earth and brutally sobering it is. No art, however beautiful, is worth dying for.
So then, the saddest song ever? Easy. Hands down, by a country furlong it's Diana by Paul Anka. Not so much the song itself, which actually rather jaunty, but the story behind it. A 16 year old Anka had cocked his hat at young girl at his local church, Diana Ayoub, and in an attempt to woo her wrote her a song. His advances were spurned, but the song became a world wide hit. Every time I hear the song, I picture a young Anka waiting in the wings at another gig in another county having to sing, for the four hundredth time, about a girl who broke his heart. Now that's tragic.