I was tagged into this challenge by the excellent Bonnie Barton (well worth a follow if you’re not already doing so — her MixTapes collections always take you to musical destinations you’ve never visited before).
This isn’t usually my style of writing, and I initially thought it would take me several days to get my head around the concept. However I’ve decided to do the exact opposite and jump right in without over-thinking it…so here goes!
1 — “Me And Jane In A Plane” — Jack Hylton’s Orchestra
Some of my earliest musical memories are of my grandad singing “Me And Jane In A Plane” to my grandmother. When he did something that irritated her, he always sung this song to her and, no matter how annoyed my grandmother was, she’d calm down after a few lines.
While still pretending to be annoyed, you’d see her features soften and she’d playfully punch his shoulder or something to signify the argument was over and all was forgiven.
Me and Jane in a plane
Soaring up to the clouds
Me and Jane in a plane
Far away from the crowds
In my two-seater, what could be sweeter
I’ll ask St Peter, to step inside and bless the bride
My grandad loved going to music halls, as they were called in his day, and enjoyed the big bands in particular. He had quite a silly sense of humour, so I heard this song a lot growing up, sometimes several times a day, as my grandad didn’t stop singing it until he’d been forgiven for whatever he had done to irritate my grandmother.
Written by Edgar Leslie and Joseph George Gilbert, the version by British bandleader Jack Hylton and his Orchestra was, for my grandad, the definitive version of “Me And Jane In A Plane”. This was the soundtrack to my childhood, sometimes several times a day…
2 — “Rhinestone Cowboy” — Glen Campbell
“Rhinestone Cowboy” was one of the earliest songs which got me hooked on lyrics, rather than melodies. In many ways, this was the song which set me on the path to writing these words today…I’ll let you be the judge as to whether that was a good thing or not…
The first time I remember hearing “Rhinestone Cowboy” was on a coach coming back from some dreadful school trip where we had to run around the woods for a couple of days, pitching tents and sleeping on the ground.
I’d hated every minute of that mud-spattered late October weekend in the sodden-wet Scottish countryside and was glad to be headed home. “Rhinestone Cowboy” came on the bus’s radio shortly after we set off and, with nothing else to do (no mindless scrolling through social media back then…), I listened to the message in the words of a song properly for the first time.
The theme of someone striving to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, swatting away the disappointments and challenges life threw at them, and keeping going no matter what obstacles blocked his path to keep alive the chance of his turn in the limelight was a theme that spoke to me.
As a relatively sensitive, artistically-inclined teenage boy at a sports-orientated all-boys school, my school days really were as much fun as you can probably imagine from that description.
“Rhinestone Cowboy” reminded me that, no matter what you had to deal with in the short-term, you could still look forward to whatever you wanted in life as long as you kept going and didn’t give up.
There’s been a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the light’s are shinin’ on me
Written by Larry Weiss, “Rhinestone Cowboy” was a UK Top Five hit in 1975…
3 — “I Love To Love” — Tina Charles
The first girl I fell completely head over heels for adored this song. Sadly, although I fell for her, those feelings weren’t reciprocated…although she’s always been a big part of my life, as you’ll see in just a moment.
I won’t pretend this is the best record ever written…or even the best disco record ever written…but it was a UK Number One in 1976 and a pretty sizeable hit around the world.
If only I’d paid attention to the lyrics of her favourite song sooner…a song about two people wanting completely different things out of life…
Oh, I love to love
But my baby just loves to dance
Oh, I love to love
But there’s not time for our romance
No, no, no — oh
Written by Jack Robinson and James Bolden, “I Love To Love” was the high-water mark for Tina Charles’ music career, but every time I hear it, I’m instantly taken back to the memories of happy times spent with my old friend who loved this record so much.
4 — “Annie’s Song” — John Denver
I learned to play “Annie’s Song” on the piano in the hopes of impressing a girl. Being on the shy side, I thought it would be a great way to tell a girl how I felt about her.
I expected this to work largely by osmosis because, although I could play the piano reasonably well, I’m not a great singer. So she only ever heard me play “Annie’s Song” as an instrumental. That said, it had been a UK and US Number One hit in 1974, a few years before we’d met, and she was a big music fan like me, so I figured she’d know the words already.
After all, even with only the power of osmosis to rely on, what could be more romantic than…
You fill up my senses
Like a night in the forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
If you’ve been paying attention so far, yes, this girl was also the Tina Charles fan.
I loved her dearly, but she was from a very different culture to mine and ultimately decided to do what was expected of her and marry into her own culture. Her dad had come from overseas to work with my father for a while, which is how I ended up playing “Annie’s Song” on the piano in her parents’ house every time my family visited theirs, osmosis taking more than one hearing to work properly, I figured…
You know you must love someone very much when you ask them twice…approximately 20 years apart…to marry you, and they say “no” both times, but you still love them anyway.
I couldn’t put it better than John Denver…this is for you, old friend…
(Sadly, I’m still relying on osmosis as she doesn’t know I write on Medium so is very unlikely ever to read these words anyway…but that doesn’t make them any less sincere…)
5 — “Letter From America” — The Proclaimers
Changing the mood slightly…I’ve always loved protest songs. Of course, there was Bob Dylan, but for someone growing up in Glasgow, in my youth a heavily industrialised city in the west of Scotland, not everything he did resonated with me in the way it might have done to an American listener.
I’ve come to appreciate Bob Dylan a lot more as I got older, and of course I enjoyed songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” regardless.
But in 1987, a distinctively Scottish protest song became an unlikely Top 3 hit in the UK singles chart.
The Proclaimers…brothers Charlie and Craig Reid…wrote a song about the de-industrialisation of Scotland in the 1980s, in which they referenced a whole range of economic and human misfortunes which had befallen my homeland over the preceding several centuries. Not only that, they sung the song in a distinctively Scottish accent as well.
I often describe “Letter From America” as “the complete economic history of Scotland in a three-minute song”.
Whilst I fully acknowledge most of the references will mean nothing to a non-Scottish listener, “Letter From America” is a powerful song, chronicling the stories of young men and women being forced to leave their homeland, sailing thousands of miles to a place they’d never visited and knew nothing about, in the hope of being able to feed their poverty-stricken families and give their children a better life than they’d experienced themselves.
The Americas were a popular destination, as were Australia and New Zealand. Even today, you’ll have no trouble finding entire communities with a Scottish heritage in any of those places. Like just about every Scot, I’ve got distant relatives in Canada and in Kentucky, although I’ve never visited them.
The Proclaimers describe a journey too many Scots have been forced to make over the past few hundred years…
I’ve looked at the ocean
Tried hard to imagine
The way you felt the say you sailed
From Wester Ross to Nova Scotia
With its journey through several hundred years of Scottish economic history, and the interweaving of experiences old and new to show that nothing had changed much over the years, “Letter From America” is an artfully-written song and a well-deserved hit record for The Proclaimers, even if nobody outside Scotland knows what they’re singing about…
6 —” The Eve Of Destruction” — Barry McGuire
“Eve Of Destruction” is, for me, the best protest song ever written. And my favourite song of all-time.
Written by PF Sloan, whose work as songwriter, record company executive and session musician I’ve got something of a fascination for, “Eve Of Destruction” was a US Number One and a UK Number Three in the late summer of 1965.
By the time I came along and started listening to the radio, “Eve Of Destruction” didn’t get any airplay. The BBC had apparently decided the song’s content was too upsetting for a mainstream audience, so I first heard it when I moved to London in the 1980s and a DJ on Capital Radio (then a London-based local station, not the UK-wide offering that bears its name nowadays) clearly had a thing for “Eve Of Destruction” and played the song regularly.
Like a lot of the protest songs from the early 1960s, the tragedy is that pretty much the same songs could be released today and, with only minor amendments, the lyrics would still hold true.
As PF Sloan put it half a century ago…
Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’,
I’m sittin’ here, just contemplatin’,
I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation,
Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation,
And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’,
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
Sound familiar? That could be a summary of tonight’s News at 10.
“Eve Of Destruction” is a brilliantly written song, and Barry McGuire’s raw tone conveys a level of exasperation with the world that really brings PF Sloan’s masterpiece to life.
Here’s my favourite song of all-time…
7 — “Where Is The Love?” — Black Eyed Peas
I have a real affinity for songs like “Letter From America” and “Eve Of Destruction” that are angry with the world. There’s the old line that people who don’t know history are destined to repeat it and I feel that, several decades after those songs were written, the fact they could be released today and still be seen as relevant to the current state of the world does humanity no great credit.
But I’m not an angry person as a rule. I try to do my bit to make the world a better place and I hope that one day more people might join me.
So I was really drawn to “Where Is The Love?” which isn’t an angry protest song, but a song which really challenges us to examine our own consciences and behaviour. Although “Eve Of Destruction” is my favourite song of all time, “Where Is The Love” more accurately describes how I feel about life…
What happened to the love and the values of humanity?
What happened to the love and the fairness and equality?
Instead of spreading love we’re spreading animosity
Lack of understanding leading us away from unity
“Where Is The Love?” is a tremendous song from a group that, on their day, has made some of the best records of the 21st century. And when it’s not their day, some of the worst…”My Humps” might well be my least favourite song of all-time, for example.
Fantastic string arrangements on “Where Is The Love” too…in my view, the best since “Eleanor Rigby”…which are unusually used as the bed for a rap, but like I said, on their day the Black Eyed Peas are truly brilliant….
8 — “Desperado” — Linda Ronstadt
Yes, I know most people will say “The Eagles” instead of Linda Ronstadt. And I like the Eagles version too, but Linda Ronstadt’s plaintive voice gets me every time.
When Don Henley sings it, “Desperado” could be seen as a thinly-disguised perspective on the loneliness of life in a band, living on the road, always travelling between last night’s venue and the next stop on the tour.
In Linda Ronstadt’s hands, it always feels to me like a love song to someone who has insulated themselves from the world and won’t let anyone in, even someone who might give them the love they’ve been hoping to discover after too many years on their own.
They’ve been hurt too often, and in their most honest moments yearn for human company, but they’ve opted for the comparative safety of isolation. They don’t get the highs anymore, but they’ve protected themselves from the crushing lows. On balance, they feel, that’s a better place to be.
Desperado, oh, you ain’t getting no younger
Your pain and your hunger, they’re driving you home
And freedom, oh freedom, well that’s just some people talkin’
Your prison is walking through the world all alone
Linda Ronstadt sounds like she’s waiting at home to welcome someone back with open arms after years away by themselves. The amount of emotion she beings to this song shows what a talent Linda Ronstadt really had.
I’ve always hoped I’d find someone who would feel like that for me, but I never have. Seems I’m destined to keep riding those fences…
9 — “Sir Duke” — Stevie Wonder
From the record choices to far, you might imagine I’m a quiet, introverted who’s a bit of an Eeyore with a little rain cloud over his head wherever he goes.
But if you met me in real life, you’d probably wouldn’t think that. I work hard to be positive and try to be kind and welcoming to people I meet. I’m not the life and soul of any parties, but I’m reasonably good company socially. I figure everyone is going through their own struggles, so I’m better spending my time trying to help them in some way rather than adding to their problems by giving them some of mine to deal with as well.
So, for people who do know me in person, they’d mostly say I’m a positive upbeat song like “Sir Duke”.
Stevie Wonder is one of my long-time musical heroes. “Sir Duke”, from the album “Songs In The Key Of Life”, is one of my favourite Stevie Wonder songs.
It’s funky and sassy, with a great brass arrangement on it…one of my great weaknesses. I love great brass sections, which I attribute to my grandad’s love of big band music while I was growing up.
And I like the way Stevie Wonder references the greats who went before him. People who take the time to understand the history of anything, and the influences which brought us to where we are today are always people I’ve got a lot of time for.
Of course, “Sir Duke” was about Duke Ellington, who is worth a song all of his own, I’d have said. But Stevie Wonder works in plenty of the other musical greats too in this affectionate tribute…
Music knows it is and always will
Be one of the things that life just won’t quit
But here are some of music’s pioneers
That time will not allow us to forget, no
For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all, Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose
As a Brit, of course, I’m slightly disturbed that Stevie Wonder sings “duke” to rhyme with “book” in the American style, when on this side of the pond we know it’s really supposed to be pronounced “deeyyyuuuke”.
But for a songwriter and performer of his calibre, I don’t let it bother me too much. If Stevie Wonder is going to write songs this good, I don’t care how he pronounces it.
A slightly surprising hit in 1977…a US Number One and a UK Number Two… “Sir Duke” was funky enough for the late 1970s, but Stevie Wonder was giving us a history lesson that I’m sure went above the heads of most people who heard it.
My grandad had introduced me to Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the other people Stevie Wonder references, however, so even today, hearing them name-checked in “Sir Duke” brings me back to where this article started…with my long-since departed grandad.
If “Desperado” is what I feel on the inside, “Sir Duke” is how I appear on the outside. I hope you enjoy this Stevie Wonder classic as much as I do…
And if you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope you feel the musical journey was worth your time and attention.
Why not share the 9 songs that define your life too? I’ll be interested to read what you come up with. Tag me in as I’d love to hear about the 9 songs that define your life…