A regular feature in which our writers and photographers share their favourite tracks. This week the theme is story songs.
Townes Van Zandt – ‘Tecumseh Valley’ (chosen by Dara Higgins)
The name she gave, was Caroline. One assumes she was telling the truth. She’d come down from Spencer, looking for work. That’s fair enough. By the end of some months of gruelling labour tending bar for Gypsy Sally it appears she’s finally saved enough to get back to Spencer, (thus raising the question, why didn’t she just stay there in the first place?) only to find out, via word come down, that her Paw had died.
Of course, it wasn’t going to be a tune about work in the depression era dustbowl, or how folk will do what they need to do to make ends meet, even if that requires leaving Paw in Spencer to come work in the buzzing metropolis that is Tecumseh Valley. It’s not about the tired pride one finds in one self at the end of another day of backbreaking labour. No, it’s a Townes Van Zandt song, so what happens next is pretty standard. She turns to drinking, and whoring, until she finds her own, dissolute demise amid the detritus of a local gutter. In Townes-land the simplest premise must all ways end with prison, addiction, disease or death. That’s the moral here, try as you might you’re railing against the inevitable, relentless brutality of life. The best laid plans of mice and men, etc. Townes himself railed against it all for a while, before checking out aged a mere 52, after years of alcohol abuse and heroin addiction, depression, unfulfilled potential and the rest. It’s clear that Caroline didn’t stand a chance from the second her name was uttered.
The Special A.K.A. and Rhoda Dakar – ‘The Boiler’ (chosen by Ciarán Gaynor)
After The Specials split in 1981, at which point some of them went off to form The Fun Boy Three and have hits with Bananarama, Jerry Dammers and John Bradbury recruited new band members and continued as The Special AKA, although on the evidence of records like this, they may as well have called themselves The No Fun Boy Two. Released in 1982, ‘The Boiler’ received very little radio play, which is understandable really, as it is a) not for those of a sensitive disposition and b) quite possibly the most frightening thing to ever visit the Top 40. Rhoda Dakar recounts a nightmarish tale of a date that goes horribly wrong, from the point of view of a woman who has very low self-esteem. As the harrowing story unfolds, the backing band plays on regardless, as if they are terrifyingly indifferent to her plight. One listen and you’ll never be able to forget it.
Bruce Springsteen – ‘Incident on 57th Street’ (chosen by Elaine Buckley)
There aren’t many artists who can tell a tale via the medium of song like Bruce Springsteen can. ‘Incident on 57th Street’ from 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle sees The Boss in classic story-telling mode – one of the earliest songs from his extensive back-catalogue in which he fully develops the setting and characters, a trademark style which has continued throughout his career. The original studio version, with Gary Tallant’s bass-lines driving the rhythm and Danny Federici’s organ making each chorus epic, is formidable – but Springsteen’s solo rendition with a lone piano really allows the tale of Johnny & Jane to be appreciated in all it’s glory.
Grant Lee Buffalo – ‘Dixie Drug Store’ (chosen by Simon Roche)
A fella hops off a bus in New Orleans and while looking for somewhere to have “a plate of greens” he stumbles upon a strange apothecary and is looked after in many curious ways by a strange lady who lives above the store. Then the plot twists. A swampland ghost story tied together beautifully by Grant Lee Phillips exquisite lyrics. 17 years later it’s still throwing up lines missed on the first few thousand listens.
The Horrorist – ‘One Night In NYC’ (chosen by Liam Griffin)
A 21st century Red Riding Hood story set in New York as told from the perspective of the wolf, in this case a sinister raver called Oliver. With her parents out of town a young Jersey girl goes looking for thrills in the decadent Limelight club, formerly situated in Manhattan and makes a new friend. Possibly not for the faint of heart.
M83 – ‘Car Chase Terror’ (chosen by Alan Reilly)
This is one is more than a bit transparent. It’s not some clever fable weaving lyrical imagery into complementing composition.It’s a blatant tale of horror – a mother and daughter running for their lives – and the fear is accelerated by squalling guitars, brash electronics, screeching sound effects and above all, palpitating drumming that will leave your heart pounding in your chest. It’s also mildly hilarious.
Mother: “Look at my hands, I’m shaking, all my body is shaking.”
Daughter: “It was only a dream, Mommy.”
Mother: “He was there… His car was parked there in the same gas station, all dressed in green, dark green. I couldn’t move my head, but I was watching him in the mirror. Oh, it was horrible! His face was sort of erased, but I knew he was looking at me. Two invisible eyes, two invisible and monstrous eyes.”
Daughter: “Please stop, you’re frightening me.”
Sufjan Stevens – ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us’ (chosen by Daniel Harrison)
Sufjan’s 2005 masterpiece Illinois was characterised by evocative storytelling that touched on subjects such as serial killers (‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’), visitors (‘Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois’) and terminal illness/grief (‘Casimir Pulaski Day’). The wondrous ‘Predatory Wasp of the Palisades’ is somewhat more ambiguous, touching on childhood innocence and loss.
Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip – ‘Cowboi’ (chosen by Phil Udell)
Scroobius Pip’s poetry background means that he’s no stranger to spinning a tale, yet this closing track from the Logic Of Chance album is perhaps his finest effort to date. A simple, stirring story of a woman facing fear and violence (aided by a plaintive backing vocal from Le Sac), the first time I heard it I had to stop the car before I got home so as not to miss the end. I won’t spoil it for you, just get those hankies ready….
The Pogues – ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ (chosen by Darragh McCausland)
The thing about story songs is that they don’t really require a description because they pretty much describe themselves. So all I’ll say here is Shane McGowan is probably the best musical storyteller (or at least up there in the nosebleeds with Dylan and Cave). From the moment he incants ‘when I was a young man’ in this Australian folk song by Eric Bogle you know he is going to tell the story of a man ruined by war in the most masterly fashion possible.