This came to me while posting another thread- great early 70’s story songs like “Ode to Billy Joe”, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”, “Taxi”, etc. and instruentals in general- why did these fall out of favor? And what were some of the last true story songs (discounting rap) and instrumentals to chart?
I personally blame it all on “I’ve Been to Paradise (but I’ve never been to Me)” for making everyone terminally ill for that kinda song.
Just the other day I was listening to Leo Sayer’s I Can Dance, and wondering to myself just what sort of niche he thought that song was going to go in. Also, it doesn’t make sense. In one verse, he’s a hobo, in the next, he owns a tuxedo? And I’m not even going to start on why anyone would be giving out free food and wine in exchange for amateur dancing.
The music business used to be driven by publishers. A lot of songs like the ones you mention (but not all, by any means) were written by professional songwriters, who would get them published, and the publisher would try to get the songs placed with as many artists as possible, in case one hit with it. Nowadays, the music business is driven largely by performers who write their own songs, and they aren’t writing stories or catchy instrumentals much anymore.
This is also a time when the people making the music haven’t grown up hearing song-stories and instrumentals on the radio, so they aren’t emulating that type of music much, either. The subject matter has changed pretty radically, too, over the years. Angst is in. You won’t likely find many metal bands writing epics about, say, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, or seeing an old love while driving a taxi.
I think the story song is still out there, it’s just that the face of pop music has changed. Pop used to include more of the folkier side of things (can you imagine the *Wreck of the Edmund * being popular today?). Artists like John Wesley Harding who wrote songs like “Ordinary Weekend” or Jill Sobule’s “Sweet Little Summer”, or Phish’s “Fee” are still getting written and put out there.
If you wanna stretch it, the stories have gotten simpler for pop music but are still out there. Look at the lyrics for James Blunt’s omnipresent song “You’re Beautiful”, for instance.
Huh? I’ve never heard of it and googling it confirms that it never penetrated my consciousness at all.
Besides, wouldn’t Meat Loaf be a better candidate?
I don’t agree at all that most story songs were written by professionals. In fact, I would argue that the vast majority of them were written by (or at least directly for) a particular singer-songwriter. Bobby Gentry wrote “Ode to Billy Joe”, Harry Chapin wrote “Taxi”, and Vicki Lawrence’s songwriter husband wrote “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” for her. Heck, even Meat Loaf’s epics were written for him by Jim Steinman. It’s the demise of the singer-songwriter that limited these songs. It’s almost impossible to find a random performer to do a story-song. They’re too tied to a style.
Instrumentals moved out from pop music to dance music. You’d probably find some on those charts. Why did instrumentals fade out? Well, they were never very popular in the first place. Even in their 60s heyday they were outnumbered more than 100 to 1 on the pop charts. People like listening to singers and lyrics.
And I would say there’s been a general decay in musicianship. Most modern rock bands just can’t compare to bands who were known for their instrumentals, like the Allman Brothers or Quicksilver Messenger Service (especially when piano wiz Nicky Hopkins was in the group). When it becomes about the beat and the droning guitars, why bother with intricate melodies and harmonies?
You lucky, lucky, lucky man.
Do yourself a favor and do not seek it out. If you never hear it, it can never go on an endless loop inside your head.
From this, it can be deduced that **Exapno Mapcase ** was not a pre-teen girl in the early eighties.
Not to nit pick, but I don’t think “I’ve Never Been to Me” counts as a story song-
it doesn’t detail a specific story or event, it lists random outlandish happenings in the singers life that take place over a number of years.
But CalMeacham was?
The last one I can remember being a really big hit was The Pina Colada Song, and if that isn’t reason to never listen to the radio again for fear of hearing it by accident, I don’t know what is. I think you hit on something…part of the problem with story songs is that a few of them are brilliant, but most are hopelessly cheesy.
Have any instrumentals charted in the US since the Miami Vice theme?
The British groups Arctic Monkeys and The Streets (whose second album A Grand Don’t Come For Free was a full-on ‘concept album’, the whole making up with a cautionary tale about anger management, in a British urban hip-hop argot) both use a lot of narrative in their lyrics, so maybe it’s making a resurgence over here.
Well, not necessarily.
I always considered that more of a perk than a problem.
The spread of postmodernism has a role, too, I think, by opening up new ways for songwriters to tell a story (of sorts), with an emphasis on narrative fragmentation, multiple points of view, and a greater emphasis on psychological states of mind at the expense of literalism and realism. Two rather austere proponents of this tack were Brian Eno and David Byrne; Eno used his “Oblique Strategies” cards to assemble song lyrics, and Byrne liked to write songs beginning with an absurd, random premise and then procede from there in a more rational, conventional-narrative song pattern (as in “Paper” and “Air”).
Consider one of Talking Heads’ greatest songs, “Once in a Lifetime”. In an earlier era, this band may well have tackled the subject of midlife crisis (while never explicitly stated, that seems to be what the preacher-narrator is referring to, if imprecisely and diffusely) in a more conventional story pattern. But instead, they present an exhilarating and confusing mishmash of diverse narrative structures from unrelated cultural traditions: roughly speaking, the evangelical preachiness of a Bible-Belt minister (“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack…”), crosshatched with the call-and-response choral song structure borrowed from Nigerian juju music (Byrne was a big fan of King Sunny Ade) (“Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down”) – although these choruses could also be related to a much older Western artistic invention, that of the ancient Greek chorus from that dramatic tradition.
In any event, that covers the song structure; its lyrics address a psychological state characterized by confusion, bewilderment, and a pervasive feeling of alienation, inauthenticity, and fragmentation of the self. The narrator of the song is Byrne’s preacher alter-ego; the unnamed man in crisis is the implied audience (congregation) of the preacher, but simultaneously also you, the listener! Interestingly, this epic of the (post)modern psyche is left unresolved; the narrative arc merely takes you from recognition of one’s alienation (“And you may ask yourself – Well… how did I get here?”) to a moment of crisis, a panicky realization that one is lost (“And you may say to yourself MY GOD!! What have I done!?!”). There’s no narrative resolution or psychological melioration in sight (the song then ends with a double repeat of the Afro-Greek “water” chorus, followed by a final reprise of Byrne’s “same as it ever was” chanting, suggesting a cyclical or enduring nature to the problem.
I think you still see stories in country music. I don’t listen to enough to know any off the top of my head, but it seems there was one not too long Whiskey Lullabye or something like that which told a story.
Sting’s been doing this for years, and is still doing it. “Stolen Car (Take Me Dancing)” from *Sacred Love * is one of his most recent, but the albums *Ten Summoner’s Tales * and *The Soul Cages * are full of story songs.
Man, just two posts too late to mention country music. There’s still lots of story songs there - I’m thinking of the one about the prison and the bloodhound. No instrumentals, though.
You may not hear that kind of stuff on the radio, but there are plenty of metal bands that do epics. Iron Maiden, Iced Earth, Gamma Ray, Iron Saviour, and plenty more if I think about it. I think what’s happened is that the radio plays the easy stuff to remember and for most people that’s what they like.
The masses rarely take to anything that takes too much thought, not that’s always a bad thing, but movies, books, music, all the more complex stuff tends to stay out of the mainstream.
How are “epics” related to story songs? Can you give some examples?