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Poor Poor Pitiful Me: A Reasonable Guide to Horribly Depressing Songs

As a native Chicagoan who grew up listening to men in black walking the line and grizzled bluesmen wearing their hearts on their throats, I have a pretty high tolerance for moving music that some might consider unpleasant. But even I have my limits. Following up on my Joy Division post, I’ll descend even further into the abyss by listing a few of the most depressing songs that have kidnapped my imagination. The title pays homage to a Lester Bangs essay, A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise, and to Warren Zevon’s boo-hoo ode to boo-hoo singer-songwriters, which improbably got Linda Ronstadt to record a Top 40 hit about tying her head to the railroad tracks. Woe is me!

• Samuel Barber, “Adagio for Strings” (According to Alex Ross, “whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio plays on the radio.”)
• The Who, “Pictures of Lily” (Boy sees girl of his dreams and discovers she’s been dead for four decades.)
• Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Tears of a Clown” (When clowns aren’t creepy, they’re liars, or worse, opera fans.)
• Richard Thompson, “End of the Rainbow” (The author of ditties like “The Wall of Death” sings to a baby, claiming there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow. Thanks, Dad.)
• Nina Simone, “Little Girl Blue” (Bored, sad girl counts the raindrops and discovers evaporation.)
• Marty Robbins, “Streets of Laredo” (The singing gunslinger gets shot to death in “El Paso,” but that’s mild compared to this cowboy variation on the ancient “Unfortunate Rake” story.)
• Billie Holiday, “Gloomy Sunday” (The darkest version I’ve heard of the Hungarian Suicide Song. The composer later committed suicide.)
• Louvin Brothers, “Knoxville Girl” (The most violent song on the cherub-voiced death-gospel duo’s aptly named Tragic Songs of Life, reworking the English “Wexford Girl” murder ballad.)
• Big Star, “Holocaust” (Power pop drained of any power, words drained of any meaning, Beach Boys melodies sinking into quicksand.)
• Hüsker Dü, “Too Far Down”/ “Hardly Getting Over It” (The titans of melodic noise at their greyest, not seeing even a little light.)
• The Antlers, “Bear” (Heartbreaking ode to premature senility and the animal inside.)
• Etta James, “I’d Rather Go Blind” (Passive-agressive romantic obsession turns the lights out and entertains us.)
• Carter Family, “Engine 143″ (Lots of songs are metaphorical train wrecks. This one’s the real deal.)
• Graham Parker, “You Can’t Be Too Strong” (“The doctor gets nervous completing the service, he’s all rubber gloves and no head.”)
• Pernice Brothers, “Chicken Wire” (Garage clutter, exhaust fumes, and no redeeming sentiments.)
• George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (Why? Because he’s dead, that’s why.)

That playlist could keep you in therapy for years. But none of them outdo the real King of Pain, Skip James. Blues was never bluer. On “Devil Got My Woman,” Skip out-depresses the whole field by declaring that he’d rather be the devil.

Skip James, “Devil Got My Woman”

Big Star, “Holocaust”

Nina Simone, “Little Girl Blue”

Some Nice Happy Thoughts About the Joy Division Revival

One of the most awkward dates of my life ended when I played Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures for someone whose favorite singer was Billy Joel. Since then, that album has killed more romantic moods than any of my other favorites. Martin Hannett’s creepy production evokes Phil Spector’s wall of sound as if rendered by Spector the convicted murderer. Lead singer Ian Curtis’ relentless sadness was arguably more intense than any of his punk contemporaries’ anger.

Joy Division remains the foundation of Manchester’s Factory Records sound, featured in the fascinating movie 24-Hour Party People and a more serious biopic, Control. Overcome by epilepsy and a bizarre love triangle, Curtis committed suicide just before the band’s planned world tour. The surviving members formed New Order, an equally influential band that was hardly chipper by any normal standard (“Love Vigilantes,” for example, basically retells the Top Forty war weeper “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” from the perspective of the dead guy). But compared to Joy Division’s intensity, New Order might as well have been Kajagoogoo or Wang Chung.

Earlier this month, I got my first chance to see Unknown Pleasures performed live, in a Los Angeles show featuring Joy Division and New Order’s former bassist and backup singer, Peter Hook, and his new band, the Light. I could quibble about the Light’s performance. Hook’s vocals were decent, but sometimes sounded like he was leading cheers for Manchester United. Guest singer Moby looked enthusiastic, but came off a bit like last century’s lightbulb. Still, the band was good enough to revive the majesty of these songs (and make me feel as if that bad date had never ended).

To perk myself up after the show, I scarfed too many shots of espresso and jotted down a few mildly happy thoughts about the Joy Division revival:

1. Their Disease is Still Better than the Cure

It’s easy to smirk at Joy Division for inspiring future mopeheads to whine into their microphones. Interpol and scores of other less catchy Joy Division-inspired bands have certainly overdone the emoting. But Joy Division also deserves better than to be known only as the emirs of emo and designer doom. As Robert Christgau has noted, Joy Division struggled against depression, rather than wearing it like a designer suit. Joy Division has inspired legions of misfits–among them Bono, Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke, Morrisey, and even Robert Smith–to reach great, if sometimes grandiose heights. And the band’s taut riffs, fusing punk velocity to Can’s minimalism, sometimes have a life of their own.

Joy Division, “She’s Lost Control”

2. The Muppets Never Covered Any Joy Division Songs

Okay, go ahead and snicker. But a 2009 piece on the Topless Robot blog, The 7 Most Depressing Songs Ever Sung By a Muppet, refers to Kermit and Rowlf’s duet on “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along” as “pretty much the pre-schooler equivalent of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.” And here’s the really depressing thing: this song only rates as Number Six on the list of the most depressing Muppet songs. The winner is a Fraggle funeral dirge, which we won’t post here because we care about our readers.

Muppets, “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along”

3. They Didn’t Write the Most Depressing Song of All Time

Many have cited Joy Division’s final single, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” as the most depressing song ever. It’s a remarkable song, whose first passage captures in a few bars the end of one era and the beginning of another. But I can’t rate it the gloomiest. The music has too much energy. I keep thinking of it as half of a medley with “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and wondering how Toni Tenille would sing it. There are stacks of of George Jones, Leonard Cohen, Son House and Tom Waits songs I consider more depressing, but lists like this have to get personal. My selections follow in the next post.

Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

Neil Sedaka, “Love Will Keep Us Together”

Chaino and Türkbas: False Ethnography for Hi-Fi Travelers

Growing up, Chaino’s face was always around, floating in and out of the amazing collection of LPs and reel-to-reel tapes my Dad had accumulated before marriage. Every now and then, we’d plop it on the turntable and groove to raw African beats, churned through a mesh of steel drums, slapping palms, shakers, bongos, and moaning voices (yes, moans!) Never stopped to think about which African country Chaino was from – “just Africa” was enough for us. The convincingly tribal LP cover sealed the deal – Chaino was real in our minds.
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Susana Baca, the Golden-Voiced Government Bureaucrat

Remember George Clinton’s fantasy verse in Parliament’s “Chocolate City,” imagining a future government in which Stevie Wonder holds a cabinet post, Secretary of Fine Arts? We’re probably lucky Clinton never got his wish to have Richard Pryor serve as Secretary of Education. But something like his basic idea occurred in Peru this summer. President-elect Ollanta Humala chose one of my favorite singers, Susana Baca, as the new Minister of Culture. The New York Times reports that she will be the first minister of African ancestry to serve in the Peruvian parliament.

Susana Baca’s smoldering and gorgeous version of “Maria Lando,” written by her mentor Chabuca Granda, is the standout track on David Byrne’s uniformly excellent 1995 compilation, The Soul of Black Peru, and also appears on one of her solo albums. Since “Maria Lando” is a heartfelt ode a woman who works hard for the money, I’ve sometimes put it on playlists that also include Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” But the ache in Baca’s voice is so intense that it makes the protagonist sound like her hours are 9 AM to 5 AM.

Baca is actually highly qualified for her new post, as an adept music historian and the co-founder of a cultural organization, the Instituto Negrocontinuo. The appointment comes just in time to promote Baca’s new album, Afrodiaspora, which takes her out of her traditional ballad comfort zone and on a journey to survey the threads of African influences in all the Americas (with a brief stop in Spain as well).

If this sounds like one of those sentimental, grooveless world music projects that drowns in self-importance, it isn’t. When the minister wants to get out of the office, she knows how to throw a good party. Afrodiaspora includes suitably moving (in both senses) tributes to Mexican singer Amparo Ochoa and Cuban salsa icon Celia Cruz. But Baca also ventures in more unexpected directions. She drastically reinterprets the Meters’ classic New Orleans funk strut “Hey Pocky Way.” Things get even sweatier on “Plena y Bomba,” a collaboration with Puerto Rico’s Calle 13 and its often-shirtless leader/MC, René Pérez Joglar (AKA Residente). Baca also sang on Calle 13′s “Latinoamerica” last year. Although 2011 is far from over, I’ll predict now that Afrodiaspora will win the award for Best Nontraditional Latin Album by a Credentialed Burecaucrat.

Susana Baca, “Maria Lando”

Susana Baca (with Calle 13), “Plena y Bomba”

Comeback Kids: The Equals’ Two-Tone Rebel Soul

Since I’m in a serious funk over the astonishing increases in inequality that define our age, it seems like a good time to feature the seriously funky legacy of England’s two-tone rebel soul pioneers, The Equals. The biracial group of native Brits and immigrants from Jamaica and Guyana, formed in North London in 1965, has been described by musician and ska expert Marco on the Bass as the first “real” two-tone band, paving the way for the Specials, Selecter and other integrated bands in ska’s second wave. Although the Equals drew from ska, they incorporated many other influences, including pop, garage rock, psychedelia, soul, and funk.

Those who know the Equals’ guitarist and main songwriter Eddy Grant as the dreadlocked pop-reggae singer who recorded “Electric Avenue” (written in reaction to a 1981 Brixton riot) might be surprised to see him with the Equals, sporting dyed blond hair and sometimes playing fuzzy psychedelic guitar as if his life depended on it. Growly Derv Gordon, not Grant, served as the band’s lead vocalist, and the band continued after Grant, weakened by serious illness, quit and returned to Guyana in 1971. But the band’s peak period ended with Grant’s departure.

The Equals’ two signature songs are probably best known as covers. The infectious “Baby Come Back,” which received a lighter treatment in Pato Banton/ UB40′s 1994 hit version, is concise and compressed enough to remind me of one of Grant’s heroes, Chuck Berry. The hard-charging “Police on My Back” fit so seamlessly into the Clash‘s repertoire on its sprawling 1981 album Sandinista! that most listeners assumed it was a Clash original. But the Equals’ original version packs almost the same wallop, with a little extra dose of sweet soul.

The Equals, “Baby Come Back”

The Equals, “Police on My Back”

When the Equals are mentioned at all, it often seems to happen after some major protest in which England’s youth take to the streets–most recently in Salon, which offered the band’s work as the soundtrack to a burning London. It’s true that by the late sixties and early seventies, the Equals offered some compelling slices of politically charged psychedelic soul (“Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys,” “Equality,” “Stand Up and Be Counted”). Yet the Equals weren’t close to being politicians, and their love songs hold up as well as their fight songs. They would deserve to be heard even if the streets of London became perfectly quiet.

The Equals, “Black Skin, Blue Eyed Boys”

The Equals, “Equality”

Robert Christgau: Dean of Rock Critics, King of Beers

Over at WFMU’s excellent Beware of the Blog music site, Canadian writer Brian Joseph Davis has penned a hilarious music review parody, the Ultimate Negative Christgau Review. Davis is no stranger to outrageous satire. His own music-obsessed rant, Portable Altamont, reimagines Don Knotts as a Buddhist philosopher and Margaret Atwood as a gangsta as it delivers delicate epigrams (Sample: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Kid Rock was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”)

None of Davis’ earlier work, though, prepared me for his epic spoof of Christgau, whose peerless (and sometimes inscrutable) Consumer Guide recently transformed into a blog, Expert Witness. Davis’ spoof culls negative phrases from more than 13,000 Christgau reviews into a single composite pan. Here are some teasers:

A born liar, showing all the imagination of an ATM in the process, a certain petty honesty and jerk-off humor, a man without a context, a pompous, overfed con artist, a preening panderer, mythologizing his rockin’ ‘50s with all the ignorant cynicism of a punk poser, a propulsive flagwaver attached to UNESCO lyrics about people all over the world joining hands, a simpleton, but also a genuine weirdo, a spoiled stud past his prime, so that while he was always sexy he wasn’t always seductive, a stinker, from Jesus-rock to studio jollity, a tedious ideologue with a hustle, a tough talker diddles teenpop’s love button. Act authentic for too long and it begins to sound like an act even if it isn’t.

Air-kiss soul, alienated patriotic, all clotted surrealism and Geddy Lee theatrics, all form and no conviction, except for the conviction that form is everything. All he proves is that when you dwell on suffering you get pompous. An archetypal indie whiner.

Christgau’s prose, dense with cross-cultural allusions and insider jokes, is ripe for this sort of roasting. He has self-confessed biases (against salsa, metal and prog, and for almost anything African-sounding) and puzzling sources of inspiration (this means you, Black Eyed Peas). Far too cerebral to be considered a gonzo journalist, he’s impassioned and impulsive enough enough to have thrown pie at one of his generation’s finest essayists, former girlfriend Ellen Willis. Christgau only started liking Sonic Youth after they threatened him in a song. When Lou Reed slandered Christgau on a live album, Christgau thanked him for pronouncing his name correctly.

Yet Christgau is one of only three music writers whose work has moved me as much as my favorite fiction authors (the other two are Amiri Baraka, who wrote far less about music, and Lester Bangs, who wrote with more heart but far less consistency). And I admire that after four decades of nonstop listening and writing, he has an insatiable appetite for new sounds and a disdain for sacred cows. I like Radiohead, but won’t forget his take on Kid A: “Alienated masterpiece nothing–it’s dinner music. More claret?” When classic rock still ruled the airwaves, Christgau had this pithy take on Prince’s Dirty Mind: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”

Excerpt from “Robert Christgau: “Rock and Roll Animal” (1999)
(Music: Modern Lovers, “Government Center”)

Just as I was absorbing Davis’ Christagu parody, I discovered that Christgau and his wife, writer Carola Dibble, penned a Consumer Guide to Beer that is almost as funny. Written in the mid-seventies, before the advent of alt-beer and the heyday of Michael Jackson (the Dean of American beer critics, not the singer), the piece is surprisingly sympathetic to flavored-water American macrobrews such as Coors and Budweiser, with nary a reference to obscure Belgian monks.

Still, I love how the Christgaus start with a pedantic lesson on the history of grain fermentation since 6000 B.C. They review San Francisco’s Anchor Steam as if it were a bottled version of the Grateful Dead (“Our bohemian friends found it winy, but we found it one more instance of San Francisco’s chronic confusion of eccentricity with quality”), and describe the Krautrock-worthy Beck’s as if it were a bottle of Can (“This beer is so overbearing that bad-mouthing it seems risky”). As George Clinton would say, can you get to that?

Funkadelic, “Can You Get to That?”

Too Much Joy, “King of Beers”

Haiku Review: Decemberists, The King is Dead

Droll grievous geek squad
Murmuring through an earthquake
Satan loved the Smiths.

Decemberists, “Calamity Song”

Center of Attention

Music gets all the attention. Record covers a little bit less. Totally neglected are the poor center labels, which are often great little mini-works-of-art. Simon Foster’s Center of Attention publishes photos of excellent LP and 45 RPM center labels. Lest we forget.

Whilst record cover sleeve art has always received plenty of attention (and rightly so) I believe that center labels have been somewhat neglected … To keep the focus solely on the artwork I have purposely not included any information on the music, artists or date of publication as most of that should be self explanatory from the images.

Coltrane and Cousin: Giant Steps, Lotus Leaps

I spent part of my summer vacation in New York with two living branches of the Coltrane family tree. Ravi Coltrane is the respected, bespectacled sax-playing son of John and Alice, and the namesake of Ravi Shankar. Ravi’s cousin, Steven Ellison, whose grandmother wrote “Love Hangover” for Diana Ross, is the producer, laptop musician and cosmic voyager better known as Flying Lotus. So why was I thinking about an Irishman in a bar?

The Irishman used to show up at concerts I attended. He was fluent in a wide variety of musical styles. But he had precisely two musical opinions. After a show, he would down a pint or ten and proclaim the performers “bloody brilliant” or “bloody awful.” Asked to elaborate, he might add another “bloody” or two for emphasis. This could be frustrating, but I also admired his complete confidence in his beliefs.

There’s a bit of the Irishman in me when it comes to John Coltrane, because his music often leaves me muttering “bloody brilliant.” The only passable thing I’ve ever been able to write about him was to transcribe to limericks all the tracks on Coltrane’s Live at Birdland album. Coltrane’s horn cuts dangerously close to my sense of what it feels like to be human. Ask me about love, and I cue A Love Supreme. Ask me about justice, and I hear the stirring “Alabama.” Ask me about my work ethic, and I conjure the chord changes in “Giant Steps.” Ask me about God, and I squawk my way through the otherworldly clamor of Ascension and Meditations. Ask me if I remember laughter and…okay, I think of Tiny Tim and Brave Combo’s swing-tempo version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” But Coltrane had just about every other human emotion covered, and we can’t all be comedians.

Playing live in New York (at Birdland, no less) and on albums such as In Flux, Ravi finds inspiration in both John and Alice, and plays some top-shelf post-bop and ballads. But Ravi also deserves credit for finding his own path. While he can breathe new fire into papa’s “Giant Steps,” he’s just as likely to cover Ornette Coleman’s “Tribes of New York.” He also draws liberally from his years of cross-cultural improvisation as a member of Steve Coleman‘s M-Base Collective.

Ravi’s range serves him well when collaborating with his cousin on the lush soundscapes of Flying Lotus, whose special guests also include fellow travelers Thom Yorke of Radiohead and harpist Rebekah Raff. Much of what passes for “innovative” electronica these days leaves me stone cold bored, and I’m not yet ready to proclaim Flying Lotus the Coltrane of the laptop. Still, the most adventurous parts of 2010′s Cosmogramma suggest Ellison has the vision and nerve to bring uncharted parts of interstellar space to the next generation. And if that isn’t bloody brilliant, it’s getting pretty close.

[Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder site has posted a soulful summer mix.]

Ravi Coltrane, “Tribes of New York”

Flying Lotus, “German Haircut” (featuring Ravi Coltrane)

Flying Lotus, “And the World Laughs With You” (featuring Thom Yorke)

Strange Foundations of Dad Rock – Glenn Kotche sans Wilco

Radiolab (the finest podcast on earth) did something special for a recent short episode called Curious Sounds, bringing in three artists specializing in very different – and very weird – soundscapes.

All three performances are worth listening to, but the big surprise was drummer Glenn Kotche of Wilco, removed from his usual habitat and throwing down something totally unexpected. Kotche plays a prepared drum kit laced up with rubber bands, screws and springs, tuned cowbells, and a fruit bowl, as well as a couple of traditional percussion instruments.

… percussionist Glenn Kotche of Wilco performs “Monkey Chant,” his retelling of the ancient Hindu epic the Ramayana–using different instruments in his drum kit to convey different characters. And after explaining how he once wrote a string quartet on the drums, he plays one more composition: “Projections of What Might.”

Kotche’s piece starts at 8’30″ in — or 12’00″ if you want to skip the introduction to his kit — so scrub past the Buke and Gass warm-up and dive in. It’s quite long, so leave this page up in the background and go about your business, or close your eyes and swim – it’s intense and wonderful. Kotche actually plays two pieces here, sandwiched by a brief conversation about how he orchestrates pieces for Kronos Quartet — on the drums. Apparently, a spiritual descendant of Harry Partch is behind the Dad Rock tradition.

More on Kotche at glennkotche.com