1,000 Songs to Change Your Life

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“Like “1,000 Films”…and “1,000 Books” …, “1,000 Songs to Change Your Life”, the third book in the series, is a celebration of music’s transformative power: how it shocks and soothes, frightens and comforts, amuses and appalls, but above all how it moves us, perhaps when we least expect it. Over the course of more than 30 essays and features, a hand-picked array of writers, critics and musicians will be exploring the songs that made a difference: to their lives, the lives of others and to music itself. Everyone’s life has a soundtrack. What’s yours?”

Let’s Get It On

First off, let’s get a couple of things straight. Or at least, as un-rumpled as we’re going to get in a chapter on sex, that happily messiest of human activities. Songs about sex are as diverse as the people who do it; one person’s idea of sexy, is another’s idea of damp socks. There are even folks who rely on Barry White’s gloopy ‘Love Serenade’ to get in the mood.

Songs about sex don’t necessarily have to be explicit but it’s language that’s chiefly concerned the BBC during its eight-decade history. Since its first broadcast in 1922, the corporation has banned dozens of records from its airwaves for fear they might offend its listeners. Some songs have been deemed too political for broadcast (Wings’ 1972 single ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’, for example), while others have been seen as too insensitive at times of conflict (‘Killing An Arab’ was one of several records that were briefly banned during the Gulf War). However, the Beeb’s most memorable bans have been its sex-bans, so sweetly prudish that they’ve become a cornerstone of British culture.

Even before the Stones got really filthy (check ‘Rocks Off’ from the glorious ‘Exile On Mainstreet’), a rather clean-cut looking Mick and co were banned – smack! – from the BBC’s airwaves with the release of ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, on the grounds that it promoted promiscuity (it did, albeit rather politely). Across the Atlantic, the Stones were even required to retitle the song ‘Let’s Spend Some Time Together’ for an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Still, the band’s musical invitation was put in the shade two years later by Serge Gainsbourg’s infinitely muckier, ‘Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus)’, so filthy that it was banned twice (in 1969 and 1974) and even denounced by the Vatican.

The story behind ‘Je T’aime…’ is a wonder in itself. After ol’ big ears treated Brigitte Bardot to a date that went horribly wrong, Bardot refused to go on another unless he wrote her a mindblowing song. Gainsbourg duly did so, but cannily insisted that he couldn’t complete it without Bardot’s participation. But when Bardot’s husband found out about the steamy collaboration, he demanded the record be withdrawn – leaving resourceful Gainsbourg to recruit British beauty Jane Birkin for the song’s gasps, sighs and even the odd bit of singing. During his career, Serge would do sex again and again (‘Histoire De Melody Nelson’ a key knee-trembler), but never to quite such delicious and plausibly sticky effect.

Skipping past the corporation’s bans on Cliff Richard’s ‘Honky Tonk Angel’ in 1972 (Cliff imposed it himself, after belatedly discovering that he was singing about a hooker) via Donna Summer’s ‘Love To Love You Baby’, the Beeb’s most famous no-no was slammed down in January 1984. Halfway through a cheerful spin of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’, Radio 1 Breakfast DJ Mike Read stopped nodding along to its thudding, metallic bassline, climactic rhythms, and squelching noises and whipped the needle off the record. A blanket BBC ban ensued, whereupon ‘Relax’ shot to number one and became, at the time, the fourth biggest selling single in UK history.

Of course, songs about sex don’t always have to be about The Act itself. It doesn’t always take two to tango. Still, most musical odes to masturbation are pretty grim; and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the least sexy songs of all tend to be British. Take banjolele-toting weed George Formby and his shrill ‘With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock’, for example; or, for that matter, Ivor Biggun’s gruesome 1978 send up, ‘The Winkers Song (Misprint)’, in which the soon-to-be That’s Life panellist Doc Cox spends the chorus happily chanting that he’s a wanker. ‘Orgasm Addict’, Buzzcocks’ grubby hymn to self-abuse, and the Vapors’ frenetic 1980 hit ‘Turning Japanese’, apparently inspired by the facial contortions brought on by relentless onanism, aren’t really any sexier.

Happily, not all odes to masturbation are sleazy tales of stained jeans and crumpled tissues. Australian combo The Divinyls fare rather better, with their cheerily explicit ‘I Touch Myself’, as do Parliament with the mighty funk skronk of ‘Up For The Down Stroke’.

But they pale next to Prince. Not for such straightahead copulanthems as ‘Cream’, ‘Gett Off’ or ‘Sexy Motherfucker’, but for releasing a 1984 album track that thrills to the sight of a girl whiling away time in a hotel lobby by having a wank over a magazine (alas Prince doesn’t reveal which one – Take A Break perhaps?). By verse two, ‘Darling Nikki’, has dragged Prince back to her lair, wherein he discovers a Hamleys-scale array of sex toys.

The kings and queens of sex on record, Prince among them, are always explicitly, audibly enthusiastic about getting their rocks off. ‘I’m gonna SUCK YA!’ hisses Marc Bolan in T-Rex”s glam-rock stomper ‘Jeepster’, which practically clicks its glittery heels together with glee. Same goes for Etta James’s steamy recording of Willie Dixon’s blues standard, ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You’ – she really does, you know.

But then there are also plenty of songs about sex – and very specifically about sex – that just aren’t sexy. James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ is a furious, feverish record – but it’s somehow too frantic, too spitty and ultimately too focused on its star to be a turn-on. It does, after all, take two people to do it real good. Madonna’s dreadful ‘Erotica’, with its listless backbeat and limply gasped chorus, is even less convincing. And shoddier still, is the say-it’s-true-and-people-will-believe-it boasting of ragga buffoon Shabba Ranks, on his super-smoove ’90s hit ‘Mr Loverman.’

No: if you want to distill sex onto a record, it’s got to be in the music, as well as the words. As the old adage goes, every generation thinks it invented sex, but one only has to skip back sixty years or so to see that in the States, they were doing (it) very well, for a while now, thank you. Check out John Lee Hooker’s 1962 hit ‘Boom Boom’, later covered in thrusting fashion by Louisiana swamp fox Tony Joe White; Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’, first recorded in 1937; and even ‘What’d I Sa,’ on which Ray Charles managed to evoke a wild, hair-shakin’ world of abandon with his call-and-response chorus.

But like all the most potent smells, sights and sensations, the raw power of blues – and that’s good blues, not galumphing, der-na-na-na-nah, bar blues – endures in the 21st century. Pretty much any of the White Stripes’ output is testament to this, but the track ‘Ball & Biscuit’ from the Detroit duo’s 2003 ‘Elephant’ album, is one of the out-and-out filthiest modern songs there is, a squirming mess of pounding drums and explosive, screaming guitar. A swaggering, cocksure Jack White declares his strength to be tenfold, and promises he’ll let see it if you want to (as if ‘it’ wasn’t clearly visible through his red trousers). Phew.

Music about sex took a change of course in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, as commercial factors (record-buying, radio airplay and popular exposure) ushered in a golden era of innuendo. From R&B hits like The Toppers’ ‘Baby Let Me Bang Your Box’ (was anyone fooled into thinking it was about playing the piano?) to Wynonie Harris’s ‘Keep on Churnin’ (‘Til the Butter Come’), R&B singers weren’t shy about using an ill-disguised analogy or two in order to get their point across. And the winking likes of Bull Moose Jackson didn’t even bother with double entendres: on the preposterous ‘Big Ten Inch Record’, a single entendre was plenty.

For its inventive silliness alone, mention must go to the Trinidadian calypso champ, Lord Kitchener for his fabulously rude ‘Dr Kitch’, in which he warns his female ‘patient’ that he’s not a ‘qualified physician’ before delivering his ‘injection’ – at which point she yelps that she can’t stand the size of Kitch’s ‘needle’. Just as well for womankind that during his stay in England, Kitch spent his energy watching cricket.

Aussie rockers AC/DC have built a career on similarly unsubtle innuendo. One such cut, ‘Let Me Put My Love Into You’, even found its way onto the infamous ‘Filthy Fifteen’, a list of apparently offensive songs drawn up in 1985 by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC) as guidance for moms and pops concerned that their sons and daughters were being corrupted by rock music. America’s parents took cautious note, but the kids immediately and predictably turned the manifesto into a shopping list and were thus introduced to the delightful likes of Judas Priest’s ‘Eat Me Alive’ and WASP’s ‘Animal (Fuck Like A Beast).’

Indeed, for a brief period in the 1980s, the kind of frizzy hair, spandex leggings and an effeminate shriek’s favoured by the likes of WASP singer Blackie Lawless amounted to the very sum of musical masculinity. Women (and this was a Neanderthally heterosexual art form) swooned and flashed their tits to the sound of Whitesnake’s ‘Slide It In’ and ‘Slow an’ Easy’, while the boys preened and primped their perms in tumescent anticipation. And when, in 1986, Aerosmith teamed up with Run-DMC for ‘Walk This Way’, it marked a melding of two of pop music’s supposedly sexiest genres, welding the howl and growl of rock to the bass-y, physical grind of hip hop.

Although blighted in recent years by exhaustive lyrical references to bitches and ho’s, not to mention the conjoining of hip hop music with iffy porn thanks to Snoop Dogg, rap has nonetheless produced more than its share of makeout music. And once again, *conveying sex wins out over describing sex, blow by blow. The title track of Kool Keith’s ‘Sex Style’ concept album is a veritable catalogue of indecency, but the explicit lyrics and dark aggro backbeat helps make the scenario about as enticing as a date with Grotbags. Contrast it with velveteen-clad hip hop queen Missy Elliot’s deliciously sensuous slow jam with Ginuwine on ‘Friendly Skies’. This passenger/stewardess scenario doesn’t get much filthier than references to turbulence and buckle belts, but with its whispers and sighs, and fluttering R&B backing it’s akin to listening in on something very private indeed.

A stranger take on sex altogether was provided by Digital Underground on their 1990 track ‘Sex Packets’ , a fictional story in 1990 about a hallucinogenic, non-addictive, non-harmful ghetto drug with the power to transport a man to a world of imagined physical ecstasy. The song even announced that no sex could be safer, but its warm, smooth beats and wayward weirdness found a sinister counterpoint in the depressing reality of ghetto life in the early nineties, and the steep rise of AIDS and crack addiction.

Given the gravity and scale of the AIDS epidemic, it’s odd that there have been so few attempts to make safe sex sexy – at least, in the pop arena. Top marks then, to gal rap trio Salt & Pepa for their buoyant, grin-resplendent ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ which packs an important message into a velour track-suited, singalong. Blur’s anthem ‘Girls and Boys’ is no less catchy, but the song’s underlying assertion that modern day love is rife with paranoia is noticeably less optimistic.

Blur had to set their asesthetic to a disco beat in order to add even a little animal magnetism to their music, which raises the question whether indie boys, traditionally the stuttering, pasty-faced cardigan wearers of the musical community, can eever really do sexy on record.

Circumstantial evidence would appear to suggest not. Consider the limp guitars, the lame-o drumming and the shy stage mannerisms that typify everything from C86 right up to The Kooks; or, post-Oasis, the bragging lads in parkas who’d be way more comfortable glassing someone for spilling lager on their shoe than getting down to business.

But stereotypes, be damned, for there is evidence – and fine evidence it is at that – that there is much sexiness to be found in the world of alternative rock. In 1988, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields delivered the juddering, ecstatic ‘Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)’, a woozily sung paen to penetration and girl-on-top grinding.

And then there’s Pulp’s ‘Sheffield – Sex City’, a breathtaking, seedy nocturne, in which keyboardist Candida Doyle recalls a childhood spent being kept awake in her council block by a neighbouring couple having it off… and then another, and another… ‘Like some kind of chain reaction,’ she says dourly, ‘within minutes, everyone was fucking. It’s such a happy, exciting sound.’ As is so often the case, the song’s underlying real-ness is what makes it sizzle.

And sexy can be poetic, delicate even. Current ‘freak folk’ hero Devendra Banhart achieves just such a feat on the lacy, lovely ‘The Body Breaks’, one of very few songs to combine romantic, enduring love with an urge to really get down. ‘The body sways like the wind on a swing, the bridge through a hoop or a lake through a ring’ coos Banhart, making Grace Jones’s ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ seem rather clumsy.

Banhart’s sweet, leftfield poem stands in huge contrast to today’s pop hits – the stuff that comes blaring out of schoolkids’ mobile phones, gets shouted over in strip-lit supermarkets and downloaded with noncommittal ease. So it’s heartening to hear 50 Cent and Justin Timberlake declaring their wish to get back to basics. ‘Ayo Technology’ pounds and throbs to an electro beat with swirls of synth – but its message is decidedly earthy and even a little old-fashioned. ‘I’m tired of using technology,’ squeals Timberlake, ‘Why don’t you come and sit on top of me?’

In these most modern times, we depend on technology to bring us together; we’re never more than a click or a tap or a bleep away from contact, from ‘chatting’ online, from flashing ourselves over a web cam. But it’s not fucking. And the very best pop music reminds us that it never will be.