Last month, in this piece about the Clarence Carter song “Patches”, I posted some links to it and gave you a “mascara warning”, noting that it “is right up there with “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro as a song that is likely to make a grown man, or a grown woman, cry”. I was reminded of a piece in the Guardian from 2011 in which various music journalists, and two MPs, wrote about the music that makes them weep. I was going to mention it in that earlier piece, but it had already stretched to 800 words, so I decided to return to it later. I also wanted to include some observations from a friend who offered a very different example of a song to make you cry, hence this follow-up, which is over 1100 words long.
Most of my pieces about music and lyrics refer to songs that have been big hits here in the UK, so you are likely to have heard them if your radio has been tuned to commercial stations or BBC Radio 1 or 2 in recent decades. “Patches” and “Honey” both reached #2 in the UK charts. So did “God save the Queen” (which you can read about here), and “Yes sir I can boogie” reached #1. The most heart-breaking tune in musical history could feature on some little-known but much-loved album by Belle and Sebastian or The Cocteau Twins but I haven’t heard it and wouldn’t expect you to dig around too much to find it. The Guardian piece referred to in the opening paragraph is titled “Tracks of our tears: the songs that make Guardian writers weep” and you can read it here. There are references to #1 hit records (Stevie Wonder’s “I just called to say I love you”, Will Young’s “Leave right now”) and to album tracks that I have still never heard (“Broken Heart” by Spiritualized, “Someone Great” by LCD Soundsystem).
One of my old school-friends has become a regular and enthusiastic reader of pieces on this Blog in recent months, and offers wise comments by email rather than through the Comments box below, which is understandable. I rarely add Comments to posts on other Blogs so I don’t expect many people to add Comments to mine. Following that earlier piece about “Patches” (a song that he was not familiar with) he mentioned, via email, Nick Drake’s “River Song”. I’ll quote rather than paraphrase his words: “Listening to the excellent Huey Morgan show on 6Music (a recent discovery for me) last Saturday morning [it was Remembrance Day, 11 November], he played – just before the two minutes silence – ‘River Man’ by Nick Drake. I had to pull over and stop the car; it is so emotional.” Those of us who spent our younger years listening to John Peel’s Radio 1 show will know that “Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones made him pull his car to the side of the road when he first heard it. Alexis Petridis, in that Guardian article, tells us that he also had to pull over when “I just called to say I love you” came on the radio while he was driving home after the birth of his first daughter.
In the days after our email exchange about “Patches” I checked out “River Man” and my old school-friend checked out Clarence Carter’s recording. We were both equally unmoved. Clearly a song that makes one person cry could have no effect on someone else. The same weekend that I was revisiting Nick Drake’s recordings Tom Chaplin (from the band Keane) was interviewed on Dermot O’Leary’s Saturday morning show on Radio 2. I caught it while driving my 13-year-old son to his weekly BMX lesson (it’s replaced dance as his main extra-curricular activity). On Chaplin’s new album, “Twelve Tales of Christmas”, he covers various seasonal hits including “Stay Another Day”, the East 17 Christmas #1 from 1994. O’Leary and Chaplin discussed the story behind the song, which was news to me. It was written by Tony Mortimer after his brother’s suicide, as detailed in this interview with him in Songwriting Magazine: “It was based on my brother’s suicide and losing someone. What would you do if you had one more day with a loved one? … It was all based on conversations I’d had with my brother and I was trying to change it into a love song about the end of a relationship … I wish I could enjoy it a bit more but I always find it very emotional. Sometimes it comes on the radio and I’ve got to turn it off, or I’ll be in Tesco’s down the food aisle and it’ll be playing in the background. I get emotional when I sing it and the crowd sings it back.”
Chaplin sang a stripped-down version of it. The words had never had much effect on me but this time was very different. “Baby if you’ve got to go away / I don’t think I can take the pain / Won’t you stay another day? / Oh don’t leave me alone like this / Don’t say it’s the final kiss / Won’t you stay another day?” Fortunately at this point we had just reached the turning for the BMX track, so I could stop the car long before the end of the song and listen without endangering other drivers. The morning was cold and wet, so I was not the only person who was a little misty-eyed as we lined up to collect crash-helmets and gloves for our young BMXers. The East 17 version was on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show this morning, and that set me off again.
Who’d have thought it? Thanks to its back story and a stripped down cover version, a song that has left me unmoved for most of its 23 year history is now the one most likely to make me blub. We have recordings of a number of TOTP2 Christmas Specials, consisting mostly of performances from “Top of the Pops” over the years, with a few videos like Bob Dylan’s “Must be Santa”. We might well be playing them in the weeks ahead. In previous years the main talking point about the East 17 performance, from a Christmas Day edition, has been about their clothing. “Daddy, why aren’t those men wearing anything under their coats?” I can’t find that specific performance online, but here’s the official video if you want to hear the song. (It works best for me without the visuals.) This year the children’s comments could be completely different. “Daddy, are you … crying?” It won’t be the first time they’ve seen me in such a state. We watched “Saving Mr Banks” together last Christmas and that really opened the floodgates. But that’s another story.