Story-songs from Gilgamesh to Richard Marx's Hazard [May 10, 1992]
Plus: The Wedding Present, Celine Dion, Saint Etienne and Carter USM
Welcome to the week of May 10, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Please Don’t Go’ — KWS (=)
‘On A Ragga Tip’ — SL2 (=)
‘Hang On In There Baby’ — Curiosity (↑)
‘Workaholic’ — 2 Unlimited (↑)
‘Deeply Dippy’ — Right Said Fred (↓)
We’ll be exploring some of the Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 22: ‘Hazard’ — Richard Marx
Google has this handy function called People Also Ask, which shows you common questions related to your initial search.
If you search for “Richard Marx Hazard”, you get this:
Yes, there are people wondering if ‘Hazard’ is a true story.
People in this world are unsure about whether handsome, wholesome Richard Marx—the butter-voiced crooner behind ‘Right Here Waiting’ and ‘Endless Summer Nights’ and husband of MTV icon Daisy Fuentes—was once accused of murdering a girl in Nebraska.
It’s me. I’m people.
When I listened to ‘Hazard’ again, I immediately had to jump on Google and search “richard marx hazard true story?”
Obviously, it’s not true. Richard Marx did not move to Hazard, Nebraska at age seven. He did not form an unlikely bond with a local girl called Mary, and make plans with her to run away.
Mary did not go missing. Her body wasn’t found in the river (although Hazard is a real town, it does not have a river, and also Mary does not exist.) Richard Marx was not a suspect in that murder, because that murder never happened.
The lyrics of ‘Hazard’ are fiction. An entire short story, in fact, that tackles themes of class and alienation.
Story-songs like ‘Hazard’ are a little out of fashion these days, but they were popular for a long time.
A loooong time.
“Hey DJ, play The Epic of Gilgamesh”
Making up cute li’l stories is one of the oldest human activities.
Storytelling predates almost everything else, so the first-ever human stories are now lost on the wind. We don’t know for sure why people started telling stories, or what kind of narrative techniques they used.
But we do know that music has long been a key part of storytelling. Indigenous Australians have songlines that have been passed between generations for over 60,000 years. These songs work as a kind of living Wikipedia, storing vital information about plants, animals, and geography.
The songlines are also full of history and mythology. Thousands of generations thought that these old stories were worth keeping alive in song.
Musical storytelling is found almost everywhere else on earth too. Our oldest surviving work of written literature is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was committed to stone tablets around 4,000 years ago. But Gilgamesh was performed in song for centuries before anyone thought to write it down.
Here’s a clip of someone singing Gilgamesh as it might have sounded in ancient Mesopotamia:
Most other epic texts worked the same way. Homer’s The Iliad was performed as music for centuries before anyone sat down and read it.
And here’s how The Iliad would sound if Eminem had gotten into Homeric singing rather than hip-hop:
Story-singing has two big benefits:
The melody acts as a mnemonic that helps you remember 40,000 lines of poetry without notes.
Your audience will pay more attention to your words if you’re laying down sick beats on your lute.
Plus, there’s the fact that you can use music to add an extra dimension of feeling to your story. Music lets you guide the audience’s emotions, which is why movies always have a score.
Music is story to some extent, and it’s certainly possible to describe a narrative entirely through melody. But that combo of music and poetry has always been remarkably effective.
The golden age of story-songs
Musical storytelling continued right into the twenty century, appearing in the many, many genres of folk music across the world.
And then, this happened:
Records imposed a new barrier on music that had never existed before. Each disc could only hold three minutes of music (or five minutes on a 12” disc).
Three minutes doesn’t give you a lot of time to tell a story. You’ve got around 90 bars of music, which is enough for two verses, a repeated chorus, and maybe a middle eight.
Lyric writing became more impressionistic, focusing on emotions and images rather than full narratives. Lots of old songs had pseudo-narratives that hinted at a story without telling it. You can take your pick of examples here—the first one that springs to my mind is ‘I Cover The Waterfront’:
When record technology became more expansive, the 60s folk revival helped reintroduce story-songs into the mainstream, thanks to people like Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. Songs started getting longer. Lyrics grew more complex.
And then something miraculous happened…
70s soft rock.
Something about that soft rock sound is conducive to poetry. The gentle guitars and shuffling drums drifting out from 8-tracks and AM radio seemed to bring out the Mesopotamian bard in people. The story-song was back with a bang.
Now, let’s define terms here. By story-song, I mean a song where the lyrics have an explicit plot. There are characters, there’s a scenario, there’s some kind of resolution. And this story element is at the foreground of the song—you listen to it because you want to find out what happens next.
There are so many 70s soft rock songs with full narratives. Here’s a quick rundown of some of my personal favourites:
5. ‘Take The Money and Run’—Steve Miller Band
Billy Joe and Bobbi Sue are bored kids who decided to liven things up with a robbery that ends in murder. On their way to the border, a cop called Billy Mack gives chase. They almost get caught, but they confuse him by splitting up before reuniting in Mexico.
4. ‘Lucky Stars’—Dean Friedman
A two-hander drama between a married couple. The husband is acting grumpy and the wife eventually figures out that it’s because he saw his ex, Lisa. He admits he had lunch with her, but he realised that she’s a mess and that he really loves his wife. They go to bed, closer than ever.
3. ‘Billy Don’t Be A Hero’—Paper Lace
A small-town boy joins the army. His girlfriend begs him not to keep his head down and come home safe, but Billy just doesn’t listen. During a heated battle, Billy volunteers for a dangerous mission. He dies a hero, but his girlfriend is too grief-stricken to care.
2. ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song)’—Rupert Holmes
A proper three-act story here, with the chorus having a changed meeting each time. Act one: Our hero is trapped in a loveless marriage. He spots an interesting lonely hearts ad. Act two: he takes the plunge and arranges a date with the mysterious strangers. Act three: the mysterious stranger is… his wife! What a rollercoaster.
1. ‘Copacobana’—Barry Manilow
The Casablanca of the genre. Lola is a popular showgirl, but she only has eyes for Tony the bartender. All is well until the charming gangster Rico shows up and gets handsy with Lola. Violence erupts, a shot rings out… and then we jump 30 years into the future. Lola is still dancing, but Tony’s death has left her with severe PTSD.
Richard Marx and the definition of a story-song
‘Hazard’ stands up as one of the great story-songs. Not only is there a mystery (who did kill Mary?), but you’ve got these quite striking themes of class war and systemic injustive (also, I think the protagonist might be gay.) It’s a good yarn.
Since ‘Hazard’, we haven’t had many story-songs with this kind of prominent, identifiable plot. Maybe things like Wheatus’s ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ or Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story’. Hip-hop is full of rich storytelling, but it’s usually in the autobiography/documentary mode. Non-fiction, in other words.
There is one hip-hop track that not only meets the definition of a story-song, but provided us with one of the defining fictional narratives of the 21st century:
I’m not even going to bother recapping the plot of ‘Stan’ here, because everyone knows it. The word “stan” has even entered our vocabulary as a term for an obsessive fan.
In an alternative universe not far from this one, Eminem wrote ‘Stan’ as a novel and won the Pulitzer. It’s a smart, twisty story that explores the painful loneliness of parasocial relationships with celebrities.
Like all good story-songs, the backing music on ‘Stan’ is fairly bland (a Dido sample, which is as bland as you can get). The focus is on the narrative. On Stan, his scared wife, and the slow descent into madness.
It’s a very effecting and distrubing story, even without the David Fincer-esque video. But don’t worry, it’s only fiction. It’s not a true story. Trust me. I Googled it.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 10 (New Entry): ‘Come Play With Me’ — The Wedding Present
Track 5 of 12 in The Wedding Present’s mad single-a-month scheme.
And this one made the Top 10! Technically, it’s the biggest Wedding Present hit ever, and it is indeed a quite charming, waltzy ballad that descends into fast indie rock at the end.
Number 14 (New Entry): ‘Beauty and the Beast’ — Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson
Remember in the old days when movies would premiere in the United States and then take aaaaages to roll out across the world?
Beauty and the Beast premiered in November 1991. It was nominated for Best Picture in March 1992. In May 1992, Celine and Peabo scored an international hit with this single from the soundtrack.
But most of the world still hadn’t seen the actual film. Beauty and the Beast wouldn’t reach the UK until October 9th, 1992. And Ireland had to wait another week before it we got hold of the reels.
When you think about it, today’s trend for worldwide simultaneous releases is actual quite a marvel.
Number 21 (New Entry): ‘Join Our Club/People Get Real’ — Saint Etienne
Saint Etienne started out with rotating vocalists, like a lot of dance bands at the time. And, while people like Moira Lambert did a fine job, 1992 was when it finally dawned on Bob and Pete that they had a real treasure in Sarah Cracknell.
‘Join Our Club’ is a non-album release, and a delightfully dreamy bit of dance-pop. We love you, Sarah.
Number 24 (↑ from 36): ‘Love Makes The World Go Round’ — Don-E
London multi-instrumentalist Don-E never quite made it as a solo pop star, even though he had the look, the voice and songs like his Top 40 hit ‘Love Makes The World Go Round’.
But that’s cool. Stardom’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and it seems he’s been working and recording constantly since then. Good for him. He seems a likeable chap.
Number 34 (New Entry): ‘Passion’ — Gat Decor
One of those trusty 12”s that every DJ carried around during the 90s, ‘Passion’ is hypnotic and infectious. The version in this video is from a 1995 remix which includes elements of ‘Do You Want It Right Now?’, which was in the charts just a couple of weeks ago! Synergy!
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Album of the Week
1992: The Love Album — Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine
I try not to read other people’s reviews when I’m writing about these old records, because I don’t want to simply regurgitate someone else’s opinions.
But I found this comment on a web page about 1992: The Love Album and it’s so devastating that I can’t not share it with you. This was written by some random, snot-nosed Gen Zer:
“What our uncles listen to during sleepless nights” is one of the most brutal lines ever written. It conjures an image of 40-somethings, childless and insomniac, alone in their squalid flats, chain-smoking and listening to ‘The Only Living Boy in New Cross’ at 3am.
And they were the good old days. Personally, I never had the pleasure of seeing Jim Bob and Fruitbat at their peak, but legend has it that they were one of the great live acts, with gigs that were sweaty, anarchic, loud, and chaotic. Not Jesus & Mary Chain kind of violent chaos. Just the chaos of an indie disco where everyone is having a great time.
This context is essential when listening to an album that is both simple and complex, stupid and clever, crashingly loud and sweetly melodic. Carter USM are documentarians, their lyrics providing a reportage on everyday life. This is a very English tradition, one that starts with The Kinks and The Smiths and Pulp, and runs on into acts like The Streets and Arctic Monkeys.
But there’s one big difference between Carter and the others. Morrissey and Jarvis are always on the outside looking in. Jim Bob and Fruitbat’s songs feel like broadcasts from someone’s living room, telling us all about life as it were lived back then.
Track 2 is a perfect example. ‘Is Wresting Fixed?’ is a song about watching telly, and the act of watching telly, and the boredom of having nothing to do except watch telly:
The “h-a-p-p-y” bit here in this track refers to the theme tune of medical sitcom Only When I Laugh, which is exactly the kind of thing you’d watch when you’re bored on a wet Wednesday in 1992.
1992 is full of these familiar musical stings. ‘Look Mum No Hands’ borrows from old standard ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’. State of the Nation speech ‘England’ morphs into Bowie’s ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’ halfway through. The album ends with a greebo cover version of ‘The Impossible Dream’ from musical Man of La Mancha.
But the most notable borrow appears in the single ‘After The Watershed’:
‘Watershed’ lifts from ‘Ruby Tuesday’ The Rolling Stones, which resulted in a swift and brutal legal action. In fact, ‘Watershed’ isn’t even on the original pressings of 1992, and was only reinstated in the later Deluxe edition (with Jagger and Richards credited as co-authors.)
Were Carter USM a bunch of plagiarists? Or was this legitimate sampling, as found in dance and hip-hop?
Maybe it’s neither. Something about these musical references feel more like a kind of ADHD, with bits of songs simply drifting at random through their minds, along with many of the other images and phrases that make up their lyrics.
The whole record has that stream-of-consciousness feel that you get at a certain point in life, when you have no real responsibilities and there’s always a party somewhere. They just sing whatever they feel like singing at any moment.
And the same applies to the musical style. Like, ‘England’ is a based around an accordion. What other indie band were doing accordion solos in 1992?
(Okay, The Levellers and The Wonder Stuff, don’t @ me. You know what I mean.)
And so, 1992 isn’t so much an album as a window into a lost world. A world of rain and Tories and rubbish telly, but also a world where you could forget it all and go apeshit at a Carter gig.
That world is on the other side of the window now, frozen forever. We’re stuck here.
So, yeah. I bet there are some sleepless nights when people, now in their 40s and 50s, with their bad knees and bad backs, get out of bed at 3am and stick a record on. And while everyone else sleeps, they listen to 1992, and it feels like a phone call from the past.
En Vogue give us one of the great pop songs of the decade, and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy give us a lot to think about.
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Anther stellar week! I lived through the '90s bright eyed and cigarette honed but I always learn something new from you.
I love an auld story song! :)
A bit late to this but would like put forward for consideration RB Greaves' Take a Letter Maria and Squeeze's Up the Junction - both tell of common occurances, made signifcant when expressed through the personal lens of the respective narrators, told with varying degrees of reflection and still catchy, succinct and IMHO complete narratives albeit in very different genres