Oh, sing me that song.

November 20, 2009

Any student of songwriting will be familiar with something that always comes up in lessons, interviews, autobiographies or what have you — write about what you know. If you’re a hopeless romantic that always gets shafted by love, well… there are emo kids out there waiting to hear you sing your diary. If you like writing about purple haze and kissing the sky, then have another hit of LSD and preach to the ones who see what you’ve seen.

But writing “theme songs” for your band or identity is something that’s not hugely prevalent in rock and roll. Mainly because when you think of “theme songs,” there’s one that always comes to mind and kind of sours ones appetite for trying to write one of their own. It’s kind of an arrogant exercise to write about how great you are or what you do, but it’s also not something that’s completely foreign to popular music either. Indeed, pretty much every successful rapper has staked a career on audacious boasts about how great they are, and you can certainly find theme songs in the catalogues of guitar-wielding troubadours.

For this month’s Friday Five, we take a look at five of the best theme songs that only ever worked in musical form and not as a dual intro song for a poorly-written television sitcom… which isn’t to say they couldn’t. It’s just good that they didn’t.

The Friday Five
Our Own Personal Theme Songs

Bo Diddley – The Story of Bo Diddley
Bo Diddley wrote a lot of songs about himself, and while this isn’t the best (that honor goes hands down to “Bo Diddley,” which was consequently on an album called Bo Diddley), but “The Story of Bo Diddley” which kicked off a 1959 EP has a great autobiographical touch to it. Plus the three chords turning over and over are just irresistible. The self-assured swagger of this song is no different from many of Bo’s other best songs, but the cocky laughs and way he describes himself as “a killer diller” are just pure magic. No one else could do this song like this for obvious reasons, but it didn’t stop them from trying, and even if you’re a white boy in the suburbs learning to play guitar, this one is an essential learning block.

The Mamas and the Papas – Creeque Alley
Not only a fabulously catchy story of the Mamas and Papas’ folk roots beginnings, but also an examination of their formative years rubbing elbows and trading jobs (and busking, of course) with members of the Lovin’ Spoonful and Byrds.  The song’s most famous line of course is the shot about no one getting fat except Mama Cass. It would seem that Cass had the kind of attitude to have a laugh about it in the context of it being a popular single, but you also have to wonder if this didn’t plunge some kind of knife into self-consciousness. Not only is the hook a crack about her weight, but the song also alludes to her unrequited love for Denny. Given that the band’s other hit singles alluded to inter-band love affairs and now John’s daughter is out telling everyone she had an incestuous relationship with her Papa, well… maybe they just found harmony in pain. But this is certainly the highlight of the band’s 1967 album Deliver.

McAlmont & Butler – The Theme From McAlmont & Butler
David and Bernard are still best known for their stupendous 1995 single, “Yes,” but I still say their real genius rests in the underrated 2002 album Bring it Back. This blistering cut kicks off the album, alluding to the “stratocaster kind of guy” and  his partner who can “sing like a bird,” but the track isn’t so much an examination of the two as it is just a soaring album opener that goes right for the listener’s jugular. It builds and builds into a cinematic experience and if the chorus isn’t one of the most glorious things you’ve heard, well… check your soul. Part of you has to be a bit pompous to write this kind of song, but I’m reminded of that old adage about talking the talk AND walking the walk when I hear this.

Ocean Colour Scene – Better Day
As hard as OCS could rock in the mid-to-late 1990s (see “The Riverboat Song” and “Hundred Mile High City”), lead singer Simon Fowler was already showing a heavy preference for folkier, Ronnie Lane-tinged songs. The beauty of the band at that point was that they countered it with heavy guitars and drums to give the songs some muscle — latter day OCS songs have just kind of stayed in the folk area with little rock to buoy it. Simon wrote this as an autobiographical piece about the band’s formative days (Sonny, Stevie, Minnie and Harry are Simon, Steve Cradock, Damon Minchella and Oscar Harrison respectively), while the lyrics also give nods to Paul Weller and the band’s manager, Chris Cradock. It’s got a heavy melancholy tinge to it, but listen to the guitars and drums and how much punch they give this thing. While the Marchin’ Already album came out on the eve of Britpop’s demise in 1997, it proved the band’s most successful chart offering — peaking at #1 in the UK charts. Too bad America never quite caught on. We couldn’t have all enjoyed this? Come on.

Old 97’s – The One
The 97’s actually wrote this one back in 1996 after being signed to Elektra records and making the jump from the indie scene of Bloodshot and into the major label territory where a lot of their alt-country peers were making a killing. Appropriately, the song paints Rhett, Murry, Ken and Philip as a gang of bank robbers California-bound and hell bent on taking the money and running. The boys never had the stones to put the song on their major label debut, Too Far to Care, however, and for more than 10 years, the song squandered its life away as part of Rhett and Murry’s acoustic sets as the Ranchero Brothers. But 12 years later and back on the indie label circuit, they found a comfort level suitable for giving the song a proper recording and used it to bring up the rear of 2008’s fabulous Blame it on Gravity. And the fact that it sounds like a Too Far to Care outtake is by no means a strike against it.

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