5 Great Story Songs

As should be fairly obvious by now I love a good story (and can stomach, even write, a mediocre one.)

I also love music – I generally have something playing in the background when I’m writing, driving, cooking, whatever. And sometimes I even listen to that music – I mean properly listen to it. This is never more true when a song tells a good story. I’m not talking a ‘She’s so pretty with long blonde hair, I saw her at the bar standing over there…(Hey, that’s not bad actually: in the key of G, I think…) , I’m talking about something that I listen to and think: that was a short story in itself.

 

So here are five of my favourites. I’ve tried to credit the writer of the songs as well as the performer where I’m aware of it, but apologies in advance if I mess the detail up. Of course, there is a balance between a good tune and a good story. I’ve tried to balance the two here. I’ve also kept liner notes to an absolute minimum, as these stories really don’t need any explanation…

Note: obviously all lyrics detailed below are the property of their author. I include them here as educational examples and perhaps as a call to action to listen to more of the artists’ works. (Hopefully that’s enough to avoid being sued.)

 

Everywhere – Billy Bragg

Written by Greg TrooperSid Griffin

I first heard this song when I bought Billy Bragg’s 1991 album ‘Don’t Try This At Home‘ – I was about three months into living in Hokkaido, Japan. The album as a whole is great, and for me this cover is the stand out track.

Dig in boys for an extended stay
Those were final orders to come down that day
Waiting to be saved in the Philippines
You’ll wait forever for the young Marines

Now I believe to be here is right
But I have to say that I’m scared tonight
Crouching in this hole with a mouth full of sand
What comes first the country or the man?

Look at those slanted eyes coming up over the hill
Catching us by surprise, it’s time to kill or to be killed

All my life I wanted to be
As clever and strong as my best friend Lee
We grew up together along Half Moon Bay
Lee was Japanese, born in the USA

When Tommy was fighting Jerry along the River Seine
Me and Lee wanted to do the same
Then they bombed Pearl Harbour at the break of day
I was headed for these islands while Lee was hauled away

They said look at his slanted eyes, he’s guilty as guilty can be
Sent here as enemy spies to sabotage the Land of the Free

That little fox hole became my island grave
Lee got out of jail but a prisoner he remained
Till he ended his own life to lose that ball and chain

And they said Oh Little Slanted Eyes can’t you forgive and forget?
And he said, Oh Mr Friendly Ghost
Can you catch water in a net?

 

 

Up The Junction

Written by Chris Difford Glenn Tilbrook

Cool for Cats on pink vinyl might have been the first single I ever bought with my own money, Up the Junction would have been very close to it.

Taking inspiration from the short story collection by Nell Dunn, Chris Difford has said the title came from the TV play of the name by  Ken Loach, and the song always strikes me as one of the best kitchen sink dramas ever written after the movement.

I never thought it would happen
With me and the girl from Clapham
Out on the windy common
That night I ain’t forgotten
When she dealt out the rations
With some or other passions
I said you are a lady
Perhaps she said I may be
We moved into a basement
With thoughts of our engagement
We stayed in by the telly
Although the room was smelly
We spent our time just kissing
The railway arms we’re missing
But love had got us hooked up
And all our time it took up

I got a job with Stanley
He said I’d come in handy
And started me on Monday
So I had a bath on Sunday
I worked eleven hours
And bought the girl some flowers
She said she’d seen a doctor
And nothing now could stop her

I worked all through the winter
The weather brass and bitter
I put away a tenner
Each week to make her better
And when the time was ready
We had to sell the telly
Late evenings by the fire
With little kicks inside her

This morning at 4: 50
I took her rather nifty
Down to an incubator
Where thirty minutes later
She gave birth to a daughter
Within a year a walker
She looked just like her mother
If there could be another

And now she’s two years older
Her mother’s with a soldier
She left me when my drinking
Became a proper stinging
The devil came and took me
From bar to street to bookie
No more nights by the telly
No more nights nappies smelling

Alone here in the kitchen
I feel there’s something missing
I’d beg for some forgiveness
But begging’s not my business
And she won’t write a letter
Although I always tell her
And so it’s my assumption
I’m really up the junction

 

Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner

Written by:  Warren Zevon and David Lindell

Choosing a ‘story song’ by Warren Zevon is no easy task – there’s quite a catalogue to choose from – this choice could have been Excitable Boy, Boom Boom Mancini, Keep Me in Your Heart…the list goes on. In the end, I plumbed for Roland – first released on the 1978 album Excitable Boy, the song was also the last Zevon ever performed live before his death in 2003.

Roland was a warrior from the Land of the Midnight Sun
With a Thompson gun for hire, fighting to be done
The deal was made in Denmark on a dark and stormy day
So he set out for Biafra to join the bloody fray

Through sixty-six and seven they fought the Congo war
With their fingers on their triggers, knee-deep in gore
For days and nights they battled the Bantu to their knees
They killed to earn their living and to help out the Congolese

Roland the Thompson gunner…

His comrades fought beside him – Van Owen and the rest
But of all the Thompson gunners, Roland was the best
So the CIA decided they wanted Roland dead
That son-of-a-bitch Van Owen blew off Roland’s head

Roland the headless Thompson gunner
Norway’s bravest son
Time, time, time
For another peaceful war
But time stands still for Roland
‘Til he evens up the score
They can still see his headless body stalking through the night
In the muzzle flash of Roland’s Thompson gun
In the muzzle flash of Roland’s Thompson gun

Roland searched the continent for the man who’d done him in
He found him in Mombassa in a barroom drinking gin
Roland aimed his Thompson gun – he didn’t say a word
But he blew Van Owen’s body from there to Johannesburg

Roland the headless Thompson gunner…
The eternal Thompson gunner
still wandering through the night
Now it’s ten years later but he still keeps up the fight
In Ireland, in Lebanon, in Palestine and Berkeley
Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland’s Thompson gun and bought it

 

Fred Jones Pt. 2 – Ben Folds

Written by Ben Folds

From his solo album Rockin’ the Suburbs which contains a number of possible choices, this is a snapshot of a story, but a powerful story none the less: the melody and the lyrics complimenting each other for a poignant little tale.

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark
There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall
He has cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes
Things that remind him: ‘Life has been good’

Twenty-five years
He’s worked at the paper
A man’s here to take him downstairs
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones
It’s time

There was no party, there were no songs
‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started
No one is left here that knows his first name
And life barrels on like a runaway train
Where the passengers change
They don’t change anything
You get off, someone else can get on

And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones
It’s time

Streetlight shines through the shades
Casting lines on the floor and lines on his face
He reflects on the day

Fred gets his paints out and goes to the basement
Projecting some slides onto a plain white
Canvas and traces it
Fills in the spaces
He turns off the slides and it doesn’t look right
Yeah, and all of these bastards
Have taken his place
He’s forgotten but not yet gone

And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones
It’s time

 

Big Joe and Phantom 309

Written by Tommy Faile
I almost put a moratorium on Country and Western songs, as it would be all to easy to make the complete top five of nothing but…Coward of the County, Boy Named Sue, The Gambler, Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town; really pretty much any C&W song (not including Achy Breaky Heart as I don’t consider it C&W or a song.)
Originally recorded by Red Sovine, I’ve chosen the Tom Waits version (although it doesn’t really matter if we’re considering lyrics I suppose…) from the faux live album ‘Nighthawks at the Diner.’
If it seems a little perverse to choose a Tom Waits cover rather than one of the many options possible from Waits’ own penned catalogue, well, that’s just the way I roll Daddy-O…
*
Well you see I happened to be back on the east coast
A few years back tryin’ to make me a buck
Like everybody else, well you know
Times get hard and well I got down on my luck
And I got tired of just roamin’ and bummin’
Around, so I started thumbin’ my way
Back to my old hometown
You know I made quite a few miles
In the first couple of days, and I
Figured I’d be home in a week if my
Luck held out this way
But you know it was the third night
I got stranded, it was out at a cold lonely
Crossroads, and as the rain came
Pouring down, I was hungry, tired
Freezin’, caught myself a chill, but
It was just about that time that
The lights of an old semi topped the hill
You should of seen me smile when I
Heard them air brakes come on, and
I climbed up in that cab where I
Knew it’d be warm at the wheel
Well at the wheel sat a big man
I’d have to say he must of weighed 210
The way he stuck out a big hand and
Said with a grin “Big Joe’s the name
And this here rig’s called Phantom 309”
Well I asked him why he called his
Rig such a name, but he just turned to me
And said “Why son don’t you know this here
Rig’ll be puttin’ ’em all to shame, why
There ain’t a driver on this
Or any other line for that matter
That’s seen nothin’ but the taillights of Big Joe
And Phantom 309”
So we rode and talked the better part of the night
And I told my stories and Joe told his and
I smoked up all his Viceroys as we rolled along
He pushed her ahead with 10 forward gears
Man that dashboard was lit like the old
Madam La Rue pinball, a serious semi truck
Until almost mysteriously, well it was the
Lights of a truck stop that rolled into sight
Joe turned to me and said “I’m sorry son
But I’m afraid this is just as far as you go
You see I kinda gotta be makin’ a turn
Just up the road a piece,” but I’ll be
Damned if he didn’t throw me a dime as he
Threw her in low and said “Go on in there
Son, and get yourself a hot cup of coffee
On Big Joe”
And when Joe and his rig pulled off into
The night, man in nothing flat they was
Clean outa sight
So I walked into the old stop and
Ordered me up a cup of mud sayin’
“Big Joe’s settin’ this dude up” but
It got so deathly quiet in that
Place, you could of heard a pin drop
As the waiter’s face turned kinda
Pale, I said “What’s the matter did
I say somethin’ wrong?” I kinda
Said with 8a half way grin. He said
“No son, you see It’ll happen every
Now and then. You see every driver in
Here knows Big Joe, but let me
Tell you what happened just 10 years
Ago, yea it was 10 years ago
Out there at that cold lonely crossroads
Where you flagged Joe down, and
There was a whole bus load of kids
And they were just comin’ from school
And they were right in the middle when
Joe topped the hill, and could
Have been slaughtered except
Joe turned his wheels, and
He jacknifed, and went
Into a skid, and folks around here
Say he gave his life to save that bunch
Of kids, and out there at that cold
Lonely crossroads, well they say it
Was the end of the line for
Big Joe and Phantom 309, but it’s
Funny you know, cause every now and then
Yea every now and then, when the
Moon’s holdin’ water, they say old Joe
Will stop and give you a ride, and
Just like you, some hitchhiker will be
Comin’ by”
“So here son,” he said to me, “get
Yourself another cup of coffee, it’s on the
House, you see I want you to hang on
To that dime, yea you hang on to that
Dime as a kind of souvenir, a
Souvenir of Big Joe and Phantom 309”

*
Well, there’s five songs that are worth a read and/ or a listen. It was fun to put together, and remarkably easy to construct – assuming I don’t get sued out of house and home, I may even return to suggest some more (my short list was around 30…) in the meantime feel free to suggest your own (choices – not your original songs…unless you’re a well known performer…oh, what the hell – send  your own if you want…)

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