How To Write A Love Song Without Getting Dry Heaves: The Soft Boys’ “Kingdom of Love”

On the whole, I can’t stand love songs. Part of it stems from time as a wedding DJ, where every week I watched newly-hitched couples writhe to such formulaic, saccharine dreck as Lonestar’s “Amazed” (which paradoxically cribs a lyric from one of the best love songs of all time, Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”), Hoobastank’s “The Reason” (remember that one from 2005?), and Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” which spends its first 80 seconds without a drumbeat, the hallmark of any great dance number, am I right?

Part of it is also my own disposition, and I know I am speaking for my than just myself on this. I don’t go for all that lovey-dovey cutesy stuff. That’s not what love is. Sure, those moments of hand-holding, cuddling, and saying really sweet things to one another have their place – on waterfronts, behind closed doors, in a dimly-lit theater…just make sure that in any of the above scenarios that you stay the Hell away from social media. Nobody cares. Love isn’t just teasing one another about who really loves who more, it’s about sticking together no matter what work, family, or the universe as a whole decides to throw at you. It’s about being there for your partner, supporting and comforting them, but more importantly, it is about having someone in your life that you can turn to for comfort and support without hesitation, someone to whom you can expose your weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and shortcomings. They don’t exactly address that in “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

There are two kinds of love songs that I do like: the realistic ones and the weird ones. The realistic ones include Ray Davies from The Kinks wondering aloud in their 1965 song “Something Better Beginning,” which captures a couple’s first meet at a dance, that “I found something I thought I’d never have / The only time I feel alive is when I’m with you / I wonder how long it will last.” The end result is a much more accurate glimpse into that first-night excitement than anything else from that period. I also love when married musicians write about love. Neil Young has been married to his wife Pegi since 1977, and the longevity of their relationship makes songs like 2010’s “Walk With Me” carry far more emotional weight. Paul McCartney’s Ram also exemplifies the realism of married bliss, where all the guy wanted was a horse, a sheep, and a good night’s sleep with his wife and babies in the heart of the country. (Be sure to also check out “Country Dreamer,” a Wings B-side from 1973. That song is all I want in life.)

The most exciting love songs, though, are the ones with the most unique approaches. I would much rather hear Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” than “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Who cares about all the times you sang sha-la-la when Iggy is beckoning, “Now we’re gonna be face to face / And I’ll lay right down in my favorite place?” Or, to return to The Kinks, how about “Lola,” the one tune that Ray has routinely introduced in concert as being one of his favorite love songs? In it, a young man, fresh to the electric candlelight of the London nightlife, encounters Lola and her dark brown voice. By the song’s end, the narrator declares, “I’m not the world’s most masculine man / But I know what I am, I’m glad I’m a man / And so’s Lola.” Not your typical tale, but there is no denying that the two are happy and comfortable with being themselves.

Perhaps my favorite of these off-beat love songs is “Kingdom of Love” by The Soft Boys, fronted by a young Robyn Hitchcock. Their second release, 1980’s Underwater Moonlight, laid the groundwork for some of the decade’s best music. (Naturally, this also means it sold poorly.) What made The Soft Boys so captivating was their ability to wear their influences on their sleeves – John Lennon, Captain Beefheart, The Byrds, Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, and Davies – while still presenting a collection of songs that are wholly original, blending the psychedelic pop of their heroes with the lean vitality of punk. The album’s lead number, “I Wanna Destroy You,” is perhaps the best example of this, a catchy pop tune to be sure, but those Beatlesque harmonies are delivered with a sneer. The title track, which rounds out the album, is also a must-hear masterpiece.

However, it is “Kingdom of Love” that gets the heaviest rotation. I enjoy this song so much that I included it in my literature class at St. John’s University. Discussing the subject of love, we looked at a number of songs about relationships and explored notions of power, gender, and sex. Other songs discussed included Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by The Supremes, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by Beyonce, “Summer Boyfriend” by Lady Gaga, “Man” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and this one. (That lecture and subsequent discussion should probably be its own article – I had a surprising mix of opinions on the narrator of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and whether she was a victim or, as one female student put it, “clearly just a crazy bitch.” She made a compelling argument.)

When I first heard “Kingdom of Love,” I was immediately captivated by the music. The intro and verses groove along with a cool swagger, a laid-back interplay between two guitars with a walking bass line and a relaxed drumbeat, while the choruses have a sense of urgency to them. Hitchcock’s sotto near-whisper is replaced with a near-monotone pair of vocals while the chilled-out guitars descend with bombast before going into its cathartic, major-key bridge. As stellar as the music is, the lyrics are even better.

In each verse, Hitchcock alludes to different places – a spiritual kingdom of love, a primitive jungle of love, and a physical kingdom of time. Every one of these places represents a different facet of being in a relationship: the mental connection of finding a soulmate, the physical connection that comes with sex, and the emotional connection that comes with companionship. Better still is the first chorus:

“You’ve been laying eggs under my skin
Now they’re hatching out under my chin
Now there’s tiny insects showing through
All the tiny insects look like you!”

I find that to be the perfect metaphor for the infatuation stage of love. (Note also that he is using a metaphor rather than a simile – it’s not “like” you’ve been laying eggs under his chin, you have been laying eggs under his skin!) The imagery of subcutaneous bugs works perfectly here; a person comes into your life and invades your psyche, the entirety of your being. This is reinforced in the song’s final line: “You’re the one I love, or so it seems / Because you’ve confiscated all my dreams.” This person has become such a part of the narrator’s life that they are omnipresent, even in dreams. The song’s bridge also has a lyric that I jokingly challenged my students to use as a pick-up line, but one that I will be including someday in my wedding vows: “All I want to do is be your creature.” If that’s not love, I’m afraid I don’t know what is.

There are other types of love song that I venerate, namely doo-wop ballads. However, I consider doo-wop to be a far more sophisticated form of music than (white) pop, especially from that same era, so we’ll just have to save my thoughts on The Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” “In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins, and The Flamingos’ version of “I Only Have Eyes For You,” one of the most uniquely arranged pop songs in history, for another time.

TS Eliot vs. Rap

The Telegraph has a quiz in which you try to tell if a particular quote is from TS Eliot’s poetry or rap. I did miss one…

He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity

… but for the most part it really shouldn’t be that hard. The rap lyrics aren’t just really limited in vocabulary, but the metrical structure is really simple.

MC Lars gets it. If you had trouble figuring out which was Eliot and which was rap, Lars is here to school you with a primer on meter.

Now, if the samples had been from nerdcore rappers, I’d probably have happily failed.

Review of 33 1/3’s Flood by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer

In Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture, I wrote the chapter on They Might Be Giants, entitled “They Might Be Lacanian: They Might Be Giants, Jacques Lacan, and the Rhetoric of Geek Rock.” I am a long time fan of TMBG, and in many ways, I could credit them with inspiring our book. After all, I originally pitched the idea of a geek rock panel to Alex DiBlasi in large part because I wanted to write about They Might Be Giants. I found it strange, to say the least, that in all the writing on music, there was no scholarship addressing TMBG, or, as we found out, geek rock as a genre. That, of course, is now no longer the case.

For They Might be Giants in particular, it also now no longer the case because the 33 â…“ series has recently published their book on Flood, written by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer. The pros of the book are many.The writers take a cultural studies lens in order to explore 1990, geek identity, and the idea of excess: aesthetic excess, creative excess, and excess of meaning.  Reed and Sandifer are clearly fans, and not just because they say so–their writing demonstrates a level of familiarity with TMBG that belongs to the long-time listener. I was also very pleased to find that Reed and Sandifer constructed geek identity as more of a process, a way of interacting with the world, then a collection of sci-fi references and t-shirts. The history of the band was traced a little more extensively than the beginning led me to believe, where the authors claimed they would not be providing “biographical analysis” (2) and then proceeded to fill the next 25 pages with band biography. Technically, I suppose, the authors don’t really analyze the biography, but the disconnect was a little jarring.

To give a synopsis of the book: the biography of the band covers the first three chapters “Who Might Be Giants?,” “Lincoln,” and “Brooklyn’s Ambassadors of Love,” while the next chapter, “America,” places the band within a more global context. “Flooding” focuses on the idea of excess, while “Childhood” explores TMBG’s return to themes of childhood in their music. “Childhood” was, in my opinion, the least convincing and weakest chapter, and I found many arguments here a little too reductive. I suspect that the authors were limited by space, and I wish they had a larger book to flesh out these ideas more. “Mediality” focuses on tech, a la Marshal McLuhan, and is an excellent chapter, which I would frankly like to see turned into a book in its own right (however, as a rhetorician who specializes in delivery, that could just be me). The chapters“Geek Culture” and “Post-Coolness” were larger discussions of the evolution(s) of geek culture and geek identity, and the discussions were interesting enough that I could almost forgive the easy theoretical out of “post” in “post-cool” (which I realize is an academic fad at the moment, but I think categorizing what is supposed to be beyond category with “post-” is silly enough that we should just think of something new instead of just having “post-” thing). These chapters are particularly valuable in their contributions to defining the geek in the rock.

However, in addition to the pros of this book, there some cons. The flooding metaphor becomes repetitive and is punned a little too often. While no human with ears and a heart in the TMBG fandom could write about the Johns without punning, it’s a little, well, excessive.  The rigor is surprisingly lacking for two such robust scholars. The lack of a bibliography, or any provided references, is glaring, especially since sources are mentioned throughout the text. I’m assuming this a publisher mandated lack, since the authors have clearly done their research. The audience, then, appears to be dictated by the publisher, rather than authors. While the authors appear to conducting research, the publisher appears to marketing to a general audience that it believes isn’t ready for “real” research–the kind that comes with a bibliography. These flaws are, in my opinion, more due to the 33 â…“ series, which really has yet to decide if it is fan-based or scholarship based, and which tends to, in my opinion, underestimate their readers. I think Reed and Sandifer did a pretty great job, especially considering the overall constraints of the 33 â…“ series: books should be general, academic (but not scholarly), and short.

Overall, Reed and Sandifer’s Flood is a neat book. It’s worth reading,not only if you’re a fan of TMBG and/or Flood, but also if you’re interested in geek culture and geek rock. If you’re looking for a scholarly treatment of any of those topics, however, this isn’t it, which is a little disappointing if that’s what you’re expecting. But don’t let that dissuade you. There are quite a few delightful tidbits in here, and I hope this book (and mine and Alex’s!) is only the start of a much larger foray into geekdom, and a continuing spread of geekdom into the mainstream. The reclamation of geekiness and the spread of geekdom has been inspiring. But that’s just how geeks are, I suppose. We get knocked down, and we get up again.

And then we take over the world with our robot army.

Thanks for reading. See you next week!