By Madeline Bocaro ©
Whether you’re checking into ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ or enroute to Xanadu, it’s time to hit the road to nowhere for a journey to the center of the mind.
Let’s take a ride – from Motown to Funkytown and beyond!
‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit (written by Duren/Axton) inspired by the suicide of a man who jumped from a hotel window. One of the lines in the lyric, ‘I walk a lonely street’ was written in the man’s suicide note. The song was a huge influence on many musicians, including The Beatles who performed it live, and the Rolling Stones.
Heartbreak Hotel is most likely located in ‘Lonesome Town’, a haunting song about a place where jilted lovers reside. It was written by Baker Knight for Ricky Nelson in 1958. Nelson’s acoustic performance is backed by the wonderful vocal quartet The Jordanaires. It appears on his 1959 album Ricky Sings Again.
Listen to ‘Lonesome Town’:
Also by The Cramps on Gravest Hits (1977)
‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ is the signature song of singer Tony Bennet. Written in 1953, it became a hit single for Bennet in 1962.
Watch Tony perform the song on Unplugged: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6DUwMnDxEs
‘The House of the Rising Sun’, a 1964 single recorded by Eric Burdon and The Animals is actually a traditional folk song. The Animals version tells a different story. The distinctive organ sound of Alan Price gives the song an eerie and ambience.
Another famous lodging, The Chelsea Hotel in New York City is featured as the title song of Nico’s 1967 Chelsea Girls album. The folky acoustic song features Lou Reed on guitar. The girls of Andy Warhol’s factory who are denizens of the Chelsea are profiled in each verse, room by room (Here’s Room 115 / Filled with S & M queens…). It is also the tile of the Warhol film in which Nico appears.
‘Memory Motel’ is a Jagger/Richards tune about a real place in Montauk, Long Island, from the Rolling Stones’ Black and Blue album in 1976. Model Anita Russell appears in the advert for the album, which was also on a huge billboard on the Sunset Strip. She is all tied up – ouch!
The thrilling ‘Blueberry Hill’ (Rose/Stock/Lewis) was popular in 1940 when recordings of the song were made by various big band artists including Gene Krupa, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey, Kay Kyser and by Country Western star Gene Autrey. A rockier version of song became a hit in 1956 by Fats Domino. The song is about an unfulfilled promise of love.
The 1968 single ‘White Room’ by Cream with its lyrics of beat poetry recalling lost love was written by Jack Bruce & Pete Brown.
The Beatles composed several odes to places, real and imagined. We all have our own distinct imagery in our minds of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Penny Lane’ and also the foggy ‘Blue Jay Way’. ‘There’s a Place’ is about somewhere to seek comfort. The orchestral ‘Pepperland’ begins ‘The Pepperland Suite’ from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, composed by their producer George Martin. On The Beatles (White Album) in 1968, ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.‘ is Paul McCartney’s ode to Russian girls. It’s a clever send-up of the Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls’ theme and of their mock harmonies. The tile was inspired by Chuck Berry’s ‘Back in the USA’. Paul’s cleverest pun is, “Georgia’s always on my mind”. The 50th anniversary remaster has extreme movie soundtrack ambience. The screeching airplanes swoop right down on your head!
‘In My Life’ is a beloved Beatles song (on their 1965 album Rubber Soul). Lyrically, John Lennon remembers the places and phases of his life. In the end, his love for the friends (dead and living) outweighs his love of these once important places. The use of a piano impersonating a harpsichord (via tape speed manipulation) represents another musical era and nostalgia for special times and places in our past.
David Bowie evokes the ambience of many places on his album Low in 1977.
‘Warszawa’ is about Warsaw (Poland) and the very bleak atmosphere I got from that city. ‘Art Decade’ is West Berlin—a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution. ‘Weeping Wall’ is about the Berlin Wall—the misery of it. And ‘Subterraneans’ is about the people that got caught in East Berlin after the separation—hence the faint jazz saxophones’ representing the memory of what it was.”
– Bowie – to Tim Lott, The Record Mirror 1977
‘Warszawa’ is alien and exquisite, based upon a one-note drone – inspired by a Polish folk song. Due to his fear of flying, Bowie made two train journeys with brief stop-overs in Warsaw Poland (1973 / 1976) travelling from Moscow to Western Europe. David purchased an album of songs from the Śląsk Polish National Song & Dance Ensemble. He adapted a song called ‘Helokanie’ by Stanisław Hadyna, replicating/chanting its foreign linguistics.
‘Helokanie’ by Stanisław Hadyna
On other instrumental tracks from his album “Heroes” in 1977, Bowie takes us to ‘Neukoln’ (Germany) and to ‘Moss Garden’ (both co-written by Brian Eno) in Kyoto featuring a traditional koto which was thrilling to see at the V&A’s David Bowie Is exhibition. Here’s a fabulous elongated 20-minute edit, a great soundtrack for a sushi dinner, along with Eno’s briefcase EMS Synthi used on Low and “Heroes”.
IN BERLIN, BY THE WALL…
On his album Transformer, Lou Reed recorded the ultimate ode to the New York City of the early 1970s and its underground inhabitants, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ to great success. His follow-up – Lou’s third solo album – takes place entirely in Berlin, although he had never been there. The RCA adverts called it ‘A film for the ear’ and also printed a boastful Rolling Stone quote, “…Berlin will be the Sgt. Pepper of the seventies.
Here are my stories about Lou’s masterpiece albums, Transformer and Berlin…
The Berlin Wall of Sound
Let’s all go to ‘Itchycoo Park’. The Small Faces’ song was written by Ronnie Lane / Steve Marriott in 1967. It was one of the first singles to feature phasing. It is debatable which ‘all too beautiful’ park this song is about (where the singer ‘got high’ and ‘cried’) The title allegedly refers to stinging bugs buzzing around there. There are many cover versions, including unlikely heavy ones by Quiet Riot (1993) and by Alice Cooper’s Hollywood Vampires (2015).
The beautifully melodic and beloved song ‘Waterloo Sunset’ was composed by Ray Davies for The Kinks’ 1967 album Something Else. The lonely singer speaks in a pure voice about seeing a couple of lovers daily from his window. They meet under an umbrella at dreary rainy Waterloo Station. The song evokes a colorless painting capturing the true essence of England. Friends are forsaken as the much-preferred company of the spectacular Waterloo sunset turns the bleary atmosphere into paradise. This gorgeous tune was the first Kinks song released in stereo, sounding wonderful with its tape-delay echo effects. Davies says that the song was originally written for Liverpool as he was so enamored by the Merseybeat sound which originated there. Cover versions include one by David Bowie (Reality, 2003) and a really fantastic rousing rendition by Def Leppard on their 2003 album YEAH!
The Kinks ‘Waterloo Sunset’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_MqfF0WBsU
Def Leppard ‘Waterloo Sunset’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WnuRmnhWr4
‘The Guns of Brixton’ by The Clash is a reggae song on London Calling (1979) written and sung by their bassist Paul Simonon. (David Bowie also was born in Brixton, South London). It’s a portrayal of the bleak town at a time of a recession and police brutality. A line in the song references the great reggae tune ‘The Harder They Come’ by O.G. reggae master Jimmy Cliff, who later covered Simonon’s song on his 2012 album Rebirth.
‘The Eton Rifles’ (October 1979) was a single from The Jam’s album Setting Sons. It protested the lower class struggles against the elitist system and speaks of a riot occurring during a right-to-work march. The title invokes the prestigious Eton college.
‘Memphis, Tennessee’ – a single by Chuck Berry was a big hit in 1959. It was the B-side of his single ‘Back in the U.S.A.’. The lyrics are endearing. At first it seems as though he is trying to reach his girlfriend Marie by phone, but we soon realize that it’s his six-year-old daughter from whom he has been separated.
‘All the Way from Memphis’ by Mott The Hoople was a single from their 1973 album titled Mott. It’s about the band on tour and the loss of Mick Ralphs’ guitar, featuring some amazing sax work by Andy MacKay. (Also check out Ian Hunter’s amazing song ‘23A Swan Hill’, the address of his childhood home from his 1996 album The Artful Dodger.)
‘23A Swan Hilll’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulooHrp3MYY
My favorite version of ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ is by Johnny Cash. The song was written in 1959 by Geoff Mack, an Australian country singer. His first version name-checks Australian places, and another lists Canadian locations. The song has been recorded by many other artists. The lyrics were later adapted for North America (with some South American names added) and also for New Zealand, Great Britain and Ireland. The 1996 North American version by Johnny Cash is stunning – especially his vocals and the immaculately clear production. He starts in Nevada… “I was totin’ my pack along the dusty Winnemucca road” where he hitches a ride throughout the land in which he has already traveled every road.
Ian Hunter’s song ‘All American Alien Boy’ (1976) on his solo album of the same name continues the journey. The British Ian Hunter (formerly of Mott The Hoople) who moved permanently to America always loved the sound of the names of American cities, especially those with American Indian names, such as Chicopee, Chatanika, Chaska, Opelika, etc… (all of which are named in the Johnny Cash version of ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’). The genius jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius drives Hunter’s song, along with David Sanborn’s alto sax – making it an amazing excursion.
“Just a whitey from Blighty – heading out west / Got my little green card an’ my bulletproof vest /Goin’ to old tube city – where the buzz is the best…”
Ian pays tribute to his fellow British musical expat; “Oh look out Lennon here I come – land ahoy-hoy-hoy.”
Hunter is still chuffed by the USA, even with its drawbacks; “I’ve got sodium nitrate rotting in my guts /My head’s full of ulcers I got lungs full of butts / My heart wants a transplant – it thinks that I’m nuts /My logic won’t open – my eyes won’t shut /An’ I’m beginning to dig all this – being an All American Alien Boy”. In the last verse, he iterates the poetic names of American Indian tribes until the last line, “My mouth’s exploding that’s enough of this noise / I guess we’re all – All American Alien Boys.”
* Also check out Hunter’s amazing song ‘American Music’ – a tribute to many musical places in the U.S.A. on the 1980 Hunter/Ronson album YUI Orta.
David Bowie described his 1973 album Aladdin Sane as “Ziggy goes to America.” On the cover, the schizophrenic lad insane has his face divided by a lightning bolt in the colors of the American flag. All of the songs were written on the road during Bowie’s 1973 American tour. ‘Panic In Detroit’ is about a revolutionary character based on Bowie’s schoolmate who had become a big-time drug dealer in South America whom he transposed into the setting of the 1967 Detroit riots. In the song, Bowie is a young wannabe revolutionary who idolizes this ‘Che Guevara’ type guy and wants his autograph – which he receives in the form of his ‘comrade’s’ suicide note. Mick Ronson’s guitar highlights this incredible track with incredible backing vocals by Linda Lewis.
KISS also pay tribute to Detroit on ‘Detroit Rock City’ from Destroyer in 1976.
‘Young Americans’ – In 1975 Bowie was enamored by the Philadelphia Soul sound. He assembled his own band of R&B musicians and singers to record there, painting his sound portrait of America. A young American couple (unsure whether they are in love or not) return home from seeing Behind the Fridge – a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore musical comedy. (The title is a play on the title of Cook and Moore’s TV show Beyond the Fringe – a forerunner of Monty Python’s Flying Circus). American car names are interjected in the lyrics; Ford Mustang (a nod to Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Ford Mustang’ (1968), Caddy (Cadillac) and Chrysler. President Nixon, Afro Sheen, Barbie dolls, pimps, hustlers and American TV dance show Soul Train are mentioned.
Whenever I play a T. Rex song, I get sucked into Marc Bolan’s shiny little world filled with unicorns and wizards, Cadillacs and glitter – and I refuse to leave for months. No other music is important for a while, and no other world feels more like home than Sunken Meadows, the neverlands of Rarn, The Ballrooms of Mars and the perfect world in the song ‘There Was a Time.’
There Was a Time – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z90EDtJ1l_8
“There was a time / everything was fine / you got drunk on the day like it was wine / and all the children they put flowers in their hair and all the grown-ups they put daggers there instead”
Theme From New York, New York was released in the harrowing summer of 1977. This song, sung by Frank Sinatra was always on the radio, in every store and restaurant in New York City. From the opening, ‘Start spreadin’ the noooooooze’ to Sinatra’s drawn-out descending, ‘Aaaaaaaaaannnddd if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere’, the song had punch and incredible power, sung by the master of phrasing. However, true New Yorkers knew that this song about a fabulous city was quite deceptive.
Ironically, at the time, New York, NY was in fact one HELL of a town. Amidst the swing, strings and horns blaring at the bombastic ending of this glamourized infomercial for the city, the singer’s ‘little town bloooooze’ melt away as he wakes up in ‘the city that doesn’t sleep.’ In reality, this allowed more time for more crime! The song was the theme song of Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film New York, New York – a musical tribute to the city. It was written for Liza Minelli who performed the song in the film in which she co-starred with Robert De Niro. The composers were John Kander and Fred Ebb.
(The above is an excerpt from my full story about the song):
Sinatra’s New York Illusion
The Clash denigrate all that’s wrong with America in ‘I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.’ written by Mick Jones from their self-titled 1977 debut U.K. album.
“Chewin’ at a rhythm on my bubble gum…” The Ramones hitch a fun ride to ‘Rockaway Beach’ because the ‘Bus ride is too slow, they blast out the disco on the radio’. It’s on their third album Rocket to Russia (1977). (‘I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement’ on the Ramones debut album speaks to the fears we have as children that a monster might be under our bed or that “there’s something down there.”)
Rockaway Beach – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6siGKxcKol0
On Elton John’s ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ (1975) the label on the vinyl reads, “With Love to B.J.K. and the sound of Philadelphia” (a dedication to the soul explosion happening there at the time). The song was written at the request of Billie Jean King, the reigning World No. 1 Women’s Tennis player and feminist. Her team was the Philadelphia Freedoms. In 1973, King had beaten a man – Bobby Riggs – in the famous ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match. Riggs had declared tennis to be a man’s game and was certain that he would win. King’s win and her activism spearheaded the fight for sexual equality. The song seems to be a patriotic anthem to the city of brotherly love, but in fact It was one of the first LGBT anthems, referring to the minorities as ‘the ones left behind’.
Bernie Taupin’s lyrics have a veiled gay reference – “knee high to a man.”
“Cause I live and breathe this Philadelphia freedom / From the day that I was born I’ve waved the flag
Philadelphia freedom took me knee high to a man, yeah / Gave me a piece of mama, daddy never had
Oh Philadelphia freedom, shine on me, I love you / Shine the light, through the eyes of the ones left behind
Shine the light, shine the light…”
And now we travel to places that we visit in our dreams
‘Journey to the Center of the Mind’ by the Amboy Dukes was a druggy psychedelic tune released in 1968. The melody was by Ted Nugent. It was covered by Slade (1969), the Ramones on Acid Eaters (1994) and by others.
‘2000 Light Years From Home’ is a lonely place on The Rolling Stones 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request. The album was released in the same year as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Therefore, it has a similarly colorful psychedelic cover. The Stones out-did themselves with a lenticular effect. They pictured their friends The Beatles within the busy background. It’s a Jagger/Richards song with Brian Jones on Mellotron.
‘2000 Light Years From Home’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRc0yaMW7Mw
‘Atlantis’ by Donavan begins delicately with the Scottish singer’s quiet spoken voice poetically invoking the fable of the mythical underworld Atlantis. The drowned metropolis represents his lost love whom he is hoping to reach there. This water-world also reflects the times where all gods and legends in the world were born. It was released in 1968 in the UK and in 1969 in the USA – during the hippies’ era of peace and love amidst a backdrop of war. The lyrics rebuke the politics of the times, and urge us to rejoice in a rousing chorus…
And as the elders of our time choose to remain blind
Let us rejoice and let us sing and dance and ring in the new
Way down below the ocean where I wanna be she may be…
The song seemed lengthy at the time, at 5 minutes. The radio edit was one minute less. In 1967, The seven-minute Beatles’single ‘Hey Jude’ (1968) was not edited for radio.
‘On Some Faraway Beach’ is a beautiful atmospheric track on Brian Eno’s 1974 debut solo album released shortly after he left Roxy Music. Eno, after shedding his feathers would soon become the master of ambient music. Here Come the Warm Jets is one of my favorite pop albums – and it has a fantastic album cover! This song has a long instrumental start. Lush synths and guitars set the beach scene before Eno sings these poetically zen words (which came to him in a dream) in his delicate British accented voice:
Given the chance / I’ll die like a baby / On some far away beach /When the season’s over. /Unlikely/ I’ll be remembered /As the tide brushes sand in my eyes/ I’ll drift away / Cast up on a plateau/ With only one memory / A single syllable/ Oh lie low lie low.
Kate Bush brings the novel Wuthering Heights to life in her song about its doomed lovers Heathcliff and Cathy. Sung in Kate’s young and ethereal high voice and with tinkling piano keys and lush orchestration she evokes the ‘winding windy moors’ – a desolate gothic place where lovers could only see beauty. The passion of their eternal love never dies, as the ghost of Cathy pounds on Heathcliff’s window – come home to haunt him forever. Kate is an apparition all in white and mist in the UK video. She is floating in dance moves learned from studying mime with the great Lindsay Kemp (who was also Bowies teacher). She is equally captivating in the red dress USA video. This was young Kate’s first single – written at age eighteen. The single was released in 1978 and stayed at No. 1 in England for an entire month. Kate shares a birthday with the classic novel’s author – Emily Bronte.
Watch – UK video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1pMMIe4hb4
Watch – USA video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BW3gKKiTvjs
Another Kate Bush song ‘Suspended In Gaffa’ from her self-produced 1982 album The Dreaming is about a strange place – or more like a purgatory – we are given a glimpse of ‘God’ (‘half of a heaven’) but we will attain that enlightenment again unless we work extremely hard for it. Until then, we are ‘suspended in Gaffa’ (which is a reference to being bound with gaffer tape). Some scenes in Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ video are very similar to the ones of Kate in an attic filtering a golden heavenly light in this video.
Lipps Inc. took us to ‘Funkytown’ in 1980 with their very popular latter-day modern disco hit with a new wave feel. The robotic female vocals pre-dated Auto-tune.
Olivia Newton John (backed by Electric Light Orchestra) had a huge dance hit in 1980 with the title song of the film soundtrack ‘Xanadu’, despite the negative reactions to the movie. The lyrics are about being in a heavenly place with the one you love. The actual Xanadu existed in China – during Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty. Xanadu was also the gothic mansion of Orson Welles’ character Charles Foster Kane in the film Citizen Kane.
The gorgeous ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ is from the 2004 debut album Hopes and Fears by Keane. It can be about a real or imagined place in the past or in the future.
Longer demo version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D69JWNOjkpo
There is one place that we can always get to if we dream – a song from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ (which was almost cut from the film) is now a beloved worldwide classic. The songwriter Harold Arlen (a Jew who had immigrated from Lithuania) once had this actual longing himself – for freedom from a nightmare situation.
Dorothy (Judy Garland) sings the song to her dog Toto at the start of the film. The setting is on the dreary sepia-toned farm where Dorothy lives in Kansas. In the song’s intro, she speaks to Toto in a sing-song voice about a place she longs reach – “a place far, far away – behind the moon, beyond the rain.” The octave jump in the melody inspired the David Bowie song ‘Starman’ (which is sung to children) while another Bowie song, ‘Life On Mars?’ is also about the dreary existence of a young girl who looks to the cinema for something more meaningful – but certainly does not find it there.
My full story about ‘Life On Mars?’
My story about The Wizard of Oz 3-D version on its 75th anniversary
Now that we’ve been everywhere let’s click our heels three times because it’s undeniable that THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME!
‘Homeward Bound’ – Simon & Garfunkel – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme 1966
‘Two of Us’ – The Beatles – Let It Be 1970
Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd – Second Helping 1974
‘Home’ – Iggy Pop – Brick By Brick 1990
See my ‘Playlists’ category for more themed playlists.
Also see ‘About a Song’ for my stories about specific songs.
Also see my stories about other songs:
Eat to the Beat