Song Analysis #60: The Hollies – Bus Stop

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It’s Christmas time. Even if it wasn’t, I think we all need a break from the madness that’s going in our world. Fully considering both, the song I chose for today is from a simpler time, but it has an interesting back story.

Music editors, music journalists, and even musicians themselves these days often bemoan the lack of inspired songwriting hitting the top of the charts. It can feel pretty sobering to see the laundry list of songwriters, producers, and players on an album created in the 21st century album because some of us remember when it was just the bands, the singer, and a producer who were involved in the making of one. However, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, chart-topping hits that were written by people and that the bands themselves didn’t have a hand in writing at all was commonplace. In America, Elvis Presley and the Monkees didn’t pen their own material (or at least most of it), and the public didn’t care. For a fictional dramedy about that time period, I recommend the Alison Anders-directed film Grace of My Heart, which feels entirely believable to me following my experience as in the music business.

Graham Gouldman is an English musician best known for his work with 10cc, responsible for the cloying 1975 hit ‘I’m Not in Love’ that Gouldman cowrote. What I did not know until I started digging around to write this analysis was that he wrote one of my favorite songs ever. Perhaps even more surprising is that his own father, Hyme Gouldman, a playwright, started the song for him that led to The Hollies’ first hit in America.

Title: ‘Bus Stop’
Where to find it: ‘Bus Stop’ single (1966, Parlophone)
Performed by: The Hollies
Words by: Graham and Hyme Gouldman (credited to Graham Gouldman)

Verse 1
Bus stop, wet day, she’s there, I say
Please share my umbrella
Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, love grows
Under my umbrella

All that summer we enjoyed it
Wind and rain and shine
That umbrella, we employed it
By August, she was mine

“Chorus” 1
Every morning I would see her waiting at the stop
Sometimes she’d shopped and she would show me what she bought
Other people stared as if we were both quite insane
Someday my name and hers are going to be the same

Verse 2
That’s the way the whole thing started
Silly but it’s true
Thinkin’ of a sweet romance
Beginning in a queue

Came the sun the ice was melting
No more sheltering now
Nice to think that that umbrella
Led me to a vow

“Chorus” 2
Every morning I would see her waiting at the stop
Sometimes she’d shopped and she would show me what she bought
Other people stared as if we were both quite insane
Someday my name and hers are going to be the same

Verse 3
Bus stop, wet day, she’s there, I say
Please share my umbrella
Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, love grows
Under my umbrella

All that summer we enjoyed it
Wind and rain and shine
That umbrella, we employed it
By August, she was mine

I consider ‘Bus Stop’ one of the finest examples of quintessentially English ‘60s pop. I say it’s *English* pop because of the words chosen and its reflective mood. Where else would it raining so frequently to necessitate our hero to be carrying an umbrella with him all the time? In summer, we’re told “wind and rain and shine”, that poor brolly was equally “enjoyed” and “employed”. Graham Gouldman was born in Broughton, Salford, greater Manchester – that’s the North West of England for non-Brits reading this – so he was certainly a lad who knew something about rain. A song like this would not have been written in America. I can’t imagine someone at the Brill Building in New York coming up with this. We go through all four seasons in this song, so it couldn’t have come from Los Angeles, either. Notice, too, that the minor key throughout, including that observed on the guitar line, has an Indian influence, likely nicked from and aping the style of the Beatles‘Norwegian Wood’ and the Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ popular at the time.

It’s pop that’s super easy to sing along to. Most of the words here are one syllable, handily adding syncopation through the vocals. However, this isn’t pop in the way you might think of it if you used the Archies’ ‘Sugar Sugar’ as the gold standard template for bubblegum pop. I’ve noted the two interloper sections of text as chorus in quotations, as these sections aren’t choruses in the conventional sense. They’re not the kind of chorus you would jump up and down at a show to sing or scream along to. We’re used to thinking of choruses as the parts that have less finesse because they have to be repeated multiple times throughout a song.

What does Gouldman do with these faux choruses? Something amazing. The notes twirl in the air to convey our hero’s enchantment with his girl. He’s on cloud nine, and he’s taken us with him. We might not have shouted these words back at the Hollies at one of their concerts, but for sure, the emotion comes across in spades. The emotion swells further because guitarists Graham Nash and Vic Steele join in with lead singer Allan Clarke to deliver awe-inspiring harmonies. Nash would, of course, soon move on to form Crosby, Stills, and Nash, another group who would be known for their gorgeous harmonies.

You know that feeling of being in love? Well, folks, he just hit you with it right there, too. “Someday my name and hers are going to be the same”: this was back in the days when double-barreled last names and the idea that women could keep their maiden names (good heavens!) weren’t even considered. It is one of the sweetest sentiments in pop music, that he’s thinking one day he’s going to make her his wife. Bonus: The long-suffering brolly gets thanked for his role in this: “Nice to think that that umbrella / led me to a vow”.

I am a child of the American suburbs, where you needed and still need a car to get around. The idea of romanticizing a ‘Bus Stop’ was lost on me until I started traveling in Britain and in Europe. You can wait and spend a lot of time a bus stop, and I can believe that people could meet their mates while waiting for a bus to show up. Maybe I should wait for more buses!

Lastly, a live performance of the song by the Hollies, in which some of them are sporting those godawful frilly tie-fluff things that would eventually open the door to the ‘70s frilly shirt. Ack! At least the music is good!

Song Analysis #59: Dido – Hunter

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As I have been working on my memoir and revisiting old memories, I have been reminded of times in my life when I felt like I was butting my head against the patriarchy. I am not completely at ease with “being a woman”. I doubt any free-thinking woman is. I can count and recall pivotal times in my life where I’ve thought it would have been so much easier to have been born a boy. Based on societal norms and templates, some major choices a girl confronts as she grows from a child, to a young woman, and into an adult woman greatly differ than those presented to a boy.

At this year’s SXSW, I sat in on a session starring Shirley Manson and found her thoughts on how young girls are raised to think about themselves very powerful. I, like probably every woman on the planet, has contemplated at least once (and probably at length many more times) that her primary purpose on this earth was as a decorative object and how unfair that is. Being assertive does not come naturally to young girls unless, perhaps, you have a mother or other female role model showing you that you are allowed to assert yourself. The term “weaker sex” compounds the problem, perpetuating the myth.

I rediscovered this song by Dido a few days ago, and I was reminded of how much I had loved it when it was released. As I described in the previous Music in Notes post “The Voice (no, not the tv show)”, I experience a bizarre, connective feeling when I sing or listen to certain songs. This is one of them.

Title: ‘Hunter’
Where to find it: ‘No Angel’ (1999, Arista [US], BMG [UK]); single (2001, BMG)
Performed by: Dido
Words by: could be Dido herself, her producer brother Rollo, or the two of them together

Verse 1
With one light on, in one room
I know you’re up when I get home
With one small step upon the stair
I know your look when I get there

Chorus
If you were a king, up there on your throne,
Would you be wise enough to let me go?
For this queen you think you own
Wants to be a hunter again
I want to see the world alone again
To take a chance on life again
So let me go

Verse 2
The unread book and painful look
The TV’s on, the sound is down
One long pause, then you begin
“Oh look what the cat’s brought in”

Chorus
If you were a king, up there on your throne
Would you be wise enough to let me go?
For this queen you think you own
Wants to be a hunter again
I want to see the world alone again
To take a chance on life again
So let me go
Let me leave

Bridge
For the crown you’ve placed upon my head feels too heavy now
And I don’t know what to say to you, but I’ll smile anyhow
And all the time I’m thinking, thinking

Modified chorus and outro
I want to be a hunter again
I want to see the world alone again
To take a chance on life again
So let me go
I want to be a hunter again
I want to see the world alone again
To take a chance on life again
So let me go
Let me leave
Let me go

In verse 1 of ‘Hunter’, Dido paints a very clear picture of herself (or a female protagonist) returning home to a disapproving partner. To make things easier for me in this analysis, I’m going to assume it’s Dido herself. She describes the partner still “up when I get home”, meaning she’s been out late, or later than her partner would have liked, and probably somewhere he did not want her to go. Him coming along with her that night doesn’t seem to have been an option.

For women who had strict fathers, there’s a whiff of that late-night paternal disapproval we can relate to. A father watching the clock angrily when we came in far later than curfew, the shuffling of his feet on his way to bed, the clear displeasure in his body language that we had shirked the house rules but nevertheless, at least our dads were comforted with the fact that we got home safe. Even if you discount the conveyance of this paternal feeling, Dido wants you to know that the man is in a position of power over her. She compares him to “a king, up there on your throne” and begs him to “let her go” and let her “be a hunter again” in the chorus. She believes she is a pawn to be “own”[ed], the lesser queen ‘half’ to him in the relationship.

Dido’s name comes from an ancient Greek queen. I started thinking about the Greek mythology I read in 6th grade and Artemis, sister to Apollo and the famed goddess of the hunt. (There is a separate rabbit hole you can go down if you want to read about the legend of her chastity.) Using the huntress child of Zeus as a analogy here is perfect, as Dido has lost the ability to ‘hunt’, to live life the way she wants to, presumably the way she was living before she entered into the relationship. We don’t have any further background on what their relationship is like. Are they married? Is he abusive? How long have they been unhappy together? We just don’t know. All we are afforded is this late night snapshot where she has returned to their home, he isn’t happy with her, and she says she wants her freedom and to make choices for herself again.

The lyrics in the bridge, though short, are tantalizing in their imagery. Dido sings, “for the crown you’ve placed upon my head feels too heavy now”, repeating the idea of their relationship being of king and subservient queen. It feels to me that he chose her, that he had more say in their relationship than she did. He put the figurative crown on her head and anointed her his queen. I’m imagining a couple who got together when they were stupidly young, the guy took the reins, and they both had this idea that they would have an idyllic life together.

The problem with that thinking is that life is and becomes messy. Life is also rarely linear. We go through experiences and get changed by them. Even for couples who go through a shared experience, each partner comes out the other side changed and in different ways. What worked for you and passed for love when you were a teenager isn’t the same for when you are in your twenties, trying to make your way in the world, nor is it the same after having children and reaching mid-life or later. She’s “thinking” about how things could be different if she was free. She doesn’t “know what to say to you, but I’ll smile anyhow”, pretending to him that they are fine, all the while plotting her escape.

The minor key of the song envelopes the song in a sinister fog. When I first heard ‘Hunter’, I was sure that Dido had been mistreated and was desperately trying to leave her abusive partner. Having been through a few relationships and breakups since, I have changed my position, thinking this is less likely and that the song is simply about how two people who once loved each other inevitably grew apart. She has changed so much that she feels she has to seek her independence and find herself again. She needs this.

I find when I sing this song, which was true before and still now, I am extremely sympathetic to Dido’s character. I can tap into the emotion in the outro, of how badly she wants to leave, how she has reached a breaking point in this relationship. I also want to point out where in the chorus the notes physically soar and just at the right place lyrically: “to take a chance on life again”. If you want to be even more specific, this happens right on the words “a chance”. Incredible. If you don’t believe me, scroll to 48 seconds in the stream below and prepare to be amazed. Overall, a beautifully delivered, powerful song.

The Voice (no, not the tv show)

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This is an excerpt from the ongoing draft of my memoir. All rights reserved.

Nine years ago, I got my heart broken. I cried. A lot.

Of everything that happened around then, one of the clearest moments I remember of the time, about 2 months after, is a bit of a weird story.

Some of my friends valiantly tried to cheer me up, but nothing really worked. We heard about a Christmas karaoke night at a British pub downtown. One of my friends came from out of town and practically had to drag me there. She knew I liked to sing, so I guess she thought it was worth my going so my mind would be preoccupied for a night. It became time to pick something to sing. She had chosen ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by the Waitresses, but as you probably imagine, I wasn’t feeling especially festive.

I chose one of my favorite Killers songs, ‘Spaceman’. No pun intended, I killed it, you know, the way kids today talk about killing it and doing a grand job. For a few years, I was obsessed with the Killers. When I discovered them, they were Americans who, honestly, were the closest thing we could get to a British synthpop band at the time.

Singing temporarily numbed my pain because, ultimately, I am and have always been a natural singer. There is something magical that happens within me when I open my mouth and a song comes out, whether it was when I sang lead on ‘O Holy Night’ in a high school performance or this night in a pub in Washington. It is a gift. Just one I never got to use the way it was intended. But that’s for another chapter of my memoir.

I hadn’t sung in public in ages, and yet the words came out easily, as if I had stepped out of my choir class in high school. I sing in the car. I sing in the shower. I sing at my computer during the workday while Spotify or a CD runs. Compared to most people who would find it a distraction, I am actually a more productive and much happier worker when music is on versus when it’s not. Three years ago, on a tour bus trip on the west coast of Ireland, I sang along to a Script song without thinking anyone would be listening to me. Some of my fellow riders applauded me. Three thousand miles away from home, that was quite funny.

What is it about singing that I find so wonderful? I have always known that the emotions of a song, packed into a song’s lyrics, melody, and other music of its make-up, speak directly to me. Further, this happens at a somewhat frightening level with certain songs for me, where I can actually feel my body tingling and vibrating, connecting to the song’s own sonic wavelengths. What a freaky thing to happen.

I have been reflecting more on this, trying to physically analyze what it is about these particular songs that are causing this physiological reaction. (I trained as a biologist at university, what can I say?) Is it the words? Is it the melody? The melody of the verse, or of the chorus? Is it a chord change? Is it the anthemic soaring of a song, either musically or lyrically, that wonderfully feel good quality that is instantly palpable to all but deathly difficult to write? It could be any or all of these things together in one song.

I’ve been trying to put a list together of these ‘triggering’ songs. The Beatles’ ‘I Should Have Known Better’ was one of the seminal moments of my life when I felt like I’d been slapped in the face and that what I was listening to was something truly amazing. It’s still amazing 32 years later.