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My request last week for your greatest love songs showed that FT readers are an erudite and eclectic bunch – no surprises there – but also prone to romantic tendencies. Perhaps it is something to do with your age, and my age for that matter, but there are no songs nominated from the past 20 years. That’s a disappointment. I was hoping that the “You’re my wonderwall” generation had hidden emotional depths, but it seems all those Frappuccinos and episodes of Friends have wreaked havoc among tender sensibilities.
There is no better place to discern the decline of literacy, or at least the coarsening of the imagination, than the evolution of the pop song. I don’t necessarily want to harp on about Bob Dylan, but your entries leave me with no choice. It is a remarkable aspect of Dylan’s songwriting that, somewhere between the middle of the 1960s and the middle of the 1970s, he transferred his interests from the inequities of the political cosmos to the delicate workings of the human heart and displayed, if anything, a shrewder talent.
Dylan leads your nominations: from the gnomic couplets of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (“Some speak of the future/ My love she speaks softly/ She knows there’s no success like failure/ And that failure’s no success at all”) to the epistemological tease of “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind” (“I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear/ As someone who has had you on his mind”).
Contrary to popular belief, Dylan didn’t work in a vacuum. In an excellent essay on obsessive listening on the website Slate.com, Ron Rosenbaum says that Dylan told him that his great love song “Tangled Up in Blue” was inspired by a weekend listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue. This cross-fertilisation between artists was a hallmark of popular music’s golden age.
Are there songs that transcend the boundaries of different types of love? A reader puts forward “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” because it contains lines that can be sung both to a lover and to a new-born child (although in truth this only applies to the haunting opening verse). It is also worth remembering that Roberta Flack’s seminal version of the song was first brought to public attention in Clint Eastwood’s creepy Play Misty For Me, in one of those mystifying love-making scenes where no one is actually moving.
The song has become a standard, although most versions fail to plumb its emotional depths (its songwriter Ewan MacColl famously described them as a “chamber of horrors”), confirming that the performance of a great love song is as vital as its conception. Returning to Dylan, can anyone imagine that great opening verse of the twice-nominated “Shelter from the Storm” (“I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form/ ‘Come in’, she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’.”) delivered by anything other than that wounded drawl?
Opening verses are important, setters of mood and tone. I was accosted at the British Museum earlier in the week by a reader who concurred with my own nomination of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” as one of the most moving of love songs, thanks to the crackling intelligence and irony of those first lines. A reader from New York moves several notches down the pop spectrum with Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You”, overlooking its “dreadful” title for its opening: “Maybe I hang around here/ A little more than I should/ We both know I got somewhere else to go”.
There is a pleasingly high-low feel to one reader’s nomination, which twins William Congreve’s libretto for The Judgment of Paris with Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug”. The former is a piece of hubristic humanism (“Happy thou of Human Race/ Gods with thee would change their Place/ With no God I’d change my Place/ Happy I of Human Race”), whose hero is transported by his own lust for the lovely Helen: “O Ravishing Delight!/ What Mortal can support the Sight?/ Alas! too weak is Human Brain/ So much Rapture to Sustain”. Three hundred years later, the theme is the same, but the treatment somewhat more direct: “I say go, she say yes/ Dim the lights, you can guess the rest.” This is, of course, what has happened to the love song over the years: it has become cruder in its subject matter, sharper in musical punctuation, more vulgar in its refrains. The culmination occurred during the punk years, when a movement dedicated to trash and ugliness was forced to confront the possibility that human beings could occasionally enjoy each other.
The result was songs such as Richard Hell’s “Love Comes in Spurts”, perhaps the most reductive love song title of all time, but a lament that is still capable of sensitive observation: “I just can’t get wise to those tragical lies, though I now know the facts, they still cut like an axe.” It’s a long way from Congreve, or Dylan for that matter, but its message is timeless.
Love hurts. However you do it. And it makes for great songs.
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden