Call Me, The Telephone in Song

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I went to sleep considering ideas for new stories and awoke sometime later with a start- songs about telephones. Who knows which part of my unconscious mind this little gem arose from but considering the importance of this communication device to modern life there must surely be a plentiful cannon of music celebrating its contribution to affairs of the heart, always the leading topic in any popular music genre.

Before I consulted the Web for information I decided to troll my own musical memories for phone related songs and the first thing that sprang to mind was “Sylvia’s Mother”, a droll little piece of ascending emotional drama written by Shel Silverstein and performed by Dr Hook & The Medicine Show. Later they shortened this moniker, (the former part referring to vocalist Ray Swayers eye-patch; he lost an eye in a car accident, the latter part of the title referencing the groups penchant for narcotic substances), to Dr Hook.

Released in 1972, it was the first big hit of many for this pop ensemble and the first of many written for them by Silverstein in what was to become an enduring and mutually beneficial relationship.

A massive international hit that went top 5 in the USA, it concerns a caller desperate to get through to his ex-lover with a plea for another chance before she goes off to marry someone else, the obstacle being the former lovers Mother who won’t have a bar of it. The tension ratchets up a notch each time the operator interrupts the caller’s increasingly desperate pleas with a request for more money. The overwrought vocal delivery is sublime and is the making of the song.

Of course if you were born after the age of the coin operated phone machine the whole scenario might seem somewhat ludicrous, but yes, that’s how difficult getting in touch with someone could be before the advent of txting, emails and Facbook.

Silverstein, (September 25, 1930-May 10th, 1999), was a bestselling crime novelist, cartoonist, children’s book author, playwright and songwriter responsible for such luminous tracks as Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue (1969) and Dr Hook’s most iconic track, 1972’s ‘The Cover of the Rolling Stone’, (the refrain pleads- I want to see my smiling face on the cover of the Rolling Stone- to which the magazine dutifully obliged), among many other notable hits.

As the years progressed Dr Hook’s song choice became less satirical and more pop mainstream. After more international hits than one can count on the fingers of two hands, the boys petered out somewhere in the wastelands of the mid -1980s.

My wayward Uncle Ray, (con-artist and fast talker extraordinaire), was my teenage mentor. I am not sure what my very straight parents were thinking leaving me in his care, (he lived in the city I was sent to for my High School education), but there I was, young and ready to be impressed and Ray did not disappoint one iota.

Ray while somewhat sociopathic and not a little narcissistic had his good points, one of which was his top line Japanese made quadraphonic stereo system and a record collection big enough to impress the most hardened of souls let alone a skinny and largely sheltered kid from the sticks.

Ray loved the Eagles, (I forgive him for that) and impressively the rather left field country styling’s of The Amazing Rhythm Aces. He had a soft spot for Harry Nilsson and like everybody of his generation worshipped at the feet of Elvis and the Beatles, but his greatest musical love was the singer-songwriter styling’s of Jim Croce whose music he devoured like a dervish.

After years of struggling, Croce, (a blue collar song-smith from Philadelphia), had finally broken through into the big time only to die suddenly in 1973 when the light plane he was travelling on between gigs fell from the sky in the worst possible way.

He left behind several songs that were to quickly become standards: I Got A Name/Time In A Bottle/Bad Bad Leroy Brown/Photograph’s and Memories and I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song.

Operator is not held in the same regard as these tunes but is a mighty fine track all the same. This time the hapless and heartbroken caller is pleading to the telephone operator for assistance in tracking down his former lovers new phone number, she the one who abandoned him for his ‘best old ex-friend Ray’. The phone call turns out to be more of a therapy session as his need to contact her and tell her that he forgives her gives way to a realisation that it’s now in the past and doesn’t matter anymore.

While on the subject of plane crashes and musicians, The Big Bopper had one massive hit- Chantilly Lace, (which concerns a thoroughly broke suitor negotiating a ‘date’ with his girl via the phone), before his untimely demise in February 1959 alongside Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly in an infamous and ill fated chartered flight that ended abruptly in the wintry snow drifts of central Iowa moments after takeoff.

It took three days for rescue teams to locate the wreckage and rumours circulated for years that the Bopper survived the crash and died slowly from hypothermia. His son latter had the body exhumed and the coroner confirmed that every bone in the body had been broken and that former Texas Radio DJ Jiles Perry Richardson had indeed died instantly upon impact, putting that particular urban myth to sleep.

Stevie Wonder, who needs no introduction to anybody, scored one of the biggest hits of his career with a ‘phone call’ related song back in 1984. I Just Called To Say I Love you was from the Wonder composed soundtrack to Gene Wilder’s comedy film The Woman in Red. Okay, not the greatest film ever made, but hey, it’s Gene: Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka and See No Evil-Hear No Evil, and with a record like that you can be forgiven most things. (Besides, the movie was a huge success and I am sure Wilder appreciated his share of the profits).

The song secured Wonder an academy award beating out that years other big contender-Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Junior who was later sued by Huey Lewis claiming that Parker had ripped off his song I Want A New Drug to create the iconic theme.

The case was settled out of court.

I mentioned Johnny Cash a few paragraphs back and the Man in Black has a particular connection to the roots of the modern country music industry through his marriage to June Carter Cash who was a member of the illustrious Carter Family, the first big stars of the musical form. Carter family patriarch A.P. Carter was not only a handy vocalist and all round musician but also a noted musicologist. Between gigs he would hive off to the hills in search of music for the group to record and perform.

Away so frequently and for so long that wife and fellow Carter family compatriot Sara fell into the arms of A.P’s cousin for solace.

A divorce followed but the group carried on.

This angst ridden little track concerns a little girl who wants to phone her mother who has gone away to be with god in heaven. A merchant, the owner of the phone in question, is trying to explain in the most careful way to the young child, that there is no telephone in heaven.

Dating from 1929, this original A.P Carter composition harks back to the time of ‘party lines’, (a subject he Kinks will enlarge upon at the end of the article). Back then phones had no dial mechanism and calls were connected via manually operated telephone exchanges- purpose built rooms where people, (usually women), matched caller with destination.

At this stage I am out of inspiration and turn to Google for further enlightenment and am not surprised to find a Wikipedia page devoted to the subject though the cannon is much smaller than I would have expected given our reliance on the phone as a means of communicating love, heartbreak and other related conditions.

Blondie’s Call Me. Seriously, as if you have to ask? If Debbie Harry asked you to call her would you hesitate?

British Band The Electric Light Orchestra’s Telephone Line was the 15th biggest selling song in the US in 1976. The band had their sights firmly set on the lucrative American market while recording and the track features an American dial tone. Explains Lynne –

‘To get the sound on the beginning, you know, the American telephone sound, we phoned from England to America to a number that we know nobody would be at, to just listen to it for a while. On the Moog we recreated the sound exactly by tuning the oscillators to the same notes as the ringing of the phone’.

Perhaps the last word in telephone etiquette belongs to 1970s jazz/rock ensemble Steely Dan. Their biggest hit reminds the listener that the little piece of paper the number is scrawled on is easily lost, a problem less pressing with the advent of cellular technology and the myriad methods these devices provide for storing valuable lines of numerals that may or may not lead to a potential love connection.

As for the rest, well they are mixed batch of efforts, but that is a subjective opinion. Scroll through the list and judge for yourself.

http://http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Songs_about_telephone_calls

As for the fixed line phone, it is a rather humble and utilitarian device that is now quickly being consigned to the graveyard of history and will soon be but a quaint afterthought in our collective memory.

The new frontier of communication belongs to a little handheld device that has more processing power than the computer systems onboard the spaceship that took the first explorers to the moon in 1969 and time has yet to reveal what lasting artistic inspiration this little gadget might yet engender.

Perhaps a tender ring-tone beloved by the ages or a deep and everlasting cyber paean to unrequited love delivered in 5- part harmony from the latest boy or girl band of the moment. The skies the limit, except if you are a songwriter with a phone related song idea in the making. In this case history has clearly demonstrated that you best stay away from aircraft at all costs.

As for a song to complete this list I could not decide between something old or new so I went with both. Lady Gaga’s Telephone, a gratuitous music video set in a prison where hot girls prance about their sexy underwear followed by the Kinks and a track called Party Line. Yes, once upon a time people often had to share telephone lines. These so called ‘party lines’ were wonderful places to eavesdrop in on private calls. Beware the unwary here as the local gossip could have a field day listening in on conversations not meant for general dissemination.

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