Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dial M for Music Pop Goes the Telephone

Dial M for Music Pop Goes the Telephone

Dial M for Music Pop Goes the Telephone, Long before ringtones and room for MP3s and videos, musicians and songwriters used telephones as symbols, plot devices and even song titles. MSN contributor Sean Nelson revisits a cross-section of paeans to love and loss over the wires.

Lady Gaga (feat. Beyoncé), "Telephone"

Gaga, sick and tired of her suitor's constant attention, uses her phone as a repository of excuses: no service in the club, can't text with a drink in my hand, etc. By the time featured guest Beyoncé declares, "I shoulda left my phone at home/ this is a disaster," the 24-hour access of cellular technology sounds more like a curse than a blessing.
Beyoncé, "Video Phone"

R&B's reigning object of desire ups the ante on the old "why don't you take a picture; it'll last longer" retort by encouraging the men ogling her to capture the walk they like so much. "You sayin' that you want me," she dares them, "so press record, I'll let you film me." Sometimes a phone is more than just a phone.

Glenn Miller, "PEnnsylvania 6-5000"

Ever since telephones became staples of modern life, they have figured in popular songs. This 1940 smash from the master of big-band swing is entirely instrumental, save for the title refrain, which is simply the phone number of New York's Hotel Pennsylvania written in the old-school style.
Chuck Berry, "Memphis, Tennessee"

One of many rockers that find someone pleading for help from the long-distance operator — this time to find the number of his sweet Marie. The big reveal that the girl in question is the singer's 6-year-old daughter adds a layer of emotion to what now sounds like a series of mishaps that could easily have been remedied by modern technology.
The Replacements, "Answering Machine"

A road-weary lament from a touring musician too tired to write a letter to his girl back home, and left wondering "How do you say 'good night' to an answering machine?" Nowadays, a lovelorn complaint against the inhumanity of messaging might seem quaint. But it'll break your heart.
Wings, "Call Me Back Again"

A big New Orleans brass section embellishes this soul-drenched howl in which Paul McCartney implores an absent lover to get in touch. The song is simple and catchy, and gets right to the heart of that universal lovesick condition: wondering what the person who won't call you is doing while you wait by the phone.
Meri Wilson, "Telephone Man"

Novelty songs are even older than telephones themselves, so it stands to reason that this quirky earworm would bring the two elements together in one double entendre-laden package about a lonely woman and the phone installer who sorts out her needs. "You just show me where you want it and I'll put it where I can," indeed.
The Decemberists, "Angel, Won't You Call Me?"

The age-old theme of begging the object of your affection to pick up the phone and get in touch — if only to prove she knows you exist — is given the melodic folk-pop treatment in this light, wonderful early song by Portland's conquering heroes.
Rufus Wainwright, "Vibrate"

A swooning ode to one of contemporary romance's most generous gestures — keeping the vibrating phone close to the skin in case the one you're waiting for calls. It doesn't end well for the narrator of this number, but he's still waiting, because romance never dies.
Todd Rundgren,"Hello It's Me"

This total heartbreaker of a love song is all about the agony of long distance (literal and figurative), which is probably why the conceit of the lyrics has Rundgren singing them as a phone call to his faraway gf, whom he assures he has no desire to change or possess. "It's important to me that you know you are free," he sings. But the sound of his voice on the line tells another story.
Beastie Boys, "Cookie Puss"

The first and foremost example of the crank-call-as-single, "Cookie Puss" was the first thing the Beastie Boys ever released, even before "Fight for Your Right to Party" made them stars. Basically, they call a Carvel Ice Cream store and ask for someone named Cookie Puss (which is the name of the chain's bizarre signature confection) while the clerk gets flustered and beats race in the background. Good times.
Tommy Tutone, "867-5309/Jenny"

It's not every day someone turns a piece of graffiti into a major hit, but in the case of Portland's Tommy Tutone, this story of the digits on a bathroom wall and the girl they belonged to was the song that made not only their career, but one imagines, a good time.
The Big Bopper, "Chantilly Lace"

Everyone knows this one: The deep-voiced Big Bopper howls into a phone to his baby ("Will I what?"), before running down a list of the virtues that make her so exciting, including the French lace of the title, a pretty face, ponytail, her walk (wiggly), her talk (giggly) and so on. The song's real hook is wondering what's going on down the other end of the phone. Must be pretty lascivious to get him shouting, "Oh, baby, that's what I like!" so loudly.
Glen Campbell, "Wichita Lineman"

Phones figure in this epic masterpiece both as backdrop — the singer is a lineman for the county, repairing the wires that used to carry phone signals across the vast expanses — and as metaphor: Singing to his absent beloved, he hears her in those same wires, but can't reach her because he has too much work left to do.
Blondie, "Call Me" and "Hanging on the Telephone"

The first of these new wave classics was a global hit that created the ultimate association between pop music and telephonic communication. Not sure? Just try telling someone to call you and see if they don't respond by singing "on a liiiine." The other — no less classic — connects to the days when phones stayed put and if you wanted to reach someone, you did, too.
ELO, "Telephone Line"

The premier Beatles impersonators of their era pour on the grandeur for this pop operatic paean to the unique frustration of calling someone who refuses to pick up. Singer Jeff Lynne swoons in romantic agony and vows to "let it ring for evermore."
Muddy Waters, "Long Distance Call"

A landmark number by the architect of the blues, in which he implores his woman to ease his worried mind by calling him from far away. He even promises her a brand new Cadillac. But when the phone finally rings, the news isn't good: "When I picked up my receiver, the party said 'another mule kickin' in your stall.'"
Wilson Pickett, "634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)"

The old adage "He's so great, I'd listen to him read the phone book" never had a better model than this Stax Records gem built on one of the greatest singers who ever lived repeating the title digits again and again over a swinging R&B groove.

(LA Media/Sunshine/Retna Ltd
Steely Dan, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"

The phone takes on a slightly more sinister role in this deceptive slice of groovy temptation aimed at a woman trying to escape a seedy life. Her old partner in crime wishes her well, but urges her not to forget how to get in touch in the event of a "change of heart."
Stevie Wonder, "I Just Called to Say I Love You"

It's hard to imagine anyone considering this synth-heavy confectionary megahit among Stevie Wonder's finest works, but the simple phone theme went to No. 1 in 1984, helping restore his commercial reputation, and vaulting him into his third decade at the high end of the charts.
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