From Wikipedia: A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. Ballads were particularly characteristic of the popular poetry and song of the British Isles from the later medieval period until the 19th century […] In the later 19th century it took on the meaning of a slow form of popular love song and the term is now often used as synonymous with any love song, particularly the pop or rock power ballad.
Love songs eh? I never thought I was a traditional romantic type until recently when I was searching for a track and typed ‘ballad’ into ITunes and got exactly 10 songs … of varying degrees of loved-up-ness admittedly. Happily, I realised that this was just the right amount of tracks needed for a Leeds Playlist so had another listen to what exactly constitutes a ballad in this day and age:
I’m not sure when pop musicians started reusing this word – The Ballad of John and Yoko is perhaps the first song with this title that springs to mind, though it’s not in this list (sorry!). In my collection, the trend first starts with Bob Dylan doing the traditional American country-folk song thing, influenced by Woody Guthrie and his tales of the Mid-West dustbowl and then the social turmoil prevalent in the 1950s. I could have picked a number of Dylan songs with ballad in the title but this one was the least upsetting. [Ballad in Plain D is a travesty and should never have been recorded in my opinion.] A scornful song about rock critics that just don’t understand what Bob is all about (please refer to the Don’t Look Back documentary for further proof of his contempt), “The Ballad of a Thin Man” (1965) is a scathing attack on inane music journalist questions and their misrepresentation of him in the press: “Because something is happening here/ But you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mister Jones?”
Talking of BD, “The Ballad of Easy Rider” is next. Again, a number of versions could have been substituted for this one but I picked the Fairport Convention effort because I love Sandy Denny’s voice so much. Written by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds in 1969 for the Easy Rider film, Dylan got a song-writing credit which he then demanded be removed…?! The song provides the musical score to the film: two freewheelin’ hippy types (played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) travel across America and get into a few scrapes along the way: “Flow river flow/ Let your waters wash down/ Take me from this road/ To some other town”.
So onwards then to Big Star! What can I say, one of those ‘very nearly but not quite’, non-success stories – a band that should have been BIG STAR(s) but it inexplicably never happened as expected. With this band, we move a little closer to the ‘power pop’ definition of the modern ballad: written in 1972 by Alex Chiltern (formally of the Box Tops), “The Ballad of El Goodo” is a song of hope and perseverance in the face of ‘unbelievable odds’, an anthem for those that believe in themselves even if no-one else does!
Another individual that seems to have eluded commercial success is the mercurial Anton Newcombe – lead singer of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and anti-hero (or complete arse, depending on your view) of the DIG! documentary, which followed his rivalry with fellow musicians The Dandy Warhols, c.1997-2004. It’s fair to say that Newcombe has ‘issues’ though to me the music always helps me to see past the massive ego and drug addled ramblings… “The Ballad of Jim Jones” (he of the original Jonestown Massacre in 1978) is taken from the Thank God for Mental Illness album – one of three albums they released in 1996. Essentially revivalist and retro in nature (as most of the BJM songs are), this Ballad is one of my favourite toe-tappers ever dedicated to a mass murderer…
From one former troubled artist to another, Marianne Faithful and her cover of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”. The Seventies were not kind to Faithful, though 1979 saw her return to the scene with the critically acclaimed Broken English album. The song was originally written by American poet Shel Silverstein, and has also been recorded by Dr Hook and Lee Hazelwood. Given Marianne Faithful’s colourful personal life, her decline and subsequent resurrection however I think this ballad is best interpreted by someone that typifies the world-weariness and shattered illusions that the words describe: “At the age of thirty-seven she realised she’d never/ Ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.”
So then to Serge Gainsbourg, the original balladeer and archetypal romantic Frenchman, non?! “I never actually had a relationship with him,” says Marianne Faithfull, “but I sometimes wish I had.” Jane Birkin (one of the lucky ladies who did) gets to sing this song with Serge, her lover of thirteen years: Ballade de Melody Nelson comes from his 1971 concept album of a similar title, which is all pervy and not suitable for young ears as you would expect. If you’re wondering what Monsieur Gainsbourg is going on about in this song, then the accompanying video gives the translation in subtitles.
Another unashamed romantic is Aidan Moffat. No less blunt in his portrayal of doomed love affairs, his work with Arab Strap is a compendium of ill-advised one night stands, unrequited love and suffocating relationships. In 2011 he collaborated with Bill Wells on the award-winning Everything’s Getting Older album. “Ballad of a Bastard” indeed: “I don’t love you, who knows if I ever did? / Who the fuck did I think I was trying to kid?”. Harsh but probably fair me thinks!
On to the next musical duo, NYC’s Moldy Peaches. Adam Green and Kimya Dawson released an eponymous album in 2001 featuring this short ditty: “The Ballad of Helen Keller & Rip Van Winkle”. I must be honest and say that I don’t really know much about the origins of this song – you can google the protagonists but there is no real information from the band on why they wrote it… not that you need an explanation really, just enjoy!
My penultimate song is “The Ballad Of…” by King Khan & BBQ Show, from the 2006 What’s For Dinner? album, which sadly I couldn’t find on YouTube but which you can listen to on Spotify. I would recommend giving them a listen – a Canadian garage rock duo seamlessly mixing do-wop, psych-pop and punk… sadly they split in 2010 but they have a great sound and look amazing so check em out!
Last but not least, and because it’s NOW SHOWING at the cinema and I like silly novelty pop songs sung by otherwise serious actors: ”The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” by Leonard Nimoy… enough said!
- Bob Dylan – Ballad Of A Thin Man (not available on YouTube)
- Fairport Convention – The Ballad Of Easy Rider
- Big Star – The Ballad Of El Goodo
- The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Ballad Of Jim Jones
- Marianne Faithfull – The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan
- Serge Gainsbourg – Ballade De Melody Nelson
- Aidan Moffatt – Ballad of a Bastard (not available on Spotify)
- The Moldy Peaches – The Ballad Of Helen Keller & Rip Van Winkle
- The King Khan & BBQ Show – The Ballad Of…
- Leonard Nimoy – Ballad Of Bilbo Baggins
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