a list obligatory – Songs About Girls

Name of 
the Rose:
Songs About Girls

A song about a girl is has been the bread and butter of popular music for almost as long as music has been popular. Join me this week as I look at those titular ladies that have been making our best poets pine and croon since the begging of time.

The age-old joke about Johnny Cash was that he only wrote songs about God, death, and love. Of course, the truth is that without those three things we would be without a huge majority of the great songs of our time. Today I’ll be looking at the most important of those three; songs about girls. At it’s most basic, I’m not sure we would have Rock ‘N Roll without a boy pining over his lady. Just think about it. Where would Rock have gone without Maybellene, Miss Molly, Nadine, Lucille, Peggy Sue, Donna, Miss Clawdy, Alberta, or the Pretty Woman? Now, to make my life a little easier, I’ve narrowed the topic down to songs featuring the girls’ name in the title (though, that might let me cheat my way out of love songs too). Make sure and check out our huge Spotify playlist of all the tracks I looked at while putting this together. Now, let’s cut the talking and get to the list!

The List 
10. “Judy Is A Punk” – The Ramones

“Judy Is A Punk” was one of the first songs the Ramones ever recorded and stands as one of their very best. Included with “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” on the demo tape that got the band signed to Sire Records in 1975, “Judy” took a starring role on their debut album Ramones (#33 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list) in 1976. The song is a perfect encapsulation of the group’s signature beach punk sound. “Judy Is a Punk” was written around the same time as “Beat on the Brat”. Joey had explained that the first line came about after he walked by Thorny Croft, an apartment building that Joey said was “where all the kids in the neighborhood hung out on the rooftop and drank.” The second line came about after walking down a different street. The lyrics refer to two juvenile offenders in Berlin and San Francisco and their possible deaths at the conclusion of the song.The song is fictional, as announced Nicholas Rombes who describes this meta-perspective in his analysis of the album as “both line in a song and song line across a line in a song.” “Judy Is a Punk” is the original album’s shortest song, being one minute and 32 seconds. The song was one of three original compositions on the first record by Joey Ramone, along with fellow classic “Beat on the Brat”. “Judy Is A Punk” truly found its way into my heart after being featured in the Wes Anderson classic film The Royal Tennenbaums. It encapsulates the true spirit of a great song about a girl; simplicity. Oh, and it rocks.

9. “Cecilia” – Simon & Garfunkel

C’mon, who among you hasn’t clapped or sang along with this song at some point in your life? “Cecilia” was first recorded by Simon and Garfunkel for their 1970 album Bridge Over Troubled Water. When released as a single, it reached #4 in the US charts. The single did not chart in the UK, despite being released as the follow-up to Simon and Garfunkel’s number one hit “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. In a documentary about that album, The Harmony Game, it is argued that the “Cecilia” of the title refers to St. Cecilia, patron saint of music,  and thus the song might refer to the frustration of fleeting inspiration in songwriting, the vagaries of musical fame or in a wider sense the absurdity of pop culture. The song is generally interpreted as a lament over a capricious lover who causes both anguish and jubilation. Perhaps granting further credence to the documentary’s argument, St. Cecilia is mentioned in another Paul Simon song, “The Coast” (from his 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints): “A family of musicians took shelter for the night in the little harbor church of St. Cecilia.” Regardless of its possibly high-minded origins, “Cecilia” works as a perfectly simple little love song, making it an easy choice for any list, let alone this one.

8. “Janie Jones” – The Clash

Yeah, I’m a Clash hack, wanna fight about it? Taken from their 1977 eponymous debut record, The Clash announced to the world that music would never be the same with “Janie Jones”, one of the archetypical songs in punk history. The subject of the song, Janie Jones, was a famous madam in London during the 1970s and had been a pop singer during the 1960s. In December 1982, Jones herself, backed by members of the Clash and the Blockheads and credited as Janie Jones & the Lash, recorded a 7″ single, “House of the Ju-Ju Queen”, which was written and produced by Joe Strummer and released on Big Beat in 1983. The Clash’s other main songwriter Mick Jones also played on that record. Legendary film maker Martin Scorsese, well known as an ardent fan of The Clash, claimed in the book “Scorsese on Scorsese”, that he considers “Janie Jones” to be the greatest British rock and roll song. He also used the song in the film Bringing Out The Dead. I don’t know if I would go so far as Scorsese did (there are a few cats from Liverpool and Manchester to contend with on that kind of argument), but “Janie Jones” is an undoubtedly classic track in rock history and one of the very best songs about a girl.

7. “Maggie May” – Rod Stewart

Say what you want about the man’s latter day sins, but whether it was with The Faces, The Jeff Beck Group, or on his first several solo records, there was a period when “Rod the Mod” was one of the very best voices in rock and roll. “Maggie May” expresses the ambivalence and contradictory emotions of a young man involved in a relationship with an older woman, and was written from Stewart’s own experience. In the January, 2007 issue of Q magazine, Stewart recalled: “Maggie May was more or less a true story, about the first woman I had sex with, at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival.” It was initially released in the United Kingdom as the B-side of the single “Reason to Believe,” but DJs became fonder of the B-side and, after two weeks on the charts, the song was reclassified, with “Maggie May” becoming the A-side. However, the single continued to be pressed with “Maggie May” as the B-side.

In October 1971, the song went to number one in the UK and simultaneously topped the charts in the United States. Every Picture Tells a Story achieved the same status at the same time, a feat achieved by only a handful of performers, most notably The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. The song also topped the charts in Australia for four weeks at the same time. The song was Stewart’s first substantial hit as a solo performer and launched his solo career. It remains one of his best-known songs. A famous live performance of the song on Top of the Pops saw The Faces joined onstage by DJ John Peel, who pretended to play the mandolin. Stewart himself was amused by the song’s success, saying, “I still can’t see how the single is such a big hit. It has no melody. Plenty of character and nice chords, but no melody.”

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the song #130 on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. This is the absolute go-to song for every beer hall jukebox I come upon. To me, “Maggie May” encapsulates everything that was good about 70s album rock. I even named my dog after it. Okay, maybe that doesn’t help the argument so much, but it’s important to me.

6. “Sweet Jane” – The Velvet Underground/Mott the Hoople/Cowboy Junkies

Released originally on The Velvet Underground’s 1970 album Loaded, “Sweet Jane” was part of Lou Reed’s ascension as leader of the group without John Cale, and was the biggest hit of their career. There are two distinct versions of Sweet Jane with minor variations, spread over its first four releases. The first release of “Sweet Jane”, in November 1970, was a version recorded earlier that year and included on Loaded. In May 1972, a live version (recorded August 1970) appeared on The Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City; the live song had an additional bridge that was missing from the Loaded release. In February 1974 a live version recorded in December 1973 (similar to the Loaded version but with extended intro and hard rock sound), appeared on Reed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. Finally, in September 1974 a down-tempo live version recorded in late 1969 was included on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, with a different song structure and lyrics. When a restored version of the original Loaded release was eventually unveiled on Peel Slowly and See in 1995 (and in 1997 on Loaded: Fully Loaded Edition), it turned out that some of the 1969 lyrics (notably the entire bridge as heard on Live at Max’s Kansas City) had originally been included in the Loaded version as well, but were scrapped in the final mix.

This is the first song on the list that I am giving credit to multiple artists for because, while the Velvet version is the best, the covers of “Sweet Jane” by Mott the Hoople and the Cowboy Junkies proved just how good this song was in almost anyone’s hands. Released as a single by all three groups, Mott the Hoople gave the song a swaggering glam hook on their LP All The Young Dudes while the Cowboy Junkies established themselves as an international act with a more morose cover for their album The Trinity Sessions. “Sweet Jane” has also been covered by Gang of Four, the Sugarcubes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Kooks, and Phish. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked it #335 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In March 2005, Q magazine placed “Sweet Jane” at #18 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks. Guitar World ranked “Sweet Jane” at #81 on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.

5. “Gloria” – Them/Patti Smith

Oh boy, is this one ever a monster. From this point forward, the songs on this list are possible picks for my all-time favorite tracks in rock history. “Gloria” was written by singer-songwriter Van Morrison and originally recorded by Morrison’s band Them in 1964 as the B-side of “Baby, Please Don’t Go”. The song became a garage rock staple and a part of many rock bands’ repertoires. It is particularly memorable for its “G–L–O–R–I–A” chorus. The song continues to be played by thousands of bands from famous recording artists to unknown garage bands. Humorist Dave Barry joked that “If you drop a guitar down a flight of stairs, it’ll play ‘Gloria’ on its way to the bottom.” One explanation for the timeless popularity of the song was offered in Allmusic’s review by Bill Janovitz,

The beauty of the original is that Van Morrison needs only to speak-sing, in his Howlin’ Wolf growl, “I watch her come up to my house/She knocks upon my door/And then she comes up to my room/I want to say she makes me feel all right/G-L-O-R-I-A!” to convey his teenage lust. The original Latin meaning of the name is not lost on Morrison. Them never varies from the three chords, utilizing only dynamic changes to heighten the tension.

“Gloria” was rated number 69 on Dave Marsh’s list in the 1989 book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. He described the song as “one of the few rock songs that’s actually as raunchy as its reputation.” In his book Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles, Paul Williams said about the two sides of the “Baby Please Don’t Go/Gloria” recording: “Into the heart of the beast… here is something so good, so pure, that if no other hint of it but this record existed, there would still be such a thing as rock and roll…. Van Morrison’s voice a fierce beacon in the darkness, the lighthouse at the end of the world. Resulting in one of the most perfect rock anthems known to humankind.”

“Gloria” has been covered by numerous artists, including Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, David Bowie, U2, the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, and R.E.M.. The single greatest cover however, and one of the greatest covers of all time, came from Patti Smith. This version is based on the Morrison tune, but its lyrics are reinvented for the nascent punk rock movement, retaining only the chorus.. It memorably begins, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / But not mine”. It was Smith’s version from her classic album Horses that was included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”.

In 1999, “Gloria” by Them received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. In 2000, “Gloria” by Them was listed as number 81 on VH1’s list of The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time. In 2004, “Gloria” by Them was ranked #208 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Outside of being one of the all time classic songs of rock music, “Gloria” is justified here as being the very definition of a great song about a girl. It is simple, raw, jaunty, and time-tested.

4. “Layla” – Derek & the Dominos

Writing a love song to your friend’s wife may not make you the greatest human being on the planet, but it sure has made for some great music. “Layla” was written by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, originally released by their blues-rock band, Derek and the Dominos, as the thirteenth track from their album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (December 1970). It is considered one of rock music’s definitive love songs, featuring an unmistakable guitar figure played by Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, and a piano coda that comprises the second half of the song. Its famously contrasting movements were composed separately by Clapton and Gordon.

Inspired by Clapton’s then unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend and fellow musician George Harrison, “Layla” was unsuccessful on its initial release. The song has since experienced great critical and popular acclaim, and is often hailed as being among the greatest rock songs of all time. Two versions have achieved chart success, the first in 1972 and the second twenty years later as an acoustic “Unplugged” performance. In 2004 it was ranked #27 on Rolling Stones list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, and the acoustic version won the 1993 Grammy Award for Best Rock Song.

In 1966 George Harrison married Pattie Boyd, a model he met during the filming of A Hard Day’s Night. During the late 1960s, Clapton and Harrison became close friends. Clapton contributed uncredited guitar work on Harrison’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on The Beatles’ White Album, and Harrison co-wrote and played guitar pseudonymously (as L’Angelo Misterioso) on Cream’s “Badge” from Goodbye. However, trouble was brewing for Clapton. Between his tenures in Cream and Blind Faith, in his words, “something else quite unexpected was happening: I was falling in love with Pattie.

The title, “Layla,” was inspired by The Story of Layla / Layla and Majnun, by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. When he wrote “Layla,” Clapton had been told the story by his friend Ian Dallas, who was in the process of converting to Islam. Nizami’s tale, about a moon princess who was married off by her father to someone other than the one who was desperately in love with her, resulting in Majnun’s madness, struck a deep chord with Clapton.

According to Boyd, Clapton played the song for her at a party, and later that same evening confessed to George that he was in love with his wife. The revelation caused no small upset among the three of them, but Pattie and George remained married for several more years, and Harrison and Clapton retained their close friendship with no apparent signs of damage. Boyd divorced Harrison in 1974 and married Clapton in 1979 during a concert stop in Tucson, Arizona. Harrison was not bitter about the divorce and attended Clapton’s wedding party with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney (though Harrison would make his heartbreak known on his 1981 album Somewhere In England, on which Clapton played). During their relationship, Clapton wrote another love ballad for Pattie called “Wonderful Tonight” (1977). Clapton and Boyd divorced in 1989 after several years of separation.

Along with the acoustic release of “Layla” on Unplugged, the song came back into the public consciousness in the early 90s when the latter instrumental half of the song was used brilliantly in Martin Scorcese’s classic film Goodfellas. The music was used so well in the film that they became inextricably linked. To this day, (like Cartman with “Come Sail Away”) I can’t hear this song in another room without coming in to hear it finish. “Layla” is one of the greatest rock songs in history, even if Clapton’s reason for writing it was a bit scuzzy.

3. “Lola” – The Kinks

Well, I guess I have to stretch the definition of ‘girl’ on this one. Sue me. Who would have thought that a song about a transvestite would be the biggest hit the Kinks would have in the United States?
Written by Ray Davies and performed by The Kinks, “Lola” details a romantic encounter between a young man and a transvestite he meets in a club in Soho, London. The single was taken from the album Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One and reached #2 in the UK charts and #9 in the US in 1970. It was ranked #422 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and its C-D-E power riff is recognized among the famous riffs of rock.

In the book The Kinks: The Official Biography, Davies says that he was inspired to write this song after the band manager Robert Wace had spent the night dancing with a transvestite. Davies said,

In his apartment, Robert had been dancing with this black woman, and he said, ‘I’m really onto a thing here.’ And it was okay until we left at six in the morning and then I said, ‘Have you seen the stubble?’ He said ‘Yeah,’ but he was too pissed to care, I think.

In his autobiography, Dave Davies mentions that he came up with the music for what would become Lola. After Dave had shown his brother the music, Ray came up with the lyrics. Dave goes on to claim his brother took all the credit for the song.

The original song recorded in stereo had the word “Coca-Cola” in the lyrics, but because of BBC Radio’s policy against product placement, Ray was forced to make a six thousand mile round-trip flight from New York to London — interrupting the band’s American tour — to change those words to the generic “cherry cola” for the single release. The success of the single had important ramifications for the band’s career at a critical time, allowing them to negotiate a new contract with RCA Records, construct their own London Studio, and assume more creative and managerial control.

Through the 70s “Lola” became a concert favorite for the band and an early ‘arena anthem’. “Lola” is still a staple of American classic rock radio, which is how it was introduced to me and hence introduced me to the Kinks. For that, I will be eternally grateful. Thank you “Lola”, you’ll always be the original dude looking like a lady in my book.

2. “Angie” – The Rolling Stones/Tori Amos

I used to get angry at a co-worker for putting this song on every time I walked out of the room. Truthfully, I’ve always thought “Angie” is one of the best love songs ever written. Penned by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and recorded in November and December 1972, “Angie” is an acoustic guitar driven ballad which tells of the end of a romance. It was released on The Rolling Stones’ hit album from that year, Goat’s Head Soup. Rolling Stones-recording regular Nicky Hopkins plays the song’s distinctive piano accompaniment. The strings on the piece (as well as “Winter”) were arranged by Nicky Harrison. One unusual feature of the original recording is that singer Mick Jagger’s vocal guide track (made before the final vocals were performed) is faintly audible throughout the song (an effect sometimes called a “ghost vocal”). Released as a single in August 1973, “Angie” went straight to the top of the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and reached number five on the UK singles chart. The song was also a #1 hit in both Canada and Australia for five weeks each and topped the charts in many countries throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

Popular belief has it that the song was about David Bowie’s first wife Angela or even about actress Angie Dickinson. Another belief was that the song was about Richards’ daughter Dandelion Angela who had just been born. The song was written almost entirely both lyrically and musically by Keith Richards and in Richards’ own biography he claims that the name Angie is a pseudonym for heroin and his attempt to quit while detoxing in Switzerland. In a tale of the incredibly odd, the documentary Protagonist shows former German terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein explaining that he adopted the moniker “Angie” during his militant activities in the 1970s in reference to the song. In 2005 the German party CDU used the song for its election campaign for Angela Merkel; the Rolling Stones had not given Merkel permission to use the song.

“Angie” has been covered by artists like Guns ‘N Roses and Stereophonics, but it is the cover from Tori Amos on her Crucify EP that really turns the track on its head. With a voice that makes Jagger pale in comparison, Amos completely transforms the longing of the original song into something that borders on desperation. Amos’ great performance on “Angie”, along with covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”, helped the 5-song EP tally almost 1/2 million sales in the United States alone. If you read last week’s column, you know that’s about five times what The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society sold here; no small feat for an extended single.

1. “Alison” – Elvis Costello

I’m already anticipating taking a lot of heat for this selection, so while we’re at it, I might as well go for the gold. Elvis Costello is my favorite songwriter of all time. There I said it. I feel better now. You can move on down to the comment/flaming section now if you like. Otherwise, let’s talk about what I think will forever be known as Costello’s signature song, “Alison”. “Alison” is the fifth track on Elvis Costello’s first album, My Aim Is True, released in 1977. The album was recorded at Pathway Studios in Holloway, London Borough of Islington, over the course of 1976 during late-night studio sessions, in a total of twenty-four hours. It was the first of five consecutive Costello albums produced by Nick Lowe.

Costello (born Declan MacManus) had been performing in clubs and pubs in Liverpool and London since 1970 and had created some demo tapes, but he had had little success in obtaining a recording contract. When Stiff Records was founded in 1976, Costello submitted his demos there and found some interest, but initially they wanted him as a songwriter for Dave Edmunds. Edmunds, however, was reluctant, so the company had Costello and Clover re-record some of his songs, with Lowe producing, to try to persuade him. The new recordings were good enough on their own for Stiff Records to abandon that idea. The label then suggested that he share a debut album with Wreckless Eric, but Costello had written enough songs, most of them at home late at night so as not to wake his wife and young son or on the Underground while commuting to work, to have an entire album of his own. Costello called in sick to his day job (as a data-entry clerk) in order to rehearse and record the album.

Because “Alison” was recorded before Elvis Costello and the Attractions formed, his backing band was Clover. Costello has divulged little on the meaning of the song other than to say that it is about “disappointing somebody” and to deny suggestions that the lines “somebody better put out the big light” and “my aim is true” refer to murder. He has also declined to reveal who the song is about, writing in the liner notes for Girls Girls Girls, “Much could be undone by saying more.”

“Alison” was the first Elvis Costello song that I’d ever heard and the only selection on the list that I distinctly remember hearing for the first time. In many ways, the song better encapsulates Costello’s career than any he would write after. The repeated closing lyric, “my aim is true“, not only gave that first album its name, but as Brian Hinton noted in his Costello biography Let Them All Talk, a mission statement for the man’s career; the consummately earnest verbal assassin. The simplicity of the song about a girl that has passed him by pays deference to the kind of old American rock that Elvis has always paid tribute. The tender bitterness (and vice-verse) is a style that Costello has always owned better than anyone else in music. His unique turns of phrase and raw vocal performance are pitch perfect. In short, the song is perfect for Costello and perfect for the rest of us. If I have one true sentiment to deliver in my life, I can only hope that I can do it half as well as Elvis Costello does on “Alison”.

Think I got something wrong? Want to add your own list or nominations? Make sure and leave a comment below. Don’t forget to check out the full list of songs up for consideration (all five hundred of them) on Spotify.
No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.

Read previous ‘a list obligatory’ columns HERE.

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About Chris Bell

Chris Bell was born in the suburbs of Kansas City, MO in 1981. His path toward a life enjoying music began at ten, when he first heard Queen. Chris attended Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, where he studied English and Communication Arts. While there, Chris spent three years working as an on-air disc jockey for 88.7 KTRM Radio. Chris was the host/creator of the weekly ‘Tangled Up In Bob’ show and a frequent guest on the station’s weekend talk format, serving as a guest commentator on music and politics. It was during this time that Chris was first published by the National Communication Association. His work, ‘Dylan and the New Left: How Political Song Changed American Political Rhetoric’ was presented at the 2002 NCA National Convention in New Orleans. Chris was the only undergraduate to present research on his panel, ‘Rhetorical Strategies in Music’. After college, Chris moved back to Kansas City and started his own talent management company, Poker Face Productions. He continued to manage that company until moving to Brooklyn, NY to pursue a business opportunity in 2008. While there, Chris started as a weekly column writer and album reviewer for 411music.com. Now back in the Midwest, Chris is hoping to bring what he learned about music media in New York to his hometown and support an already vibrant arts culture in Kansas City. His areas of concentration include American Roots, Glam Rock, Punk, Psychedelia, Chamber Pop, American Underground, and Garage Rock.

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