Saturday, December 25, 2010

What They Should Have Sung

Some songs have an element of magic. They squeeze your heart and flood your mind. It's far from always clear why, but it can happen in an instant, and it happens again each time you hear the song anew. The mystery of music – but lyrics have a lot to do with it, too.

One such song is Handbags and Gladrags from the 1960's, recorded many times since. I saw a recent Rod Stewart TV concert, where he sang it together with the Stereophonics, who made a somber cover of it in 2001. But Rod beat them to it, on his very first solo album released in 1970, and he's kept the song with him through the years.

He was not the first, though. The initial recording was made by Chris Farlowe in 1967, but it was written by Manfred Mann singer Mike d'Abo, who recorded it without much notice in the 1970's.

Handbags and Gladrags has an enchanted melody, paired in a splendid way with instruments slightly heading elsewhere. That's delicious, like Champagne with salmon, but still it would fall flat without the lyrics, which sort of create and elevate the tones of the melody. Poetry that turns into song all by itself.

It's strikingly obvious already at the sad starting lines:
Ever seen a blind man cross the road
trying to make the other side?
Ever seen a young girl growing old
trying to make herself a bride?

The chorus is an intriguingly composed line: The handbags and the gladrags that your granddad had to sweat for you to buy.
But that was not its initial form. Mike d'Abo had it end: so you could buy, which is simply bad grammar. Rod Stewart obliged in his version, but he also used a slightly different wording, copied by the Stereophonics three decades later: The handbags and the gladrags that your poor old Grandad had to sweat to buy you. But there, the melody becomes slightly awkward, not as naturally flowing as in the first solution above.

Also, the message doesn't stand out as well about the spoiled girl carelessly spending money that she wasn't the one sweating to earn. Granddad didn't spend the money. The girl did that all by herself. Otherwise she would not be to blame.

The choice of words in the Rod Stewart and Stereophonics versions also lose the emphasis on the word “sweat”, which brings additional power to the message of the song. They stress instead the word “had”, and that doesn't help much.

Strangely, I find no version of the song where the ideal wording of the chorus is used. I may have made it up myself. That happens. Anyway, that's what they should all have sung:
The handbags and the gladrags that your granddad had to sweat for you to buy.

The version above is by Kelly Jones (singer of Stereophonics) in the Jools TV show.


  1. I very recently found out that you reviewed Meaning Green restuarant under the alias Bong. Although I am a vegetarian myself, I have to agree with you after consuming a few meals at the Stockholm restaurant in the year 2000. The food I got was ice cold, everything was cold food, not preheated or anything and my gf almost broke up with me right there since she found a lot of sand on the salad leaves. But still the guy who started it he was on TV, fascinating guy. He went over to manufacturing juices.

    Could you pehaps please post something about your Meaning Green experience? It was an international chain so why not in English on this blog?

  2. I did find a Mike d'Abo version which uses the preferred "had to sweat for you to buy" line. It's a live take on an odds & sods album called "Hidden gems & treasured friends", maybe the original recording was somewhat different (I haven't heard that) - but he most surely recorded this version before Stefan created his blog post on the matter. And furthermore, he did write the lyrics. So the point made would seem valid.

  3. Nisse, welcome to the blogosphere! Great news about the d'Abo version. I'm glad that my views on the poem are shared by the poet himself.

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