Sunday, February 17, 2008

No Love Lost: The Ten Best Break Up Songs from the 20th Century

Valentine's Day is over, and I'm willing to bet the same can be said for a few relationships out there as well. Looking for a good break up song to get you through the dark moments? I bet you can generally recall off the top of your heads those weepy arias that reek of crying tears into a pillow, and thinking that the world is going to cave in. Or Neil Sedaka cheerfully singing "Breaking Up is Hard to Do." Forget about all that. I've chosen the following ten songs specifically for their screw-you, I'd-rather-poke-my-eyes-out-with-a-knitting-needle-then-lay-my-eyes-on-you-ever-again attitude. They span a variety of eras but they all share one thing in common: I'm pretty sure you wouldn't find any of their singers or composers self-wallowing in a pint of Ben and Jerry's.

1. These Boots Are Made for Walkin' (Nancy Sinatra, 1966)
Up until Frank's little girl sang this kicky feminist breakthrough anthem, female singers mostly pined for their lost love. Songwriter Lee Hazelwood was inspired after witnessing an older man get harassed by his friends for letting his girlfriend walk all over him. He overheard him saying "I know what you think - that she might be the boss. But I am the boss of my house, and these boots will walk all over her the day that I'm not." The song was released in 1966 and quickly reached number one song in the U.S. and the U.K. and has since been covered by everyone from The Fixx to (ugh) Jessica Simpson. Not to mention its music video of lovely leggies has probably been Googled - and oogled - by men everywhere.

2. Hit the Road, Jack (Ray Charles, 1961)
The lead singer may be Ray Charles, but the real stars in this song are his backup singers The Raylettes, who aim their fierce command at Charles to hit the road. Raylette Margie Hendrix positively growls when she tells Charles that he's "just no good." According to the movie "Ray", Hendrix was feeling inspiration after Charles, who was married, tried to break it off with her. Fortunately for us, the song was indeed good - good enough to become a classic.

3. Go Your Own Way (Fleetwood Mac, 1977)
Fleetwood Mac songstress Stevie Nicks once said that she and former boyfriend Lindsay Buckingham were about as compatible as "a cobra and a mongoose", and their break up inspired Buckingham to write "Go Your Own Way" with the lyrics "Packing up, shacking up is all you want to do" aimed at Nicks. Nicks insisted she never shacked up with anyone when they were going out, and wanted Buckingham to take out the line. He refused.

4. I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor, 1979)
Thirteen years after Nancy Sinatra's hit, Gaynor continued the women's lib vibe with a disco twist. The song has become an unofficial anthem of survival and a karaoke staple through the years. It was written by producers Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris while Gaynor was recovering in the hospital from a back injury. She wore a brace while recording the hit but fortunately wasn't suffering from any emotional injury: Gaynor was happily married when the song was released. It won a 1979 Grammy for Best Disco Recording, the first and last time the Grammys offered the category.

5. The Rain (Oran "Juice" Jones, 1986)
This one-hit R&B wonder by the other O.J., Oran "Juice" Jones, starts out all soft and somber, as the singer (in a falsetto voice) describes seeing his girlfriend walking in the rain with another guy. But the most satisfying - and funniest - part of the song comes towards the end when Jones unleashes a poisonous diatribe against his girlfriend - canceling her credit cards, packing her bags, and giving her a lengthy verbal smackdown. "You don't mess with the Juice!"

6. How Do You Sleep (John Lennon, 1971)Not all break up songs are about the end of a romantic relationship, although Lennon often compared his partnership with former Beatles bandmate Paul McCartney to a marriage..."a marriage that ended in divorce." "How Do You Sleep" was recorded in 1971, a year after the band officially disbanded, and Lennon was still bitter. "The only thing you've done is yesterday, and since you're done you're just another day," he sings, referring to two McCartney compositions. Lennon clearly felt that McCartney's best song composing days were behind him. George Harrison played lead guitar on the song, and in the film "Imagine" Lennon can't resist letting out a "How do you sleep, you c*nt?" during the recording.

7. Tainted Love (Soft Cell, 1981)
Rihanna recently sampled from "Tainted Love" for her hit "S.O.S.", but it's foreboding beat will always be synonymous with telling someone you're packing your things to go. "Tainted Love" was actually recorded in 1964 by British soul singer Gloria Jones and was a moderate success in the U.K. It became Britain's Top Single of the Year in 1981 after the duo of Marc Almond and David Ball, known as Soft Cell, recorded it as a "throwaway track." In an interview Gloria Jones said that she considers the Soft Cell version to be the best one: "I loved the emotion in his voice. Their version was far better than mine." Best of all, it's one break up song you want to dance to.

8. Don't Come Around Here No More (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1985)
Tom Petty has written some excellent break up music - "You Got Lucky" and his duet with Stevie Nicks, "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" come to mind - but "Don't Come Around Here No More" which was cowritten by Dave Stewart, is a make-no-bones-about-it command at a lover (one who can't take a hint) to leave - for good. "I've given up - stop - on waiting any longer. Honey please, admit it's over." The song also inspired one of the best - and delightfully twisted - music videos ever made; a take on the children's story "Alice in Wonderland" with Petty masquerating as the Mad Hatter. By the end of the song, Alice has been turned into a cake which Petty and his bandmates promptly slice up and devour (Eat Me - get it?). The video was criticized by feminist groups who thought that it perpetrated violence towards women. It's a music video. Get over it. Let them eat cake!

9/10. Don't Think Twice, It's Alright/Most Likely You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine (Bob Dylan, 1963 and 1966)
Nobody writes a break up song like Dylan. He has an admirable ability to throw barbs in such a subtle yet biting way it takes a moment to realize the subject of the song has just been insulted. I just love the message in "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" - you wasted my precious time, youre the reason I'm out of here, but hey, no need to feel guilty about it. In "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine", Dylan presents a "well, we'll see about that" attitude when he sings "time will tell just who has fell and who's been left behind, when you go your way and I'll go mine."

Dylan has insisted that "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" wasn't a love song. "A lot of people make it sort of a love song - slow and easygoing. But it isn't a love song. It's a statement that maybe you can say something to make yourself feel better. It's as if you were talking to yourself."

Which, I might suspect, any of these songs can do for someone with a broken heart.

Sources: Songfacts.com, Wikipedia.

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