I went to see Nina Simone at Ronnie Scott’s in 1984, one of several times I saw her perform during the 80s. To say she was erratic would be an understatement: sometimes she tossed off a contemptously casual show, sometimes she didn’t even turn up. On this occasion, however, she gave what remains the greatest musical performance I’ve ever witnessed. She did a few of the songs she was famous for (including, with much grumbling, My Baby Just Cares For Me). But there were more interesting selections on the set list, including For a While, a song I’d never heard before but which burned itself on my memory. Fortunately for me, this short residency at Ronnie’s was recorded and filmed, so I can relive it whenever I want to. The song first appeared on Frank Sinatra’s concept album (yes) Watertown as a gentle ditty about lost love. Nina Simone turned it into something completely different. She wrings every drop of emotion out of the lyrics, which are about trying to get on with normal life after the departure of the loved one. There’s no point in me going on about it: just watch the video, all the way through, and marvel at what happens from 3.16 onwards. There are dozens of Nina Simone tracks that could have been in this list, but this is the best. Pass the tissues. (PS Beware the studio version that turned up on her dreadful album Nina’s Back. It’s rubbish.)
This is the song that got me thinking about the whole ‘sad songs’ thing, and in a way it should be number one but for the fact that there’s another song that honestly reduces me to a messy puddle every time I hear it. I don’t know why Léo Ferré is so little known outside France. He should really appeal to arty Anglophones; I think it’s just that nobody ever translated or championed his work in the way they did with, say, Jacques Brel. And he’s a much more difficult proposition than Charles Aznavour. Ferré was an anarchist, a poet, deeply involved in politics, a bit of a mad sage figure. (He definitely had the worst hair of any singer, ever.) He did whole albums setting the words of Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire to music – and they’re great. But he’s at his best when he sticks within the chanson tradition, and Avec le temps is his acknowledged masterpiece. Basically it’s about how everything turns to shit as you get older, and there aren’t many subjects sadder than that. There are loads of songs on this list about lost love, broken hearts, bereavement and so on, but you get over those things and move on. For the kind of sadness that Ferré sings about in Avec le temps there is, I fear, no cure. The lyrics are all about how nothing matters any more, how you settle for second or third best, you can’t be bothered, you forget the passions that inspired you. The final verse is particularly devastating, with its conclusion ‘avec le temps on n’aime plus’. The music, melody and delivery all match the lyrics, making this without doubt one of the saddest songs ever recorded.
Not much to say about this except ‘why don’t they make ‘em like that any more?’. Rose Royce were equally at home on the dancefloor (Car Wash and so on) and slumped in the corner of a bar (this, Going Down etc). The only disco outfit who rival them in that respect are Odyssey. Love Don’t Live Here Anymore is really simple, a sparse arrangement complete with little poom-poom syndrums, and Gwen Dickey’s beautiful, unaffected voice right up front where it belongs. The lyrics are great (‘You abandoned me… just a vacancy’ etc) and the whole thing evokes the bleakness of failed love with great precision and economy. Let’s face it, the worst thing about the end of the affair is sorting out who’s going to live where, and this song really nails it.
No doubt I’ll get told off for putting this on the list as I have been for some other choices. People love to put Diana Ross down for some reason – she’s not ‘authentic’ enough, she has a thin voice and so on. We should all be so thin and inauthentic. She’s one of my absolute favourite singers, and in terms of soul and emotion she wipes the floor with a lot of the more cool, credible competition. I loathe coolness, credibility and authenticity anyway. Rant over. I’m Still Waiting is a pop classic, it’s my favourite of a whole bunch of early 70s soul hits, it’s got a lovely tune and clever lyrics and it’s even got a spoken section, which is always a plus. And for a song that starts off so gently, it sure gets cooking towards the end. Diana Ross recorded more obviously tragic songs (Love Child, for instance, or the fabulous I’m Livin’ in Shame) but this will always be my favourite.
I hesitated for a long time before putting Peter Hammill on this list, partly because listening to him is just too painful for me (for personal reasons). Also, he’s one of those artists I really loved till making the mistake of seeing him live (see also Lou Reed, Patti Smith). I went to a gig at the Barbican a few years ago and it was without doubt one of the ghastliest concert experiences of my life, pompous and fatuous. I’ve just about recovered enough to listen to Hammill again without cringeing, and so I’ve decided to choose Been Alone So Long as his saddest song. Like much of his solo output it’s a lovely simple song with literate lyrics, delivered straight, no frills (‘Been alone so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like/To feel somebody next to me…’). I’m surprised Hammill’s songs haven’t been more often covered by other artists. Marc Almond did a great job with Vision, but that’s about all I can think of. I also love some of the crazy pretentious prog stuff that he did with Van de Graaf Generator, and indeed on his own, but his best stuff for me are the simple songs like this.
Okay, I’m cheating, because this is one of the greatest operatic arias ever written and as such has no place on this list, but I had to put it in because I just need to have Klaus Nomi in there somewhere. Death is his rendition of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and it was one of my gateway songs in the early 80s when I was first starting to get into opera. (The other one was Malcolm McLaren’s mad version of Un bel di.) I’m sure everyone knows Nomi now, his legend has grown massively since his death, but when this came out he was considered very far out indeed, and the super-straight music press couldn’t ignore him enough, it seemed. I love the perky pop songs he did on his two albums, but of course it’s on the opera stuff that he really lets rip. The abandoned Queen Dido longs for death to relieve the pain of love, and sings ‘Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate!’. Nomi sings it with the insane conviction that he brought to everything, and it’s particularly sad that this was in a sense his own farewell.
I had to have Nico somewhere on this list, as in many ways she’s my ultimate ‘sad’ artist, but so many of her lyrics are completely abstract that they generate a mood of general gloom and misery rather than actual sadness. This track from her first album Chelsea Girls is an exception, possibly because it was written by Tim Hardin (see no 9) about the death of the great comedian Lenny Bruce in 1966. It’s a great reaction to bereavement: ‘I’ve lost a friend and I don’t know why/But never again will we get together to die’. Hardin and Bruce must have had some toxic times together, and both of them fell victim to the needle. As, indeed, did Nico, more or less. ‘Why after every last shot was there always another?’ she sings, and she might have sung it to herself in later years when she was living from one fix to the next. It’s a sad song in its own right, but when you think of the wasted talent of the three protagonists it’s particularly upsetting.