Art Rock: The best and worst songs about artists | New music reviews, news & interviews
Art Rock: The best and worst songs about artists
Art rockers who could tell their Picassos from their Pollocks: a video library
That ultimate art rocker David Bowie is 66 today. The Victoria & Albert Museum is opening with a major survey of Bowie the style icon this spring. What’s more, he’s just released a new single, with an album following in March. Fittingly, for an art school idol, he once wrote a song about his favourite artist Andy Warhol (“Andy Warhol looks a scream / Hang him on my wall / Andy Warhol, Silver Screen / Can't tell them apart at all”). It got a typically blank response when Bowie played it to its subject – not even a “Gee, David”. Still, although it's not a patch on "Space Oddity", it's a cool artist singing about another cool artist, which makes it pretty cool in some people’s eyes.
But it wasn’t just David Bowie in his heyday cutting records about fashionable visual artists (incidentally, he also played Warhol in a fright wig in Julian Schnabel's 1996 biopic Basquiat). There was a time in the Seventies and early Eighties when the pop scene was awash with art rockers singing about their favourite 20th-century painterly Modernists. Below are six of the best, two of the worst, and a few minor classics you may or may not wish to dance around to in your living room.
David Bowie sings a live version of "Andy Warhol"
The best, in descending order:
1. The Modern Lovers, "Pablo Picasso"
Sample lyric: “Well some people try to pick up girls / And get called assholes / This never happened to Pablo Picasso / He could walk down your street / And girls could not resist his stare / And so Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.”
This must be the coolest pop song ever written with an artist’s name in the title. Produced by John Cale (see below) it has a very Velvet Underground sound. And while the lyrics aren’t particularly clever, they are brilliant. Jonathan Richman from The Modern Lovers also wrote songs about Van Gogh – “the man loved colour, and he let it show” – and Vermeer – “Well, in the museum, what have we here? The baddest painter since Jan Vermeer”. Richman deserves more fan mail.
2. John Cale, "Magritte"
Sample lyric: “Often we saw Magritte / Pinned to the edges of vision / Often we saw Magritte / We all know René did that."
Cale covered Richman’s "Pablo Picasso" (as did Bowie) and though he didn’t do a bad job, Cale’s "Magritte" is something else – sonorous, with an urgent beat and an insistent, driving refrain that pins you to the wall. Tremendous. Incidentally, Cale represented Wales at the Venice Biennale in 2009, where he exhibited an audio-visual work.
3. Nat King Cole, "Mona Lisa"
Sample lyric: “Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa? / Or is this your way to hide a broken heart? / Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep / They just lie there and they die there."
OK, this is about the subject of a painting, not an artist, so it shouldn’t strictly be on the list (Leonardo doesn’t even get a mention), but it did win an Academy Award for best original song for a film. And while you may have forgotten the movie (Captain Cary), this 1950 song lives on. And with those lyrics how could it not? Also covered by Elvis, among many other top crooners.
4. Paul Simon, "René And Georgette Magritte with their Dog After the War"
Sample lyric: “Easily losing their clothes / They danced by the light of the moon / To The Penguins, The Moonglows / The Orioles, and The Five Satins."
Here's what Rolling Stone magazine said about it: “There they are, a Belgian surrealist painter, his old lady and their pooch, dancing naked in a hotel room, window-shopping on Christopher Street and getting dolled up to dine with ‘the power elite.’ [...] It's a hilarious and magical juxtaposition of images that's also touching, because Paul Simon obviously identifies with the figure of the grown-up, respectable artist irrevocably smitten with those doo-wop groups, ‘the deep forbidden music' that originally made him fall in love with rock & roll’.”
Yep, a loving, tender tribute to Simon’s musical inspirations, written after seeing a photograph of Magritte, his wife and their dog by Lothar Wolleh. A grower.
5. Michael Marra, "Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Tay Bridge Bar"
Sample lyric: “All went quiet / A vision appeared / With a rose in her hair and a ring in her ear / And she said Buenos Dias, boys, this looks like the place / To make my re-entry to the human race.”
The late Dundonian folk singer sings about an imaginary visit by the Mexican artist to his home town. Tender, lovely and wryly humorous.
6. King Crimson, "The Night Watch"
Sample lyric: "Official moments of the guild / In poses keen from bygone days / The city fathers frozen there / Upon the canvas dark with age."
Obviously, this is about Rembrandt’s famous painting. A long, jangly intro. Rather haunting and evocative when it gets going.
But just as pop songs can bring out the worst in artists (has anyone ever listened to Joseph Beuys’ attempt at a smash hit?), visual artists can bring out the worst in pop stars. The two below deserve a special mention.
1. Wings, "Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)"
Paul McCartney says he wrote this after having dinner with Dustin Hoffman, who didn't believe that McCartney could write a song "about anything". Hoffman pulled out a magazine where they saw the story of the death of Picasso and his famous last words, "Drink to me, drink to my health. You know I can't drink anymore." It's good that McCartney felt he could rise to the challenge, but there's really nothing good I can say about this tuneless, oompa loompa of a song.
2. Brian and Michael, "Matchstalk Men"
A number one hit back in 1978, it may not surprise anyone that Michael Coleman also wrote the hit song "Hold My Hand" for Ken Dodd. You might also recognise St Winifred's School Choir singing "The Big Ship Sails on the Alley-Alley-O" in the background. Grim.
1. Don McLean, "Vincent (Starry Starry Night)"
One that everybody knows, and though you may say it's a tad cheesy, I bet it still gives you goosebumps. McLean doesn’t do at all badly here in the sensitive singer/songwriter stakes.
2. Luke Haines, "The Death of Sarah Lucas (I Shot Sarah Lucas)"
Probably a bit tasteless.
3. Manic Street Preachers, "Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning)"
An anthemic track that makes oblique references to the “interiors” and “triangles” of de Kooning’s paintings. Written post-Richey Edwards.
4. The Stone Roses, "Going Down"
This is a song about going down on a girl called Penny, but it does make a passing reference to a Jackson Pollock painting, Number 5. Perhaps the reference is to the state of Penny’s tangled pubes. Written in the days before the mass appeal of Brazilian waxing.
5. Status Quo, "Pictures of Matchstick Men"
Inspired by Lowry, this was the Quo’s first hit in 1968 and their only hit in the US. A groovy psychedelic number. It’s actually OK.
- David Bowie Is at the V&A from 23 March to 28 July
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