Back in 1999, songwriter Nick Cave gave a lecture that examined the nature of love songs and, more importantly, why we need them. If you know Cave’s work, it’s not surprising that he needs a love song to be multi-layered and to have a bit of darkness at its core. In the lecture, he admitted that much of his own writing was largely prompted by the loss of his father at age 19.
Cave invokes the concept of duende, a heightened emotion usually tied to deep longing, which he thinks is essential to a resonant love song. In Cave’s view all love songs, whether spiritual or sexual, are at heart a cry to God. “It is a howl in the void, for love and for comfort, and it lives on the lips of the child crying for his mother… The love song is the sound of our endeavors to become God-like, to rise up and above the earthbound and the mediocre.” He also suggests that a great love song can never be truly happy, since the potential for loss and abandonment is always there. Anything that doesn’t acknowledge these emotions, he says, is nothing more than a “hate song” and not worthy of our attention.
We could certainly play devil’s advocate with the latter view, as it’s not hard to name love songs that are both great and truly joyful. Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be With You” comes to mind right away, as do songs as diverse as Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” and Ramones’ “She’s The One.” Yet these probably represent a minority of the songs we’ve grown up loving. For starters, all of Frank Sinatra’s “saloon songs” are duende personified. Even the happier romantic classics have a bit of undertow if you look close enough. Buddy Holly is cocksure in “That’ll Be The Day” because he knows his sweetheart wouldn’t leave him in a million years. We’ll just respond to that with the title of a Graham Parker song from two decades later: “That’s What They All Say.”
Here’s a look at some of the darker and more offbeat themes that have turned up in some of our favorite love songs. Some of these songs celebrate love and some dump on it, but they all have one thing in common, a factor that proves Cave’s point. Love is the highest of human emotions, and humans have a tendency to mess things up.
The Love Song Despite Itself: Wonderful Tonight (Eric Clapton, 1977)
Writing a wedding standard was probably never high on Eric Clapton’s list of priorities, but, sure enough, “Wonderful Tonight” became one of those songs that every wedding band has to know. The irony is that it wasn’t conceived as a love song at all. Originally it was Clapton venting his frustration at how long his wife Pattie took to get ready for parties; the song’s true intent was more like, “Yes, dear, you look wonderful – now can we please get the hell out of here?” But despite its origins, “Wonderful Tonight” came out sounding exactly like a love song, with the first real crooning Clapton ever did, and a slinky guitar line that exudes romance. It sounds more like a celebration of the mundane details that make up a marriage. And since Clapton admits in the last verse that he’s too tipsy to drive home, you have to wonder if Pattie wasn’t feeling some frustration herself.
The Self-Love Song: Falling In Love With Myself Again (Sparks, 1974)
Since there are so many actual narcissists in the pop world, it’s surprising that there aren’t more songs about narcissism. Leave it to Sparks, who’ve covered everything from marrying Martians to Mickey Mouse’s love life, to fill that gap. As usual with Sparks, part of the joke is that great-looking Russell Mael sings the lyrics, but the goofier-looking brother Ron wrote them. This, however, is one of the few Sparks songs where the main joke is musical, not lyrical. “Falling In Love…” is a waltz, played with all the Hollywood gloss that the band’s glitter-era line-up on 1974’s Kimono My House could manage. One could imagine the singer twirling himself around some dim-lit dancefloor.
The Masochistic Love Song: Venus In Furs (The Velvet Underground, 1967)
One could guess that Nick Cave was directly inspired by this one, a classic case of love in the deep shadows. There are quite a few reasons why this song is so beautifully unsettling, starting with its being the first pop song to directly address sadomasochism (and, of course, The Velvet Underground took their name from a book about that very subculture). Mostly, however, the song feels uncomfortable because it’s so intimate. To listen is to eavesdrop on another couple’s lovemaking. If you feel like passing judgment on their methods, you came to the wrong band. Even beyond the lyrics, the song’s sensual pulse makes it one of the clearest expressions of physical love in all of rock. For added intrigue, check out the early version on the Peel Slowly And See boxed set, where they make it sound more like a madrigal.
The Polyamorous Love Song: Part-Time Love (Elton John, 1979)
Some love songs casually write off the need for monogamous commitment; a lesser-known example would be Todd Rundgren’s “Fidelity.” During their long partnership, Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin looked at love from every conceivable angle. But they never wrote anything quite as good-naturedly crass as this song, a hit single from Elton’s short-lived collaboration with replacement lyricist Gary Osborne. The singer easily cops to the fact that he’s been cheating on his lover – but then he turns it all on her, noting that she’s been doin’ it too, and that everybody else has as well. “You, me, and everybody’s got a part-time love,” says the chorus, making infidelity sound like a hot new trend. Which it probably was, this being the height of the disco era. The tune’s slick, discofied arrangement is the perfect match for its sentiments.
The Anti-Love Song: I Have Been In You (Frank Zappa, 1979)
Ah, the contradictions of Frank Zappa – championed freaking out but never did drugs; enjoyed a stable marriage for all his adult life but never (unless you count some early doo-wop homages) wrote a real love song. When Zappa did write about love, it was usually to point out how ridiculous people are when they’re under the influence. “I Have Been In You” was different, though. This is Zappa as music critic, having his mind boggled by Peter Frampton’s having a hit called “I’m In You” and taking that idea to its logical conclusion. It gets crude in a hurry – and hilariously so – but it doesn’t say anything that Frampton’s song didn’t at least imply. Just for good measure, Zappa throws in a dig at the cosmic pretensions of the fusion movement: “I thought we would never return from forever!”
The Moment-Of-Crisis Love Song: How Beautiful You Are (The Cure, 1987)
On the surface, this is one of the jauntier songs in The Cure’s catalogue, and a bright moment in the emotionally loaded double album, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. Look closely at the lyrics, though, and it’s one of the most emotionally loaded things Robert Smith ever wrote. The song captures a random moment when everything about a love affair changes focus. The singer is walking the streets of Paris with his beloved, when they come across three people, a father, and two young sons. The family are so transfixed by the woman’s beauty that they can only look at her in awe, causing the woman to freak out over being stared at. This moment of random cruelty forever changes the singer’s feelings about his partner, and shakes his faith in love in general. Apparently, the couple stay together, even if the song’s first line claims he now hates her.
The Vindictive Love Song: When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You (Marvin Gaye, 1978)
Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear is an album with a message, and part of that message is: don’t ever sue for royalties off an unmade album. As part of his divorce agreement with Berry Gordy’s sister Anna, Marvin Gaye agreed to hand over half the royalties on his next Motown album. But rather than do the obvious and make a record that would never sell (see Phil Spector’s Let’s Dance The Screw), Gaye delivered a double-album addressed directly to Anna, starting with its title. One of the emotional centerpieces, “When Did You Stop…” pulls their relationship apart, putting blame on both partners – but mainly on her. Gaye covers the feelings, from hurt to betrayal to yearning, in one breath blasting her for the divorce agreement (“Got judgment on your side/You’ve said bad things and you’ve lied”) and then jumping right into his “Sexual Healing” come-hither voice for “Still I remember the good things, baby.” The song was never a hit, probably because it ran for six minutes with no obvious chorus hook, but it’s one of Gaye’s great vocal performances. Daryl Hall, who never lacked for chutzpah, did one of the few covers.
The Obsessive Love Song: Every Breath You Take (The Police, 1983)
It was only a matter of time before songwriters started dealing with the thin line between true love and stalking. The latter didn’t really enter the public consciousness during the 60s and 70s, when you could still say something borderline-creepy in a pop song and have it sound fairly innocent. Sting and The Police changed that for good with this memorable hit, where the singer’s devotion doesn’t merit anything but a restraining order. It’s the moody film-noir atmosphere of the song (and its accompanying video) that turn it from a pledge of love to a psychological study. Inspired by romantic shake-ups in Sting’s own life, the song came as close to true obsession as pop music ever got. That is until…
The Really Obsessive Love Song: I Want You (Elvis Costello & The Attractions, 1986)
Problematic as “Every Breath You Take” may be, it’s practically a cheerful ditty compared to this piece of Elvis Costello catharsis, stuck in the middle of his largely divorce-themed album Blood & Chocolate. Costello was out to write something scarily intense – and he sure did; the song builds for seven minutes (even longer if you’ve heard it live), the music keeps stripping down until Costello is practically whispering in your ear, and he sounds more desperate with every repetition of the title. The closing line is “I’m gonna feel this way until you kill it,” so it’s probably best that we don’t know what happened next.
The Love Arrangement: We’ll Sing In The Sunshine (Gale Garnett, 1964)
The scenario here was fascinating for a 1964 hit. The singer announces at the outset that “I will never love you, the cost of love’s too dear” and commits only to stay with her partner for one year. The picture she paints of that year seems pretty idyllic – lots of singing, laughing, and kissing – and when the year’s done, she just goes on her way. She allows that her man will “often think about her” afterward, but makes no promises that she’ll do the same. In one fell swoop, this song explodes all the romantic ideas of eternal love, allows the woman to take control, and acknowledges some underlying conflict. Certainly, a tune way ahead of its time.
The Three-Way Love Song: Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow (Neil Diamond/The Monkees, 1967) and “Triad” (David Crosby/Jefferson Airplane, 1968)
Sometimes all it takes to make a song work is to acknowledge the real-life complications of love. For instance, what’s a guy to do when he finds himself besotted with two women? That was the question that preoccupied heartthrob Davy Jones in 1967. In this Neil Diamond tune (originally on the very same album side with Diamond’s far happier “I’m A Believer”), the singer’s in love with both sweet Mary and long-haired Sandra; for unexplained reasons, he’s agreed to choose between them in the coming day. Instead of counting his blessings (after all, they’ve put up with the arrangement thus far) the singer can only see “all kinds of sorrow.” Interestingly, when Jones performed this song in latter-day Monkees shows, he gave it a happier ending (for the women, anyway) by blurting out at the ending, “Mary loves Sandra!”
This conveniently brings us to “Triad,” David Crosby’s contribution to the small catalogue of ménage à trois songs. In truth, the argument presented here is: I can’t decide between my two girlfriends, so let’s be a threesome! Which wasn’t necessarily going to fly, even in the looser atmosphere of 1968. His fellow Byrds weren’t down with it either, and refused to put the song on The Notorious Byrd Brothers (where it rightly belonged), thus prompting Crosby’s exit from the group. Their version finally surfaced later in the 80s. This didn’t bother Jefferson Airplane, who picked up the song for their Crown Of Creation album and neatly subverted its sexual politics by having Grace Slick sing it.
The Deconstructed Love Song: I Love You, You Big Dummy (Captain Beefheart, 1970)
Here’s a prime example of the love song that subverts the very idea of writing love songs (see also, 10cc’s “Silly Love”). The good Captain approached love songs the way a surrealist would, by shuffling the pieces and rearranging them. The most repeated line here, aside from the title, could mean two very different things. Is he saying “Nobody has love”, or “No body has love”? It’s designed, no doubt, to make you think a little more skeptically about any more conventional love songs you may hear afterward. Even with all that, it’s a funny and catchy song, as were most of the early Captain Beefheart numbers, if you listened hard enough. For a song like this, what could be more appropriate than a title apparently borrowed from Don Rickles?
The “Protesting Too Much” Love Song: You’re Breakin’ My Heart (Harry Nilsson, 1972)
This would seem to be the anti-love song to end all anti-love songs. In the impossibly catchy tune’s notorious and oft-quoted chorus, Nilsson lays his feelings on the line, singing: “You’re breakin’ my heart/You’re tearin’ it apart… So f__k you”! He goes on to rant about his ex-partner’s offenses. She stepped on his ass, she’s breakin’ his glasses too. The song stomped right over a taboo. Back in 1972, you could still count the number of recorded pop songs with the f-word on one hand, and it was perversely the most commercial-sounding song on his left-field masterwork, Son Of Schmilsson. George Harrison even twists the satirical knife by playing a slide guitar solo not a million miles removed from “Something.” And yet, you start to wonder, would he really be ranting this hard if the woman in question didn’t still have a hold on his heart? Sure enough, the song’s final chorus is, “You’re breakin’ my heart, you’re tearin’ it apart – but I love you.” Cee-Lo Green, of course, worked a major hit around the very same idea four decades later, with “f you” being a pretty hard thing to copyright.
The Dysfunctional Love Song: Cruel To Be Kind (Nick Lowe, 1979)
Was this the lousiest relationship ever celebrated in a romantic-sounding pop song? Sure seems that way, as the singer in Lowe’s greatest hit just can’t catch a break. His love is nasty to him at every turn, even knocks him back down every time he picks himself up, and can only offer the song’s title as an explanation. Given the song’s great hooks, and the killer harmony-guitar break by Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner, it’s no wonder the song was a hit. What is a wonder is that the couple in the song hasn’t broken up yet.
The Cynical Love Song: Nearly In Love (Richard Thompson, 1986)
The British singer-songwriter has done a career-long exploration of matters of the heart, from the most tender moments to the most caustic ones. This song, from his Daring Adventures album, lands precisely in the middle, as the singer is clearly falling in love but is too stubborn to admit it. It has to be the only song ever to ask whether the singer is infatuated or just coming down with the flu. But then, given this character’s choice of endearments (“You’re the closest to my heart, bar none/Except for my wallet and my gun”) you have to wonder whether his being in love with you would even be a good thing. In any case, it’s one of those immediately catchy Richard Thompson folk-rockers that should have been a hit; not the only one by any means.
The “Hell With It” Love Song: Fools In Love (Joe Jackson, 1979)
After all the above, it’s no wonder that some songwriters chose to swear off love entirely, from The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” to Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.” But we’ll go with the crankiness of Joe Jackson, whose first two albums were full of convincing anti-romantic sentiments. Either your ex will wind up walking with a gorilla down your street and you’ll have to put up with the annoying bliss of some “Happy Loving Couple,” or you’ll just find out that it’s “Different For Girls.” With “Fools In Love” he seems to be swearing off the whole thing, going on about how pathetic lovers, in general, tend to be. After all, they “think they’re heroes, ’cause they get to feel more pain.” The kicker comes just when he’s got you raising a fist in agreement: “I should know, because this fool’s in love again.” So love winds up conquering after all – as it does in real life, if you’re lucky.
Follow the Best Love Songs Ever playlist for classic love songs with a traditional outlook.