Recent months have held a lot of talk about music in our house. Not that it’s a rare topic, but all the extra indoor time my teenage son had to spend spurred a bit of a shift for him. His passion is film, and this has not changed, and he has always loved music (who doesn’t?). However, he began to examine it a bit more lately, and we spent many hours discussing lyrics as literature, how they match the music, what the various rhythms spark in the soul and very much more.
It re-awakened a bit of something in myself as well. When I was a little younger than my boy is now, I was still discovering a lot of different styles and artists, then current or not, and had an older brother who played an instrumental part in this. By this time I’d long been introduced to the Beatles, who held my absolute and unquestioned loyalty. I’m serious about that loyalty thing: because I listened to almost nothing else except the Fab Four and sometimes the radio, I didn’t really know much about a great portion of the music world.
An afternoon nosing through my brother’s music library changed that because one book I settled in with contained photography of the sort that makes you contemplate life and the worlds of others. I wanted to know who these people were and what was important to them that they wanted to sing about to the world. I came to regard their creations as not unlike the poetry I read and wrote, and my period of examination began.
Fast forward now. My son loves the Beatles (something about the apple not falling far?), but can’t understand why my devotion seems to have shifted to Pink Floyd. I was rather tickled when he announced his love for Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” even though I suspected that might wane as the Thor Ragnorak movie he’d recently watched stepped aside for other films he considered higher caliber. “Now ‘Kashimir,’” I mentioned one day, “that is more than a song.” As time went on my recall drove me to play songs I loved but thought he would not likely hear on the radio, at least not as often as most artists’ and bands’ megahits.
And so I find myself here, making a list of songs that tend to be somewhat overlooked, even if they are nevertheless well known. They were at times the B-sides or what some regarded as fillers, though many took on a life of their own. In other instances they were quite famous, but just don’t seem to be recognized or played as much as their fellows, resulting in next generations making a lesser, or sometimes no, connection. Still others may be absolutely unknown by those who don’t dabble in music outside their own personal mainstream. There are probably loads of reasons why some truly great songs go overlooked, and I’d like to do my small part in changing that.
The following five choices, which will likely be joined by others, are in no particular order except what you choose.
“Letter to Hermione” (David Bowie, David Bowie, later renamed Space Oddity) – Long before Hermione Granger and her friends inspired Muggle schoolchildren to cut classes and read books about the magical universe, David Bowie’s romantic breakup from a girl with the same name resulted in one of the loveliest set of lines he ever wrote. Revealed to the world in a song of loss, Hermione Farthingale unwittingly persuaded David Bowie to show the raw, awkward side, the one to which I related – and always remembered, despite the personas he’d developed that I later discovered (thanks to that music book). I didn’t know at the time I first heard the song, you see, that its confessional style was not at all Bowie’s preferred, which may be why it clung to me long after I found the rest of his catalogue. He has many musical acts of magic that combine so well with lyrics (especially within “Golden Years”), but this gorgeous, haunting act of wizardry has never left my mind.
“Fearless” (Pink Floyd, Meddle) – This may come as a surprise to some, given the disparate differences, but this one almost lost to “See Emily Play.” As a teen I had a curious fondness for Syd Barrett, and the circus-like music and sweeping melody that carried the lyrics of “borrow[ing] somebody’s dreams till tomorrow” intrigued me to no end. So what broke the stalemate? Well, when I hear “Emily,” I still feel why Past Me was so attached to it, but these days I go for Meddle a lot. Simultaneously introspective and ambitious, it energizes me yet still disperses calm. Within it, “Fearless” speaks to the understandable anxiety of standing by one’s conscience, and every single note plays this out in a perfect emotional match. It fit Past Me (within those teenage years of dissent), but is particularly relevant today. Honestly? Listen to the entire album.
“Isis” (Bob Dylan, Desire) – A lot of people don’t seem to know it because I simply never hear this song discussed or on the radio, but “Isis”—the story of a man married to Isis and what happens when he meets up with a mysterious tomb-raiding stranger — is one of those tunes that makes Dylan the absolute lyrical mage he is. Consider the following exchange were it to be in a novel:
She said, “Where ya been?” I said, “No place special.”
She said, “You look different.” I said, “Well, I guess.”
She said, “You been gone.” I said, “That’s only natural.”
She said, “You gonna stay?” I said, “If you want me to, yes.”
Sung in Dylan’s iconic, grainy voice (at times characterized as “like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire”) with his distinctive pitch changes (also referred to as “affectation”), the song swings listeners around so much that mundane words become something special. None of the lyrics have the standard rhymes of some of Dylan’s other tunes, such as “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Tangled Up in Blue,” partly because it’s a folkie ballad backed up by an acoustic piano. But as the singer’s storytelling abilities are revealed, his voice also utterly brings to life the emotions the narrator feels, and we sense them too. We don’t need no rhymes.
“I Will” (The Beatles, The Beatles, commonly known as The White Album) – Even by the time my teenage years rolled around and the Fab Four were long in the past, people were still picking their favorite Beatle. (My teen son even made his choice.) Paul was definitely not mine; that honor went to George, who wrote, in my opinion one of the best Beatle songs ever. Still, this one confounded me as to why no one ever seemed to have heard of it, or it never came on the radio. Beautiful in its simplicity, it needs absolutely nothing else, not a single note or echo more than it contains to be the perfect song, love or otherwise, and the phrase “your song will fill the air” followed by “sing it loud so I can hear you” is bold but not ostentatious (unlike the nuance that generally comes with that second phrase when uttered today). John’s maracas along with Paul’s melodic “da da da da da” brings the song and its wonderful experience to a perfectly satisfying conclusion.
“Battle of Evermore” (Led Zeppelin, untitled album, commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV or Zoso, after a symbol on the album cover) – People are generally attracted quite a bit to alliteration, and “Battle of Evermore” showcases it stunningly, reaching into our past (e.g. with “angels of Avalon”; “dragons of darkness”), awakening us to what magic arises from that place. Inspired in part by reading of a series of Anglo-Scottish wars and Celtic mythology, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s ballad does utilize verbiage that might today seem a bit fantasy cliché but for the multitude of angles from which it comes at us. Their imagery, boosted by the pairing of words and duet singing (Plant and non-bandmember Sandy Denny), recreates a narrator and town crier, and we are the townspeople urgently listening for the outcome of events involving the Prince of Peace and Queen of Light.
The dark Lord rides in force tonight
And time will tell us all.
Oh, throw down your plow and hoe,
Rest not to lock your homes.
Side by side we wait the might
Of the darkest of them all.
Adding connection to our experience is Page’s mandolin, filling in and around the voices, at times in turn, others together, as we tune in to a tale of spiritual warfare, the battle of good and evil fought on a plane we cannot see, but will be affected by nonetheless—forever.
“Battle of Evermore” might not, strictly speaking, fit into this list as it may not be quite as overlooked as it seems to me. Nevertheless, I have rarely (if ever) heard it on the radio and its visibility tends to be obscured by “Stairway to Heaven” and that song’s May Queen. However, it is a tale that touches the deepest parts of ourselves and where we come from.
Stay tuned for more to come from overlooked gems.