The songs I seek out and return to tend to have more than a little darkness in them. It’s not that I’m particularly melancholic; it’s just that the airwaves seem to be dominated by songs that don’t tell the whole story about who we are. I can tap my feet to them, but my mind is elsewhere.
And yet rock ‘n’ roll started out as an expression of visceral energy that had no intellectual pretensions to speak of. Dylan might have incorporated elements from Rimbaud and Dostoevsky into his voice, but his original inspiration came from Little Richard. Perhaps my favourite song about rock ‘n’ roll is the Velvet Underground song more or less named after it, in which a woman named Jenny remembers her first exposure to the music at the age of five, when she turned on a New York station one day and discovered that “in spite of the computations / You could just dance to the rock ‘n’ roll station / And it was allright.”
Sometimes I find songs that are infectious with a kind of undiluted joy, an innocent fun. Teenage Kicks, a 1978 song by the northern Irish punk band the Undertones, is such a song. The words are unremarkable in themselves, but they come across with exuberant conviction, and the music is irresistible. BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who devoted a lifetime to listening to and promoting adventurous music of all kinds, liked it so much that he named it his all-time favourite song, and requested that nothing should be written on his tombstone except his name and the first line from its lyric: “Teenage dreams, so hard to beat.” If this surprises you, go and listen to it on YouTube: I often do, and I’m never disappointed.
Then there is the haunting After Hours from the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album. Elsewhere on this record Lou Reed, the band’s main songwriter, sings in an uncharacteristically gentle, vibrato-less voice, but After Hours takes this one step further. It is a song of seduction that comes as a complete surprise from such a worldly outfit. Sung slightly off key by the band’s drummer, Maureen Tucker, it starts with her saying “one, two, three” in a childlike, untutored voice, as if she wants us to sing along, or maybe establish a tempo. The singer promises fidelity to someone on condition he/she closes the door so she won’t have to go out into the grey world any more: “All the people are dancing / And they’re having such fun / I wish it could happen to me / But if you close the door / I’d never have to see the day again.”
This is a very different kind of innocence from that expressed in Teenage Kicks. There are indications that the longed-for escape from the grey world is unlikely: “Oh, one day I know / Someone will look into my eyes / And say hello / You’re my very special one”, Tucker sings, and the forlorn echo on “hello” suggests that at least for the moment rescue is not at hand. The beauty of the song lies in this contradiction: this is an innocence with a lot of experience already behind it, yet willing to make promises, to close its eyes again.