Five for Friday: Great, Not-So-Obvious Songs About the Telephone

The Outside Lands Rock Festival starts today in San Francisco. I’m not going – the last summer rock festival I went to was Lollapalooza…. waaaayyyyyy back in 1991, its very first year. I remember standing in a rain among the crowd at Nicollet Island in Minneapolis, watching a skeletal Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction and a spandex-clad Siouxsee Sioux with her new wave bandmates, the Banshees. 

My boss’s boss is going to Outside Lands. But he lives in mad, bad Oaktown and listens to bands like The National. 

Tech executives: they are truly the new hipsters.

Anyway, all of this Outside Lands talk got me thinking about my favorite songs about, naturally, the telephone. This is not unfertile ground. The vast majority of pop songs are about romance. Communication can determine if love blooms (or stinks). As a result, there’s a surprisingly large number of lists of songs about the telephone. Here’s a particularly comprehensive list, culled from reader submissions into the Guardian newspaper in the UK. 

My list is much shorter, but more fussily curated, consisting of songs that I personally like, haven’t gotten sick of, or feature singers with rad haircuts. In other words, no Tommy Tutone, no Blondie, no Stevie WonderClick on the singer/title to watch the video.

1. Cake – Never There. This song, by the 90s’ masters of sardonic deadpan singing, is ignored by most lists because the keyword’s not in the title. Too bad, because this song actually begins with the sound of a dial tone. The video lays it on even thicker, showing a lovelorn long-distance trucker trying to call his far-away baby who is “never, ever, ever, ever there.” (not in a Taylor Swift voice) Fun fact: the band claims that their name “Cake” doesn’t refer to the type of dessert, but to the verb, as in “something unpleasant caked on the bottom of my shoe.” 


Source: Wikipedia

2. Yaz – Bad Connection. This song comes from this pioneering synth duo’s album, Upstairs at Eric’s. It was introduced to me by my first college girlfriend, who lived in the dorm room RIGHT BELOW ME. Sounds like fate, huh? Actually, we only dated for six months before breaking up on bad terms and never speaking to each other again. 

“Bad Connection” is so Triassic-era that the story is about someone, so frustrated by the poor phone connection, actually contemplating writing a letter to her lover in order to arrange a pick-up at the airport. I can think of half-a-dozen better alternatives to snail mail today. I still listen to Yaz whenever I’m in the mood for spare Depeche Mode-style keyboard pop but can do without the heavy angst.

3. John Waite – Missing You. John Waite, along with Journey’s Steve Perry, stood out as archetypes of classic-MTV, female-friendly power balladeers. Much of the video for this 1984 No. 1 hit is set in an artsy loft in a Bright Lights, Big City-era Manhattan. Waite is sporting a blowdried coif, huge dangly earring and a sport jacket over t-shirt with the sleeves pushed up, while he belts out tragically: “And it’s my heart that’s breaking down this long-distance line tonight…I ain’t missing you at all.” Like I said, SO 80s. 

“Missing You” probably gets dismissed by young ‘uns, due to being on heavy rotation on the types of light-rock stations meant to be played in office lobbies. For me, this song is personal, churning up memories of awkward slow dances at prom and late nights driving home from my summer job at Target.

4. Carly Rae Jepson – Call Me Maybe. Yes, this peppy song is the complete opposite of “Never There.” It’s bubble-gum pop at its Hubba Bubba-iest. It’s also super-catchy, with more strings than a tennis racket warehouse. Still, shouldn’t this song, released in 2012, be called “Text Me Maybe?” “Videochat Me Maybe?” “WhatsApp Me Maybe?” (ok, that might be too clumsy) The point is, like Yaz’s “Bad Connection,” I heartily enjoy this song’s outdated technology references.

5. Beastie Boys – Ill Communication. Ok, this is a whole album, rather than a song. And I’m too lazy to check if the Boys ever mention drug dealers using payphones on Brooklyn street corners, or two-way pagers or even 14.4 kbps modems, for that matter on this album. The album’s got Communication in the title, end of story.

beastie boys ill communication.png

Source: Wikipedia

Before Ill Communications, I could never imagine an angry rapper shouting his lyrics over a sample of a flute solo. Yet, that’s the awesome lead track, “Sure Shot.” The other songs on this 1994 album feature a then-groundbreaking mix of 70s grindhouse soundtrack samples (all subsequently stolen by Quentin Tarentino) and lyrics honoring sports heroes from the mists of time: “I get mad hits like Rod Carew.”  

This album, and especially tracks like “Tough Guy,” “Sabotage,” (perfect song for a second-rate ensemble crime caper flick, think an Oceans Eleven ripoff starring The Rock) and the aforementioned “Sure Shot,” is best listened with the volume cranked to 11 in an empty, carpeted living room you can mosh in. It’s guaranteed to raise your testosterone levels better than AndroGel as assuredly as it will ruin your hearing.  

So what are YOUR favorite songs about the telephone or communications?