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15 Great Songs About Happiness And Good Times - Part One

A brilliant, starlight sky. A loving wife. A new car. Do any of those summarise what happiness means to you? Or do you look inwardly? And how secure, and obtainable, is happiness? Philosophers, self-styled self-help gurus and psychologists have, as Derren Brown's book Happy makes clear, come up with different answers to at least some of these questions over the years. Yet few songs, even amongst the uptempo ones, are truly joyous, blissful, happy. That said, many others give us a view of happiness that isn't exactly straight out the creative department in the TV show Mad Men. In fact, some songs about the subject are anything but happy. Step aboard for a rocky ride of euphoria, anxiety and analysis, amongst many other things. If there's one thing most that study happiness can agree on, it's that experiencing 'good times', or seeking to, can be looked at from many different angles. Here's a sweeping panorama of the grand, anything-but-shallow subject, even if some of the songs about it aren't the most profound ever written: 

1. 'I Feel Fine' - The Beatles

Although it has been said that this George Harrison composition about the joy of having someone love him is the first, at least among number one singles, to feature guitar feedback, it is notable for a far more obvious reason: the amount of pure joy it inspires. That's not to mention excellent guitar work, some of the best among The Beatles' canon. Slices of Sixties euphoria don't get much better than this. While they would later have some rather strange notions about happiness (Lennon described it lyrically as being "...A Warm Gun") and other hits related to such a feeling (like 'Hey Jude') , this song is arguably as straight-forward as Beatles lyrics get while retaining such immense greatness.

2. 'Happy Is A Yuppie Word' - Switchfoot

In stark contrast to the previous song, this one starts with the phrase "Everything dies". Apparently inspired by the 'speculative wisdom' of Ecclesiastes and perhaps other pessimistic literature, Switchfoot still manage to inspire with their view of happiness with such lines as "Blessed is the man who's lost it all", which recalls Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, while remaining grounded in a soberly realistic mindset. The same singer Jon Foreman who reminds us that "Nothing is sound" is also so daring in his positivity as to claim "Nothing in the world can fail me now". It might not be the greatest song by Switchfoot, but it is far from one-dimension in its views of happiness.
3. 'Dusty' - Soundgarden

On this arguably cheerful, out-of-character 1996 song by the usually gloomy Seattle band Soundgarden, the apparently joyful lyrics are countered by quite-heavy backing as well as a bluesy feel on the guitars and indulgence in typically abnormal timings, much of which suggests an undercurrent of comedowns, chaos, confusion and similar unhappy happenings. In this way one finds similarities with AllMusic's take on Ice Cube's 'It Was A Good Day', a hip-hop track which they said showed "a quiet sense of violent anxiety", thought perhaps the word "quiet" does not apply to 'Dusty' so much. The lyric about things "turning back around" in this Soundgarden classic shows that happiness can be based on a brighter future as well as good times simply found in the here-and-now, something also shown in the yearning 'Boot Camp' from the same album, Down On The Upside.

4. 'High' - James Blunt

An early single from singer-songwriter and ex-military serviceman James Blunt, 'High' is about being at the top of the emotional spectrum, but also confronts worries about the future, while the line "Sometimes it's hard to believe you believe me" hints that perhaps he feels his happiness is undeserved or an event that could easily have not happened. Such a mixture of moods explicit or implied is interesting: even a few minutes' worth of songwriting here does not show a kind of bliss unrestrained or detached from everything else, even if it is truly blissful at times. The opening phrase about the "dawn" links Blunt's emotional heights to a common cause of such feeling, beauty, which is also the subject of his hit, "You're Beautiful" that's also present on the Back To Bedlam album.        

5. 'From Can To Can't' - Corey Taylor, Grohl, Nielsen, Reeder

Featuring Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters star Dave Grohl on both the opening guitar and drums, this track from the Sound City Players' album also features Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick (guitar) and Kyuss' Scott Reeder (bass) backing Stone Sour and Slipknot vocalist Corey Taylor on singing duties. "All these people - tragic little people - they're smiling and they don't know what for" sings Taylor in one of the clearest denouncements of happiness on an album as popular as this, right after a line about "Burning my cathedrals [a great source of happiness for some] 'cause I don't pray anymore". Feel good hit? Maybe not. Leave that to Grohl's co-collaborators Queens Of The Stone Age ... 

6. 'Palo Alto' - Radiohead

One of the few feel-good tracks in the Radiohead catalogue if read at face value, one might suggest given the pessimism of other works by Thom Yorke and company such as 'Planet Telex' and 'Let Down', that such good cheer is a mere veneer behind which they criticise or sneer at the corporate West and Silicon Valley. Appropriately forward looking, in terms of its effects, for a song about "the city of the future", it is also arguably overly simple. However, it still sounds great thanks to the majesty of Radiohead's array of skills, one that makes even songs that are relatively poor compared to, say, 'Karma Police' an enjoyable trip out. While this may be a throwaway by their usual standards, in another band's hands it could be considered their best work. This shows how out-of-place happier material can seem with certain bands, and also its hit-making potentially if used by certain other acts on the sunnier sides of the spectrum.

7. 'Just Looking' - Stereophonics

One of the sadder songs about happiness, this one is clearly about consumerism, a common source of happiness, or at least a quick attempt at it, in the modern capitalist world. More accurately, it's about "not buying" but "just looking" because it "keeps me smiling". Full of self-doubt ("There's things I think I want / Do I want the dreams: the ones we're forced to see?") and using individual anxieties to critique a much larger system, such analysis, shot through with emotion and complete with a pop/rock chorus, reinforces the claim that Kelly Jones and his fellow Stereophonics are a band for the working class, especially those that like to rock out.
8. 'Family Portrait' - Pink

A common theme in music is how things are not as they might seem, and such is the main trope of 'Family Portrait' in which a family are said to "look pretty happy"  but surrounding verses give the impression that reality is anything but picture-perfect. Although arguably too direct in its moralizing, the song was nonetheless a hit, sitting (un)comfortably alongside the likes of 'Just Like A Pill'. While dysfunctional, unhappy families are appeared in other tracks, few have been this good at balancing commercial value with seemingly unusual (in the context of hit records) but, in actuality, bluntly realistic imagery.


Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney By Howard Sounes

  • Published in Books


For the best part of the past fifty years, Paul McCartney has been one of the world’s best known musicians. From the chart friendly pop of The Beatles’ early music to the more experimental nature of their later work, he has led and informed many musical trends. The music that he wrote with John Lennon is timeless, and continues to work its magic on successive generations, and a lot is already known about his life. The musical successes and other artistic endeavours are well-known, as is the deep well of tragedy that has run through his life; starting with the early death of his mother when he was just 15, to the tragic early deaths of his Beatles colleagues Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, and George Harrison, and the death of his beloved wife Linda, who was so important both as McCartney’s muse and as a member of Wings. So what does Howard Sounes’ biography offer that similar works do not?

Fristly, the book is the most up-to-date of McCartney’s other biographies and is the first to include details of McCartney’s ill fated marriage to Heather Mills. Additionally, the book also takes apart the Beatles myth, and includes details of the deep resentments that led to the collapse of the band. It also examines Lennon and McCartney’s relationship, revealing how their friendship was broken when the Beatles split up, but had started to heal by the time that Mark Chapman’s actions on December 8th 1980 tragically intervened.

The book is also interesting in tackling McCartney’s life from the beginning, and over its over 600 page span covers key events from McCartney’s early life, such as his promising talent in Art and for intellectual pursuits before music became his over-riding passion, the first fateful meeting with John Lennon, and auditioning for The Quarrymen. It also takes in the hot and sweaty nights in Hamburg nightclubs, the band honing their act with Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, before they found the missing ingredient in drummer Ringo Starr. Then comes the description of The Beatles taking over the world with the help of manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin, how their sound and songwriting changed the three minute pop song format, all leading up to their acrimonious split in 1970, which left behind a lasting legacy of timeless creativity. The book also looks at McCartney’s second great band Wings, which was never given the credit it deserved, no doubt because of its leader’s previous band’s success, in addition to McCartney’s successful solo career, and his collaborations with such heavyweight figures as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.

Sounes is celebrated for his definitive work on Bob Dylan, Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, and Fab shows a similar attention to detail. The tome took more than two years of investigative work, and Sounes spoke to more than 200 people who had access to McCartney in all of the areas of his life, from family members, to studio engineers and producers. What is revealed is not always the thumbs aloft smiley Beatle that McCartney was in the 1960’s: he is shown to be deeply caring about people, but ruthless when it comes to money and his legacy.

The family life that McCartney developed with Linda, adopted daughter Heather, and children Mary, Stella, James, and Beatrice is well documented, making clear his desire to raise his children to respect the natural world, to know the importance of money, and to make their own contributions to the world, in spite of their world-famous family name.

All in all, though, this book is about the music, and McCartney has produced a lot of it — from 'Hey Jude', 'A Day in the Life', 'Eleanor Rigby', 'I Saw Her Standing There', 'The Long and Winding Road', 'Yesterday', and a catalogue of other songs written with The Beatles, to hits with Wings, such as 'Jet', 'Band on the Run', and 'Silly Love Songs', to solo works such as ‘Pipes of Peace’, ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ and ‘We All Stand Together’ and the three albums that he recorded under the name of The Fireman, which show McCartney’s interest in ambient and techno music styles.

The book ends with a description of McCartney performing in front of a sold-out audience in Germany, in front of some of the people who had supported his early career in the city, and it reveals a certain circular arc to the McCartney tale. Here we see the only surviving Beatle still playing the songs of his youth that had an impact on all of our youths — whether we came to the music first, second, third or fourth generation listeners — and carrying the load lightly, with evident enjoyment. Thanks to Sounes, we learn that Paul McCartney is not quite as the myth would have us believe: while he is no saint, he has left the world a legacy of fine music, and taught us a lesson in how to mature in the public eye without losing too much of himself along the way.

Harper Collins, 650pp, ISBN 978-0007293193

Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney is available now from amazon and  iTunes.


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