Masterpieces – Five Songs about Art

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There was a bit of a fad for singing songs about film stars and artists back in the early seventies, and once or twice such songs burst onto the radio. As a kid I found this fascinating, even when the songs were a little bit saccharine. There was Elton’s Candle in the Wind, an ode to Marilyn Monroe  long before the late Lady Di got her posthumous hands on it. There was You’re So Vain, Carly Simon’s beautifully bittersweet song about Warren Beatty. And this one…

Vincent – Don Maclean

Maclean was one of the many cheesecloth troubadours who poured across the Atlantic with a guitar and earnest songs to sing. Don’s big number was his melancholy tribute to Buddy Holly that somehow took on greater meaning in an America growing used to political assasinations and deaths on the Vietnam war.

Starry Night is a song about Vincent Van Gogh’s swirling post impressionist painting Starry Night, a painting completed during his commital to an asylum in St Remy in 1889. Vincent was a gloomy sort too – he once wrote to his brother Theo “Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star.” In the asylum  he wasn’t allowed out at night and so painted Starry Night from his imagination.

I’m sure Vincent Van Goch wasn’t nearly as gloomy as he was painted. I envisage him less as a troubled lunatic and more as a bit of a bad ‘un. I image he’d identify with a more upbeat and irreverent song, such as…

Pablo Picasso – The Modern Lovers

Not for Jonathan Richman, ( frontman of the Modern Lovers) a carefully worded eulogy for a long dead painter. He just looked at Picasso and gave him a stunningly irreverent frat house makeover. The audacity is wonderful. “He could walk down the street and girls could not resist his stare – Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole…” Never mind that only vinyl obscurants such as myself, who would buy American imports from the classified ads, would buy it.

Richman’s attitude was a harbinger of even less reverent songs, and soon the British punk scene was ripping it up and starting again. Yes there were committed and serious bands walking around in the bondage gear and spike hair, but there were also some not taking things nearly as seriously such as…

I Love My Baby ‘Cos She Does Good Sculptures – The Rezillos

Part of the beauty of the punk rock scene was the D.I.Y aspect – you didn’t need to be able to play, to look good, or even stand up straight. Edinburgh art punks Rezillos were a totally throw away goon squad of the kind made great by The Cramps and the B52s. Junk culture, 60s bubblegum and Wacky Races fashions. Dig it, Daddio.

When new wave smart alecs moved in things got really good, songwise. Into the 80s and 90s the big thing wasn’t the song, but the accompanying video, with more effort going into the latter than the former.

Endless Art – A House

Dublin band A-House had a sudden hit with Endless Art, which seemed to be all over MTV Europe but not in mainstream record shops.

Great fun not least because, when hit with criticism that the song was entirely namechecking male artists, went right back into the studio and cut ‘More Endless Art’, entirely about female art. Cool stuff.

Finally, though, I want to play you the song that inspired this little blogette:

Edith Wharton’s Figurines – Susan Vega.

Wharton was actually a writer, whose early twentieth century works – Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome among them – were celebrated works, held up alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James. The song though, has a deeper theme – the death of a woman named Olivia Goldsmith (writer of First Wives Club) who died suddenly during a botched plastic surgery.

The lyrics of Vega’s song are quite wonderful. Her  ‘routine operation’ lyric is as much to do with the gilded cages of Wharton’s Victorian characters as those in our modern era; People ‘under anaesthesia’ who are not satisfied. Those who feel ‘our own beauty not enough’ and are prepared to go under the knife to obtain an imagined beauty that isn’t entirely real. Quite a song.

There are all sorts of songs that are about art. Mona Lisa, by Natt King Cole being the first of many. Elvis Costello’s Painted From Memory written with Burt Bacharach and his little gem ‘Hoover Factory’, which pays tribute to one of West London’s Art Deco architectural gems. THere’s Bowie’s Andy Warhol, Cale’s Magritte, King Missile’s hilarious Sensitive Artist  Madonna’s Masterpiece and Rufus Wainwright’s surprisingly poignant Art Teacher. But that’s for another time.



Andy Royston is a designer, artist and photoblogger based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Veteran of the London 1980s music scene, where he designed record sleeves for all kinds of rock stars and indie heroes he is a bottomless pit of musical trivia. Still looking for the next big thing he’ll be dropping into JAQUO.COM to write an irregular column on the musicians he’s most excited about.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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