Readers recommend … songs about smiling and laughing.
In his song What’s Wrong With This Picture?, Lloyd Cole neatly skewers the miserabilist mindset: “Smile, she said, and if you want/I’ll look the other way/Till you regain your melancholy disposition/Or until you get over yourself.”
That self-serious pose is common to both adolescents and songwriters, and you can hardly blame them. While there is a rich and complex vocabulary for sadness, joy is more elusive. Hats off to anyone who can write a song about smiles or laughter that isn’t either maddeningly perky or secretly barbed. In the first category resides Shanice’s I Love Your Smile, listening to which is like gargling sugar-water at gunpoint. In the second, we find the Supernaturals’ Smile, superficially the acme of Britpop jollity, but actually as bleak as Bergman: “I feel like a Dalek inside.”
The most vexing thing a depressed person can hear is “Cheer up,” but Nat King Cole’s voice is so deeply reassuring it could be used as a crowd-calming measure. Here, he’s wise enough to appreciate all the reasons not to smile, and optimistic enough to recommend that you do anyway. A half-century later, that same attitude ignited Gnarls Barkley’s Smiley Faces: “You know how hard this life can be/But you keep on smilin’ for me.”
Tears of a Clown’s aggressively cheerful circus-style intro (written by Stevie Wonder) sets up Smokey Robinson’s final, faultless refinement of a conceit he’d already used on Tracks of My Tears and Carolyn Crawford’s My Smile Is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down). If there are any clowns who come home from a hard day spent hurling custard pies and climbing out of undersized cars and don’t break down sobbing at the emptiness of it all, we never hear about them.
Steve Harley’s biggest hit is also deceptively upbeat. He can say that it’s a poison-pen letter to ex-bandmates until he’s blue in the face, but people will still dance to it at weddings, not least because it has the best false ending in pop. Likewise the The’s brilliant Uncertain Smile: loveless late-night moping masked by a sparkling melody.
From the Bee Gees’ terribly earnest early days, Robin Gibb’s quavering parable of a misunderstood martyr is humourless and florid but, not for the first time, his gift for a tune redeems everything. The jangling black comedy of Josef K’s Sorry for Laughing makes an apt contrast.
The Undisputed Truth were the Motown hitmaker Norman Whitfield’s pet band. Smiling Faces Sometimes, repossessed from the Temptations, was their sole chart success, a miniature masterpiece of crawling paranoia.
On the dissipated funk of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, even the hits have queasy undercurrents; (You Caught Me) Smilin’ has a seductive decadence, Sly singing with semi-apologetic charm as a junkie caught in the act: “You ain’t used to seein’ me turned on.” Playing us out, the folk wit John Prine mischievously endorses a narcotically assisted grin. What would Nat King Cole say?
This week’s playlist
1 Smile Nat King Cole
2 Smiley Faces Gnarls Barkley
3 Tears of a Clown Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
4 Make me Smile (Come Up and See Me) Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel
5 Uncertain Smile The The
6 I Started a Joke The Bee Gees
7 Sorry for Laughing Josef K
8 Smiling Faces Sometimes The Undisputed Truth
9 (You Caught Me) Smilin’ Sly and the Family Stone
10 Illegal Smile John Prine
· Next week: Songs about US towns and states. Give us your recommendations and learn how to download this compilation: music.guardian.co.uk/readersrecommend
Publication date: 16/11/07