Looking forward to Valentine’s Day? No-one in London seems to be. Venture into town this Saturday and you can take you pick from any number of bilious anti-Valentine’s events, from Feeling Gloomy’s ‘Love Hurts’ night – an evening of “dancefloor doom”, preceded by something called Speed Hating – to an event in King’s Cross called ‘The Sorrow of True Love’, which promises four hours of “heartbreaking music and poetry”.
Clearly, we are a nation – or maybe just a city – of flint-hearted misanthropes. Not wishing to buck the trend, the new issue of NME picks out the 25 greatest alternative love songs, in recognition of the fact that passionate love is rarely a matter of teddy bears, pink Cava and limited-edition Toblerones (as the Tesco Valentine’s aisle would have you believe), but is more commonly a horrifying, gut-twisting ordeal.
Trouble is, the notion of an ‘alternative’ love song’ is problematic, since so many mainstream standards describe emotional states that could hardly be described as normal. Take a song as saccharine and seemingly inoffensive as Dr. Hook’s ‘A Little More’: it’s actually recounting an act of date rape (“When your body’s had enough of me…”). Similarly, Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’ – that jaunty, pub-karaoke staple – tells the tale of a man who stabs his girlfriend to death in a jealous frenzy. If that isn’t an ‘alternative love song’, I don’t know what is.
Still, let’s attempt to define terms by saying an alternative love song is one that examines love in an unusual, unorthodox fashion. One that comes in at an oblique angle, detailing extremes of emotion that you wouldn’t find in, say, a Buddy Holly ballad.
We might pick out a song like Prince’s ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, in which His Purpleness dreams of switching gender in a bid to achieve a twisted form of intimacy. A homegrown, parochial equivalent might be Pulp’s ‘Pink Glove’ – an epic portrayal of trussed-up, deformed suburban lust.
In it, Jarvis Cocker’s horny-voyeur persona simultaneously fears and desires the kinkiness exhibited by the object of his gaze (“Those baby-doll nighties, all that synthetic fluff”), like a peeping tom in some ’70s TV farce, crouched in the bedroom closet, spectacles steaming.
There are songs, however, in which love becomes too intense. It overheats, twists into something ugly and malevolent. In The Beatles’ ‘Run For Your Life’, John Lennon’s jealousy boils over alarmingly into murderous rage: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to see you with another man” (although he actually nicked the line from Elvis’ ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’).
Such violence, seen from a female perspective, can be even more murky and disturbing, as with The Crystals’ ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’. Although at least in these songs jealousy never results in actual murder. Enter Nick Cave, whose 1996 duet with Kylie Minogue, ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, tells the cheery tale of a maniac who smashes his girlfriend’s skull in with a rock. Happy Valentine’s!
Below I’ve listed our top 10 alternative love songs (you’ll find the full 25 in the mag). Which others would you nominate?
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10. The Jam, ‘English Rose’
9. John Martyn, Couldn’t Love You More’ (selected by Robert Smith)
8. My Bloody Valentine, ‘Sometimes’
7. Tindersticks, ‘City Sickness’
6. Wolfman feat. Pete Doherty, ‘For Lovers’
5. The Beatles, ‘Here There And Everywhere’ (selected by The View’s Kyle Falconer)
4. The Smiths, ‘I Know It’s Over’
3. Blur, ‘To The End’
2. Joy Division, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’
1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Maps’