Wednesday, February 17, 2016


References to God and religion have shown up in quite a few pop music songs over the past fifty years.  This sampling of 17 tunes illustrates some of the different takes on the subject.  And, if you get to the end and are wondering, Losing My Religion (1991) by R.E.M. is not included because it is not about religion.

Pride Of Man (1968) from Quicksilver Messenger Service (composed by Hamilton Camp who later went on to voice Greedy Smurf and Harmony Smurf in The Smurfs cartoons) was typical of the hippie era, with its warning that mankind better straighten itself out and get rid of all that greed and war or else . . . .

All You Zombies (1982) by The Hooters.  The song was written by two band members, Eric Bazilian, who composed the next tune on this list and Rob Hymans, who also co-wrote Time After Time with Cyndi Lauper.
Holy Moses on the mountain
High above the golden calf
Went to get the Ten Commandments
Yeah, he's just gonna break 'em in half!
Watch the cheesy 80s video.

Bazilian's composition, One Of Us (1995), was a smash hit for Joan Osborne on her debut album.  Lyrics, vocal and melody come together well.

From the gospel tradition we have People Get Ready (1965), by The Impressions (composed by Curtis Mayfield), with its references to the civil rights movement.
In the same gospel mode is Jesus Is Just Alright (1966), written by Arthur Reid Reynolds and first recorded by his group, the Art Reynolds Singers.   The first cover version was in 1969 by The Byrds and quickly became a staple of their live sets, with another popular cover by the Doobie Brothers, becoming a hit single in 1973.  The song has since been covered by many other artists.

Many U2 songs, particularly in the band's early years, have religious overtones.  Gloria (1981) is very direct, with its chorus: 
Gloria, in te domine (Glory in you, Lord)
Gloria, exultate (Glory, exalt him)
Oh, Lord, if I had anything
Anything at all
I'd give it to you
One of U2's best known songs, Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983), is a plea for peace in Northern Ireland, with its last verse telling us "the real battle just begun, to claim the victory Jesus won, on a Sunday Bloody Sunday"

Regina Spektor, a Russian Jew who emigrated to the United States when she was nine, contrasts our sometimes joking take on God with the old adage of "there are no atheists in foxholes" in Laughing With (2009).

Dar Williams provides a good-natured take on dealing with those of different (or no) faiths in The Christians And Pagans (1996).

In Let It Be (1970), The Beatles evoked the solace provided by faith in times of trouble.

Songs often reference God but sometimes they are really about other things.  For instance, Highway 61 Revisited (1965) by Bob Dylan starts off:
Oh, God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What ?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done ?"
God says. "Out on Highway 61".
But that's it, and the song goes on to discuss other interesting facets of Highway 61.

This is Leonard Cohen's moving interpretation of the Story Of Isaac (1969):

Then we have the anti-God songs.  Dear God (1986) by XTC, mangles theology but THC thinks the composer could care less.

Randy Newman's, God's Song (That Why I Love Mankind) (1972) is a scathing take on God and humanity, which makes for quite an acidic combo:
I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind
In a category all its own is Jesus Walks (2004) by Kanye West

Let's end on on a more upbeat note, starting with God Only Knows (1966) by the The Beach Boys (music by Brian Wilson; lyrics by Tony Asher; lead vocal, Carl Wilson).  In an indication of how much things have changed, the song's title induced some hesitation about its release among the producers and record company because it mentioned God in the title, which was unusual for a pop song at the time.  It's also an example of the ambiguity of phrases invoking the Lord's name in pop culture; is "God only knows", just a meaningless expression, often used but little thought about, or does it mean here "God only knows", and no one else, as an expression of the deep mystery of life?  You can decide.

The song has a gorgeous melody, arrangement and vocals with some very unusual musical aspects which you can read about here and here.  First up is the original version, followed by a 2014 remake (the song has been covered hundreds of times) featuring Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Chrissie Hynde, Lord, Chris Martin, Dave Grohl (of Foo Fighters & Nirvana), Sam Smith, Florence (of Florence + The Machine), Brian May (of Queen), and Brian Wilson.

We'll finish with Spirit In The Sky (1970), composed and song by Norman Greenbaum, which became a massive international hit.

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