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Archive for Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Storms have long inspired musicians

March 11, 2009

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Several years back I acquired a device that had the ability to both play CDs and simulate the sounds of weather. Crashing thunderstorms could be dialed up as easily as the latest Coldplay CD.

This relationship between music and weather is hardly new.

From Old English sea shanties to gloomy blues songs, weather often functions as a lyrical metaphor for changes in a relationship. Rain represents tears; lightning signifies a turbulent breakup; cold wind is rejection; ice a cessation of passion.

Perhaps the 1933 Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler classic “Stormy Weather” is about as renowned as any tune that deals with the subject. The song was first rendered by Ethel Waters at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. Artists as diverse as Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and Rufus Wainwright have delivered memorable versions. (“Rain pourin’ down, blindin’ every hope I had / This pitterin’, patterin’, beatin’ and spatterin’ drives me mad.”)

Some radio staples even literally employ the weather. “Riders on the Storm,” a 1971 track by The Doors, incorporates real recordings of rain and thunder into its moody groove. Meanwhile, the staccato electric piano playing of Ray Manzarek simulates raindrops. The song was the last ever recorded by the band, with singer Jim Morrison dying within months of the session.

Occasionally, songs are about the actual weather.

Hurricane Katrina and its ensuing devastation of New Orleans inspired numerous flood-oriented songs. How many times was “When the Levee Breaks” — a blues standard made famous by Led Zeppelin — resurrected post-Katrina? (Note: The 1929 original was actually co-written by an artist named Kansas Joe McCoy.)

Of the more modern flood songs that were popularized in Katrina’s wake was Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” which became the state’s unofficial flood anthem heard at dozens of concert benefits. Penned in the 1970s, the lyrics speak of a flood that drenched a three-state area a half century prior. The chorus offers the rousing lines, “Louisiana, Louisiana / They’re trying to wash us away.”

The list of popular songs that make reference to severe atmospheric phenomena could fill volumes. “Lightning Crashes” by Live, “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” by Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Electrical Storm” by U2 and “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by The Scorpions all seem to be in eternal rotation on classic rock radio.

As to how this relates to “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls, well, that’s anybody’s guess.

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