Tuesday Ten: 249: Communication Breakdown (Telephones and Music)

Yesterday marked fifteen years since I began my career working in Mobile Telecoms. Back in February 2001, things were very different in my life. I was recovering from a nasty accident (I shattered my ankle after being hit by a car late in 2000), on crutches, and hobbled into a new job with what was then BT Cellnet in the outer reaches of south Leeds. That employer became O2, a few of my friends joined the company too (and one or two are still there!), and I moved on after four years, and joined later in 2005 an independent mobile telecoms reseller in Sheffield.

Playlists:
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Another four years there, before I was made redundant late in 2009 (a fourth owner in the time I was there, that chose to merge us into the new parent and close the office). Ironically I now use the current owner – it has changed hands twice since – for some services in my current employ. Which is in London, of course, and I’ve been with my current employer now for nearly six years, as a specialist in mobile. Life is better (mentally and financially) nowadays, although there have been wobbles inbetween, and I marry the love of my life next month.

So to reflect on that fifteen years, here are ten songs around the idea of communication. Needless to say, I’m sticking with telephones – there are a surprisingly large number of songs on the wider subject – and I had to be fairly ruthless to keep it to ten.

And no, there is no Stevie Wonder, Carly Rae Jepsen, or Adele, here. There are more interesting songs than those for this week.

Kraftwerk
Der Telefon-Anruf (The Telephone Call)
Electric Café/Techno-Pop

Where else to start? One of the few songs to be riddled with telephone sounds – the initial beat is built from them – this came from the probably least-loved album by the German electronic pioneers. Electric Café (or Techno Pop as it was originally intended to be known) has a couple of genuinely great moments, but this song isn’t one of them, really. A rather cold and sterile song supposedly dealing with the difficulties of a long-distance relationship over the telephone, it is most notable for the sampling and construction, rather than the song itself.

Lady Gaga feat. Beyoncé
Telephone
The Fame Monster

Kraftwerk haven’t been the only artist to use telephone effects in songs, though – Lady Gaga did so to spectacular effect in the extended, cinema-esque video for Telephone, where vocals are distorted and extended like digital glitches on a (modern) telephone call, and the lyrics refer to getting irritated at being called while out having fun. Incidentally, I’ve still never understood why people try and answer phone calls at gigs or clubs. Seriously, how do you hear anything?

There is, of course, some amazingly blatant product placement, too, including – appropriately for this week – Virgin Media’s US service (and an LG phone apparently from another generation), not to mention a hat made of telephone handsets.

Blondie
Call Me
American Gigolo OST

Back in 1980, mind, Debbie Harry had a totally different view to phone calls from her beau. She wanted him to call whenever, “any day or night“, in Italian, in French, in English. As an alibi for other indiscretions, or just because he wanted to. I think we can call that a straight-up request to just pick up the ‘phone.

Also, the things you learn when researching posts like this – I somehow didn’t know that Hanging on the Telephone was a cover (originally by The Nerves.

Philip Jeays
Richenda
Cupid Is A Drunkard

Less welcome as a phone call, perhaps, is the 0500 drunken wake-up call. Or 0400, or 0530, too, in this case. Jeays – or the protagonist, it’s always difficult to tell with his songs as to whether they are autobiographical or not – is, to put it mildly, plastered, and wants to talk to a ex-lover, because that’s obviously the best way to try and win them back. But the drunken mind is a curious beast, and reason is not going to win here. Needless to say, the phone goes unanswered.

Arab Strap
Phone Me Tonight
The Weekend Never Starts Around Here

As is so often the way, we can trust Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton to offer the opposite side of the story, so to say. Here, on one of their earlier songs, it’s the yearning hope that they will be called by the ex-lover, pissed or not, just to hear their voice, and to hear that they are wanted after all. And, as was so often the case, they are resigned to hear the worst.
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R.E.M.
Star 69
Monster

I am fairly certain that this is the only song titled after a telephone key command (the last number redial command in the US) in mainstream music. Although I’m sure I’ll be corrected somewhere along the line. In addition, this comes from one of the more divisive albums in the R.E.M. back-catalogue, where they (kinda) rode on the coat-tails of the grunge movement of the time, and went a bit heavier, a bit fuzzier, with decidedly mixed results. The latter, mind, was very much a feature of the band’s later albums, with brilliant singles and lead tracks mixed up with some utter duds. This track, as it goes, was one of the better tracks on the album, but god, that opening riff doesn’t half sound like it was, er, borrowed from Nirvana. The chorus nearly makes up for it, though – where Stipe knows the subject of the song is calling repeatedly thanks to that command on his phone.

Deftones
When Girls Telephone Boys
Deftones

All that this title brings to mind for me are those teen years, when you get someone’s number. And agonise over whether to call them or not. OK, so I’m old now, and when I was a teenager this was in the years before mobile phones were a thing for most people (it was ’97/’98 before I got one, when already at Uni). But making that leap to making that call. The butterflies, the fear of rejection. Yeah, we’ve all been there, success or not, right? Girls Telephone Boys, Boys Telephone Girls. Those formative years when we work out who we are, how we tick and what we’re good at. Back then, I sucked at this.

Saint Etienne / Étienne Daho
He’s On The Phone
Too Young to Die – Singles 1990-1995

A second appearance for this band in a few weeks, but I was instructed by Daisy that really, there was no way that I could miss this out. And thematically, this could be considered to follow on from Chino Moreno’s musings. Here, she escapes from a relationship, makes the call to another, and despite misgivings from him, they hook up, and it all works out, like some kind of neon-lit fantasy world. The oh-so-nineties house-remix version that lit up the charts, by the way, is some distance from the original collaboration, never mind Etienne Daho’s 1984 original (although keeping the same cadence may explain some of the clunky rhyming in the english version…).

Lou Reed
New York Telephone Conversation
Transformer

Like many of these songs this week, they date from a time way before mobile telephony. Here, a ground-down Reed is baffled by the mundane nature of so many conversations on the phone, full of idle gossip and boring anecdotes that, it is fairly clear, he couldn’t give two hoots about. The end of the (short) song, though, is the real reason he’s sick of the calls – he’s not interested in the callers, he is forlornly waiting for a call that won’t come from a lover long-gone.
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Death From Above 1979
Always On
The Physical World

A band of the now, but harking back to a more innocent age. One where the now routine use of smartphones and social media – always on, always talking – doesn’t pervade everything.

You can’t turn off / Always home

This sounds so familiar as someone who works in telecoms. There is always a way that you can get hold of someone, or at least you get antsy if someone doesn’t respond by a call, text message, e-mail or instant message in reasonable time. DFA1979 are simply asking why it is this way. I sure as hell don’t know the answer, but I’m absolutely guilty of pretty much everything touched on in the song. Oh.

Time now to put the phone down, or turn the internet off, temporarily, as I head into work. Only to turn it all on again, and continue the sixteenth year of my chosen career.

Next week: Tuesday Ten hits 250.

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