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Phoning It In: More Songs About Telephones

Tuesday, October 09, 2012 - 05:33 PM

People used to say, of a particularly great singer, that she or he could sing the phone book and it would sound good. Now, it's safe to say that if someone actually said that, a fair chunk of the population would respond, "What's a phone book?”

The telephone is no longer central to our lives, or to the way we communicate with each other. I mean, look at how we use phones now: We expect them to browse the web, send and receive texts and emails, get us to our destination when we're lost, take photos, play music. These things aren't smartphones, they're borderline geniuses.

The one thing we don't expect from them is that they be good telephones. Because they aren't. When my daughters call on their iPhones, I can barely make out which one of them it is, let alone what they’re saying.  

But a generation that has grown up without much use for the telephone still seems to like music about this crazy old technology that actually used wires and, stranger still, human beings. 

As Eric Danton tells us, the phone isn't even dead yet and already we're engaged in massive nostalgia for it: There's Maroon 5's "Payphone," or the videos for Justin Bieber's "As Long As You Love Me" and Conor Maynard’s "Turn Around." And I love Eric's list of older telephone songs now rendered obsolete by references to things like operators, Star-69, long distance charges, and phone exchanges that had letters in them.

But there's more. So here's a list of some telephone-based songs that no one would write today, but which captured the lure and the romance and the frustration of this long-ago technology. 

Tommy Tutone, "Jennie (867 5309)"   

A pop hit from 1982 that did not use the old 555 exchange number that you hear in movies. That gave the phone number some verisimilitude, unfortunately for anyone whose number happened to be 867-5309. 


Lou Reed, "New York Telephone Conversation"


From his breakthrough album Transformer, Lou Reed reminds us how gossip traveled before Facebook.


Laurie Anderson, "New York Social Life"   


An early work from the other half of NY’s musical power couple; just a few years after Lou did his phone song, Laurie came up with this send-up of inward-looking, work-obsessed downtown artists gabbing on the phone with each other. 


Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show,  "Sylvia's Mother"


 I never knew what to make of this bit of melodrama. Sylvia's mom, unmoved by some of the most anguished, perhaps hyperemotional singing ever recorded, won't bring Sylvia to the phone to say goodbye. But she eventually concludes by inviting the singer to come back again, even though Sylvia's leaving town.  Hmmm… 


Cypress Hill, "What’s Your Number"


 This 2004 song from the L.A. rap crew borrows the riff from The Clash’s "Guns of Brixton" and the pick-up line from John Travolta circa 1978. Or from the Beatles' "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)."


Glen Campbell, "Wichita Lineman"    

One of songwriter Jimmy Webb's finest moments, evoking the loneliness of a lovelorn, and possibly sun-addled repairman working atop the long miles of telephone poles and wires running across the American West. 


Primitive Radio Gods,  "Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth with Money In My Hand"

 Probably the phone booth's last hurrah in pop music -- at least until Maroon 5 came along. By 1996, phone booths were still commonplace, but good luck finding one that worked.  Another song that uses the telephone as a metaphor for loneliness. 

What’s your favorite phone-related song? Tell us below in the comments section.


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Comments [4]

Grant from Manhattan

Another vote for "Answering Machine" by the Replacements. And what about "Call Me" by Blondie?

Oct. 13 2012 05:33 PM

Here's three that should be on any such list:

All Night Operator by Bryan Ferry (which seemed somewhat retro even in 1977) and Switchboard Susan (also retro) by Nick Lowe. It seems telephone-nostalgia is almost as old as the telephone! Finally, Pete Shelley's Telephone Operator seems ripe for a revisit.

Oct. 12 2012 09:41 AM
jdd from Brooklyn

Just wanted to mention "Answering Machine" by The Replacements. A truly great song and perhaps a foreshadow of the isolation caused by technology.

Oct. 10 2012 06:41 PM
Karen Young from Brooklyn, NY

There's the delightful 60's song from Chris Montes - "Call Me" (maybe it's late but just call me) Different from Blondie's "Call Me," also a great one. Jim Croce's "Operator." Then there's Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee." And who could forget ELO's "Telephone Line"? That phone ringing sounded so forlorn. And talking about old technology - the phone booth seems the most popular - there's the country classic, "Here's A Quarter - Call Someone Who Cares." Thanks for the topic! I often think how funny it is that so many things I grew up with are now completely wiped off the earth, and young people would have no idea what they were.

Oct. 09 2012 10:08 PM

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