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Top 10 Breakup Songs for Men

Everyone likes a happy ending, they say, and the relentlessly upbeat nature of rock and roll, especially during its first flowering in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, tends to bear that out. But love also means heartbreak, and so every once in a while, the great pop music machines of America cranked out songs designed to mourn — and in rare cases, celebrate — the death of a relationship. Men: looking to feel good about the woman (or man) who did you wrong? This chronological list assembles the best best-known “kiss-off” songs of rock’s first generation. Got a suggestion for the list? E-mail me!

1. “I Hear You Knockin’,” Smiley Lewis (1955)

Rock and roll’s didn’t steal everything it knew from the blues, but it certainly took its breakup attitude straight from the one-four-five, as evidenced by this New Orleans vet’s 1955 boogie-woogie stroll. “Go back where you been,” growls Smiley, upset at his girl’s fickle nature, a classic case of a woman who’s made one mistake too many. Although he did tell her “way back in ’52” that he’d never go with her, leaving us to wonder why he begged her not to leave in the first place. Hmm. Still, the sentiment is strong enough to have survived a pop cover by Gale Storm and a Fifties-revival take by Dave Edmunds.

2. “It’s Just A Matter Of Time,” Brook Benton (1959)

This classic slow-dance ballad, given even more authority by the rumble of one of rock’s great basso profundos, must be the ultimate essay on karma: you can leave now, but you’ll be back, because “in your search for fortune and fame / what goes up must come down.” More to the point, Brook (and, later, Randy Travis) asserts that the golddigger in question will return simply because of the purity of his love. Although he implies that he’ll be waiting, which makes this a good selection for smart women who make foolish choices — and the men who love them.

3. “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” The Four Seasons (1962)

Not everyone can feel Frankie Valli and his high-octane, high-octave voice, a freaky falsetto for the ages. But here, the group’s singsong delivery works, mainly because this is a truly nasty Top 40 taunt. And the plot’s unusual, too. Seems Frankie (or you, or whoever) utilized the “advance break-up” strategy, which failed when his girl failed to fall apart like mush. Or did she? Apparently he’s got friends on the grapevine who told him otherwise, which means in this twisted little game of romantic chicken, he’s one up on her. Can this relationship survive? Uh, most probably not.

4. “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” The Byrds (1965)

Okay, it was only a b-side (to “All I Really Want To Do,” Columbia 43332), and it does hedge its title bet with recurring use of the word “probably.” But the chiming, sunshine nature of their already-trademark sound — the ultimate in jangle-pop — suggests a clear decision has been made, and that brighter days are, by inference, close at hand. What’s good about this breakup song is that it refuses to identify just how the singer’s been hurt, making it a good selection for you whether the problem is generic infidelity or something more, oh, Bobbitesque.

5. “Under My Thumb,” The Rolling Stones (1966)

This was the first song to incur the wrath of the burgeoning women’s rights movement when it came to the Stones. And you can hardly blame them, what with the relentless mean-spiritedness of the lyrics: Mick alternately calls his significant other a “squirmin’ dog” and a “siamese cat,” pointedly implies that she’s his pet now, and describes how he gets to play around now, even though she can’t. A classic case of power struggle and submission, this is, but there’s no rule that says you ladies can’t sing this one about your man (or, for that matter, your woman). Sick, yes, but also sadly realistic for many folks.

6. “Little Girl,” Syndicate Of Sound (1966)

These one-hit wonders from San Jose came out with a wicked little psych-garage classic in ’66; lead singer Don Baskin sounds positively gleeful at finding out the truth about his wayward girlfriend. He’s actually laughing around lines like “too bad, little girl, it’s all over for you.” Which is even more odd considering that at least two of the song’s five verses hint that this is something he’s actually used to. So why isn’t he more upset? Does he just not care about women that much, or is this the first sign of some sort of oncoming madness? Best to just enjoy the rolling rhythms of this frathouse favorite.

7. “96 Tears,” ? And The Mysterians (1966)

The garage-band revolution of the mid-Sixties was raunchy and raw enough to produce loads of kiss-offs to the fairer sex — no pining lovelorn ballads here. And yet “96 Tears” has to sit atop the bunch as the greatest of them all, not just for its droning, bargain-basement psych but for the sheer poetic sense of revenge that pulsates throughout the song. Lead singer ? (a/k/a Rudy Martinez) wants his little girl to know exactly how many tears he’s cried over her, and how he’s gonna make her pay for every single one when he gets back “on top… and you’ll be right down there, looking up.”

8. “I Can See For Miles,” The Who (1967)

This may be perhaps the greatest “gotcha” in rock history, a chaotic high-water mark of the Who’s Mod Years that matches its lyrical revelations with a storm of sonic malevolence. “Here’s a poke at you / you’re gonna choke on it, too,” snarls Roger Daltrey, who also extrapolates his new information into something more personal and profound: “The Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower are mine to see on clearer days,” he declares. Seems like this is about something more than just a cheating girlfriend. But oh, does it ever work on that level, too.

9. “Take A Letter Maria,” R.B. Greaves (1969)

Here’s a fascinating song-story: man gets home, finds his wife in bed with someone else, heads back to the office to disown her entirely, then decides to hit on his secretary. Ah, the male ego, indomitable and yet constantly hungering for food. This turn of the decade hit speaks ill of its time, assuming that his beloved Girl Friday will jump at the chance to move into his Number One spot. Then again, the wife/secretary triangle goes back to the invention of the office, so maybe this isn’t just one man’s flight of fantasy. Admit it — you’ve thought about it, right?

10. “Evil Woman,” Electric Light Orchestra (1975)

ELO may have been fey pop-rockers who dabbled in classical motifs, but leader Jeff Lynne also took a lot from ancient blues belters like Bessie Smith, which means while he sings this proto-disco slice of cool like a torch song, it’s really a caustic goodbye — complete with literal laughter (“HA, HA!”) being tossed into his ex’s face once per verse (and with the help of two female backup singers, at that!). “It’s so good that you’re feeling pain,” he coos, “but you better get your face on board the very next train.” Ouch! Someone’s hurting. Albeit a little less than he used to be.


February 27, 2010 - Posted by | 1

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