Ah, the telephone. That iconic 20th century technology is all over the rock and roll canon, mostly in its original analog form but with a few recent smartphone additions. Plenty of obvious telephone songs to choose from in terms of hits: The Marvelettes’ “Beechwood-45789,” ELO’s “Telephone Line,” Blondie’s “Call Me,” Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309,” and many, many more. There’s also a slew of less obvious yet popular niche tunes like the Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone,” Nick Lowe’s “Switchboard Susan,” and R.E.M.’s “Star 69.” But in this post I wanted to feature some less obvious material, either with songs that focus on key aspects of the phone experience or by lesser known but certainly deserving artists.
“Party Line” appeared on the Kinks’ 1966 album Face to Face and even saw release as a single in Norway (it was the B-side of “Dandy” everywhere else). Leave it to the Kinks to go right for the classed aspect of the modern phone experience, no surprise really given Ray Davies’ lyrical attention to social issues. Nearly everybody from a working class background in the 1950s and 1960s had a party line, a cheaper phone service that you had to share with other households. Like “Dead End Street” and “Picture Book” the song catalogued the not-so-hidden injuries of class in 1960s England, in this case the indignity of the singer’s failed efforts to make a private call. At one point he even mock threatens, “I’m not voting in the next election if they don’t do something about finding out who is on my party line.” One can definitely hear the cross-pollination of Kinks/Beatles reciprocal musical influences on this tune, particularly on the guitar work.
The Kinks – Party Line
The Records debuted with a pretty great album, 1979’s Shades in Bed, featuring should-be hits like “Starry Eyes” and “Teenarama.” The record also featured “The Phone,” which opened with a classic operator voice-over announcing “I’m sorry, but that number doesn’t answer. Would you please try your number again.” The singer bemoans the phone’s ability to bring food, love and possibly danger but not necessarily connection. In contrast to such serious themes, Rupert Holmes showcases the lighter side of 1970s telephonic tunes on “Answering Machine” from his 1979 album Partners in Crime. In the late 1970s answering machines were just taking off as mass market items and Holmes’ protagonists play an early game of telephone tag with a marriage proposal and response, including the distinctive (and jarring) message-ending beep.
The Records – The PhoneRupert Holmes – Answering Machine
But enough of the past – there are some great recent telephone songs too. Twin Peaks kick up their heels on the rollicking “Telephone” from their 2014 album Wild Onion, a song that sounds so light but recounts love lost via the phone line. Mo Kenney also finds the phone a barrier to communication with her significant other. From Kenny’s 2014 release In My Dreams, the song has some great lines, both lyrical and melodic, and a great video. Brian Jay Cline paints a melodic, Americana-inflected portrait of the passing of a broken down payphone and his relationship on “Payphone” from his wonderful 2017 album Idle Chatter. Taking phone technology into the 21st century (but with a poprock sound borrowed from the late 1970s), Rob Bonfiglio encourages his intended to “Text Me” on a track from his 2012 album Mea Culpa. There is something so Hall and Oates in this song’s mix of pop soul and guitar hooks. Rounding out our telephonic tribute, Gregory Pepper is not impressed with the advances in phone technology on his brief “Smart Phones for Stupid People,” from the hilarious collection of incredibly short songs that can be found on his 2015 release Chorus, Chorus, Chorus.
To get in touch with the Kinks, the Records, Rupert Holmes, Twin Peaks, Mo Kenney, Brian Jay Cline, Rob Bonfiglio and Gregory Pepper, I would love to tell you that operators are standing by, but we both know that would just prompt a recording from the ‘not going to happen’ exchange. Instead, just hit the links above. I mean, who needs a phone for such things now anyway?