When you think of the English word happy, how do you imagine it? A hop and a skip across the double p, with a spring up into the air on the y? That typical Pharrell Williams-style happy.
Now listen to Tom Robinson’s happy. A shadow version:
What could change your idea of happiness so?
Tom Robinson was born in 1950, into an England where homosexuality was still illegal and where the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, had promised to “rid England of this plague.” Tom attempted suicide as a teenager, seeing no liveable life ahead of him once he’d realised he was gay. He was sent to a therapeutic community for “delinquent, disturbed or disturbing boys” where a visit from old boy and British blues musician Alexis Korner inspired him to express himself through music.
He wrote Sing if you’re glad to be gay in 1976. The law had changed, but attitudes hadn’t. You can hear years of pain in the way Tom pauses just before the word happy, to load and twist the word, before spitting it out. Happy is tainted by his own life experience and expectations.
You can imagine all the times he must have absorbed versions of How could anyone be happy that way? from the headlines of newspapers and the quick, snide comments of the newsagents themselves. The impossibility of happy and gay sharing a sentence or a life.
Pharrell tips the word happy forward onto its toes. Tom turns it into a wet dishrag of disappointment.
Tom has spoken here about how the song, at demo stage “sounded like the Kinks, but once you start playing something like that to audiences – and feel in fear for your life – any tweeness vanishes quickly.” It’s easy to imagine Ray Davies using the same deadpan irony of The British police are the best in the world/I don’t believe one of those stories I’ve heard.
Ray’s a master of showing the dirty hem on the pretty dress of society expectations. You could play A Well Respected Man to any conservative bishop and he’d happily sing along, thinking he’d misheard a word in while his father pulls the maid, but then realising he’d been tricked as the song unravels. Listen to Ray call your attention to the word regatta. You’re being primed to notice the rhyme of get at her. It holds the central joke of his song:
The cauldron of power and sex beneath the smooth surface. You could call it Twin Peaks, English style.
If English isn’t your first language: be sure to check for irony when you sing a song in English. But, once you’ve found irony, don’t overplay it when you sing a cover.
Irony works best when you’re in collusion with your audience, not when you’re shouting in their face. Irony is a thing of agreement. It says “you and me, we all know this don’t we?” not “sit down and let me teach you something, stupid.”
When you sing with irony, the irony should be a twist of lemon in a martini, not a whole lemon blocking the top of the glass.
And, as for Tom Robinson, his song’s lasted partly because the chorus is infectiously and irresistibly pub singalong. You can’t help singing along inside your head, even if you don’t open your mouth. But like our Kinks-loving conservative bishop – once the chorus has found its way in, you have to pay attention to the other words.
Nowadays, when Tom sings the song, happy sounds happier. He still leaves a slight pause before it, but the word itself sounds more of an affirmation than an irony. He’s not expecting his audience to beat him up for being gay any more and his own life has turned out happier than he could have imagined, back in 1966.
© Sing Better English, 2015