Sing if you’re happy that way, hey

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


6 thoughts on “Sing if you’re happy that way, hey”

  1. What a lovely and touching post, Elaine! Although bigotry and homophobia still exist, I’m glad at least that the current generation of youngsters need not fear being sent off to a school for the “disturbed and disturbing” because they’re gay. That’s *really* something to be happy about — no matter how you pronounce it. (And yes, I do realize this post is about singing. Grin.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Heather. You’re absolutely right. Though I do remember being in Croatia a few years ago and chatting to a very smiley nun at a bus-station. I can’t remember how we got onto the subject, but she started telling me about how happy all the gay men who’d come to her church to be ‘exorcised’ became, once the ‘evil spirit’ had left them. I had no idea that people believed such things, especially so close to here.

      They had a programme on the radio about how attitudes had changed in the UK over the last 50 years and they kept playing clips of ‘Sing if you’re glad to be gay.’ That’s what brought it back to my mind – I haven’t heard it for years. The programme’s here – it’s interesting as an investigation of how society shifts:

      All best wishes

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A nun told you about exorcising homosexuality *a few years ago*? Wow, Elaine. How did you react? (I probably would have just nodded, smiled, and slowly backed away.)

        But on a brighter note, thank you so much for the link to the BBC programme. I will watch it this weekend and report back.


        Liked by 1 person

      2. It was all a bit surreal – I think people usually have a general idea of what’s likely to come out of somebody else’s mouth, even in a conversation with a stranger abroad. I wasn’t in a place that was so utterly foreign that anything was possible and she wasn’t a nun in full nun regalia, but she’d got caught up in the frenzy of Medjugorje (that’s where she was based) and was very certain of her views. She truly believed that she was doing gay men a favour by being involved in exorcisms. A bit like our own Queen Mary, Bloody Mary, back in the 16th century, believing she was doing heretics a favour by burning them at the stake so that their souls could go to heaven. As I remember it, she had the idea that it was better to suffer fire for a bit than for all eternity. She didn’t ask the Protestants which they preferred.

        How did I react to the exorcising nun? Once I’d processed what she was telling me – which took a few seconds because it was so unexpected, I told her that I completely disagreed with her and why. I didn’t shout at her, partly because I was in her area of the world, her ‘house’, and partly because it would have taken much more than an shouting match in a bus station to change her attitude. And yes, it did bring our middle of the night conversation to a juddering halt. I hope she has reconsidered her thoughts, but if she’s still up the mountain in Medjugorie, I doubt it.

        Hope you enjoy the BBC programme. It’s interesting as an observation of society changing its mind, for the better. You might enjoy this song too – The Reluctant Cannibal about challenging commonplaces:


  2. It’s really interesting to see how the same words, or the same tune, sung with a different meaning in mind sound so different. I like ironic songs. 🙂

    It might just be me, but I hear something Russian in the tune, particularly the chorus – it reminds me of “Those Were The Days” somehow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True, true, I can hear what you mean. There’s that same swoop into the singalong chorus from a sad or serious verse too, isn’t there? I’d guess that most people remember the chorus and the first line (the British police are the best in the world) of Sing if you’re glad to be gay best. And the same with Those were the days.

      Now I’m looking for Ludmila Lopato’s version of the original Russian song from the film Innocents in Paris. You’ve got me intrigued but YouTube’s got me frustrated. It’s funny how we expect things to appear by magic on YouTube, as if it’s the genie and we’re Aladdin rubbing the magic lamp!

      Liked by 1 person

We'd love to know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.