Request Line: “Photograph”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 30, 2010
Reader MBI Writes:
And just because I want you to have material to work on well into the 2020s:
“Photograph” – Ringo Starr
“Photograph” – Def Leppard
“Photograph” – Weezer
“Photograph” – Nickelback
Four different decades of “Photograph”! Or at least it should be. Stupid Weezer dragging their feet on releasing the Green Album. I say we count it as a ’90s song, dammit.
Works for me. Let’s do this thing.
The first time I saw the trailer for Funny People I had fairly mixed feelings–I was excited to see Adam Sandler playing a darker, slightly-fictionalized version of his real-life persona (and really all movie stars who spend their entire careers trying to be likeable should do this at least once), though it being in the context of yet another Apatow/Rogen/MANN trifecta wasn’t exactly setting fire to my loins. The one part that I was unreservedly excited about, though, was that it appeared to feature a prominent scene involving Sandler covering Ringo Starr’s “Photograph.” I figured the song, long forgotten by classic rock radio, could get that sort of Apatow-endorsed “Heat of the Moment”/”Panama”-style re-appropriation to introduce it to a new generation–which, in my opinion, it rather richly deserved. Yet for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, when the movie actually came out, it was The Beatles’ posthumous 90s hit “Real Love” that Sandler covered, not “Photograph.” Good song, but not the same thing, and clearly a rather sizable missed opportunity.
You probably don’t need me to detail the reasons why Ringo Starr’s solo career hasn’t been as enduring as those of the other three Beatles–frankly, it’s sort of miraculous that Ringo had a solo career at all, let alone one as contemporaneously successful as his was (Seven top ten hits! Two #1s!), and it’s not like it was a coincidence “Don’t Pass Me By” was at best the 28th-most memorable song on The White Album. But if Starr has any kind of pop legacy on its own, then “Photograph” is surely it, and if no one is going to be confusing it with “Imagine,” “Silly Love Songs” or “My Sweet Lord” anytime soon, it just makes it a more appropriate legacy. Ringo’s aspirations never seemed particularly big and it’s doubtful anyone would have believed them if they had; consequently, if it’s a quirky little slow-burn of a love song that ends up defining the post-breakup career of the Funny Beatle, that’s about right, no? (Well, that and “No No Song,” but I wrote about that one already and I doubt anyone really cared the first time.)
“Photograph” starts off like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” performed by someone a decade older, slower and more resigned. It has the same sort of wind-up riff, but rather than revving up the excitement that “Hand” did, it just sounds like a slog to life, like a hungover guy needing multiple attempts to lurch himself out of bed the morning after. And like “Hand,” it then launches into the chorus, in a song that really has no verse. The lack of energy is easily explained by the chorus lyrics: “Every time I see your face / It reminds me of the places we used to go / But all I’ve got is a photograph / And I realize you’re not coming back anymore.” Yet even though 95% of other singers would turn this into a torch ballad, in Ringo’s hands, even the sluggish torpor of “Photograph” can’t help but sound the slightest bit jaunty. Richard Starkey just wasn’t the sort of guy to languish in musical self-pity–even on a break-up lamentation like this, it still sounds like he’s having fun playing with his friends. (Maybe why the Funny People scene inherently made so much sense.)
There’s not many surprises to be had in the rest of “Photograph”–at 4:12, the song may as well be Starr’s “Hey Jude,” and most of the song’s appeal comes from the lessons Ringo learned well from Macca in building up a song’s ultimate momentum by feeding its choruses into one another while the band/orchestra swells behind it. But there’s a line in one of the bridges that kills me every time: “Now you’re expecting me to live without you / But that’s not something that I’m looking forward to.” It’s possible that in someone else’s hands the line would’ve sounded insultingly obvious, but as plaintively sung by Ringo, I can’t imagine a better couplet to convey the sense of quietly soul-crushing anguish of having gotten over the shock and the drama of splitting with a loved one, and then just being faced with the miserable prospect of spending a whole lot of days in the absence of their presence. It’s not Paul shrieking about you being the only woman who can ever help him, it’s not George moaning about what is his life without your love, and it’s not even John sighing about how he lo-o-o-ves you, now and forever, but if you don’t think it’s every bit their equal, I would gently but firmly beg to disagree.
Another song that’s basically too boringly flawless to merit any kind of real discussion. Any discussion of the truly perfect textbook pop songs of the 1980s has to include this song, up there with “Just Can’t Get Enough,” “Like a Virgin” and (much though I may begrudge it) “Livin’ on a Prayer”. Really, the only thing approaching a grievance I could have with this song is the unnecessarily goofy “Look what you done to this rock ‘n’ roll clown” line in the pre-chorus. Otherwise, the opening riff, the driving beat, the bass rumble, the solo(s), the cowbell, the harmonies, the chorus, even the image-defining music video–really, where is there to find fault with this song? It’s not my personal preference for the Lep–I’m more of a Hysteria man, myself, and even of the Pyromania singles I’d probably rather pick up “Rock of Ages” on the radio–but it’s a deserved classic, and if it hadn’t turned Def Leppard into one of the biggest bands of the decade overnight, you’d have to think there was something seriously wrong with the Popular Music Way of Things in this country.
Oh, and in case you forgot, there’s also this. So I guess I owe Lep’s “Photograph” for that.
I’ve gone through just about the full range of emotions as regards Weezer’s Green Album. Like many superfans at the time of its release, I was heartbroken upon my first few listens to it, and like many other superfans I still, I eventually came to appreciate it for the pristine collection of gorgeously-produced nu-wave jams that it was. In fact, a good deal of the biggest Weezer fans I know now view it as one of their very finest hours, and I wondered if I was bound to get there myself. As the years pass, though, it’s starting to seem pretty unlikely. Mostly, it’s because unlike any other Weezer release before or after, Rivers Cuomo appears to be making a genuine effort to obscure himself on Green. It’s understandable after the miserable half-decade Rivers went after the failure of the intensely personal Pinkerton, but to me Weezer’s greatest asset has always been the singularity of Cuomo’s weird and wonderful universe, and how unafraid and unapologetic he’s been about shining a light on its obscurest, most eye-wideningly un-normal corners.
The light’s brighter on Green, no doubt, but it’s just not showing us anything. Some people only liked Cuomo’s weirdness when it paralleled their own (the two albums before Green), but I loved it just as much as it spiraled off into previously unseen dimensions (the four-plus albums after). Green is the only Weezer album with a hint of self-consciousness, the only one where it seems like Rivers and company are actively avoiding doing anything that could be construed as too honest, too slight, too bizarre, too anything. Perhaps given Cuomo’s likely state of mind at the time of recording, perhaps a recording as emotionally vacant as The Green Album was actually the most honest statement he could have made, and in fact my favorite song on the album by far is “Island in the Sun,” a song so purposefully dippy and escapist that it quickly becomes clear that it’s actually either about going insane or committing suicide. Still, it’s the only Weezer album that actually could’ve been produced by any one of their acolytes–Ozma, Rooney, Ben Kweller, whoever–without the difference being abundantly clear by the end of the first song. That bothers me a little, it does.
Admittedly, great pop music trumps all other rules and preconceived notions one might otherwise have for their favorite bands, but let’s not act like Green was all 10/10s on that front, either. Almost a decade later and I’m still not sure if I could identify a verse of “Crab” as being independent of “Smile” or to even hum you how “Simple Pages” goes. Even “Photograph,” one of the singles, seems totally negligible once you get past the hand claps and oooh-ooohs–if it’s about anything, I certainly couldn’t tell you what (“It’s in the photograph”? OK, so?), and apparently Weezer didn’t even have enough faith in the song as a single to shoot a legit video for it. Not that all pop songs need wacky hooks and thesis statements, but they need something to latch onto, and like too many songs on Green, there’s just not that much to work with. Ironically for their pop-friendliest album, Green is actually the Weezer LP I need to listen to all the way through to fully appreciate, because eventually the immaculate sheen of the thing (produced by New Wave hero and official Guy Who Should Know, Ric Ocasek) becomes so intoxicating that it doesn’t really matter as the songs start to bleed into one another. On its own, I check in and out of interest in a song like “Photograph” about a half-dozen times before it’s over. Why “Don’t Let Go”–probably the best by-the-book pop song Weezer ever wrote–was passed over for this, I’ll never really understand.
(By the way, if you really had wanted to do the once-a-decade thing for this article, there exists a much better and much more representative choice for the 90s than this: The Verve Pipe’s “Photograph,” the first single off Villains, unfortunately forgotten in the wake of the much more successful “The Freshmen.” Gimme the near-G-funk keyboard hook of that one over anything in the Weezer song, no doubt.)
One thing you have to give it up to Nickelback for–they don’t hide behind long, misleading intros. Nope, with “Photograph” (as with “How You Remind Me,” “Someday” and no doubt at least one or two more of their hits), it launches almost immediately right into Chad Kroeger’s unmistakable and really quite terrifying wail. So if you’re determined to spend your entire life avoiding listening to Nickelback (as I was for nearly my entire high school experience), you don’t have to waste any time trying to figure out if an indeterminate post-Creed song on the radio is going to turn out to be a Silver Side Up or All the Right Reasons jam, and can jump to flip the station basically instantaneously. It’s a nice little heads up for them to give their innumerous number of haters, to kinda say “Hey, we hope you like us, but there’s a pretty good chance you’re gonna think we suck, so we promise not to try to trick you into listening into any of our songs.” Respect.
Is Nickelback really that bad? Probably not, though they’re permanently handicapped by Kroger’s unwillingness to sing at anything but the same near-max decibel level regardless of circumstance–clearly someone who managed to ignore 15 years of alt-rock lessons in the art of LOUDQuietLOUD (or vice versa). Beyond that…it’d be hard to classify any of their songs as being particularly good, since the lyrics usually tend to be on the clumsy side and the hooks are un-inspirational, to say the least. Maybe they’re just miscast as a rock band–a song like “Photograph,” with its rustic imagery, heavy nostalgia bent and sing-along chorus, would actually be much more at home on CMT than it was on VH1 or even FUSE. Cut his hair, give him a southern twang and gallon hat and tell him to take it down a couple of notches, and Kroger could have easily become indistinguishable from Toby Keith. Not that critic-types would like him/them any more, but at least they’d understannd Nickelback better if they knew that Kroeger was playing from a different rule book than most of the bands they listen to.
By those standards, “Photograph” is a tolerable if still largely unexceptional song. Some lyrics are kinda cute–“What the hell is that on Joey’s head?” “I was so nervous that I nearly missed”–and the chorus does definitely have that “c’mon, you know the words!” feel to it, though as is always the case with Kroeger’s throaty bleating, the thing invariably sounds impossibly overwrought for a lightweight remember-when song. It’s why my favorite Nickelback songs tend to be the angriest ones, because thanks to Kroeger, they’ll always sound far more plausible as a bunch of pissed-off, blind-drunk misogynists than as a good-natured gang of old-fashioned, backslap-and-a-beer homeboys. (Not even Toby Keith would ever get within 100 feet of “Figured You Out.”) The super-seriousness of “Photograph” was, at least, brilliantly parodied by some College Humor folk (Sample lyric: “Michelle’s the first girl I kissed / When we kissed I also grabbed her boob / Back then we were both 14 / I guess I grabbed a 14-year-old’s boob”), which also makes me wonder how exhausting it must get to sing like Kroeger all the time.
Really, when it comes down to it, I still rush to change the channel when it comes on. Might be more reflexive than anything else at this point, but I don’t see it changing anytime soon.