by Jo Michelmore
First it was the whistling, then it was the clap. The cowbell couldn’t go without being featured and now, due to a special request, this week, we feature another incredible instrument: the harmonica! It’s a weird little instrument isn’t it? When I think of the harmonica I think of those creepy one man band type people with a hundred instruments strapped to them and a harmonica kind of hovering in front of their face. Super creepy. Actually, the concept of the harmonica is kind of great though, an instrument small enough to fit in your pocket but big enough to create some serious noise and if played right, in the right place, in the right song, it’s beautiful. Not so beautiful? The actuality of the harmonica. All that spit and saliva and yeeeeeew, yuck. Oh the horror of playing someone else’s harmonica. Uuuurgh. You know how they recommend you don’t get spit on your harmonica when playing? Tilt your head back, let gravity do the job for you. Yuck. Yuck and yuck. Let’s think about that while we focus this week on vintage songs that have featured the harmonica! Yes!
Rainy Days and Mondays – The Carpenters, 1971
Wow. It’s rainy or it’s Monday and you’re feeling a bit depressed, so you decide to get vintage and put this song on to feel better. Er, don’t. What a depressing song. First there’s the sad harmonica bit at the start, then she sings things like “hangin around, nothing to do but frown” and “feelin like I don’t belong”; well, Karen, chin up! Things aren’t that bad and you got to wear that beautiful ‘70’s yellow dress in the clip! How lovely. No? I know, it was the thought of all that spit in the harmonica got you down, didn’t it? Yes, I agree. Uuuurgh.
Isn’t She Lovely – Stevie Wonder, 1976
Written for his daughter when she was born, isn’t that sweet? “Isn’t she lovely, made from love,” how nice. It’s just a little pop song, not Stevie’s absolute best, but it’s one people seem to remember. Perhaps it’s all that harmonica. Yep, that’d be it. Everyone loves harmonica, right? Stevie does. He’s known for his keyboard skills, generally, but his harmonica skills are exceptional. He’s featured on over 100 songs by people other than himself, playing harmonica. That’s some serious harmonica skills. Also, a lot of spit.
Karma Chameleon – Culture Club, 1983
Come on. Who doesn’t love this song? Ok, maybe a few people. Love is a strong word. Who doesn’t know at least some of the words of this song? You’ve read the title; you already know most of the chorus. Who doesn’t love Boy George? Ok, stupid question. A lot of people don’t, especially that guy he kept chained in his basement for a while there. Things did get a bit weird for a minute there, didn’t they BG? Speaking of weird, this clip is a bit weird too. On a riverboat? Playing cards? Crooning Karma karma karma etc? It’s all a bit odd. Catchy though. I don’t actually know who plays the harmonica on this one. I wonder if Boy G made that poor male escort learn the harmonica bits while he was chained up in his basement? Maybe. Probably not.
Desire – U2, 1988
This was U2’s first number one single in the UK (and Australia, actually). I think it was the harmonica bit. It certainly wasn’t that hat that Bono insists on wearing in the clip. I’ve seen U2 live a couple of times. Everyone seems to like this one live. It’s the whole sing-along bit, people love screaming “desiiiiiiiiiiiire” etc. I like the harmonica bit, myself. Unfortunately, that’s harder to sing along with. It’s still quite good though.
Suicide Blonde – INXS, 1990
This was one of the ‘Kylie Minogue/Michael Hutchence’ mystery marketing genius songs. Was she the suicide blonde he sung about? Guess we’ll never know now. Regardless, it’s INXS sounding exactly like INXS, with harmonica thrown in for good measure. Did they really need another instrument? There were six of them weren’t there? Anyone remember any of them, other than Hutchence? There was nerdy whats-his-name-with-the-glassses and those other couple, weren’t there some brothers in there? Whatever. Well, apparently they did need another instrument and they did ok with this one. The harmonica works quite well in it. This one features the spit of Charlie Musselwhite in the harmonica. I don’t know who he is but he spits into a harmonica well.
Hand In My Pocket – Alanis Morissette, 1995
Finally, an excuse to post my favourite angry/pop female singer from the ‘90’s. Not only does it highlight her exceptional pop song writing skills on this album, it features harmonica. Perfect. Alanis provided so many anthems for so many kids of the 90’s. This was one of them, the lyrics being relatable to anyone, anywhere. I especially liked the “I'm high but I'm grounded, I'm sane but I'm overwhelmed, I'm lost but I'm hopeful” and “I'm sad but I'm laughing, I'm brave but I'm chicken shit” at the time. I still kind of like them. It’s such a great vintage road trip song, this one. Sing it loud with the windows down. Then do some funny impersonation of a harmonica at the end, but try not to spit all over the steering wheel while you do it. Good luck.