Sometimes a song comes along, name checking a famous actor, and the connection is immediately self-explanatory, Clint Eastwood by Gorillaz is so named because it takes musical inspiration from Morricone’s theme for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Simple. No more explanation needed.
However, more often than not, the link can be somewhat opaquer, leaving the poor listener with more questions than answers. So, you inevitably end up lying wide awake in bed at 3am, with a catchy pop riff circling your brain, endlessly asking yourself why the hell did Madness do a song about Michael Caine? Why is Robert De Niro waiting for Bananarama? It’s pre-Meet the Fockers, surely he must have had better things to do with his time? Or, lastly, what’s the big deal about Bette Davis’ eyes? Steve Buscemi’s iconic peepers are much more deserving of a ditty! Well, wonder no more, as I take you through a selection of these seemingly inscrutable songs and try to shed a little light on their creation.
by Madness (1984)
Pop Facts: Written by Carl Smyth and Daniel Woodgate, featuring Smyth on lead vocals. Released as the lead single from Madness’ fifth album Keep Moving. Spent eight weeks on the British charts, peaking at number 11.
Background: If I told you that there was a song called Michael Caine that features specially recorded audio clips of that said actor, Michael Caine, repeatedly saying ‘My Name is Michael Caine’…what would you guess that song is about? If you said IRA informers then congratulations. If you said Michael Caine then don’t be silly.
Strangely, in spite of the multiple invocations of Caine’s name, the song isn’t really about everyone’s favourite festive Muppet botherer at all.
The paranoid character that the song’s lyrics describe, jumping at the sound of the phone and trying to remain sane, is meant to be a 1980’s ‘supergrass’. A former IRA member paid by the UK state to inform and testify on old associates, and then granted immunity living under witness protection. This character appears to be desperately trying to remember his former life and name (which may or may not be Michael Caine).
The Caine connection comes from a scene in 1965’s The Ipcress File, in which Caine’s spy Harry Palmer is resisting some nefarious brainwashing, where the baddies are trying to get him to forget his own name, by repeating “Harry Palmer. My name is Harry Palmer”. The film is also referenced stylistically in the song’s spy themed music video which features a Harry Palmer lookalike and even a photo of Caine from that era being shredded.
Also, in a slightly more tangential connection to the song’s character, Caine himself has lived most of his adult life using a pseudonym as his birth name is the wonderfully alliterative Maurice Micklewhite. However, I don’t think Caine spent the 1980’s jumping at the sound of the phone and trying to remain sane, I think he mostly spent it hanging out on the riviera with Roger Moore and making Jaws: The Revenge.
The song’s lyricist, Daniel Woodgate, was inspired by the situation in Northern Ireland, where he had lived for a time, and wanted a song that reflected the fear and underlying suspicion that was a constant there. However, he was cautious about being too direct, especially after songs like Paul McCartney’s much more overt Give Ireland Back To The Irish got no radio airplay and faced vocal criticism, and so he used the whole Michael Caine spy conceit as a veneer.
However, the music video does make the ‘supergrass’ connection a little more obvious as it opens with band member Lee Thompson, doing a so-so Caine impression, saying “If there’s one thing worse than a murderer, it’s a dirty, rotten, stinking ‘grass’”.
Involvement From The Actor: Caine initially turned down the offer of participating with the song but changed his mind after being convinced by his daughter and then recorded lines to be used.
Robert De Niro’s Waiting…
by Bananarama (1984)
Pop Facts: Written by Bananarama (Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey, Keren Woodward) Steve Jolley and Tony Swain. It was the second single released from their self-titled sophomore album, peaking at number 3 in the UK singles chart and tied with Love In The First Degree and their cover of Help! as the band’s highest charting UK hit.
Background: What’s with those ominous ellipses at the end of the title? Is it a threat? What’s Bobby waiting for exactly…do I owe him money? Based on the music video he’s potentially just waiting for pizza. Or perhaps a chance to finally put to good use those language classes he’s been taking. That would explain why he’s so adamant, in spite of the fact that he’s American and appears to be in the UK, on talking Italian (talking Italian).
In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, Sara Dallin explained that the song was ‘based on a fantasy common to a lot of young girls: falling in love with a star, having their poster on their wall – and escaping into a world that’s so much easier to deal with than a real relationship.’
Siobhan Fahey, in the same piece, expanded on this. ‘The lyrics came out of our love for Martin Scorsese films. But from my perspective, the song is also about a fantasist who didn’t want a real boyfriend because she had been date-raped. There may have been some lurid lyrics at some stage, but these were toned down to depict someone who avoided men because she felt no one could match her obsessive love for a film star.’
The song is superficially romantic and charming, but with a much darker hidden edge, which I suppose does somewhat match De Niro’s star image. However, his on-screen track record for respecting women isn’t exactly stellar, so why exactly did they settle on him as the ideal fantasy man to escape from life’s troubles with? Well, it turns out that it was simply the fact that he, along with Al Pacino, happened to be the band’s current favourite actors and his name scanned better than Pacino’s.
So now Al Pacino is waiting…for Bananarama to do a song about him too. Then perhaps they could do a song about the both of them and it would be the Heat of cheesy yet slightly sinister pop songs (honestly, or would it be the Righteous Kill of cheesy yet slightly sinister pop songs?).
Involvement From The Actor: De Niro had no involvement with the song, and the De Niro stand-in featured in the music video looks more like some randomer they picked up at Café Nero than Robert. However, he did seem flattered by the song and invited the band for a drink in Soho when he was in the UK filming Brazil. Dallin recalls him turning up in a bobble hat and glasses and seeming quite shy. Bet Pacino would have been more of a laugh.
Bette Davis Eyes
by Kim Carnes (1981)
Pop Facts: Originally written and composed by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon in 1974 but popularised in 1981 when it was recorded by Kim Carnes. Carnes’ version peaked at number 10 in the UK, and is her only top 40 hit here to date.
Background: DeShannon got the idea for the song after seeing Davis, and her striking eyes, in the 1942 movie Now, Voyager. The song’s lyrics describe a woman similar to the sardonic and yet seductive characters that Davis frequently played throughout her career. The lyrics also reference two other classic actresses. Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo, but it’s Davis, and her eyes, that the song keeps returning to.
It was specifically the Davis connection that drew Kim Carnes to record the song after she heard DeShannon’s demo. She told PopMatters; “the lyric killed me. Just the title-a song called ‘Bette Davis Eyes’? I’m interested!”
But you still might be asking, so what’s the big deal about Bette Davis’ eyes in particular? Well, according to one eye health website, smartvisionlabs, “Bette Davis’ eyes could have been indicative of a medical condition known as Graves’ disease, which is a serious thyroid and immunological disorder. The disorder causes an inflammatory response in the muscles around the eyes which makes them swell. Although the eyes are held in place by the orbits (the sockets in the skull), the swelling of the muscles and surrounding tissues push the eyes forward.”
So, there you go.
To come full circle another actor, Gwyneth Paltrow, had a minor hit in Australia covering this song about an actress after she sang it in the 2000 film Duets. To continue this trend further here’s hoping someone releases a song about one of Paltrow’s candles. Then maybe that can be covered by someone else in a few years too.
Involvement From The Actor: Touchingly, Davis was actually a big fan. She personally thanked Carnes and the songwriters and sent roses after their Grammy wins, happy that they had made her a ‘part of modern times’.
by Mika (2007)
Pop Facts: Written by Mika, Jodi Marr, John Merchant and Dan Warner. It was number 1 in the UK singles chart for 5 weeks and was 2007’s third biggest selling single.
Background: Really, Grace Kelly could be interchanged with any other glamorous actor’s name in the lyrics as the song is not about her, or her life, in any meaningful way. I’m not even sure if Mika had ever properly watched any of her films before writing this, as he describes her looks as being “too sad” which I’m not really sure is true. She’s quite chirpy and vivacious in Rear Window and High Society for instance.
The song is actually just about Mika’s frustration with record label executives who wanted him to change his sound, specifically to sound more like the then massively popular Craig David, a suggestion he roundly rejected. This song is his way of expressing his individuality and pointing out how he can pretend to be anyone he wants in order to win approval. But probably not Al Pacino since, as already discussed, his name doesn’t always scan musically.
Involvement From The Actor: Kelly was long gone by the time of the song’s release, having tragically passed away in a car accident in 1982. However, audio clips of her Academy Award winning performance in the 1954 film The Country Girl are featured in the song.
by Duck Sauce (2010)
Pop Facts: Written by Duck Sauce (Armand van Helden and A-Trak). In the UK it debuted and peaked at number 3 on the UK singles chart.
Background: I wonder what the deeper meaning could be behind this disco track that repeatedly stops to say Barbra Streisand and nothing else. One half of Duck Sauce, A-Trak, explained; “There really is no relation nor rational reason behind the lyric and the title Barbra Streisand”. Well, I suppose that settles that then.
It was also used prominently in the Philippines 2012 Tourism campaign. The Philippines; something else that has no apparent connection to Barbra Streisand (although to be fair they did cut out the bit that said Barbra Streisand in their ads and replaced it with a very rushed “it’s more fun in the Philippines” which, honestly, scans worse than saying Al Pacino).
Involvement From The Actor: Although notoriously temperamental, Streisand seems to be okay with this song inexplicably using her name, as she sang along to it (but saying ‘me’ instead of Barbra Streisand) in a promotional clip for her 2012 movie The Guilt Trip.
Lead image: BigStock
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