11 Dec 2018

Songs about leaving and saying goodbye

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:08 pm on 11 December 2018

We asked our listeners to tell us what they reckon are the best songs about leaving. We got hundreds of suggestions and have culled the list down to 20!

These are the songs we played:

LEAVING ON A JETPLANE (the Peter Paul and Mary version)

'Leaving on a Jet Plane'  was written by John Denver and became a global hit for Peter, Paul and Mary. But the funny thing is, that's not its original title. When he recorded it for his 1966 debut album, Denver called it 'Babe, I Hate to Go'. His producer convinced him to rename it before Peter Paul and Mary recorded it the following year. And even then, it wasn't actually a hit till 1969.


'Leaving on a Jet Plane', surprisingly, wasn't a hit in New Zealand. But another song about the same thing was. Indeed, this was the only country in the world that sent Susan Raye's 'LA International Airport' to number one, way back in August 1971. LAX itself proclaimed it the airport's official song in 2003, to mark its 75th anniversary. Susan Raye, only four years younger than LAX itself, came out of retirement to sing it at the official ceremony.

DURHAM TOWN (THE LEAVIN') - Roger Whittaker

Another song first recorded under a different title! Roger Whittaker originally wanted to make the song about Newcastle, which I think we can all agree sounds terrible. And there's still a namecheck for the River Tyne, which runs through Newcastle, not Durham in the second version. And even then, it was was called 'The Leaver' and didn't get the name we all know until it was released as a single in 1969. Roger Whittaker is still alive and living in France. He's 82.


A couple of years ago at a music forum, Murray Cammick told a story stemming from that nightmare of every working DJ: being asked to play a friend's wedding. Things were going swimmingly until the bride's brother requested this song. No, said Murray, songs have meanings and that one is inappropriate for a wedding party. Eventually, the bride rocked up and demanded to know why Murray was arguing with her brother. He explained - and was told to play it. Nothing that happens after that point is the DJ's fault. And here it is: the all-time classic - just not at weddings - that is Rose Royce's 'Love Don't Live here Anymore' …

'SOMEONE GREAT' - LCD Soundsystem

It has been speculated that this song doesn't refer to a lost love, but to James Murphy's former therapist, Dr George Kamen, who died suddenly in 2006, and to whom the Sound of Silver album is dedicated. But Murphy has always refused to discuss the meaning of the song, saying it's "too personal".


The killer fact about this song is that it was written by Shel Silverstein, an amazing man who was also a cartoonist and children's book author. He also wrote Johnny Cash's 'A Boy Named Sue' and Marianne Faithfull's 'The Ballad of Lucy Jordan', which was originally a Dr Hook song. Suzy, who suggested the song to us, says it reminds her of "sunbathing in the backyard as a kid, listening to my little transistor radio."


Next, a breakup song that's not at all mopey. In 'Moving On Up', M People's Heather Small is singing in the persona of the person who's just not going to put up with this any more. Karen, who suggested the song to us, says "This track helped me get through my marriage breakup from a lying, philandering creep in 1993." Karen, you may not have been alone - this was M People's biggest single worldwide. And according to one of our producers, "in disco lies redemption and renewal".

`Don't Leave Me This Way' - The Communards

Time for a sad banger. As listener Jodie put it, it's "a contrast to the usual sad-sack leaving songs". Indeed, and while good people may agree to disagree which is the best version -- the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes original, Thelma Houston's hit cover or the Communards' 80s version, it is arguably the greatest of all sad disco songs. Perhaps because it manages to combine a sense of abject loss with with the most life-affirming sound, it became an anthem in the years when HIV-AIDS ravaged the gay community.


But here's one Diana Ross did record. It tells the story of a woman who's sent her honey off on a bus, with a pile of her money, set set up a new life for them both. And she just can't bring herself to believe the worst...


Paul Simon had left his first wife Peggy Harper not long before he wrote this song in 1975, but it's not clear that's what the song is about, or whether it's just fun with rhymes. But the really important thing here is that although Paul Simon repeatedly informs us that there are 50 ways to leave our lovers, he in fact lists only FIVE:

1) Slip out the back, Jack
2) Make a new plan, Stan
3) You don't need to be coy, Roy, just set yourself free
4) Hop on the bus, Gus
5) Drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free


We had a lot of votes for our next song. It was inspired in February 1967, when Paul McCartney read a Daily Mail story about Melanie Coe, a 17-year-old A-level schoolgirl who had disappeared from her middle-class family home. He took the verses to John Lennon, who provided the chorus for what became 'She's Leaving Home' on the Sergeant Peppers album. Melanie Coe has been interviewed several times since, and confirmed that most of the details -- including the ones Paul simply imagined -- are correct. The song itself has been hailed by the American composer Ned Rorem as "equal to any song that Schubert ever wrote".

NUKKANYA - Paul Kelly

Sometimes, a song title says it all. And that's the case with Paul Kelly 'Nukkanya' -- it means "see ya" in an aboriginal dialect. When Bill Hunter, who starred in Muriel's Wedding, Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, died in 2011, Paul Kelly played this at his funeral.

IF YOU LEAVE ME, CAN I COME TOO - Mental As Anything

Another Australian classic -- and one of the great song titles -- Mental As Anything's 'If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?' from 1981. Thanks to Michael in Tauranga for suggesting this one.


'Leavin' on Your Mind' is not only one of Patsy Cline's greatest recordings, it's one of the great country songs full stop. And there's a sad story to go with it. Patsy heard a version of the song by the Canadian singer Joyce Smith when she was visiting her producer Owen Bradley in 1962 and demanded to record it herself. No, said Bradley, give Joyce's version a chance. Patsy got to make her version a year later -- and, shockingly, it wasn't a hit, stalling at 83 in the pop charts. It was meant to get another chance on her next album, Faded Love. But she died in a plane crash aged only 30 and the album was never released.


Like a number of his hits, Glen Campbell's 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' is the work of the late, great Jimmy Webb. It's inspired by Webb's real-life break-up with his girlfriend, Susan Horton -- who is also the inspiration for the song 'Macarthur Park', where the pair of them used to feed ducks and canoodle. People with way too much time on their hands have calculated that it would be theoretically be possible for the narrator to make the drive described in the song --- BUT he'd have to average just over 100 kilometres an hour, which is clearly unwise. Hundreds of other artists have recorded the song, but no one made it last longer than Isaac Hayes, whose version clocks in at an epic 18 minutes and 40 seconds.

HAVE I THE RIGHT? - The Honeycombs

From a song about a man who's leaving to a man who's just not having it. The Honeycombs' 'Have I the Right?' was the group's only song of any real note. It's got the sound of legendary producer Joe Meek all over it, most notably its beat, in which Honey Lantree's drumming is overlaid with a recording of the whole band jumping up and down on the wooden stairs of Meek's apartment. And as if that weren't enough, overlaid again with the sound of someone bashing a microphone with a tambourine. Thanks to Alan Parkes of Timaru for reminding us of this one.


Amanda from Nelson suggested a local song: Greg Johnson's 'Say Hello to the Old Town from Me'. She says it reminds her "of that pocket of time we all live in during our more youthful days - until you and everyone else gradually move away or move on. Many of those special friendships get lost over time but always stay in the town as memories. To quote Greg 'It wasn't so much that we fell out of love in the end we just couldn't agree ...


Anika Moa's 2007 album In Swings the Tide revolves around two kinds of departure: the end of a relationship and the death of her father. The single, 'Standing in This Fire' is about the former. Things did look up from here ...


The last of our leaving songs could only ever be the last song. Thanks to Louise for suggesting it. She says:

"You broke the news of Leonard Cohen's death to me on air, on a Friday in November two years ago, and I will never forget the kindness and the genuine sorrow in your voice that day. You've probably guessed it: I was and still am a really passionate fan, having first heard him on 'Radio With Pictures'  in the TV Room at Unicol, Otago, in 1984. They played 'Dance Me to the End of Love' on a Sunday night, and I was smitten. The next morning, I was waiting outside the Dunedin EMI store on George Street to buy my  $11.99 vinyl copy of 'Various Positions'. I have remained a fan, and eventually saw him live a number of times; once in London in 1993, and four times in Auckland, New Zealand."

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