Everyone likes a happy ending, they say, and the relentlessly upbeat nature of rock and roll, especially during its first flowering in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, tends to bear that out. But love also means heartbreak, and so every once in a while, the great pop music machines of America cranked out songs designed to mourn -- and in rare cases, celebrate -- the death of a relationship. Looking to feel good about the man who did you wrong? This chronological list assembles the best best-known "kiss-off" songs of rock's first generation. Got a suggestion for the list? E-mail me!
Julie was the ultra-sexy apparition haunting her ex in the early-rock film classic The Girl Can't Help It, taunting him with this song and generally making him feel like a jerk for not wanting to commit. You big dummy: she tried to tell you, but you kept insisting that love was "too plebian." (Meaning, in this context, conventional. Apparently this guy had issues with marriage.) Yes, it was written by a man, but this is certainly Julie's moment, an inverted torch song whose seductiveness becomes even more painful to the guy who realizes What He Gave Up. A classic way to rub his face in it.
Another instance of the romantic tables being turned, and even more impressive considering it was penned way back in 1923 -- and by three men, at that. The toughest of female icons, if her slew of early-Sixties sides is any indication, Connie really swings for the karmic rafters with this, her first big hit, rocking just a little while displaying how swift and bitter justice can really be. "Right to the end, just like a friend, I tried to warn you somehow," she sings. "You had your way, now you must pay; I'm glad that you're sorry now." Be careful what you wish for, players.
Wait a minute, you say. This is sung by Brother Ray, not Sister Ray. And you're right, but while this is one of Charles' defining songs, it's clear that he's the loser in this scenario -- and lead "Raelette" Margie Hendricks, by way of the song's structure, owns the emotional center of it. She may be the "meanest old woman" that he's ever seen, but you get the feeling she's sick and tired of propping up his broke, philandering ass. Which is not a slam on the man himself: not only did the song not come about as portrayed in the movie Ray, The Genius didn't even write it. And so it's Margie's song (and yours) now.
This self-penned ditty, a classic of early-Sixties Crescent City soul, was her only hit. But Barbara George will live forever for her striking little kiss-off -- it's bouncy, yes, but that's because she's already moving on. To wit: "If I can't love you right, I don't have to love you at all." And also: "Don't want me no more baby? Ain't no use in your hangin' round." It's the kind of sentiment you'd expect from someone straight out of New Orleans now-notorious Ninth Ward, and it was so potent it caught the ear of Sam Cooke, who urges the DJ to "play that one called 'I Know'" in his hit "Having A Party."
Another classic from The City That Care Forgot. While Irma, the city's once and future Soul Queen, spent much of her Sixties sides bemoaning the patriarchy ("Ruler Of My Heart," "It's Raining," "Cry On"), she also had a tough side that was hard as nails, and here, she's celebrating her emotional independance from the kind of guy who'd "mess around with Mrs. Brown across town." Uh-oh. It's also bouncy, much like the Ernie K-Doe sides of the time, but the point is the hook: "I done got over you at last." This one will take a bit of searching if you don't want to buy all of Irma's early stuff. But you should.
In recent years, this has almost become the defacto national anthem of post-breakup bliss, for the ladies anyway. After all, how can you possibly beat that devilish descending bass line tumbling right into Nancy's alternately seductive and dangerous vocal? Sure, you can almost see the go-go boots on the production, especially on the end, but the tough-chick stance and not-so-subtle jabs at her ex's sexuality (her new boyfriend knows things "you ain't had time to learn") make this one stand the test of time. Not to mention that little "HA!" that drives it home. Are you ready, boots? Start walkin'!
"Wanted! Young man, single and free! Experience in love preferred, but will accept a new trainee!" So goes the clarion call that opens this fantastic slice of Seventies R&B, and this sexy trio, groomed by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team as their first big post-Motown act, had plenty of takers. Why would her man go out drinking and playing cards with the boys, then come home with lipstick and perfume on him on other nights? Does he just not care? Doesn't matter, because lead singer Edna Wright is already looking around behind his back for his replacement -- going all the way to the evening news, if need be!
So legendary is this landmark personal attack -- the first non-generic hit song by a woman on the subject, and not coincidentally a smash at the height of the women's rights movement -- that debate still swirls over who it's actually about. (The smart money says Warren Beatty.) Whoever it is, he gets a real going-over here, a character assassination that makes its subject seem like a real soulless kind of guy. He's even sleeping with "the wife of a close friend"! If you ever dreamed of telling the world what a jerk your ex really is -- well, she'll never say who the subject is, which means it might as well be him.
It had already been sung by Betty "it's in his kiss" Everett way back in the day, but Linda's powerhouse vocal and the excellent production really made this one for the ages. Perfectly mocking her boyfriend's snakelike qualities in the slithery intro, it soon opens up to a full indictment, rides over the top on a mean guitar solo, and then kicks old what's his name right out the door, then slinking off into the night. Okay, the second verse implies that she screwed someone else over just as bad in sticking around, but that's not the point. The theme of this baby is the thrill of disillusionment.
Well, what else needs to be said here? Not just a major disco smash, Gaynor's one big pop hit is the kind of emotional behemoth that you almost have to pull out when you need a little backbone. Forget ice cream and sad movies: this song has the power of a Broadway showstopper. "I used to cry / Now I hold my head up high," she sings, but the real point is in the realization that all her power comes from within: "As long as I know how to love, I know I'll stay alive." For those of you who feel they still have "all my life to live," this is your manifesto. Now get back out there.