Ruby: Who’s that girl?
Friday, 9 February 2007
Kaiser Chiefs’ new single is called ‘Ruby’. Martin James remembers other great Rubies. And Julies, and Lucies, and…
From Lucy to Angie, Gloria to Jane, the history of popular music is awash with women’s names celebrated in song. A quick glance at the bulging back catalogue of odes to womanhood reveals Marys by the dozen, a whole heap of Suzies and a rash of Carolines, Jackies and Lisas. But what of those other names? What about the ones that no singer ever serenades, the names that never get their cards marked? Where are the songs about Mavis, Moira, Mabel or Muriel? It’s not just the Ms that get a short shrift. What about Deirdre and Beatrice? Or Bethany and Jade? Where are their songs?
This week the Kaiser Chiefs add to the cannon of rock’n’roll’s significant others with the first single from their forthcoming second album. The women in question this time? Ruby. The latest in a long and distinguished line of Ruby songs, in fact. Ruby songs all too often depict their subject as a fiery tramp with more than a taste for the wild side and an unusual ability to break men’s hearts. Ruby, it would seem, is the embodiment of rock’s stance as the untamed outsider. This is exactly how Kaiser Chief’s vocalist Ricky Wilson sees her.
“For me she is super cool, totally unapproachable, and doesn’t know or even want to know your name,” he says. “The tough nuts are the hardest to crack, but have the sweetest flesh. There was a girl like that at school, she said my name in a café once and I crumbled. I kissed her once and broke her necklace. It’s funny how that kind of girl can make super-cool dudes like me into fumbling idiots.”
So what was it that inspired the Kaiser Chiefs to offer yet another slice of Ruby song rather than wax lyrical about Mavis, Mabel or Muriel? “They all sound too reliable,” argues Kaiser Chiefs’ drummer Nick Hodgson, who wrote the “Ruby” hook. “Rock’n’roll women have got to sound brash and feisty – like Ruby, Roxanne, Rita and Sheila. Paul McCartney wrote ‘Martha My Dear’, though. She sounds a reliable type.”
Of course, in the real world not everyone with the same name shares similar characteristics. But when placed into the context of popular music those lovingly repeated monikers lose any sense of individuality. So, Lucy is forever a lysergically enhanced hippie. As is her friend Jennifer Juniper, while Emma will always be a wannabe starlet, thanks to Hot Chocolate’s song of the same name, and the otherwise sweet Jane will always be a hard-living teenage runaway. The clichés are inescapable.
Róisín Murphy, formerly one half of Moloko and now a solo artist, is another singer who has celebrated the legend that is Ruby on her 2005 debut album Ruby Blue. However, for her Ruby was less an object of lovelorn anguish than an expression of self-disgust. “Ruby Blue was a pseudonym for me in order to give myself a good talking to,” she says.
As the father of a 10-year-old daughter called Ruby Blue, I have a personal interest in the name. But what drew me, and all those songwriters, to the name? Did we all fall for the same wayward connotations? Or was it simply popularity?
A quick look at the Government statistics on babies’ names reveals Ruby to be last year’s fourth most popular, which might explain why Kaiser Chiefs, a band who have immersed themselves in pop artifice, have embraced it so readily. If this is the case, then it is likely that Ruby will go out of songwriterly favour in the same way that names like Harriet, Ermine and Brenda all but disappeared following brief spells of popularity in 1950s music.
Fashion offers a simple answer but it doesn’t explain the enduring nature of some names. Ricky Wilson reveals what is perhaps a more satisfying explanation when talking about the origins of Kaiser Chiefs’ “Ruby”. “This [the chorus] was one of Nick’s bits. A true moment of inspiration. He ‘says’ he just sat at his magic piano and it spewed out of his gob. It kind of annoys me that he can do that. I spend days and days painfully crafting intricate and beautiful delights of metre, rhyme and verse-forms, and then Nick barges in, shouts ‘Ruby’ four times, and steals all the glory. I suppose that’s why it all works so well. Also, usually with this sort of thing, it’s the sound that the word makes that’s more important than what it’s saying.”
Murphy agrees that it’s the sound of the name that makes it work. “Ruby is such a passionate name,” she says. “It somehow sounds solo, one ego, not a part of everything. But above all it’s very poetic.”
Ah yes, poetry. Songwriting eccentricities such as lyrical skill have mostly slipped away these days. Yet it’s this poetic poise that provides what is perhaps the most satisfactory answer to the Bard’s question “what’s in a name?” Quite simply, some names sound better sung than others.
Dr Laurie Stras, senior lecturer in music at the University of Southampton, offers the following explanation: “The placement of vowel sounds and the way consonants are formed in the mouth are important when singing. ‘Ruby, Ruby, when will you be mine,’ sounds infinitely groovier than ‘Tina, Tina when will you be mine’. The ‘ee’ will be nasal, the ‘n’ not rhythmically precise enough; whereas the ‘oo’ is further back and more relaxed, the ‘b’ can be placed wherever you want on the beat to create the desired effect (and affect). Similarly try ‘Goodbye, Amy Tuesday’ and it sounds really lame.”
This goes some way to explain why Pink Floyd never begged us to “See Deirdre Play”, why Lou Reed never sang about “Sweet Mavis” and why the Beatles didn’t introduce us to “Jade Rigby”. The vowel sounds and consonant shapes are plain wrong.
So, what are we left with? Well, a bunch of names that come in and out of fashion, carrying with them cultural baggage. Just now Ruby rocks. As does Laura and, somewhat surprisingly, Valerie. And what these names have all got in common is the simple fact that they sound great when sung.
Ruby scans nicely with “use me”, “abuse me”, “lose me” and, of course “do you know what you’re doing to me?” And no amount of poetic licence will make Mabel and Beatrice do the same.
‘Ruby’ by Kaiser Chiefs is out on 19 February on Polydor
THE NAMES TO WATCH…
“Ruby, Don’t take Your Love to Town” by Kenny Rogers and “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones, as sung by Mick Jagger are the ones that everyone remembers, but what about “Ruby’s Arms” by Tom Waits, or “Ruby Baby” from The Drifters, Donald Fagen and Björk? Or “Ruby Blue” by Róisín Murphy? And ‘Ruby’ by Kaiser Chiefs?
Jimi Hendrix (“The Wind Cries Mary”), Scissor Sisters (“Mary”), Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Proud Mary”, Elliot Smith (“Pretty Mary”), The Monkees (“Mary, Mary”) and The White Stripes (“Now Mary”) are among the many who’ve sung “Mary” songs, while Mary Jane gets lyricised by Tom Petty (“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”), Alanis Morissette (“Mary Jane”) and The Vines (“Mary Jane”).
Lou Reed celebrated with “Sweet Jane”, Jane’s Addiction followed suit with “Jane Says”, while the Rolling Stones (“Lady Jane”), Nick Drake (“Hazey Jane” I and II), Bob Dylan (“Queen Jane”) and the best forgotten Barenaked Ladies (“Jane”) also offered odes to Tarzan’s mate. David Bowie launched his career with “Liza Jane”.
David Bowie (“Julie”) at his worst gives Julie a bad name, but Fountains of Wayne almost save the day with “Hey Julie”.
What to Donovan was a flower-powered heroine (“Jennifer Juniper”) turned into a chemically addled cadaver (“Jennifer’s Body”) for Hole. “Jenny” has enjoyed the hook-line treatment from The Killers (“Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”) and Jennifer Lopez (“Jenny from the Block”).
This Oz folk fave (“My Darling Clementine”) has also starred in songs by Elliott Smith (“Clementine”), Mark Owen (“Clementine”) and The Decemberists (“Clementine”). Recall them? No, me neither.
The Beach Boys harmonised the name (“Caroline, No”) Neil Diamond serenaded it in “Sweet Caroline”, and Lou Reed lamented it with a tale of amphetamine abuse (“Caroline Says”).
Not the most popular name, but inevitably remembered for The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. And “Lucy’s Hamper” by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, of course.
Elliott Smith (again) (“Punch and Judy”), Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (“Judy Blue Eyes”) and the one-hit wonder Boomer Castleman (“Judy Mae”) all delivered bittersweet odes to Judy, but it’s The Ramones’ “Judy is a Punk” that is by far the best remembered.
The newly reunited Police may have saturated airwaves around the globe with this, but it is UTFO’s old-school hip-hop classic “Roxanne, Roxanne” that has been covered most.