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Perfect 10: Talking ’bout Marilyn Monroe in song

Marilyn Monroe is one of those cultural icons who everyone feels entitled to appropriating in their own particular way. Whether it’s because they’ve read all about her and identify with her perpetual state of longing, because they fell in love with her movie performances, or because she represents their ultimate fetishistic fantasy, Marilyn has become the equivalent of a movie screen where we can all project our desires. Since most of us know her through other cultural mediums – from films, to soundtracks to squillion-dollar Andy Warhol paintings – all of which are commercial products, it’s easy to confuse our rights as consumers with our rights of ownership; for the one thing that remains constant is our idea of Marilyn (we’re so close to her that we can also skip her last name) as a goddess.

Whenever someone tries to humanise the “concept” of Marilyn, the results vary from parody to facile psychology, which only contribute to making her even more enigmatic. Considering we live in a society where almost everything can be “figured out”, it’a almost arrogant to think that no one has been able to understand what she did to be so magnetic or how she did it, in order to recreate it. Watching Marilyn onscreen is always magical and everyone wanted to own a piece of that magic, or her own subset of associated recordings.

Well, guess what, because you can also own music about her but not by her. 

Although she was absolutely an artist in her own right, she also became a muse for so many of the great creators of history, including scores of musicians and bands. So much so that there are numerous tunes written with Marilyn Monroe in mind, both of the vintage variety and of the modern variety.

Although some artists are cleverly oblique in their name-dropping, others have directly named their songs after her.

It must be obvious.

It’s all fashion and iconography, really, because nothing elevates a person into an icon, a deity, more than being immortalised in song. And in the case of the woman born Norma Jean Mortenson (later baptised as Baker), the number of tracks which give a hat-tip to this most timeless of beauty queens is vast, everything from Marilyn Monroe by Nicki Minaj (above, 2012) or Pharrell Williams (2014) to the prowling Who Killed Marilyn? by eighties urchins The Misfits. Hell, talk about double dropping – the punk grunge merchants even named their band after one of her movies. Her last, in fact.

A few short months after her 36th birthday, Marilyn was gone – the brilliant platinum head yanked back down the hatch forever. Never has death been so good for the back catalogue. Some Like It Hot director Billy Wilder was correct in the one compliment he reliably paid her: she really did have perfect timing. Almost as soon as she’d choked down the last of the Nembutal, the culture took a sharp turn away from everything she seemed to represent. 

So, today, on what is the 60th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s tragically early demise, I’ve picked a Perfect 10 of songs that name-check the great lady in the lyrics but, to avoid the obvious, expressly not the title. I wonder how many you know?

The Kinks: Celluloid Heroes (1972)

Kicking off in suitably stylish attire, Celluloid Heroes debuted on The Kinks’ achingly presciently titled Everybody’s in Show-Biz, Everybody’s A Star, their 1972 album which marked a change in Ray Davies’ songwriting style toward more theatrical, campy and vaudevillian work. While the LP generally explored Davies’ reflections of the trials of his rock-star existence, its second single was set firmly in Los Angeles’ Tinseltown. 

With its witty melancholia, the song runs through a roll-call of famous actors of 20th century film — among them Bette Davis, Rudolph Valentino, Bela Lugosi, Mickey Rooney, George Sanders and Marilyn Monroe — all of them fixtures of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where “if you walk down Hollywood Boulevard, their names are written in concrete.”

“But please don’t tread on dearest Marilyn

Cause she’s not very tough

She should have been made of iron or steel

But she was only made of flesh and blood.”

Perhaps owing to its radio-unfriendly length, the six-minute-plus 45 failed to chart, though these were the band’s commercially lean years anyhow. When their then label RCA used the song’s title for a 1976 Best Of contract-filler called The Kinks’ Greatest: Celluloid Heroes that too failed to chart, unlike the record company’s prettier star, whose simultaneously-released ChangesOne Bowie checked straight into the Top Ten. That’ll be The Dame then, whose first hits collection, coincidentally, also contained a Marilyn quoting 45 from ’72 called The Jean Genie, the one which was “talking ‘bout Monroe”. But we don’t want to give you that.

Elton John: Candle In The Wind (1973)

“Goodbye Norma Jeane…”

Talking of David Bowie, whereas the fictional band depicted in Elton John’s Bennie And The Jets seems almost certainly a homage to his rock rival’s Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Candle In The Wind, from the same album (and spin off as a 45 in 1974) is absolutely a fully fledged tribute, and by far the most famous ode to Marilyn. The opening lines even reference her given name, Norma Jeane, and the song paints a sympathetic portrayal of the actress and her life.

However, lyricist Bernie Taupin, who co-wrote it with John, has said that the much-loved ballad is, above all else, about fame and tragedy.

“The biggest misconception about Candle In The Wind is that I was this rabid Marilyn Monroe fanatic, which really couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not that I didn’t have respect for her. It’s just that the song could just as easily have been about James Dean or Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, or Virginia Woolf. I mean, basically, anybody, any writer, actor, actress, or musician who died young and sort of became this iconic picture of Dorian Gray, that thing where they simply stopped ageing. It’s a beauty frozen in time.”

Poignant and prescient in equal measure, the track remains one of the most sensitive and moving meditations on stardom recorded by a pop star. It evokes a particular emotional state, one familiar to readers of, say, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It celebrates the aching ardour that a certain kind of repressed gay man can feel for a beautiful, tortured woman, whose plight is to be dependent sexually and emotionally upon the often brutal and brutalising force of straight-male lust.

Though it goes without saying that Candle In the Wind is now best remembered for its mawkish remembrance of another dead blonde — its inclusion in Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, where, despite its rewritten rush-job lyrics, the song quickly became the bestselling single of all time, encouraging the public to blub for all eternity. Period. 

Blondie: Platinum Blonde (1975/1994)

“I wanna be a platinum blonde

Just like all the sexy stars

Marilyn and Jean, Jayne, Mae and Marlene

Yeah they, they really had fun.”

A deep cut in every way, what’s curious about Platinum Blonde is that not only was it penned by Debbie Harry, an adopted child who often fantasised that Marilyn Monroe was her biological mother, but that it was the very first song the peroxide pop superstar wrote for Blondie. The track served as the iconic band’s mission statement in many ways, which is why it took so long to see the light of day all the more bizarre: the piece was one of five try-outs featured on a ragged 1975 demo tape produced by Alan Betrock, founder of New York Rocker and one of the primary organs of the American alternative scene, though went unreleased until the recording was unearthed in all its charming lo-fi naïveté for Blondie’s 1994 double-disc overview The Platinum Collection. 

When asked about the song’s inspiration, La Harry said, “I think as far as Blondie is concerned, I took reference from the silver screen. Blonde goddesses. All of them. Not just Marilyn, but Jean Harlow and Lana Turner and even Diana Dors and Jayne Mansfield. I think it was a conceived idea from Hollywood that registered in my brain as being something that would work in a band situation.”

New Order: 1963 (1987)

Another song that didn’t receive its due until much later, 1963 was the original flipside to New Order’s electro groover True Faith, and is said to be about the assassination of American president John F. Kennedy in Dallas, on “that special occasion, nineteen-sixty-three.”

As cerebral as it is mournful, 1963 is told from the point of view of Marilyn Monroe’s lamentations beyond the grave, her confused innocence amid the bizarre love triangle and all. The story posits a cheeky a hypothetical theory that Mr. President hired assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to murder his wife Jackie in that fateful Texas motorcade, so that he could be with his Hollywood lover — at which point the actress kills herself when she hears that the wrong Kennedy got shot. Can you handle Bernard Sumner’s version of the truth? Because the band’s lead singer and lyricist would go on to give the following account, in the book New Order Music 1981–89

“1963 is the year that J.F.K. was shot. and my theory is that he actually arranged for the gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot his wife, Mrs. K. so that J.F. could do one with M. Monroe, who committed suicide then she found out Oswald had hit the wrong target. Oswald was later shot by his boss (don’t know his name) for doing such a bad job and causing his hit-man business to go bust.”

However tongue-in-cheek Sumner’s alternate history is, there’s clearly a huge dollop of artistic licence, considering that Monroe expired in August 1962, over a year before Kennedy’s assassination. However, using this logic, maybe that is why J.F.K was slain, so he could be with Marilyn for all eternity. It’s a cracking song though, and was even belatedly issued as a single to promote The Best of New Order album in 1995. And talking of B-sides that became A-sides…

Madonna: Vogue (1990)

You really didn’t think I’d leave her out, did you? Initially — incongruously — planned as a mere B-side to the US single Keep It Together, Vogue may not be everyone’s favourite Madonna single, but it could be the most iconic. A lot of that has to do with the classy monochromatic video, which brought the underground club culture of gay voguing balls to the masses. But this pumping house banger — from the Dick Tracy soundtrack I’m Breathless — inspires everybody to be something better than they are today. All you have to do is strike a pose — there’s nothing to it. 

There’s nothing like Marilyn Monroe either — and the once-great Madge should know, as she’d already carbon-copy mimicked MM’s performance of the song Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend (from the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) for her earlier Material Girl video. Norma is mentioned specifically in Vogue’s bridge, where Madonna conjures up a spoken pseudo-rap list in which she references sixteen shining stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Here’s the first bit…

“Greta Garbo and Monroe, Dietrich and DiMaggio. Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean, on the cover of a magazine. Grace Kelly, Harlow, Jean, picture of a beauty queen. Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, dance on air…” 

They had style, they had grace, what the hell has she done to her face?

Kitchens Of Distinction: When In Heaven (1992)

“When Marilyn Monroe woke up in heaven

She had everything she’d need 

For the perfect day

The perfect man takes her walking

Where no-one can stare

She goes shopping and finds the perfect clothes 

To wear for the perfect sleep.”

And on to an insistently anthemic shoegazer from arguably one of the premier dream pop exponents of the 1990s, Tooting’s finest three-piece, the Kitchens Of Distinction. The baggy band’s musical vision — highlighted by Julian Swales’ dramatic guitar atmospherics taking obvious influence from the Cocteau Twins, but with that personal touch that mark KOD out from the crowd — crystalised on their third LP The Death Of Cool, with stellar results. Thought I freely admit, it’s a slightly sentimental choice as the record was produced by Hugh Jones, who also helmed the first album I ever owned, Kings Of The Wild Frontier by Adam And The Ants.  

One of its key cuts, When In Heaven sees Jones’s lush, imaginative soundscapes drenched with the rawness of emotion from unsung LGBT hero Patrick Fitzgerald’s poignant lyrics and vocal delivery handled masterfully and delivered with sincerity — imagine an un-ironic Morrissey if you like — to create a sonic pearl of chimerical power that uses the passing of Monroe as a metaphor for the hysteria surrounding the AIDS crisis of the era. Indeed, Queen’s Freddie Mercury would succumb to the disease just weeks after its release.

Marc Almond: The Idol (1995)

A trailer for his woefully under-appreciated Fantastic Star album (1996), The Idol found Marc Almond engaging in a spot of roots recovery: re-teaming with Soft Cell producer Mike Thorne and strapping on the stack-heeled Heavy Stereo boots for a bit of glam ramming, just to prove the disco demon can still perv-rock with the seediest of ‘em.

With its cheeky intro copped from The Jean Genie, The Idol is a wry, synthed-up Sigue Sigue Sputnik-esque stomp about the downsides of fame that pre-dates Goldfrapp’s Ooh La La by an entire decade. Best of all is the full length Parts 1&2 which expands on the “all gods fall in the end” teenage dream theme to drop in crushing observations on Judy Garland, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and Monroe herself.

“Marylin’s beauty showed age every day

But her sinister end helped her keep age away

We love you, we love you.”

Most chilling of all, is how the track even foretold the demise of Michael Jackson, a decade and a half before his eventual death: 

“Bolan got fat was not pleasant to see

But we loved him again when he met with a tree

Kurt was unhappy with fame and success

A gun in the mouth and one hell of a mess

And who will be next on the big cross of fame?

A white sequinned glove and a big famous name?

We hate you, we hate you.”

Ouch. Hee Hee!

Bryan Ferry: Goddess Of Love (2002)

“Marilyn says ‘I got nothing to wear tonight

Only a pair of diamond earrings that catch the light’

Platinum blonde, is it true that you have more fun

Siberia, now I’m sad and all alone.”

Featuring Chris Spedding and former Roxy Music colleague/nemesis Brian Eno, Goddess Of Love is one of the many songs that Bryan Ferry wrote and recorded while working with Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart in the late 1990s. 

Eventually emerging as a cornerstone track on the overlord of lounge lizards’ 2002 return-to-form, Frantic (so jesterly named as the man knows he hasn’t done anything remotely frantic since the ’70s), the track bears Ferry’s trademark stamp of stylish, impeccable arrangements, skittering electronics and his seductively supple vocals, ample proof the creative heart was still beating strongly.

The song also has the distinction of being BF’s last entry on the UK singles charts.

“It was about a time I fitted [Marilyn Monroe] into a song. She was obviously the ultimate screen goddess and a Pop Art icon… Marilyn was seized on by artists as the face of Hollywood. I threw some catch-phrases of hers in – it’s just a pop song, really, but it has its place in the pack. In my studio there are a lot of posters and photographs of her scattered around, so she’s always looking down on me as I work. There’s a warmth and vulnerability about her that we find fascinating. And the tragedy adds to the myth and mystique, as with James Dean, Maria Calls, Jackie O…”

Lana Del Rey: National Anthem (2012)

A decade on, and it’s that bizarre love triangle again, millennial stylee.

As well as chronicling the darker underside of American pop culture, it should come as no shock to anybody that Lana Del Rey is a trifle obsessed with Marilyn Monroe too – among other Hollywood starlets of the era, admittedly. It almost seems like the Californian chanteuse takes nearly every possible chance to mention Monroe or utilise her image, such as in the song Body Electric and what have you.

A highlight of Rey’s sophomore album Born To Die, National Anthem is considerably more of an interesting back story, though. It even boasts an introduction that recreates the notorious recording of Happy Birthday Mr. President as performed by Marilyn Monroe at J.F.K.’s 45th birthday fundraiser at New York’s Madison Square Garden, less than three months before her passing. 

Although the tune dwells on generic instances of classic and contemporary Americana, when L.D.R. sings in her laconic, anaesthetised vocal that “money is the reason we exist” she’s clearly referencing the Kennedy family, the late president’s wife Jackie O, and Monroe herself. To my ears, in the first verse she’s singing about J.F.K from Jackie’s perspective and in the second verse she’s counterpointing from Marilyn’s perspective. 

“Money is the anthem of success

So put on mascara and your party dress

I’m your national anthem, boy put your hands up

Give me a standing ovation.”

With Lana taking on those dual female roles of wife and lover in all their slinky and seductive glory, the startling promotional video makes a lot more sense if you’re familiar with the J.F.K. presidency and assassination. And if you weren’t you probably are now.

St. Vincent: The Melting Of The Sun (2021)

Although Daddy’s Home is ostensibly about her father’s incarceration for white-collar crimes, the subtext of Annie Clark’s seventh album as indie pop intrigue St. Vincent is imbued with lyrics about female strength and bridging racial divides. 

As Annie relayed to Rolling Stone, there was one track in particular that resonates: “[The Melting Of The Sun] in particular is a love letter to strong, brilliant female artists. Each of them survived in an environment that was in a lot of ways hostile to them. People tried to quiet them when they were saying something that was righteous or true or hard to hear.” 

Over a swirling, ’70s-vibed track replete with breezy pianos and expressive guitar work that flits like rays of light through a psychedelic haze, Clark namedrops a succession of stars from Nina Simone, Jayne Mansfield, and Tori Amos to Joni Mitchell, and of course, Marilyn Monroe.

“Saint Joni ain’t no phoney/Smoking reds where Furry sang the blues/My Marilyn shot her heroin/Hell she said it’s better than abuse. So who am I trying to be? A benzo beauty queen?”

Happy deathday, Miss M Marilyn.

Steve Pafford

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