Music journalist Andrew P Street counts down his seven favourite fatherhood classics.
Your experience of music changes dramatically once you become a dad, and not just because the entire Wiggles back catalogue is now burnt into your brain (“did someone say “Toot Toot, Chuga Chuga, Big Red Car”?).
But you also find that certain lyrics in your old playlists now resonate more deeply.
Most songs about being a dad tend to be mawkish and sentimental, not to mention downright slow. They’re generally piano ballads (Billy Joel’s “Lullabye”), slow jams (Beyonce’s “Daddy”) or country strummers (Trace Adkins’ “You’re Gonna Miss This”).
Fortunately, it is possible to capture the tribulations and joys of fatherhood without resorting to pedal steel and string quartets.
Here are seven fatherhood classics that have stood the test of time. And while you’ve probably heard them a thousand times before, they’re worth a revisit with the new perspective of fatherhood.
7. David Bowie: “Kooks”
This perky early Bowie classic from 1971’s Hunky Dory celebrated the arrival of young Zowie Bowie, now better known as film director Duncan Jones. And while David and Angie Bowie were definitely strong individuals, let’s be honest: every family is nuts in their own unique way and warning a new bub that “if you stay with us, you’re going to be pretty kooky too” seems like fair warning to any new addition to the team.
Also, the line “we bought a lot of things to keep you warm and dry” will resonate deeply with any first-time parent that has gone “…sorry, this change table costs how much? How is that possible? Does it turn into a car or something?”
6. Stevie Wonder: “Isn’t She Lovely”
In lesser hands this ode to Wonder’s newborn daughter Aisha would have been as sappy and saccharine as … um, Wonder’s later work, like “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. But this appeared during Wonder’s 1972-1976 golden period when he could do no wrong, and that joyful vocal delivery made those uncharacteristically straightforward lyrics sing – although it must irritate Wonder’s eight subsequent children that their big sister got the best song written about her.
It was one of the many highlights of his 1976 Songs in the Key of Life album, although my own favourite version was the one my father sang around the house for the best part of three years after the birth of my youngest sister in 1979. What dad lacked in tunefulness, he more than made up for in enthusiasm.
5. Cat Stevens: “Father and Son”
The man now known as Yusef Islam (previously known as Steven Georgiou) recorded this in 1970 when he was barely out of his teens. On the face of it, it’s a father passing on wisdom to his boy about how to live a good life, which his son plans to ignore. Which, let’s be honest, was largely the story of us and our dads, and will be the story of us and our sons in turn.
The song was actually written as part of a musical which never came to pass, and was intended to be about a boy running off to war against his father’s wishes before Stevens rewrote it as a more general generation gap song. And it’s a potent reminder that we’re going to have to eventually let our beloved children go off and make their own mistakes, no matter how much it hurts us to do so.
4. John Lennon: “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”
Lennon’s 1980 song to his second son Sean Ono Lennon is all the more heartbreaking for having been released mere months before his senseless murder in 1980.
And like Wonder’s aforementioned ode to his newborn child it transcends any sense of cloyingness by the sheer conviction of the vocal delivery. In both cases this is a man deeply, madly, truly in love with this vulnerable little person – an emotion with which we’re all overwhelmingly familiar.
There’s also a lovely callback to another song which Lennon wrote for his son: specifically, “Good Night” was written as a lullaby for Julian Lennon.
It was sung by Ringo Starr as the final song on the White Album (actually titled The Beatles but no-one calls it that), and features Ringo whispering a final goodnight wish in the coda, exactly as Lennon does here.
Speaking of Julian Lennon…
3. The Beatles: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
Sure, there are other songs more directly about kids. “Hey Jude”, for example, is written for and to Julian Lennon, although it was written by Paul McCartney on the occasion of Julian’s parent’s divorce. But this psychedelic classic, long assumed to be about the experience of LSD because of the obvious abbreviation of the title, was inspired by a picture the young Julian painted at kindergarten of his best friend Lucy O’Donnell “…in the sky, with diamonds.”
Any parent will have a dozen songs of their own inspired by the peculiarly creative and evocative things said by kids. Although, as one of my nephews reminded me, they really don’t care to be reminded of their four-year-old effort ‘Wanda the Wombat is Wandering Around’ when they’re big boys of nine.
Presumably Julian feels less embarrassed about this one, though.
2. Loudon Wainwright: “Bein’ a Dad”
A generation of tearful slackers were introduced to Loudon Wainwright’s song “Daughter” via the end credits of the film Knocked Up, and while it’s lovely it’s actually a cover of song by his friend Peter Blegvad: sorry, those who assumed it was a tribute to Loudon’s musical offspring Martha.
This jaunty belter from 1998 is rather less treacly than most of the songs in this list, identifying some of the frustrations among the joys. “Bein’ a dad isn’t so bad,” he begins, “except that you gotta feed ’em / You gotta shoe ’em and clothe ’em, and try not to loathe ’em / Bug ’em and hug ’em and heed ’em,” before complaining about teenagers and how you can’t even run off for decades without being accused of “dad crimes”.
No wonder the catalogues of Martha and Rufus have so many songs expressing mixed emotions about their papa.
1. Harry Chapin: “Cat’s in the Cradle”
Yes, Chapin’s sole number one single from 1974 is an easy punchline and that god-awful cover by Ugly Kid Joe in 1993 didn’t exactly enhance the song’s credibility any. But, as a father, have you listened to it lately? You might want to, especially if you’re the sort of dad currently working every hour available in the service of your family.
The song began life as a poem by Sandra Chapin, Harry’s wife, writing about her first husband’s fraught relationship with his politician father. Harry attempted to put it to music a couple of times but never quite nailed it until the birth of their son Josh. It was then his wife’s lyrics about an absent father missing his son growing up became a completely real fear for Harry, a professional touring musician who could see this becoming less a hit and more a prophecy.
Here’s our complete DAD Spotify playlist that you can access wherever and whenever you want. What’s on your list?