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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Her soldier boy is coming home.

In 1962 the Shirelles scored their second #1 hit, a dewey-eyed pledge of optimistic faithfulness dedicated to the narrator's "Soldier Boy." "You were my first love and you'll be my last love," the four Shirelles sing as if with a dreamy, not-quite-experienced sigh, in the voice of a young adolescent mooning over a magazine idol.

Four years later they failed to chart with a much more emotionally complex follow-up, "(Mama) My Soldier Boy Is Coming Home." The singer's voice rings with apprehensive joy -- jumping up and down in anticipation the first she hears he's coming home, but not entirely believing it until she feels him in her arms again.

Ten years later Electric Light Orchestra sang a hymn to "you and your sweet desire," saying, "it's a livin' thing, it's a terrible thing to lose." And for the verses they plagiarized the plucked violin riff from the verses of "(Mama) My Soldier Boy Is Coming Home." "You and your sweet desire" intoxicate ELO's sound, an arching melody surrounded by vertiginous strings -- and ELO & the Shirelles commune in the joy of life and lust -- it's a living thing, my soldier boy is coming home, sweet desire.

Unfortunately for ELO, the sweet desire is now in the song's past -- "your sweet desire took me higher and higher" (emphasis added) -- which is why "it's a terrible thing to lose" this "living thing," this "sweet desire." But the Shirelles anticipated this loss as well, not only with death's presence in the life of the soldier boy of 1965 and 1966, but in this odd bit of self-plagiarization. "Soldier Boy Is Coming Home" wasn't the first time the Shirelles had used that pizzicato riff. 1961's "A Thing of the Past" used the exact same lick. Whereas in 1961, the riff signified the sorrow that attends when "our love's becoming a thing of the past," in 1965 it sang out the joyous, worried anticipation of a less-than-inevitable reunion.

For the Shirelles, our love is the Thing. For ELO, your sweet desire is the Thing -- both songs name them as Things in the songs' titles. Life intertwines with desire and love and loss.

And that riff intertwines with them all.
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