Sunday, September 29, 2013

Here Are Five Good Reasons Why "Amplifier" is the Greatest Breakup Song Ever Written

Okay, I admit it.  I can fall madly, passionately in love at the drop of a hat.  Often, it only lasts a week or two.  But more often, it lasts a good, long time.  And not infrequently, it lasts forever.

Oh, I should probably mention - I’m talking about songs.

I suspect there are plenty of people out there who don’t understand how it’s possible to “fall in love” with a song.   (And to me, “fall in love” is exactly the right term.)  I’m thinking, or hoping anyway, there are almost as many who completely understand what I mean.

Sometimes, it’s love at first sight…er, I mean, listen.  I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush, back in 1978.  I was in London, walking down the street with my friend Annie, who I know will be reading this blog.  She literally yanked me into a record shop as we walked by, screaming,  “Oh my God, you have GOT to hear this song!” as Kate's voice blared from their sound system.  I bought the album right then and there.  In 1992, Mike was channel surfing one night in our TV room, and stopped for maybe 10 seconds on MTV.  When he continued on his quest, I grabbed the remote out of his hand and said, “Go back!  What WAS that?”  It was “Lithium” by Nirvana.  I’ve chronicled my 1987 “meeting” with Game Theory’s “Erica’s Word” already (right here).  Two of these three are on that “forever” list.  I still like “Lithium” a lot, but for me, the best song Kurt Cobain ever wrote was (at the risk of sounding predictable, something I never like to be) “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  That one’s a keeper.

I don’t remember when I fell for “Amplifer,” so I assume it was a gradual thing.  Those are often the ones that stick.  And this one most assuredly stuck.

“Amplifier” is a song by the wonderful 1980’s North Carolina power pop band, the dB’s.  It first appeared on their second, and final, album for Albion Records, “Repercussion,” released in 1982.  After the video started to get a little play, the song was remixed and included on the band’s third (and arguably best) album, “Like This” on Bearsville Records, in 1984. 

Photo by ... me!
It was written by the brilliant Peter Holsapple.  Holsapple is best known for his work with the dB’s, but he’s also worked with the likes of R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish, as a side musician.  While I’ve always liked his vocals, it’s his incredible talent as a songwriter that blows me away.  I could easily give you five good reasons why he’s a freaking genius.  But we’re gathered here today to discuss one song, and that song is “Amplifier.”   A song which, in my humble opinion, is the single greatest “breakup” song ever written.

Why is that, you ask?

1.   The First Line of the Song is a Killer – Literally!

“Danny went home and killed himself last night.”

Not exactly a romantic start for a pop song, is it?  But, remember, this is a breakup song.  And not just any “breakup song.”  It’s the breakup song to end all breakup songs.  And the songwriter isn’t just any songwriter.  Holsapple is known for his sardonic take on love and romance.  In another of his gems, a song called “Love is for Lovers,” also on “Like This,” he penned what, for me, could be the all time best line ever included in a “love song:”

“And if you’re happy, then you ought to stay there.
I’m not certain that I know the way there.”

So, just to be clear, Holsapple isn’t exactly a member of the “moon/June” school of lyricists.  If he was, I wouldn’t be writing this.

And let’s be honest.  That first line sure as hell gets your attention.

2.  The Video

When you’re a fan of obscure music, like I am, just the fact that a video exists for a song is pretty spectacular.  But, not only does “Amplifier” have a video attached to it, the video is absolutely terrific.  It’s dark, it’s funny, and it’s clever.  What more do you need?  Oh, and you’re in luck - it’s also available on YouTube!

The young man in the video, as you’ve probably guessed, isn’t Danny.  It’s Peter Holsapple.  And, as low budget videos go, this one is really well done.

3.  That Guitar Intro Rocks Like Crazy

Despite my obsessive love of truly great song lyrics, I’ve also always been a huge fan of the electric guitar.  Heck, in 1968, when my mother gave me some cash to buy clothes for my sophomore year, I came home with a skirt…and Jeff Beck’s new album, “Truth.”  When trying to defend my choice, I pointed out that the album came in a jacket, and jackets are clothing.  She didn’t buy it.

As I mentioned earlier, “Amplifier” appeared on two dB’s albums.  Other than the fuller and cleaner sound it has on “Like This,” the recording seems to be the same as what originally appeared on “Repercussion,” so, even though he isn’t credited on “Like This,” I will continue to assume the great guitar work is that of the wonderful Chris Stamey.  (If anyone knows differently, please share!)  Stamey and Holsapple started the dB’s together, and also put out a couple of other albums together, including the beautiful “Mavericks” in 1991.  I saw them do an acoustic set at Night Stage in Cambridge, MA in support of “Mavericks,” and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.  I’ve always considered Stamey to be an underrated guitarist, and for further proof, check out his 1987 album “It’s Alright.”  But, I digress.

My point is, that guitar intro is really good, and super catchy.  It reels you in right away.  And the fact that it’s so upbeat makes that first vocal line all the more surprising.

And I’m a sucker for stuff like that.

4.  There is a Clear Villain Here

Peter Holsapple might be cynical.  He might be sarcastic.  He might be a lot of things.  But one thing he isn’t is wishy-washy.  He was wronged, damn it, and he is not afraid to tell you about it, in cringe-worthy detail.  There is no doubt who the wronged party is in this song.  That beeyotch took everything he owned!   You have to love the lack of any pretense here.

5.  One of the Greatest Plays on Words in Pop Music History

I am a complete sucker for lyrical ambiguity, double-meanings, plays on words, whatever you want to call it.  The Kinks’ “Lola” is probably my all time favorite song, for God’s sake.  So for me, the payoff in “Amplifier” comes near the end, when Holsapple sings:

“She took it all, in one big haul,
She left his amplifier”

Or does he?  Couldn’t he just as easily be singing:

“She took it all,
In one big hall, she left his amplifier.”

Both meanings work, and, even though all of the on-line lyric sites seem to stick with “haul,” I have to think a songwriter as intelligent as Peter Holsapple knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote that line.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.


  1. I, too, can remember the first time I heard Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights". I was cleaning my teeth (and, despite what many Americans make think of British dental habits, we DO own toothbrushes and we DO clean our teeth!) and I stopped mid-clean, unable to believe what I was hearing. Was it someone in pain? Was it a joke recording? Was it a human being ?? I remember clearly thinking "Please god don't let this jerk of a DJ just start prattling on about his celeb lifestyle at the end of the record, and forget to tell us who's singing". Luckily, he didn't - and I was only too pleased to introduce you to the track soon afterwards. :)