What They Should Have Sung

The Lyrics of Handbags and Gladrags, by Stefan Stenudd

Some songs have an element of magic. They squeeze your heart and flood your mind. It's far from always clear why, but it can happen in an instant, and it happens again each time you hear the song anew. The mystery of music – but lyrics have a lot to do with it, too.

Ever Young. Supernatural fiction by Stefan Stenudd. Ever Young
Supernatural fiction by Stefan Stenudd
Caroline meets those who do not age, and this ability can be transmitted. But there are grisly downsides. Click the image to see the book at Amazon (paid link).

       One such song is Handbags and Gladrags from the 1960s, recorded many times since. I saw a recent Rod Stewart TV concert, where he sang it together with the Stereophonics, who made a somber cover of it in 2001. But Rod beat them to it, on his very first solo album released in 1970, and he's kept the song with him through the years.

       He was not the first, though. The initial recording was made by Chris Farlowe in 1967, but it was written by Manfred Mann singer Mike d'Abo, who recorded it without much notice in the 1970s.

       Handbags and Gladrags has an enchanted melody, paired in a splendid way with instruments slightly heading elsewhere. That's delicious, like Champagne with salmon, but still it would fall flat without the lyrics, which sort of create and elevate the tones of the melody. Poetry that turns into song all by itself.

       It's strikingly obvious already at the sad starting lines:

Ever seen a blind man cross the road
trying to make the other side?
Ever seen a young girl growing old
trying to make herself a bride?

       The chorus is an intriguingly composed line: The handbags and the gladrags that your granddad had to sweat for you to buy.

       But that was not its initial form. Mike d'Abo had it end: so you could buy, which is simply bad grammar. Rod Stewart obliged in his version, but he also used a slightly different wording, copied by the Stereophonics three decades later: The handbags and the gladrags that your poor old Grandad had to sweat to buy you. But there, the melody becomes slightly awkward, not as naturally flowing as in the first solution above.

       Also, the message doesn't stand out as well about the spoiled girl carelessly spending money that she wasn't the one sweating to earn. Granddad didn't spend the money. The girl did that all by herself. Otherwise she would not be to blame.

       The choice of words in the Rod Stewart and Stereophonics versions also lose the emphasis on the word “sweat”, which brings additional power to the message of the song. They stress instead the word “had”, and that doesn't help much.

       Strangely, I find no version of the song where the ideal wording of the chorus is used. I may have made it up myself. That happens. Anyway, that's what they should all have sung:

       The handbags and the gladrags that your granddad had to sweat for you to buy.

       The version above is by Kelly Jones (singer of Stereophonics) in the Jools TV show.


My old rock critic colleague Nils Hansson at the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter, who still works there, made this comment on my blog, when this review was first posted there (and he should know):

I did find a Mike d'Abo version which uses the preferred "had to sweat for you to buy" line. It's a live take on an odds & sods album called "Hidden gems & treasured friends", maybe the original recording was somewhat different (I haven't heard that) — but he most surely recorded this version before Stefan created his blog post on the matter. And furthermore, he did write the lyrics. So the point made would seem valid.

       I remember checking the existing YouTube versions by Mike d'Abo — and none of them had the exact wording of the live take Nils mentions. Of course, a poet is allowed to ad lib...

Stefan Stenudd
December 25, 2010

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Stefan Stenudd

Stefan Stenudd

About me
I'm a Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction books in both English and Swedish. I'm also an artist, a historian of ideas, and a 7 dan Aikikai Shihan aikido instructor. Click the header to read my full bio.