Rock and Roll is the foundation of American music. But song lyrics and titles using “concrete” often speak to human vulnerabilities that are soft as sand.
Concrete might have been invented centuries ago (by the Romans, those industrious road, aqueduct and structural builders), but the rock-solid nature of concrete has lent itself to some fairly modern metaphors. Look no further than popular music to see how and why that is.
First, the alternative rock band Concrete Blonde was so named by vocalist Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.), who said the band’s female lead singer (Johnette Napolitano) managed to pull off hard rock with introspective lyrics. Their most memorable single, Joey, might have the most achingly plaintive lyrics of 1990: “…cuz Joey if you’re hurting so am I…”
But it was almost two decades before that when Bob Marley’s Concrete Jungle bemoaned living in the United States to be with his mother instead of their native Jamaica. “No chains around my feet, but I’m not free, oh-ooh! I know I am bound here in captivity.” It was a tune in the head of big city office workers and, perhaps, those caught in epic traffic while wishing for a Caribbean vacation or retirement.
More recently (2008), the Pretenders (Chrissie Hynde, et al.) released “Break Up the Concrete,” the rock band’s ninth studio album. With 11 tracks, all written by Hynde (including One Thing Never Changed, Don’t Break Up the Concrete, Rosalee), the album was packaged with seeds embedded in paper; Hynde joked the seeds were for the then-illegal cannabis, but they were a type of THC-free flowers.
Other songs with “concrete” in their titles include:
Concrete Angel. A completely different musician, child phenom and “America’s Got Talent” competitor Jackie Evancho (born 2000) recorded Concrete Angel at age 9. A tragic ballad of child abuse, it was first recorded by country artist Martina McBride and in Spanish (Como Un Angel) by Marta Sanchez.
Concrete and Steel. ZZ Top released in 1990 this song of warning on the band’s “Recycler” album about that girl who is “hard and cold, like a street of gold, It’s easy to find but so hard to hold … a heart of stone makes you feel alone… before you fall for her boy, you better think twice.”
Plastic and Concrete. Iggy Pop’s 1993 release of his tenth album, “American Caesar,” was described by reviewer Mark Demming (AllMusic) as “an overlooked masterpiece.” It included a cover of Louie Louie, and two cuts (Wild America and Beside You) were given video treatment; Plastic and Concrete is how he describes the physical world that somehow consumes his demons. “Plastic & concrete, baby, I’ve gotta learn to slow down. Somethin new from chemistry, is jackin my brain around. I have got the plastic, and I have got the stone. Out there in the suburbs I learned to be alone, in plastic & concrete…”
Concrete is how we travel. Concrete is a form of shelter. Concrete is how a concrete contractor makes a living. But concrete in lyrics cannot be held, rolled over, or leaned against. It is at once hard, real, relatable, a disappointment, a nightmare, ethereal – and as enduring, if weathered, as the Pantheon of Rome.