Love in the Afternoon
For whatever reason, the other night when I went to bed, the harmony to The Air That I Breathe (1974) by The Hollies was at my fingertips. In the dark, I tapped the rhythm on the mattress and on my pillow.
I think everyone remembers the melody of the first stanza and the words to the chorus. The line, ‘sleep, Silent Angel, go to sleep’ has always stuck with me, too. And, there’s an odd bend in the song. I started humming. I dug out my phone and pulled up YouTube.
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
I listened, probably for the first time in my life, to the lyrics. They’re great:
If I could make a wish,
I think I’d pass;
Can’t think of anything I need
No cigarettes, no sleep,
No light, no sound,
Nothing to eat, no books to read
Making love with you
Has left me peaceful, warm, and tired
What more could I ask?
There’s nothing left to desire
Peace came upon me and it leaves me weak
Sleep, Silent Angel, go to sleep…
All I need is the air that I breathe
And to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe,
Yes, to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe…
I started to sing along, and, I realized, these words don’t go with The Hollies’ performance/production at all! The only part that even remotely ties lyrics to performance is the “Peace came upon me” bit, which is maybe why the “sleep, Silent Angel” line strikes me.
Perplexed by the form and content mismatch, I listened to it over and over trying to figure out what could account for the song’s popularity and how it’s weaseled its way into my consciousness because logic would suggest that the songs that stay with us are those where music and lyrics complement each other exceedingly well.
The opening lines, “If I could make a wish / I think I’d pass; / Can’t think of anything I need” are musing, the kind of private musing one does when one is deep in late afternoon afterglow, too satisfied for any additional comforts. That, to me, does not sound like The Hollies’ face-the-audience signing or the certainty of the accompanying rock band and horns and strings.
And, damn, after telling one’s dozing companion to sleep, to burst out singing, drums rolling and rumbling, “All I need is the air that I breathe / And to love you” is absurd. I texted a friend: “this song could be so much better with peeled back production and less sappy self-indulgence.”
But, in fact, in it’s current, dreadful form, The Hollies’ version had stayed with me, not the overbearing production and performance, but the melody, the harmony, the lyrics to the and chorus…
The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.
The Wikipedia entry for the song is pretty basic. The Air That I Breathe was written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood and first performed by Hammond himself. There’s not much more to the backstory, and the song’s life on the charts is pretty standard. But it has been covered by a bunch of people.
I found and listened to Albert Hammond’s original version.
I texted my friend again: “Whoa! THIS is the original. It’s great, but loses the plot in the last third.” Which it is, it does. When the song starts, Hammond’s singing and strumming are sketches. “Making love with you / has left me peaceful, warm, and tired” is a slight shift, and, with the transition to chorus, in contrast to The Hollies’ version where the chorus is more! than the preceding stanzas, Hammond quiets a little in the first instance of “Sometimes, / All I need is the air that I breathe / And to love you”. Unfortunately, although the majority of Hammond’s version of the song is delicate and balances the experience of post-coital bliss beautifully, the electrified second instance of the chorus wakes the neighbors in addition to one’s sleeping lover.
I was, however, heartened by the possibility that someone, somewhere might have honored the spirit of the lyrics and the beautiful tune throughout the entirety of the song, so I looked up other versions.
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end!
No luck. I texted my friend: “I just listened to maybe 10 versions of this song; why does everyone think that post-coital limpness means ‘belt out the chorus’?”
There’s Hammond’s live performance in 1976 that gets very, very close close:
(Radiohead’s Creep gets the closest by literally changing the lyrics to suit the quiet-loud-quiet sociopathy of their performance. Lana Del Rey’s Get Free is a too distant synthetically somnambulant relative to be legitimately be considered in this discussion.)
But I’m much more interested in what the lyrics, melody, and harmony get at, a thing that the culture seems to have erased entirely from consciousness. Lately, I’ve been feeling that there’s little intimacy, either with ourselves or between people. Everything seems to be drawn in the broadest, most publicly performative strokes. I imagine that sometime in the past, there was perhaps unspoken cultural value to personal realizations, unuttered but direction-changing awarenesses. Like noticing the feeling of wantlessness after a satisfying sexual encounter. I think a one-off poem here or a particularly good snapshot there, a private dance, little theories wove their way into the larger fabric of people’s lives – without the expectation that these manifestations of the Zen moment could be monetized or should be broadcast.
What I love about The Air That I Breathe is that, yes, Hammond and Hazlewood were professional songwriters, artists, and, as such, were able to hold on to and refine this moment of personal insight. It’s really cool, actually: the song isn’t about the feeling, it’s about noticing the feeling. It beautifully illustrates a thing that I wonder if people still feel entitled to. And, ‘entitled to’ is a weird construction; ‘entitled’ tacitly implies that something can be taken away, and I don’t know that ‘before’ people were all, I have a right to write a poem about this moment and you can’t take that away from me! And, I’m even less sure that these days we aren’t aware that our instinct is to share anything – everything – that feels meaningful as widely as possible.
We want different things, I suppose.