Give me another hit: A brief look at gambling in popular music
Today’s blog is an intersection of my academic passion (gambling) and my personal passion (popular music). In my academic career I have published three papers examining the impact of music on gambling behaviour (and I’ll cover that topic in a future blog). However, today’s blog is about gambling content in music rather than something more academic. Although I had been collating material to write this blog for well over a year, it was a tweet I received the other day from Ian Peel (editor of Classic Pop magazine) in response to a blog I wrote about my Art of Noise obsession that provided the impetus I needed to actually write this article.
One of the problems I had in putting this article together was trying to decide what the precise focus should be. Should it cover the topic of gambling in music in its entirety or be very specific and focus on a particular type of gambling. For instance, some of my readers are aware that I did my PhD thesis on fruit machine playing. To my knowledge, at least five artists have released a song with the title ‘Fruit Machine’ (The Ting Tings, Paul Lekakis, The Fades, Fat and Frantic, Lissat and Voltaxx, and Homelife) and at least two albums have been released with the same title (LPs by Jens Buchert and L.A. Deluxe). However, apart from The Ting Ting’s song, I know little about the other releases so writing something very specific was probably not the best option.
Ian Peel’s tweet suggested I should write an article on “gambling/music crossover next, [for example] Alan Parsons Project’s ToaFC”. As a massive fan of The Beatles, I know of Alan Parsons’ engineering and production work on Abbey Road and Let It Be (as well as some solo Paul McCartney LPs) as well as his role as engineer on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. However, I don’t own any albums by the Alan Parsons Project including The Turn of a Friendly Card (ToaFC).
ToaFC is probably the only concept album about gambling. (In fact the only concept album that has any crossover with my academic research is The Who’s LP Tommy (i.e., ‘The Pinball Wizard’), as I published a paper on pinball addiction in the journal Psychological Reports back in 1992 – see ‘Further Reading’ below). ToaFC was a progressive rock LP released back in 1980 and was the fifth album by the band (reaching the UK Top 40 albums chart and the Top 20 albums in the US). As the Wikipedia entry on the LP notes:
“[The album] focuses on gambling, and loosely tells the tale of a middle-aged man who grows restless and takes a chance by going to a casino and betting all he has, only to lose it all. The album has a 16-minute title piece, which was broken up into five tracks…with the five sub-tracks listed as sub-sections. The Turn of a Friendly Card spawned the moderate hits ‘Games People Play’ and ‘Time’.”.
There are lots of other albums that feature nothing but songs about gambling but these are all gambling-themed ‘various artists’ albums. What’s interesting about all these albums is that they all feature music made from the 1920s to the early 1970s and mainly from the genres of blues, folk, soul, and/or country and includes such LPs as Gambling Blues and Sinners, Loaded Dice – Vintage Gambling Songs, Life Is Like A Card Game (US Gambling Songs 1920s-1950s), Lady Luck – Classic Gambling Songs, and Bet You Haven’t Heard This – Poker, Casino and Gambling Songs. That’s not to say that there weren’t songs from other genres such as rock ‘n’ roll (Viva Las Vegas, Elvis Presley), ska (Long Shot [Kick De Bucket], The Pioneers), jazz (Blackjack, Ray Charles), lounge/swing (Luck Be A Lady, Frank Sinatra), and easy listening (The Lottery Song, Harry Nilsson) but the other genres appear to have far more songs about gambling.
Based on the research I did for this article I have come to the conclusion – and I may well be wrong – that there have been far more songs written about gambling up until the end of the 1960s than post-1970. If this is true, it may well be that back in the first half of the twentieth century, the number of leisure activities that were available for adults to participate in was significantly less than the latter half of the twentieth century. People wrote about what they did for pleasure before the rise of television and video games, and gambling was one of those activities that may have been more prominent in people’s leisure lives. As Jon Dennis writing in The Guardian noted:
“There’ve been songs about gambling since cavemen first found themselves feeling wreckless with too much time on their hands. It’s been a favourite theme of singers and songwriters, many of whom making the connection with life’s cruel throws of the dice…If you’ve ever wondered why Lonnie Donegan was one of the most influential figures in British music, listen to his version of Woody Guthrie‘s Gamblin’ Man. It has the furious, youthful energy of the best rock ‘n’ roll, and a manic dedication to the repeated refrain that would do Mark E Smith proud. Speaking of whom, the Fall’s Dice Man is based…(and Smith acknowledges on the sleeve of 1979 album Dragnet) on Luke Rhinehart‘s book ‘about a man whose life choices are decided on a dice roll’. It’s an uncharacteristically revealing song about Smith’s working methods…No shortage of slot junkies in Las Vegas, of course. Emmylou Harris first sang ‘Ooh Las Vegas’ as a duet with Gram Parsons on Parsons’ Grievous Angel album. The song notes the relationship between booze and gambling, and the gambler’s fallacy (that a series of losses boosts the chances of an imminent win): ‘Third time I lose I drink anything/’Cos I think I’m gonna win’…The fact that gambling’s been a much-used metaphor lends [Amy Winehouse’s] Love Is a Losing Game a timeless quality”.
There are many songs that use gambling analogies as a way of expressing and talking about human relationships. Whether it’s the Rolling Stones’ ‘Tumbling Dice’ or Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’, the language of gambling has almost become a clichéd rhetorical device for expressing human emotion. That’s not to say it can’t be done well. My own personal favourite from a lyrical perspective is Sting’s ‘The Shape Of My Heart’, my favourite couplets being:
“He deals the cards as a meditation/And those he plays never suspect/He doesn’t play for the money he wins/He don’t play for respect/He deals the cards to find the answer/The sacred geometry of chance/The hidden law of a probable outcome/The numbers lead a dance”.
Finally, I am always asked by my friends that know I love music what my favourite song about gambling is – and it can change from day to day (but it will never ever be ‘The Gambler’ by Kenny Rogers – even though I mentioned this in the very first journal paper I ever published in a 1989 issue of the Journal of Gambling Behavior). From a purely visceral viewpoint, it has to be Motorhead’s ‘Ace Of Spades’ but I also like The Animals’ definitive version of ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’, and an obscure 1988 song called ‘Chance’ by the duo Act (formed by ex-Propaganda singer Claudia Brucken and Scottish musician Thomas Leer) from their great ZTT album Laughter, Tears and Rage.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Dennis, J. (2011). Readers recommend: Gambling songs – results. The Guardian, September 15. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/sep/15/readers-recommend-gambling-songs-results
Dixon. L., Trigg, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). An empirical investigation of music and gambling behaviour. International Gambling Studies, 7, 297-308.
Ekberg, A. (2009). 25 great gambling songs. Yahoo.com, April 30. Located at: http://voices.yahoo.com/25-great-gambling-songs-3228884.html?cat=33
Griffiths, M.D. (1989). Gambling in children and adolescents. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 5, 66-83.
Griffiths, M.D. (1992). Pinball wizard: A case study of a pinball addict. Psychological Reports, 71, 160-162.
Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2005). The psychology of music in gambling environments: An observational research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13. Located at: http://www.camh.net/egambling/issue13/jgi_13_griffiths_2.html.
Music Jay (2013). Ten famous songs inspired by gambling. ZME Music, June 3. Located at: http://www.zmemusic.com/other/singles/ten-famous-songs-inspired-by-gambling/
Spenwyn, J., Barrett, D.K.R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of lights and music in gambling behavior: An empirical pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 107-118.
Votaw, L. (2013). 13 awesome songs about Las Vegas. Billboard.com, May 17. Located at: http://www.billboard.com/articles/events/bbma-2013/1562827/13-awesome-songs-about-las-vegas