Beats Happiness: The dB’s, “We Were Happy There” (1982)

Stage
According to Aristotle and a lot of other people, nothing beats happiness.[1] But who can count the songs that prove otherwise? Singing the rueful blues is better. Jealous backlash is better. Nostalgic self-beguiling is better. Apocalyptic gloom is better.

Of course, nothing is better than happiness that isn’t happy somehow, thanks to a renegotiation of terms. Often enough the happiness that needs replacing is good old two-person happiness with sweet companionship and a bright future, and the renegotiated version is a one-person happiness of momentarily sufficing emotion. But you can’t have a one-person experience in any artistic expression, and certainly not in a song. The desperate, possibly obnoxious, possibly redeeming gambit of a song is to draw listeners into the vibrating life that the singer projects. We’ve got to enjoy the experience together. And so the artistic challenge is to make a song about love-happiness lost that isn’t merely the depressing spectacle of the singer crawling into loneliness or an obviously lame attempt to replace a healthy relationship with delusions of grandeur.

Peter Holsapple’s “We Were Happy There” is a fascinating success in controlling key elements of the problem. It straddles the possession and loss of happiness and makes you want to drink from the well of that condition.

There’s a subtle dragging of what should be a perky pop riff in the first section. We understand why this is when Holsapple remarks that he’s never been so tired of living. Then the second section is prettier and lighter, more in the usual sad vein of looking back on love.

“We Were Happy There” verse and chorus

This could be all the contrast the song offers. It’s enough. But a third section, a bridge, might be coming.

There is a bridge, and it raises the intensity a major notch. It’s not an over-the-top dramatic surprise like Prince starting to scream “Do you want him? Or do you want me?” in the middle of “The Beautiful Ones,” but it’s a surprise nonetheless that makes you freeze and marvel.

“We Were Happy There” bridge, second and last time

The music of the bridge is a sober, pounding alternation of E+B (an E chord, neither major nor minor) and E+C (implying the flat-VI C chord) on the constant bass note E. The feeling is that we’re in a big empty theater with one man on stage filling the space with his sense of his key relationship. He’s not ranting, and he’s not whining; he’s asking a very serious question. The spiritual weight of this event is much greater than in “she’s in love with me and I feel fine.”

But we can’t stay in that theater, any more than we can trip along endlessly holding hands, feeling fine. Appropriately, the song is quickly over.

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[1] “But what constitutes happiness [eudaimonia] is a matter of dispute.” Nicomachean Ethics 1095a, trans. H. Rackham.  allmusic.com lists an astonishing twenty-four tracks titled “Eudaimonia.”

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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