Daddy cool? Why pop is obsessed with bad dads

To mark 10 years since Glasvegas released Daddy’s Gone, we explore the failing fathers of pop, from Flight of the Conchords to Madonna

It has been a while since we last heard from Flight of the Conchords. So long that some of us had to mentally recalibrate what they looked like when they debuted new song Father and Son on TV recently. The track (sharing its title with Cat Stevens’s 1970 classic) is a conversation between a father and his son: the dad berating his son for being young and naive; the son berating his father for being old and staid.

The dad in pop tends to be a stern, gruff, all-knowing figure. So, the Conchords’ dad being a delusional car-dwelling loser still pining after the wife who left him, well, that is what those who run comedy courses call “subversion of the norm”. “Will I fall in love and will it be for ever? Or will she leave me one day like Mum did for Trevor?” asks the son. “You just never know how love will end,” Dad croons back. “But never ever introduce her to your handsomest friend.”

Pop dads are rarely heroic. Paul McCartney’s Let It Be opts for mother as the fountain of wisdom, while Madonna’s Oh Father takes a similar attitude towards daddies as Sylvia Plath: “I lay down next to your boots and I prayed for your anger to end / Oh father, I have sinned”. Said stern archetype is the one Cyndi Lauper keeps awake at night; it’s the same cold, distant monster that Harry Chapin essays in Cat’s in the Cradle, so busy amassing power he forgets to raise his kid. Even Chicory Tip’s trite 70s stomper Son of My Father is about fleeing a suffocating dad-imposed mould. Tellingly, the only major sub-genre is Dead Dads: Mike & the Mechanics’ The Living Years, Eric Clapton’s My Father’s Eyes, or Luther Vandross’s tear-jerk waterfall Dance With My Father.

This year marks 10 years since a quintessential track in the bad dad cannon was released: Glasvegas’s anthem Daddy’s Gone. It is a subject that frontman James Allan almost regrets 10 years on. “I was sort of naive, you see,” he explains down the phone. The song was a lacerating study of absent fathers. But Allan still likes his old man: “My dad, he would give you the shirt off your back. He’d give you his last £10.” His dad might have been absent, but the two still talk “about Rabbie Burns, or life or whatever”. In the neatest encapsulation of masculinity ever, they have never actually spoken about the song.

Allan has his own daughter; she is seven now and that, in turn, has caused him to rethink the old cliches. “You think very differently, at 20, at 30, about the stuff that’s happened to you,” he says. “I have so much more sympathy for my dad now. You know? You can’t judge.” In short, Allan has moved through time from the angry young voice of the Cat Stevens song to the wistful old dad’s one. Yet, as Cat and the Conchords both know, you only ever notice the change when you get there.

Glasvegas: 10th Anniversary Edition is out now


Gavin Haynes

The GuardianTramp

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