Answering Machine Songs

by Roger Catlin

If you were born before 1980, some of your most profound moments likely started with a blinking red light signifying a message on your answering machine. Our brightest opportunities and darkest tragedies were revealed on those tapes, including plenty of breakups and makeups - the stuff songs are made of.
It wasn't so long ago that lyrical messages took the form of actual written notes. Neil Young suggested "Don't leave no message 'round her back door" should you visit "The Old Laughing Lady." The Faces wanted you to "leave a message with the porter" on a song from their Ooh La La album called "If I'm On the Late Side."

But the telephone has been a part of recorded music since its near-simultaneous invention.

Chuck Berry talks about his uncle taking a message from a girl who called from Memphis and writing it on the wall. But that was in a plea to "Long Distance Information," a service that no longer exists. (Writing a number on the wall, however, is something that extended to Tommy Tutone's "867-5309"'; in the Beatles' "If I Needed Someone," the suggestion was go "carve your number on my wall".)

Even further gone is the "Operator" sung about by everyone from Jim Croce to the Grateful Dead, or some personalized "Switchboard Susan" (in the Nick Lowe ditty). And someone will have to explain to kids what a "Party Line" is in the Kinks song of the same name.

Similarly, maybe someday, someone will have to explain the traits of an answering machine as well. The passive aggressive mechanism that left a recorded message will have long since been replaced by texts or Instagrams or some sort of ESP mechanism under development in Silicon Valley.

But for a time, it was a thing to be considered in popular song (and movies as well - probably best seen in Swingers when Jon Favreau's character can't stop leaving embarrassing messages). The one-sided loneliness of the device may have been best captured in The Replacements' kiss-off track from their album Let it Be, "Answering Machine." In it, Paul Westerberg, accompanied by electric guitar as ragged as his voice, wondered from some far flung city where the band may have had a gig, "How do you say goodnight to an answering machine?"

Rupert Holmes had a song titled "Answering Machine" as well that said, "If I can leave one message before you go to bed, I would say to you... and the phone went dead." Must have been the piña coladas he spilled on the machine.

The earliest mention we could find of an answering machine in song was Paul Evans' 1978 tune, "Hello, This Is Joanie," which is actually subtitled "The Telephone Answering Machine Song." It begins with its outgoing message which is all the protagonist hears when he calls to apologize for a fight the night before. This one is a murder ballad, as we later learn that Joanie died in a car accident after their fight. That same year, Joe Walsh told us "Just leave a message, maybe I'll call" in "Life's Been Good," but it could have been a secretary jotting down those messages for his indulgent rock star.

By 1979, the device was so widespread, the singer in Stiff Little Fingers' sharp-edged "Closed Groove" became one with it: "Peep peep I'm an answering machine. I mean to say I say what I mean." A year later, Sammy Hagar advised in his tune "Danger Zone": "I can't make it to the phone right now; just leave your message with my phone."

Some bands served a greater purpose by recording musical outgoing messages, as in Curiosity Killed the Cat's 1989 single, "Name and Number," that began:

Hey, how ya doin'? I'm sorry you couldn't get through
if you leave a name and your number
we'll get right back to you.

Not only did folks cop the chorus for their machines, so did other groups. De La Soul appropriated it in their 1991 track "Ring Ring Ring," which is about how everyone calling them for favors after their first album went big. Then in 2013, Little Mix adapted the song on their own single "How Ya Doin'?" featuring Missy Elliott.

Before the rise of Caller ID, which every misanthrope will tell you is the greatest service ever invented, most of us always answered the phone unless we had a good reason not to. In No Doubt's 1995 hit "Spiderwebs," that reason is a guy who won't stop calling Gwen Stefani, forcing her to screen her phone calls. This one repeated the line "leave a message and I'll call you back" a few times, prompting many of us to cue up our Tragic Kingdom CDs and use that snippet as an outgoing message.

That same year, Pulp, on "Ansaphone," the B-side of its single "Disco 2000," seemed to be on the other end, saying, "I don't want to cry or talk for hours to a machine."

There's something about having a recording of a loved one's voice, even on an answering machine, as Pearl Jam conveys on its 1991 song "Porch" from Ten. "You didn't leave a message, at least I could have heard your voice one last time."

Imagine: John Lennon also advised use of an answering machine in one of his last songs, "I'm Steppin' Out," which surfaced on the posthumous Milk an Honey in 1983. "Just leave a message on the phone and tell them to screw it," he says. The closest Paul McCartney came to the topic was in the 1976 Wings song "Beware My Love" in which he said, "I'll leave my message in my song."

.38 Special stepped into the outgoing message realm in its 1991 track "You Definitely Got Me," saying "Ring ring goes the telephone bell, sorry but I'm not at home. The cute voice, the sexy sell - leave a message, leave a message."

OMG: Loudon Wainwright III recorded his own "OGM" (Outgoing Message) on his 1997 album Little Ship that reflected the shock of hearing the words selected for the recording:

The OGM on our machine began with 'We're not here now'
but you went and changed the 'we' to 'no one'
Do you mean us or me?

It was also one of the few songs to physically describe the device, and also that sinking feeling when your message is a hang-up and not a reconciliation request:

There's a machine where I'm staying that displays a big fat zero
But last night I arrived to find a scary bright red 'one'
So I pressed play...
The few silent seconds that you'd left me are erased and gone now.

Hüsker Dü sent messages to the machine in the seething "Don't Want to Know if You're Lonely" on 1986's Candy Apple Grey, saying "Please leave your number and a message on the tone. Or you can just go on and leave me."

The Buzzcocks track "Rendezvous," from their 1999 album Modern, calls out a girl who "Promised that you would call me soon, leave a message on my machine."

"I'd leave a message on your answering machine," Joseph Arthur sings on his 2002 "Honey and the Moon," "but right now everything is turning blue."

Laurie Anderson left both sides of a phone message on her best-known song, "O Superman," from "just start talking at the sound of the beep" to a message from a confused mother, to a mysterious message about the planes coming.

Kate Bush sampled a bunch of voices (mostly saying goodbye) at the end of her 1982 track "All the Love," after mentioning how she dedicates her life's work to her friends. "When they ring I get my machine to let them in."

That brings up another presence of answering machines in music: The use of actual messages and recordings. A recorded voice speaks the text of a sign painted on a bridge in They Might Be Giants' "Ana Ng: "I don't want the world, I just want your half."

A haunting 1997 track by Crystal Method called "Trip Like I Do" includes a yearning phone message from an unnamed girl: "Oh my god, it's the best. I want you to trip like I do."

Lots of songs have phone message interludes, from Kim Deal's ex on the Breeders' "Don't Call Home" to Pink Floyd's manager speaking on their "High Hopes." Mike Watt is on the line during Sonic Youth's "Providence," and the whole of "Mea Culpa" on Brian Eno and David Byrne's groundbreaking My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is made up of recorded phone conversation, as is some of the rest of the album. The Tool song "Disgustipated" contains a message left for Maynard James Keenan by his landlord (who is credited for "phone message" on the album); The Blind Melon song "Letters From A Porcupine," recorded after the death of lead singer Shannon Hoon, used a message Hoon had left for a band member.
The ultimate melding of song and answering machine came in a longtime free service from the band They Might Be Giants.

Their Dial-A-Song ran from 1983 to 2006 out of Brooklyn. Calling 718-387-6962 would earn you a snippet of a tune on an outgoing message that changed daily. Fans of the band who had a spare minute could hear works in progress for songs from "Birdhouse in Your Soul" to "Shoehorn with Teeth," as well as scores of other song ideas that never went further than the machine.

The service was cassette-based, turned digital, turned back to cassettes and often broke down due to overuse.

"The machines wilt, they die. Smoke is pouring out of them all the time," the band's John Flansburgh told me in 1992. "They are so busy," he adds, "we probably should call it Dial-a-Busy Signal."
When was the last time you heard an outlandish outgoing voicemail message? Do you really think George Costanza would remake the Greatest American Hero theme for voicemail? No, the answering machine era was the golden age of the outgoing message. They could get wildly creative (and sometimes cloying, especially when it was an annoying couple trading lines). We know guys who left trivia questions and score updates; you could even buy a tape of wacky messages for the low, low price of $14.95.

It makes sense then, that musicians would compose jingles for their messages. The Squeeze song "853-5937" was written for Glenn Tilbrook's machine (that was his real number). The song became one of their biggest hits, much to Tilbrook's dismay - he hated it. Steve Earle took a different tack. At one point, his message said: "This is Steve. I'm probably out shooting heroin, chasing thirteen-year-olds and beatin' up cops..."

The quality of the incoming messages can also be an issue, as The Donnas point out in their 1991 tune "Skintight." "I can hear him snoring over the phone," they sing of some poor chap who "leaves boring messages on my machine."

In Scotty Emerick's country tune "I Can't Take You Anywhere," he realizes how much he misses his girl when he hears messages on his phone. "There was one from my sister and one from an old friend," who informs him, "By the way man, I seen her last night."

Blake Shelton gave us the last of the great answering machine songs with his 2001 track "Austin," where our lovelorn hero leaves this outgoing message after his girl takes off for Texas:

If you're callin' 'bout the car I sold it
If this is Tuesday night I'm bowling
If you've got somethin' to sell, you're wastin' your time, I'm not buyin'
If it's anybody else, wait for the tone, you know what to do
And P.S. if this is Austin, I still love you

You can't say that in a text message.

April 18, 2014
More Song Writing

Comments: 11

  • Pbj from Telephone RoadMinor point, "Austin" was from 2001, not 2006. Also, I freakin' HATE that song.
  • Jgr from OhioHarry Nilsson's "One is the loneliest number", was inspired by and written about the loneliness of getting a busy signal. The rhythm track is actually to mimic the signal, and the story is that he wrote it while listening to the tone.
  • Grantzplace from Toowoomba QldJimmy Little Sang "Royal TELEPHONE"-- Centrals never bust always on the line- You can hear from heaven almost anytime-
    -- Tis a Royal service built for one and all- When you get in trouble give this royal line a call. :) GB
  • Marina from North Canton, OhELO - Telephone Line!!
    John Schneider - At the Sound of the Tone
  • Tami Wyatt"I ain't home, I ain't home, well ya better leave a message 'cause I ain't home"
    Jimmy Buffett
  • Brenda from Ocala, FlWham! had a song, "Battlestations" that opened with an answering machine. Also Poe has a song using answering machine message.
  • ChrisWhat about..
    From the Guns n' Roses cover of Knockin' On Heavens Door
  • Jeff from Saginaw, MiPigs In Zen, the bonus track on Nothing's Shocking by Jane's Addiction, features Perry Farrell's stream-of-consciousness lyrical coda that includes "leave a message; (I'll) call you back."
  • Arthur from Las VegasAlso there's The Vandals -Phone Machine from Fear of a Punk Planet. Which features Kelsey Grammer on piano and is heard at the beginning of the song as the machine voice.
  • David from Melbourne, AustraliaWhat about Glenn Miller "Call me - Pennsylvania 6-5000"? Or doesn't that count?
  • Kevin from Port Hope, Ontario, Canada"Hello it's me. I'm not at home. If you'd like to reach me, leave me alone". Great line from Sheryl Crow in "A Change Will Do You Good".
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