Phone Booth Songs

by Jeff Suwak

As impossible at it might seem to those of us born before the cell phone age, phone booths have largely disappeared from the American landscape. What was once a ubiquitous part of the scenery has now nearly ceased to exist. There are people alive today who never used them a day in their lives. Even more incredibly, there will soon be whole generations who have never even seen one. What, we must ask, will they make of those alien-sounding "phone booths" that musicians keep talking about in old songs?

It's not too likely that anyone born before the cell phone age doesn't have at least one poignant memory involving a phone booth. For nearly all of us, there was some desperate, love-struck moment at some point in our lives, or some emergency situation, or some prayed-for answer from an old and possibly gone person of importance to our hearts.

Those phone booths that still stand, like monoliths to an ancient and forgotten civilization, possess a distinctly romantic air as they hearken back to bygone days when communication wasn't nearly as convenient or automatic as it is today. When venturing into foreign lands, we had to not only find an accessible payphone, but also hope that it worked and that whoever we were calling would answer.

They're just boxes – that's all – just boxes with phones in them, and yet they meant so much more. Every phone booth has a story, just as everyone of a certain age has a phone booth story. This goes true for individuals, and it goes true for lyricists. Some great songs have featured phone booths in their stories. Let's explore some of them.
Let's start with the Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in my Hand," off of their 1996 debut Rocket. Simply put, there may never have been a song written that so perfectly represented the phone booth's poetic symbolism. The song features a melancholy piano played on top of a slow, driving hip hop beat, with Chris O'Connor's softly earnest vocals punctuated by a sampled portion of B.B. King's singing from "How Blue Can You Get?" The song revolves around an estranged lover, but delves into deeper questions about life. It begs a painful question of modern life:

And if I die before I learn to speak
Can money pay for all the days
I lived awake but half asleep?

The understated despair, the glitz-free and stripped own music, and the existential lyrics are all perfect representatives of the mid-90s cultural scene. Though Cable Guy helped launch the tune to fame, it's likely that many people harbor more serious associations with this tune.

O'Connor got inspiration for the title from a Bruce Cockburn song titled "Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in my Hand," released on his 1978 album Further Adventures Of. Cockburn's song doesn't deal with lost romance, but it shares the brooding, contemplative lyrical style that marks the PRG song, though perhaps a bit more cryptic. Cockburn sings:

Outside in the starshine you can see beyond the wall
So take a look and tell me, can you hear those black holes call?
Everything is thunder under the celestial waterfall
You get close enough to real things
You don't need yourself at all

They're the words of a seeker in a moment of doubt as to whether or not there is anything out there to find at all, finding himself cut off from someone he has decided to call in the midst of his philosophical crisis. He's got his money ready, but the phone booth is broken, dashing his hopes of emotional refuge.

Released in the same year as Cockburn's song, but a polar opposite of it musically and lyrically, is Blondie's "Hanging on the Telephone" from their Parallel Lines album. This song is a radio-friendly relationship song, with just a little bit of a punk edge, and it doesn't try or claim to be anything different. It was originally recorded by the Nerves, but Blondie was the band that turned it into a hit, landing in the top 20 in several music charts and going as high as #5 on the UK Singles chart.

Six years before Blondie's phone booth song, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show hit the charts for the first time with "Sylvia's Mother." Released on their 1972 album Dr. Hook, the song also deals with a romantic relationship, but in a distinctly more heartrending way. The song tells the true story of its writer, Shel Silverstein (yes, that Shel Silverstein), and his failed attempt to stop his girlfriend, Sylia Pandolfi, from marrying another man. The whole, sad tale is there in the lyric - Shel called from a payphone, but Sylvia's mother kindly, but sternly, refused to put Sylvia on the phone. The most gut-wrenching part of the story is that Sylvia was actually there, in her mother's house, literally walking out the door while this conversation was going on. A generation later, Shel would have just called her cell phone, bypassing the gatekeeper matriarch.

Robert Cray sketched an immortal phone booth song with "Phone Booth" on his 1983 album Bad Influence. The song tells the story of a man who has arrived back home in Chicago, unable to find any of his old friends. In desperation, he uses his last dime to call a number etched on the phone booth wall along with the words "Call Big Rita, any time day or night." We are left with the song's protagonist placing the call, but never know if Rita answers or not, nor what happens if she does. So it is that in this tune we are forever suspended in 1983, with the frigid Chicago winds howling outside the phone booth door, wondering if anyone's going to pick up the other line.

Bob Dylan tried his hand at a phone booth song with "Long Distance Operator" on his and the Band's infamous 1975 "Basement Tapes." In typical Dylan fashion, it's difficult/impossible to be entirely sure what the song is really about, or if it's about multiple things at the same time. On one level, it's just a song about trying to call a love interest while thousands of people pour into the booth. By the last verse, however, the song seems to morph into one of resentment and persecution:

Everybody wants to be my friend
But nobody wants to get any higher
Long-distance operator
I believe I'm stranglin' on this telephone wire

Feelings of mistrust and dissatisfaction with fame would come as no surprise considering that, when the scattered tunes that would later be packaged as The Basement Tapes were first being recorded in 1967, a rift was growing between Dylan and longtime manager/friend Albert Grossman. Additionally, Dylan was contemplating some big life changes after a serious motorcycle accident in 1966. "Long Distance Operator" may very well have been a multilayered attack on the false world surrounding Dylan's stardom... or else it was Bob messing with our heads again. One can never be entirely sure.

Dusty Springfield had a surprisingly odd song titled "Doodlin'" on her 1965 Ev'rything's Coming up Dusty album. The song appears to be about... well, doodling. It starts with Dusty placing a call in a phone booth and "doodlin' weird things, using the booth walls (yeah!)." Her compulsive drawing eventually lands her in Bellevue Hospital, where she is tested, presumably for some form of mental illness. Either the song really is an exploration of an extremely silly topic, or else there is some strange meaning buried subtly within it, one even deeper than Dylan could go. Whichever it is, it's sung in the inimical voice of Dusty Springfield's, a voice that could make a remote control instruction manual sound fun, sexy, and captivating.

The Turtles scored their biggest hit when they invested a dime in 1967's "Happy Together," knocking the Beatles' "Penny Lane" out of #1 on the Hot 100 in the process. The Turtles' tune is unabashedly peppy and poppy, and completely embraces its commercial vacuity. The song appears as a parody in movies almost routinely today, but hearkens back to a less jaded time when the notion of such head-bobbing, shameless infatuation could find more fertile ground. Goofy as it may strike some in this modern age, "Happy Together" is held fondly in memory by a great many people. The Turtles never actually specify that it's a phone booth being referred to, only a payphone. However, nearly all payphones were housed in booths until the 1970s, so it's likely that the phone referred to in the song was, indeed, of this sort.

Jim Croce created a classic tune in 1972 with "Operator (That's Not the Way it Feels)." In the song, Croce tells the story of a man who is trying to find the number of a girlfriend so that he can tell her that he has "overcome the blow" of her leaving him for his friend. When the operator finally gives the man the number and he writes it down, he cannot read it through the tears that have filled his eyes. The song was inspired by a payphone located on an Army base during the time that Croce served. Day after day, the soldiers would line up to talk to their loved ones, giving Croce the imagery for his song. By the way, Croce was a terrible soldier - he was far more interested in writing songs.

Countless other songs contain phone booths as a major, or minor, part of their lyrics. From the Counting Crows "Raining in Baltimore" to Uniform Motion's "Telephone Box," the booth is always there waiting, a poetic beacon leading us back home to increasingly distant times.

What of you, dear readers? What phone booth songs come to your minds? More importantly, what memories? Have you any midnight phone both forays that come to mind? Any sunny-day conversations in the glass box? If so, please drop a dime in the comments. You can even call collect.

June 24, 2014
More Song Writing

Comments: 15

  • Melly S. from Bedford VaSmoky Mountain Rain by Ronnie Milsap...
    "I found those bright lights ain't where I belonged
    From a phone booth in the rain I called to tell her
    I've had a change of dreams, I'm comin' home
    But tears filled my eyes when I found out she was gone…"

    A good one from my younger years!
  • Chrismo from New OrleansREM's "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" which features a payphone you can call anytime and a candy bar, a falling star, and a reading from Dr. Seuss.
  • Rich from Los Angeles Let’s not forget “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone.
  • John Bottcher from Monticello, FloridaThank you. Very informative article-- I found it thought-provoking. Who would have thought there is a catergory of songs about "phone booths." When I read about Bob Dylan in relation to a phone booth, it reminded me of Joan Baez's song "Diamonds and Rust." She refers to a late night call from Dylan: "Where are you calling from? A booth in the midwest." See:

    I realize this has been posted a while, but I just discovered it. I appreciate the continuing ability to comment on "Songfacts" feature articles.
  • Kevin Kimbro from TexasHow about the great Northern Soul classic from 1965. Johnny Maestro's "Phone Booth On The Highway".
  • Scheng from Washington DcFor another absent but implied phone booth: "Here's a Quarter" by Travis Tritt.
  • Lisa from Lawrence, NyOh, how I love "Operator (That's Not the Way it Feels)". "She lives in LA, with by best old ex-friend Ray". Croce could sure turn a phrase and this song may have been his best in terms of the whole package, lyrics, melody, cleverness, really FEEL this one when you hear it.
  • Jeff from WashingtonAnd thank you for the compliment, Jim. I appreciate it.
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaThanks for the Reply, Jeff, Nice to get feedback, you guys always do a good job.
  • Jeff Suwak from WashingtonThanks, everyone...maybe I'll see about writing "Part 2" to this, using all your great suggestions. Brad, I moved some years ago...but am originally from Newton, PA. Always good to hear from someone from NEPA!
  • Joan B. In S. C. from Columbia, ScI always think about Garth Brooks "Calling Baton Rouge." If you've ever been on a road trip with someone doing that, you start getting annoyed with Garth about halfway through the song.
  • Brad from Dunmore, PaWish I knew you were writing this article before hand, Jeff. I could have given you a nice list. Maybe you can add a few of these later, if you want to. The first one on the list has it only in the title while the rest mention it in the lyrics. "My Cape Is Stuck In The Phone Booth"-Relient K, "Jessie"-Joshua Kadison, "Superhero"-Ani DiFranco, "Busy Line"-Herman's Hermits, "My Drug Buddy"-The Lemonheads, "Hey Ladies"-Beastie Boys, "Stay On The Phone"-The New Amsterdams, "Phone Booth In Heaven"-Jim White, "Whole Lotta Love On The Line"-Aaron Tippin, "I Still Believe"-Billy Ray Cyrus, "You Win Again"-Mary Chapin-Carpenter, "King Of Oak Street"-Kenny Rogers, "I Just Called To Say Goodbye"-Terri Clark
  • Anonymous from Minneapolis, MinnesotaDon't forget to include the song "Answering Machine" by The Replacements!
  • Jeff Suwak from WashingtonOh, man, nice one Jim! Dang it, I wish I'd thought of that one. I always forget about the Monkees.
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaHow about "Last Train to Clarksville"? It doesn't specify it outright, but there interference is there that the soldier leaving the next morning is calling from a payphone.
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