Your Kids Won’t Get It, But: 5 Scintillating Songs Centered Around the Old-School Telephone

The cell phone era has presented songwriters with new ways to explore the art of communication, and they make for pretty good subject matter. But there was a time when the drama of an old-school phone call provided pure gold for artists to write about. Modern audience members hearing these songs might get a little bit lost in translation. But they can probably get the gist of it thanks to the strength of the writing and the performances. Let’s get into the time machine and take a look back when old-school telephone calls were at the heart of some great tracks.

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1. “867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone (1981)

The phone-number song has been utilized many times throughout music history, with other popular entries including “Beechwood 4-5789” by The Marvelettes and “853-5937” by Squeeze. But those tracks, or any other like them, all pale in comparison to what San Francisco rockers Tommy Tutone put together with this track.

It slowly climbed into the Top 5 by the spring of 1982, by which time it also caused some hassles for the poor folks who had that number or something similar to it. As for the number in the song, it promised the narrator a conversation with Jenny, a name scribbled on a wall next to the number (another pastime that has largely been eliminated in the cellphone era). None of the phone number specifics would have meant much if not for the tightness of the song and performance.

2. “Hanging on the Telephone” by Blondie (1978)

Because it fit so seamlessly with some of Blondie’s other New Wave songs, many assumed that it was an original creation by Debbie Harry and company. But two years before Blondie turned it into a hit, a little-known act known as The Nerves had released “Hanging on the Telephone” without much fanfare. It proved perfect radio fodder for Blondie, though.

The narrator slowly sinks into obsession about the phone calls of the guy for whom she’s pining. Harry sings the song bordering on angry, as she expresses the frustration that anyone who’s ever sat by a landline (or in her case, in the phone booth) knows all too well. Give credit to the peppery beat laid down by legendary drummer Clem Burke for much of the song’s pep and vigor.

3. “Telephone Line” by ELO (1977)

Let it ring forevermore, Jeff Lynne sings about the device in question on the big hit “Telephone Line.” Nobody did the big, dramatic ballad quite like ELO, in large part because of the band’s ability to incorporate string sounds into pop song structures so well. Lynne also fashioned a beauty of a melody, and keeps incorporating unique hooks via a series of vocal harmonies added in different sections of the song.

As for the phone he wants to eternally ring, it belongs to the lover he so desperately needs to contact. He rehearses all the things he would say if he had the chance, but the heartbreak of “Telephone Line” is that she’s not answering, and there’s no indication by song’s end that will ever change.

4. “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” by Jim Croce (1972)

In his all-too-short time on this Earth, Jim Croce proved a master of storytelling within song. He often did this by describing relatable situations, and “Operator” was certainly that in 1972, when telephone operators were often needed to connect you with your party. Croce used that scenario to cycle through a wide range of emotions, as his narrator decided to reach out to his ex.

[RELATED: Behind the Death of Jim Croce]

We find out the details, how she’s left him for his former best friend. But we also listen as he goes from trying to reach out and plead his case, to ultimately deciding that it’s a lost cause. Like a trooper, he thanks the operator for their help before resigning himself to his heartbreak.

5. “Sylvia’s Mother” by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show (1972)

The phone scenario described in this track actually happened to songwriter Shel Silverstein. He really was trying to convince an ex to reunite as she prepared to get married, only to get stuffed by the girl’s mother answering the phone.

Silverstein’s loss was Dr. Hook’s gain, as the band, who frequently recorded Silverstein’s songs, took this one to a Top 5 landing spot. It’s a delicate recording that’s sung beautifully by Dr. Hook frontman Dennis Locorriere. The narrator not only has to overcome the mother’s resistance, but he also has to worry about the fact that he’s fast running out of change to keep the pay phone call alive. Although it’s never specified at the end of the track, we can assume, by the anguished tone of Locorriere’s vocal, that this is another call that ends in futility.

Photo by Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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