20 Classic Pop Songs About Forbidden Love
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The enduring appeal of forbidden love made songs about cheating a part of the classic pop of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. While there are lots of songs about unfaithful lovers and spouses, only a few in rock history deal with what life is like for those on the inside—the actual Other Women and Other Men who find themselves entangled in love triangles they didn’t see coming.
For decades, these types of scandalous tunes existed entirely the domain of blues and country music, since those genres tend to deal with life at its most basic level. Once the sexual revolution kicked into high gear, however, more and more Top 40 songs began to wrestle with the issue of loving someone you shouldn’t.
Thanks to its self-explanatory meaning, this song was considered scandalous when it first came out. The scandal arose partly from the fact that it was sung by the future Queen of New Orleans Soul when she was just 19 years old—and already on her second husband!
One of the eeriest and most inscrutable rock records of all time, this girl group classic is now considered by some to be a quiet anthem about cheating, lesbianism, and/or prostitution. The title comes from an innocent schoolyard chant, but the lyrics hint at a “secret” that can only be revealed to the roses themselves.
Country and Western music obviously broached the subject of cheating well before the pop mainstream dared to look at it, but Van Dyke’s 1961 smash was still pretty direct for its day, leading to a whole strain of honky-tonk classics about cheatin’ and lyin’.
An early Muscle Shoals classic, this song was designed by Dan Penn and Chips Moman to be “the best cheating song, ever.” They might be right—it was covered notably by Percy Sledge, who knew a thing or two about turning impossible romantic situations into soul nirvana.
Few songs capture the ache of part-time love like this aching ballad, another Muscle Shoals triumph and the one that turned Carter from a failed bluesman into a soul powerhouse. The way he wails on the line “What would I give?” speaks (or rather sings) volumes.
Country-pop star Juice Newton had such success with her revamped version in 1981 that not a lot of folks even remember the original, which was almost as big a hit. Rush’s tremulous delivery reveals just how much women put on the line back in 1968—risking not just their heart but their social standing—by being the Other Woman.
The sadly underrated Covay was adept at blues, soul, and something he called “country funk,” and this rare top 40 hit of his contains elements of all those styles. A sort of companion piece to Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love,” it shows in painful detail how cheating on someone else can backfire on the cheater, trapping them in a double bind of awful secrets.
The demands of family, career, and relationships can make holding down multiple relationships very difficult indeed—and even more so when one of those relationships covers up a lie about the other. Bell is most famous for the aching regret of “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which can be played as the sequel to this proto-disco classic.
A clarion call for a newfound era of sexual permissiveness, the big solo hit for this member of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young made quite an impression. The song was later covered by a legion of artists who seemed to agree that living for the moment, despite your commitments, could be exhilarating. Stills got the title phrase from a remark made by musician Billy Preston.
“(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” by Luther Ingram
This song is perhaps the king of all cheating tunes, if only because Ingram goes into so much detail about what’s at stake. Apparently, even the families and friends of these two know what’s going on, which makes the silky, slow soul of this number a deliciously ticking time bomb. The intro somehow sounds like transgression; the rest sounds almost noble. Almost.
Peebles, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care at all, despite the fact that her own backup singers are advising her “don’t break it up.” Maybe it’s the undeniable sexy thump of the famous Hi Rhythm Section egging her on, but the lady behind “I Can’t Stand the Rain” practically explodes in frustration. Clearly, it’s about to get real.
That this song is one of the biggest hits on this list has a lot to do with its expert atmosphere: seductive yet romantic, shamed yet determined, sad and noble. “Mrs. Jones” and Billy are “making plans,” yet are “careful not to build our hopes up too high.” Rhyming “wrong” and “strong” was the most natural thing he could have done.
The soft-rock wave of the 1970s was starting to pick up on the concept by this time, leading to a decade’s worth of oversharing on the part of some achingly sensitive people. Mary is so sensitive, in fact, that she thinks you should be fine with this arrangement, despite her indiscretion. The song features shades of Jefferson Airplane’s “Triad,” though that classic didn’t involve actual cheating per se.
Then again, “lovers” rhyming with “discovers” is also pretty impressive. And necessary, too, because the twist here is that the two in question know each other already, and therefore have to look at each other all day, knowing what’s going to keep happening. The Other Man is, in fact, this poor guy’s best friend. Ouch.
The kings of awkward romantic moments (just check out their lyrics), Bread specialized in unhappy endings, but this latter-day album track makes sure everything ends up okay. That is, except for the unlucky guy she’s already seeing, who gets a pretty cavalier sendoff: “When you change your heart / save yourself and forget all the rest.”
A beautiful and ironic declaration of romantic fidelity that just happens to be directed at a married man. With lines like “I wish you were my lover / But you act so undercover,” delivered as only Chaka can, it set the standard for modern R&B over the next two decades. The message boils down to the first two lines: “I will love you anyway / Even if you cannot stay.”
“No Tell Lover” by Chicago
An oddly indifferent-sounding ballad from Chicago’s first comeback, and also very soulful, even as it eased the group into their upcoming Adult Contemporary incarnation. It’s unclear who’s cheating on who here, but Peter Cetera does specifically drop the word “affair” before urging, “Walk away if you see me coming.”
The man who wrote “Quiet Storm” would naturally have to have a place on this list, even if he did steal the incredibly accurate title from a novel about Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. The awkward nobility comes on full force here, even if Smokey seems dazed as to how he got here and why his other woman puts up with his situation. Apparently, it started out as a one-night stand, so the answer may lie between the sheets.
Was there ever a sadder No. 1 hit? The song’s spoken intro alone, which sets up the rest of the song, proved too emotionally powerful to excise from the 45 release, and you can hear why—it’s the culmination of every hard breakup in vocal group history, followed by a devastating tenor performance and an ad-lib that must have sent lots of doomed lovers straight to the bar.
Critic Dave Marsh famously said that this song’s effect was as emotional and visceral as “witnessing a murder or a suicide.” And yes, Eric Clapton’s ode to his best friend George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd, cuts so deep as to be almost painful to hear. Good thing it rocks so hard—at least until the equally famous piano coda, which sounds like your forbidden love kissing you one last time and driving away, slowly, for good.