Thursday, June 26, 2008


When a magazine interviewer once rather contemptuously asked me to comment on and justify some lyrics I'd written, my first instinct was to avoid rationalisation, and so to buy time asked for examples of song lyrics for which he had great admiration. By chance, this led me to something really quite profound.

'When you got a job to do, you gotta do it well,
You gotta give the other fellow hell!'

When you ask an open-ended question like this, there's a tendency to wonder what our own response would be. And as I saw the poor chap shift in his seat, I also tried to think of songs I liked and then in vain to think of good bits. It was awful. I couldn't think of one single lyric that I wasn't embarrassed to quote from aloud. He was clearly having the same problem because after a few minutes' squirming mumbled, 'Kurt Cobain... Jim Morrison... Paul McCartney.......' - and he a music journalist! I insisted on examples and he point blank refused to mention any!

'Come on, baby, take a chance with us
And meet me at the back of the blue bus'

Now why is that? To me, this is directly related to quality as recently discussed - taking a song's lyrics out of the music and isolating phrases completely guts them of any worth they may or may not have. You're stripped right down to your bare aesthetic criteria like a streaker in a supermarket and it's fucking embarrassing. For example, see Rick Moody go starkers (and you'd think Patti Smith would be a safe bet), or notice how Alexis Petridis wouldn't just be an industry hack if he really knew the secrets to good songwriting; while in contrast let's chuckle at Sting's expense. It seems while we can make fun of anything we don't value, paradoxically, not so easily can we be explicit about the whys of what we do value.

'I found it hard
It was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind'

As for reading about the world's greatest lyricist and the many comments, one soon realises how impossibly pointless an exercise it is. Yes, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and others are great lyricists but, aside from the arrogant assumption that most of the nominees are taken from a tiny pool of mostly white contemporary English-speaking songwriters, explanations and extracts are worse than futile. At best, you end up merely highlighting the edges and limitations to what you're able to understand and appreciate; at worst, it's like a public display of wank material.


SYpHA_69 said...

Well, I don't know about that... I can think of lots of lyrics were certain phrases jump out at me and, even when isolated from the song itself, have a certain power (to me at least). Just to name a few off the top of my head:

"Take a
hollowpoint revolver
Shoot down the rapids
Of your heart
Blow the fucking
Thing apart
Blow the fucking
Thing apart."
(from Coil's "Anal Staircase")

"A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind"
(Scott Walker's "Cossacks Are"... even though that lyric was cribbed from another source as it is)

"I curse all gold and silver"
(Current 93's "Imperium 3")

Hell, pretty much the entire "Holy Bible" album by the Manic Street Preachers also. One of the few albums I can think of where scanning the liner notes is just as enjoyable as listening to the album itself.

I can even think of a few Whitehouse lyrics were, reduced to just print, still move me on an emotional level: most of the lyrics off "Killing Hurts Give You the Secret" for example.

But I do agree there are a lot of lyrics that, stripped of their music and reduced to just words, are bad. Lou Reed's "Like a Possum" is a prime example of this.

Walter Peck said...

"Can I suggest that you, get fucked"

Has always been a favourite of mine. :) Of course, I see what you mean, removed from the context and spoken in a normal voice, it has no where near the same effect.

Some stuff does though, there's lots of hip-hop lyrics that spring to mind where a short phrase written down still works as well as it does within the context of a full song.

_Black_Acrylic said...

A friend of mine sent me this email today:

While bored at work and being forced to listen to Dundee's Wave 102, in a flash of brilliance I came up with a different reading of these lyrics, that of lonely gay men cruising for anonymous sex beside dilapidated canals, parks and train station toilets.


"As Long As You Love Me"

Although loneliness has always been a friend of mine
I'm leavin' my life in your hands
People say I'm crazy and that I am blind
Risking it all in a glance
And how you got me blind is still a mystery
I can't get you out of my head
Don't care what is written in your history
As long as you're here with me

I don't care who you are
Where you're from
What you did
As long as you love me
Who you are
Where you're from
Don't care what you did
As long as you love me

Every little thing that you have said and done
Feels like it's deep within me
Doesn't really matter if you're on the run
It seems like we're meant to be
I've tried to hide it so that no one knows
But I guess it shows
When you look into my eyes
What you did and where you're comin from
I don't care, as long as you love me, baby

It ain't me, babe. said...

"Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung." -- Voltaire

Ea-M. said...

Ooooh i looove The Lyrics Game. It's a great exercise in keeping composed and flaunting self-discipline. All you need is a partner and you try to mimic having a meaningfull dead-pan conversation consisting only of tids and bits of lyrics. The first person to break down in manic cackling loses.

The problem is, that to truly find out if the lyrics are good, you have to read them not even knowing who wrote them and not having heard the music and delivery. Otherwise they get tainted by what ever connotations they evoke. (And i guess i just summarized the point of blog?)

flora_mundi said...

to treat lyrics as words in the same way that poetry is words is misleading. lyrics are often written and always ultimately delivered with a specific cadence and a reliance on other elements outside the singer's (speaker's, screamer's) voice.

reading lyrics on their own, out of context, is like listening to one part of a multi-line telephone conversation. if you end up getting a sense of the whole from what you can hear, it's a lucky accident.

n-rich said...

Presumably, your inquisitor wasn't thinking of this particular Jim Morrison lyric, which ensured that the collaboration between these two rock gods (Morrison and Hendrix) is rarely ever talked about in the music press.

Mark Turner said...

'When you got a job to do, you gotta do it well,
You gotta give the other fellow hell!'

I can't say I ever expected to see that song quoted here.

It's a bit disorienting.

Richo said...

I agree with Flora_Mundi. Lyrics are usually very much part of a song's whole. If we're to start removing them from their intended context, let's treat all the instrumentation likewise and see how it fares when isolated. A few exceptions aside, I'm pretty certain each guitar part, chimes solo (!), rhythm section or whatever simply wouldn't evoke the same impression it did when combined with everything else. Very few lyricists have words that transcend their intended context. I can think of maybe Gira (who often tells stories in song form) and Cohen as immediate examples. Even somebody as rightfully revered as Scott Walker writes words that generally appear oblique or random on paper but sound absolutely perfect for their musical setting.

Interesting subject, anyway!