One thing I’ve never really spoken about in the vast majority of the various posts I’ve made about music on here (and looking back, I’ve made A LOT of posts). Anyway, I’ve never really gone into song lyrics.
Maybe it’s because I can’t write them to save my life, but I always think that writing songs (as in words, not music) takes a lot of skill to get it right. And within my music library, there are some that indeed get it very, very right, and others who don’t. And half of the time, there’s not much worse than a song that’s let down by rubbish lyrics. In fact, it’s more than half- it’s fairly frequent.
As I said last week, my favourite line from any song penned by Paul Weller has to be in ‘That’s Entertainment’. The entire song- particularly the second half- is arguably his finest work from his time with The Jam:
Waking up at 6 a.m. on a cool warm morning –
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol –
An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard –
Watching the telly and thinking about your holidays.
Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes –
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume –
A hot summer’s day and sticky black tarmac –
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away.
Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight –
Two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude –
Getting a cab and travelling on buses –
Reading the graffiti about slashed seat affairs.
It seems effortlessly simple, but it’s written so well- an ode to the mundanity of day-to-day life. Pop music as its most observational.
Another favourite lyricist of mine is David Gedge of The Wedding Present and Cinerama. Very much of the ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ style, Gedge has been writing songs about similar subjects throughout his career, and the finest (to me) lie within the first three albums- Tommy, George Best and Bizarro. As an example, here’s an excerpt from ‘Bewitched’ a song on side 2 of Bizarro:
I’m not sure and I’m not asking
But I thought I heard you say
“I just walked past him”
But why can I never do anything before you go?
I don’t know
And outside the streets are empty
There was no time then
And now there’s plenty
Oh why do I never get the chance to say a word
When you’re on your own?
If there’s nothing that I want more
Why do my steps get this small
When I reach your front door
And I wait outside for you to come back out
And your light goes out
You don’t know me but I’m still here
And God the last time I saw you
You were, oh, this near
And there’s a thousand things I wished I’d said and done
But the moment’s gone
‘Bewitched’, like most of The Wedding Present’s material, stems from love…in a way. Almost the ‘other side’ of a typical poppy love song- lust, heartbreak, very grounded, realistic writing. The same goes with Arab Strap- Aidan Moffat, who more often than not (especially in the early stuff) opted for spoken-word, rather than actual singing. His style added another level of intensity to the music. I could go into great depths with the work of Mr. Stephen Patrick Morrissey and also of Saint Etienne, but I’d end up with something resembling a thesis. So I’ll just say one thing- they are amazing, .and are even good simply written down.
Some of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics are brilliantly presented- often stories of blue-collar workers trying to escape from everything holding them down- sometimes succeeding (‘Born To Run’, ‘Dancing In The Dark’), sometimes not (the entire Nebraska album- which is probably my favourite full album, as it happens)- it’s a concept that runs through a number of his albums.
And all of this without mentioning Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards. Over the years, the Manic Street Preachers’ back catalogue has been filled with references to political figureheads, social events, philosophers, soundbites- anything and everything condensed down into song form. Pick any of their albums (even the solitary dud Lifeblood) and you’ll find some of the finest writing of the modern age, from the ranting-and-chanting of Generation Terrorists to the horrific slabs of hate and nihilism contained within The Holy Bible, even through the maturity of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. It all works.
(I guess a bonus prize also goes to Half Man Half Biscuit for the shameless brilliance of outdated pop culture references found within their music- children’s TV shows, biscuits, 1970s football teams/chants, snack foods long discontinued etc, as well as some of the best song titles puns ever.)
One book I picked up which is quite interesting when talking about songwriting is The Complete Lyrics by Nick Cave. As well as most of his songs (it’s a little out-of-date now), it contains transcripts for two of the lectures he did about songs, called The Secret Life Of The Love Song. It’s very interesting, so I recommend it.