02 June 2006

A few words from our lyricist

I keep getting emails from people looking for lyrics, usually to some obscure local hit that's impossible to find at any lyrics site. The other day, someone was after Frankie Davidson's Ball Bearing Bird.

Really, I'm the last person to ask about lyrics. I'm a poor listener: I notice the beat, and the arrangement, and the vocals... but it's only the odd line or phrase that sticks in my mind.

It's not that I don't care about lyrics, but with many rock or pop songs I'm happy if the words just sound right: in fact I hate it when they don't sound right, whatever their meaning is.

If the vowels and consonants sound good with each other it doesn't matter so much if I don't take in the meaning, in the same way that Italian opera or Brazilian pop are incomprehensible but still enjoyable. Scat singers knew about that, and John Lennon's Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé always sounded fine to me: I mean, let's face it, goo goo g’joob!

I'm not, like, against lyrics, nothing extreme like that: I always dug Simon & Garfunkel's words, and you can't listen to Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell or Tom Waits without taking in the lyrics. It's just that it's mainly fragments I notice or remember, the odd line or phrase. Fragments like these:

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping

Simon & Garfunkel - America (Paul Simon - Art Garfunkel)
On Bookends, 1968

So you think you’re having good times
With the boy that you just met
Kicking sand from beach to beach
Your clothes all soaking wet
Traffic - Paper Sun (Jim Capaldi - Steve Winwood) 1967
The lyrics are by Jim Capaldi. See the 2002 Usenet discussion about the second verse's pitching lips, heard (plausibly) by some as hitching lifts. (The 'Lindsay Martin' in the discussion is me.)

"C'est la vie," say the old folks,
It goes to show you never can tell.
Chuck Berry - You Never Can Tell (Chuck Berry) 1964
Neat use of assonance. Check out those vowel sounds: C'est-say; old-folks-goes-show; never-tell.
The whole song is a slice-of-life masterpiece, a short story writer's catalogue of everyday details.

You study 'em hard and hopin' to pass...
Chuck Berry - School Days (Chuck Berry) 1957

And so it's my assumption, I'm really up the junction.
Squeeze - Up The Junction (Chris Difford - Glenn Tilbrook)
On Cool For Cats, 1979.
The lyrics are by Difford, I believe. This is the final line of the song. See the annotated lyrics from SqueezeFan.com (now off-line: archived). First, there's the nice near-rhyme of assumption and junction. Second, it uses a word that is unexpected in a pop song: assumption. Third, I love a song that leaves the words of the title right till the very end, rather than chanting it desperately all through the chorus.

I don't like you, but I love you.
The Miracles - You've Really Got A Hold On Me (Smokey Robinson) 1962
Genuine use by William 'Smokey' Robinson of the oxymoron as a literary device (not just any old contradiction, which most people these days seem to believe is an oxymoron). Also recorded famously by The Beatles on With The Beatles, 1963

Daniel is travelling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain
Elton John - Daniel (Elton John - Bernie Taupin)
On Don't Shoot Me I'm The Piano Player, 1973.
Words by Bernie Taupin. Puts a picture in my mind that sums up the song.

Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean,
Yours are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen.
Elton John - Your Song (Elton John - Bernie Taupin)
On Elton John, 1970
Bernie Taupin again. British diffidence, summed up in colloquial language, and all the more romantic for it.

You stay home, she goes out...
The Beatles - For No One (John Lennon - Paul McCartney)
On Revolver, 1966
Routine language for a romance gone routine. For me the most perfect Beatles song, written by Paul, it's more like European cinema than a pop song. I was going to cut and paste the whole song, but see SongMeanings instead.

Here comes the twist:
I don't exist.
The Bonzo Dog Band - I'm The The Urban Space Man (Neil Innes) 1969
Produced by Apollo C. Vermouth, aka Paul McCartney.

Joneses, Joneses, all I see, page 19 to 23
Big big world can be unkind, the phone just took my last dime
Johnny Burnette - Big Big World (Fred Burch - Gerald Nelson - Red West) 1961
I know it ain't poetry, but it was on the radio a lot back then, and it tells a story, and it stuck with me.

South Silicon Way...
It's an address, right? Maybe in a suburb of some English industrial city?
Sooorry... It's a misheard lyric, one I was so convinced of at the time that I couldn't believe it was actually So Sally can wait. That's the line in Don't Look Back In Anger
by Oasis, 1995, on (What's The Story) Morning Glory.

1 comment:

J. said...

Great collection of lyrics!