Funnily enough, for someone so bookish, words are about the last thing I pay attention to in a song. I love good lyrics, but somehow I often mishear them, and go for years with the mondegreen in my head. (I’m also occasionally prone to spoonerisms, and as my good chum Darren will chuckle to recall, once misspoke The Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”: instead of “like a lizard on a window pane”, I said “like a wizard on a lindow pane”. Easy mistake..! :-$ Similarly, for YEARS (decades!), I mistook “Bohemian Rhapsody”: I thought it went (well, I knew it didn’t really, but I got into the habit of just thinking of it as) “Spare him his life and his poor sausagie” rather than “… from this monstrosity!”
All the same, I do like a good lyric. I’m going to exclude Bob Dylan from the following examples, though, because 1. everyone knows he’s a great lyricist, and 2. Bob attracts a certain fanaticism, which I can do without. As I’ve said previously, the following are simply examples I like; I also like to cite from different areas of music, for the sake of glorious variety.
1. The Velvet Underground, “Venus In Furs”
Quite apart from the adolescent salaciousness often applied to “Venus In Furs”, the lyric is actually very technically accomplished. (I love Lou Reed’s interview in the BBC’s The Seven Ages Of Rock, where he says this kind of subject matter was often in Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr., etc so using it in rock was “a big nothing”). Throughout, Reed uses sibilance to create a lisping, decadent effect:
Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather
Whiplash girl-child in the dark
Comes in bells, your servant, don’t forsake him
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart
Also, there’s a killer instance of onomatopoeia, in the last syllable of the line “Kiss the boot” – as he says “boot”, Mo Tucker hits that kettle drum (which itself suggest a slaveship drum, beating rhythm for the groaning desperate rowers), and the boom and boot combine deliciously.
But perhaps what’s the most interesting aspect of the lyric is that it is so dramatised. This is not Reed saying “I dig S&M”; it’s not a simple statement like The Stooge’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. Reed instead enacts the performance of S&M through the lyrics, and the music heightens this with the whip-lashes of the ostrich guitar and the slave-ship drums. It’s an extremely accomplished performance to be doing on your very first album, and helps explain the critical acclaim of Reed and the Velvet Underground.
2. Belle and Sebastian, “Sleep The Clock Around”
Sometimes dismissed as twee indie, Belle and Sebastian are in fact often home to sharp, stinging lyrics. The sweetness and delicacy of some of their music is an effective counterpoint to this – kinda like The Beautiful South, but less bland. Their breakthrough album The Boy With the Arab Strap is home to many fine and effective lyrics (the stinging portrayal of someone who “We all know you’re soft ‘cos we’ve all seen you dancing / We all know you’re hard ‘cos we’ve all seen you drinking / From noon until noon again” in the title track; the polite decline to fame of “Seymour Stein”; the schoolboy idyll of “A Spaceboy Dream”), but the finest to my ears is “Sleep The Clock Around”. The portrait of dreamers who could maybe be someone, it starts murmuringly, but builds in colour and charge to the final line of the third verse, where it bursts gloriously open with the word “shine”. I’ll just quote the whole thing here:
And the moment will come when composure returns
Put a face on the world, turn your back to the wall
And you walk twenty yards with your head in the air
Down the Liberty Hill, where the fashion brigade
Look with curious eyes on your raggedy way
And for once in your life you’ve got nothing to say
And could this be the time when somebody will come
To say, “Look at yourself, you’re not much use to anyone”
Take a walk in the park, take a valium pill
Read the letter you got from the memory girl
But it takes more than this to make sense of the day
Yeah it takes more than milk to get rid of the taste
And you trusted to this, and you trusted to that
And when you saw it all come, it was waving the flag
Of the United States of Calamity, hey!
After all that you’ve done, boy, I know you’re going to pay
In the morning you come to the ladies’ salon
To get all fitted out for The Paperback Throne
But the people are living far away from the place
Where you wanted to help, you’re a bit of a waste
And the puzzle will last till somebody will say
“There’s a lot to be done while your head is still young”
If you put down your pen, leave your worries behind
Then the moment will come, and the memory will shine
Now the trouble is over, everybody got paid
Everybody is happy, they are glad that they came
Then you go to the place where you’ve finally found
You can look at yourself sleep the clock around
This really is a lyric that stands up on its own. Just terrific.
3. The Clash, “Lost In The Supermarket”
Despite mostly being an issues band, lead by their towering sense of solidarity and social justice, The Clash occasionally did some songs with nice autobiographical vignettes. (I think these are mostly the Mick Jones songs). “Protex Blue”on The Clash is a funny tale of buying condoms in a pub toilet, long before AIDS made their purchase socially acceptable. “Lost In The Supermarket” from the peerless London Calling is a poignant tale of alienation and seeking some kind of affirmation through buying stuff. (In “Rudy Can’t Fail” from the same album, they have a similar line: “I went to the market / To realise my soul / But what I need / They just don’t have”. That’s just fucking immense, isn’t it?). “Lost In The Supermarket” starts with the chorus, as though setting out its themes right from the start:
I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality
I wasn’t born so much as I fell out
Nobody seemed to notice me
We had a hedge back home in the suburbs
Over which I never could see
I heard the people who lived on the ceiling
Scream and fight most scarily
Hearing that noise was my first ever feeling
That’s how it’s been all around me
I’m all tuned in, I see all the programmes
I save coupons from packets of tea
I’ve got my giant hit discoteque album
I empty a bottle and I feel a bit free
4. The Beatles, “I Am The Walrus”
Lots of people first encounter The Beatles through singing “Let It Be” or “Yesterday” in school music classes, and consequently think The Fabs were just a safe, twee pop group – like a band of Cliff Richards. Au contraire. Apart from the obvious LSD inspiration of this song, I love its linguistic deconstruction and sheer outright mischief. Some highlights:
Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come.
Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday.
Man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.
Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess,
Boy, you been a naughty girl you let your knickers down.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.
Expert textpert choking smokers,
Don’t you thing the joker laughs at you?
See how they smile like pigs in a sty,
See how they snied.
Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower.
Elementary penguin singing Hari Krishna.
Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.
5. Nick Drake, “Hazey Jane I”
Some autobiographica: after graduating in 2000, I moved back for a few months, planning to do a post-grad after the summer. Living back home felt rather bathetic, having to submerge the way you would like to live to the requirements of the parental home. You know what I mean? It’s a pisser, yet so hard to fight against. I had recently bought a copy of the magnificent compilation album Way To Blue, and its gentle disaffection, summer melancholy and rural vibes suited my feeling (we lived right on the edge of town, looking onto farms and hills). The most affecting song was “Hazey Jane I”, with its beautiful orchestration and searching lyric, framed as a series of questions, suiting my self-doubt:
Do you curse where you come from?
Do you swear in the night?
Will it mean much to you
If I treat you right?
Do you like what you’re doing?
Would you do it some more?
Or will you stop once and wonder
What you’re doing it for?
Hey slow Jane, make sense
Slow, slow, Jane, cross the fence.
Do you feel like a remnant
Of something that’s past?
Do you find things are moving
Just a little too fast?
Do you hope to find new ways
Of quenching your thirst?
Do you hope to find new ways
Of doing better than your worst?
Hey slow Jane, let me prove
Slow, slow Jane, we’re on the move.
6. The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”
I know I’ve already mentioned the Velvets, but it struck me that this would be a good time to unveil one of my theories: the lyric to “Heroin” is basically a modern-day retelling of the Keats poem Ode To A Nightingale. I’m not (you will doubtless be pleased to learn) going to quote the whole poem, but here’s a summary of it: the speaker is in a bad mood, but listens to a nightingale singing, and appreciates it as a symbol of transcendence, one whose song will live on even after it dies. This mood of transcendence encourages the speaker to enter a reverie, away from the world of here-and-now. But removed from the immediate world, there is little difference between life and death, between the self and other. The speaker then realises that this is not a place one can live in, and exits the world of imagination; the vision fades, but doubtfully: the last two lines are “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”
The parallels with “Heroin” are exact, and such that I believe Reed (who of course studied literature at Syracuse University) intentionally made “Heroin” a contemporary re-telling. At the start, the speaker is in a state of chronic self-doubt (“I don’t know / Just where I’m going”). He desires the extremity of heroin (“When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son”) to lift him out of his torpor. Taking it is a transcendent feeling, lifting out of the stresses and strains of everyday life, freeing him to another realm away from the dirt and squalor of the city (“I wish that I was born a thousand years ago / I wish that I’d sail the darkened seas / On a great big clipper ship / Going from this land here to that”). But of course removal from the everyday is a step towards death, to complete dissociation from life itself (“Because a mainer to my vein / Leads to a center in my head / And then I’m better off than dead / Because when the smack begins to flow / I really don’t care anymore”). And it leads to the final damning realisation that this is a living death – but still, at the end, the pain and self-doubt remain: his fate is not yet decided (“Ah, when the heroin is in my blood / And that blood is in my head / Then thank God that I’m as good as dead / Then thank your God that I’m not aware / And thank God that I just don’t care / And I guess I just don’t know / And I guess I just don’t know”).
7. John Cage, “4’33”
It’s like a mirror: you get out of it what you put into it 😉