Lyricists

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:

[Chorus]
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

[Chorus]

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.
I’m crying.

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 😉

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24 thoughts on “Lyricists

  1. It’s interesting that for me there’s an almost complete overlap with my nominations on your favourite vocal performances the other week. That’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing: does a good singer compel us to pay more attention to the lyrics, or do good lyrics just give them more to work with? Probably a little of both. And with the very best examples, I think there’s an inextricable synergy, that the lyrics and the performance feed off each other, lifting the song to sublime heights.

    There are a number of elements to a ‘good lyric’, I think. Part of it is the craft of putting words together in a fluid and catchy way: utilising ‘poetic’ elements of language such as rhyme, assonance, and alliteration to make the phrases more striking and memorable, while also ensuring that they are easy to speak or sing, not clustering vowels or consonants in ways that create verbal roadblocks that a singer could stumble over. I was recently led to an excellent blog post examining how a particular facility in this regard was the hallmark of Hank Williams’s genius.

    Part of it is how well the lyrics work together with the music – and with the style of the band, the mood of the performance. Most rock/pop lyrics aren’t very impressive when you look at them in isolation; but they don’t need to be, most of the time they shouldn’t try to be. You wouldn’t read most of The Beatles’ songbook on its own, as ‘poetry’ – but the lyrics are so well married to the tunes, they fit so damn well in the context of each song.

    And then, there’s a higher poetic level – is the phrase-making consistently astonishing, is the observation really that unique or unexpected, is there a unifying logic to the song’s development? It’s in these areas that most pop/rock songs are found wanting. Even the guys that are so often hailed as ‘poets’ by their uber-fans – Dylan, Cohen, Morrison – don’t really cut it. If you look at their lyrics bare on the page, empty your mind of recollections of the music and the performance… well, some of it’s downright embarrassing: trite, obvious doggerel, the hack ‘poetry’ of an angst-ridden adolescent. Don’t get me wrong: I like these guys’ music. But I don’t think their song lyrics can stand on their own as poetry.

    I’ve read a theory of poetry from a semiotics perspective which suggests that there’s a critical threshold of concentration of resonance (that’s my own phrase; I can’t remember what the author called it), a point where the language is working so beautifully that the proportion of allusion/suggestion/interaction/reminiscence etc. signified in relation to the number of signifier words conveying all of that… just goes off the scale. You can’t quantify what that proportion is, delineate exactly where it happens, but you know it when you hear it.

    Divorced from their musical setting, very few songs get anywhere close to that. I don’t think any of your suggestions here do, Mike.

    But this isn’t such a terrible thing. There are some songwriters who just try too damn hard. Elvis Costello is a prime offender, often in danger of smothering a song to death under the weight of all the allusions he tries to pile on to it. Oliver’s Army, for example, is a great song, it sounds wonderful; but you can tie yourself up in knots trying to work out what it actually means. I prefer to treat it as a nonsense song, a collection of memorable and resonant phrases that are best enjoyed separately, rather than trying to understand them as a coherent narrative. (Although Don’t start me talking; I could talk all night, My mind just sleepwalking, While I’m putting the world to rights is possibly my favourite-ever opening to a song. I once used it in daringly inappropriate circumstances: quoted at the beginning of a budget report I had to submit to a bunch of very senior lawyers.)

    In general, simplicity is best, I think. Songwriting draws on the ancient tradition of oral story-telling, which mainly uses everyday words and images to get the job done, and confines its ‘poetry’ mostly to effects of sound in the language rather than attempting any great sophistication in structure or metaphor and so on.

    If we were thinking here of really well-crafted lyrics – particularly in the sense of fitting the word sounds together in a pleasing way, as mentioned in my first point – we’d probably have to give all the top accolades to the professional songwriters like Carole King, or power ballad queen Diane Warren…. or, going back to the golden age of the popular song, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, & co.

    There are very few pop/rock musicians who can hold a candle to those guys. They don’t, for the most part, have the education or the application (or, perhaps, just the time – what with the demands of touring and promotion and so on; I didn’t want to say they lack the intelligence or the talent, though that is sometimes true as well) to really hone and polish their lyrics in the way that those Tin Pan Alley grafters did. Even the greatest pop/rock songs, I find, usually have just a few great phrases in them, or a great central idea – but then also lots of clunky lines, embarrassing filler that should only ever have been temporary place-holders but got irrevocably incorporated into the song… sometimes through a lack of intelligence or lack of taste perhaps, but mostly, I think, just through laziness or shortage of time.

    But again, we tolerate that in our heroes, even try to make a virtue out of it. Rock music – probably more than any other genre – has always had a strong confessional/autobiographical element to it, and we expect its performers to compose their own material most of the time. If lyrics seem a bit raw or unfinished, even a little clumsy – well, it’s in character (we know this guy didn’t have much of a formal education, but his triumph over a difficult background is a key part of what we cherish about him). We also like to believe it suggests a raw authenticity, or a spontaneity of composition in the heat of emotion. More polished lyrics can seem less intense, less real. Of course, a lot of the time, people are just faking it: they might be lucky enough never to have suffered a painful breakup or a drug dependency problem (or they don’t remember it too clearly any more!), but they’ll sit down to write a song, knowing that these are strong subjects and thinking to themselves, Hey, I bet it must feel… something like this. But we always like to think that the most powerful songs are a catharsis of personal experience. And if that’s what we’re looking for, we expect that the lyrics are going to be a little ragged around the edges.

    Really great lyrics?? Thin on the ground. Lyrics I like, oh sure. But GREAT?? Let me ponder.

  2. Tom Waits, The Long Way Home
    Money’s just something you throw
    Off the back of a train.
    Got a head full of lightning
    And a hat full of rain.

    Tom Waits, The Ghosts of Saturday Night
    A solitary sailor spends the facts of his life
    Like small change on strangers

    Michelle Shocked, Ballad of Patch-Eye and Meg
    He told me how he lost his eye and how he lost his leg,
    But he’d never tell me ’bout the old tattoo on his right arm – said ‘Meg’.

    Jarvis Cocker, Common People
    Rent a flat above a shop.
    Cut your hair and get a job.
    Smoke some fags and play some pool.
    Pretend ya never went to school.
    Still, you’ll never get it right,
    ‘Cos when you’re laying in bed at night,
    Watching roaches climb the wall,
    If you called your dad, he could stop it all.

    Janis Ian, At Seventeen
    I learned the truth at seventeen:
    That love was meant for beauty queens
    And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles,
    Who married young and then retired.
    The valentines I never knew,
    The Friday night charades of youth
    Were spent on one more beautiful…
    At seventeen, I learned the truth.

    Joe Jackson, Is She Really Going Out With Him?
    Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street…
    From my window, I’m staring while my coffee goes cold.

    Chumbawamba, The Good Ship Lifestyle
    This is the good ship lifestyle.
    All my friends jumped ship.
    I elect me the captain!
    This is the loneliest voyage
    I’ve ever been on.

    I think Danbert Nobacon writes most of the lyrics, but the songs get credited to the whole band. This a good example of a very simple song that uses almost entirely cliches/stock phrases associated with seafaring, but builds them into a powerful metaphor of isolation/alienation in the consumerist society. And it gels superbly with the music.

    Brad Roberts (Crash Test Dummies), When I Go Out With Artists
    If I were David Byrne,
    I’d go to galleries and not be too concerned.
    Well, I would have a cup of coffee,
    And I’d find my surroundings quite amusing,
    And people would ask me
    Which were my favorite paintings.

    Not great ‘poetry’, but I love the wit in this guy’s work – cleverly funny, and unashamedly erudite in the frame of reference.

    Peter Hammill (Van der Graaf Generator), When She Comes
    Too late!
    You should have noticed that the lady
    With the skin so white –
    Like something out of Blake or Burne-Jones –
    Always blocked out the light
    And shadowed everything you owned.

    I mentioned it on your vocalists post, so had to quote it again here.

    Liz Phair, Fuck and Run
    I woke up alarmed.
    I didn’t know where I was at first,
    Just that I woke up in your arms.
    And almost immediately I felt sorry,
    ‘Cos I didn’t think this would happen again…

    Best goddamn pop song writer of the last 20 years. Her problem – if it is a problem; I fear it is slightly – is that she can’t write anything but HOOKS.

    Tom Waits, The Piano Has Been Drinking
    And you can’t find your waitress with a geiger counter

    Tom Waits, Time
    The wind is making speeches
    And the rain sounds like a round of applause

    And just about EVERYTHING ELSE by Tom Waits. The man is in a class of his own. Unlike just about anyone else I can think of, most of his lyrics – nearly all of them – do stand up on their own on the page, do bear the kind of critical scrutiny we usually reserve for high literature… can be enjoyed as a kind of poetry.

  3. Ah, actually, of course, I mentioned VdGG on your ‘Obscure Gems’ post.

    And I didn’t mean to bold that last paragraph in the comment above. Don’t know how that happened. Sorry.

  4. John Hammond’s version of Waits Murder in the Red Barn:
    Now the woods will never tell
    What sleeps beneath the trees
    Or what’s buried ‘neath a rock
    Or hiding in the leaves
    ‘Cause road kill has it’s seasons
    Just like anything
    It’s possums in the atumn
    And it’s farm cats in the spring
    A murder in the red barn
    A murder in the red barn

    Pure Southern Gothic from Wicked Grin. Eat your heart out Gun Club, The Cramps, etc. Reminds me of Blood Meridien (sic?) by Cormac McCarthy….read it after the Trilogy. (The Road however disappoints, to put it mildly.)

    Great link to Hank Williams, Froog. Bet that wasn’t covered at Oxford.
    Here are the three darkest tracks which go to the core of countrys obsessions (cf blog entry for further detail)

    Dark End of the Street = probably James Carr’s version
    Travelling Man by Hank Williams. No competition
    Long Black Veil – saw Sleepy La Beef do a killer version of this twice. Seldom Scene = pretty good. The Band = Just okay.

    My piece on Trains: Different Narratives about Trains
    http://kingtubby1.wordpress.com/2011/07/

    Re: versions of King Heroin

    James Brown = social education and condemnation
    James Chance and the Contortions = the confessional mode

    Finally, saw Reed do Waiting for my Man in 1971, I think.
    All r @ r animal stuff, blonde hair, spazzy dancing, etc. The trannies in furs in the front rows totally lost their composure and wet themselves.

    On ya Mike. This is the most fun site around.

    .

  5. Even some of Waits’s more challenging lyrics have a startling subtlety about them. Telephone Call From Istanbul, for example, seems like a pure nonsense song, and yet… well, each individual phrase sounds wonderful, but it also has a resonance, it somehow manages to evoke a possibility of meaning – even though you know it doesn’t mean anything. It conjures a universe of dream-logic, makes you start thinking that all these strange references do somehow apply to real things, and do fit together in some convoluted way – if only you could crack the code of it.
    Saturday’s a festival, Friday’s a gem.
    Dye your hair yellow and raise your hem.
    Follow me to Beulah’s on Dry Creek Road.
    I got to wear the hat that my baby done sewed.

    I don’t think I Am The Walrus attains that additional level of mindfuck. It’s basically an unmediated outpouring of the subconscious, like the automatic writing experiments of Kerouac or Joyce. Now, this does throw up some interesting things from time to time, some interesting interplay of sounds particularly, and also sometimes some images that may hint at more elaborate associations of meaning. But it’s essentially random gibberish, and the wordplay in Walrus never climbs above a childish level (not surprising, since it’s apparently modelled on a schoolyard rhyme). Expert textpert??!! Hmm, deep, John.

  6. Liz Phair has a playful frankness about love and sex that at times borders on the pornographic. She’s also a great one for subtly messing with your expectations.

    In that song I quoted the other day, there’s a refrain where she years for a more satisfyingly conventional type of relationship:
    I want all the stupid horseshit (often transcribed online as ‘old shit’)
    Like letters and sodas

    But on the record – at least a couple of times – she says
    fetters and sodas

    Now that, I think, i sbrilliant.

  7. Mark E. Nevin wrote some exquisite songs for Fairground Attraction, his sadly short-lived collaboration with the gorgeous Scots vocalist Eddi Reader at the end of the 1980s. My favourite is The Wind Knows My Name.

    I think that you knew right from the start
    There was this restless in my heart.
    It’s a feeling that I have tried to tame,
    But it’s hard when the wind, the wind knows my name…

  8. In terms of cring worthy sound porn, I would have to vote for Stained Sheets by James Chance.
    Gf and I insisted on playing it when there were guests who overstayed their welcome.

    • Ha – that was great fun. Well, the phone sex element was a bit discomfiting, but the sort of demented, distracted lounge jazz backing was cool. Reminded me of a lot of Tom Waits stuff.

      I’d never heard of this guy before, but his Wikipedia entry includes possibly the most alluring one-line sales pitch I’ve ever seen: “His music can be described as combining the freeform playing of Ornette Coleman with the solid funk rhythm of James Brown, though filtered through a punk rock lens.” Hmm, yes, I want to hear some more of that!

  9. Wow, guys, thanks for those amazing responses! I’ve had a really busy couple of days (might be good news ahead workwise) but will reply more fully shortly, I’m a bit drained at the moment. But I’m really stoked by how good the music talk is getting!

  10. I never listen to music these days.
    James Chance (Nee White, Black) produced a mixed bag. Still got a cassette 1980 Live in New York good stuff. When his band (various members) get on a good funk groove, its delicious.

    Stay away from the French live stuff. And anything with Anya Phillips his partner is worth a listen. Google her for other details.
    Seen a couple of art house which featured Amya Phillips, but details are lost and forgotten.

    The problen is that its hard to recommend any particular LP, due to his label deals with different countries.

    Most importantly, if it was not for James Chance 30 years ago, I would not have discovered Fela Kuti my main man on sax (aside from jazz folk).

  11. Tanya Donnelly came to mind yesterday as another great lyricist, one who conjures surreal or dreamlike fables with her unusual imagery. I saw her early-90s band Belly at the Astoria on Charing Cross Road in London – possibly the best gig I’ve ever been to (and a top contender for favourite venue, too).

    I’ve had bad dreams.
    So bad, I threw my pillow away.

    is a great line.

  12. One of those Suzanne Vega posts on the NYT blog mentioned some cognitive psychology research which suggests that the human brain is hardwired to recognise certain aspects of music – that certain patterns of notes, or harmonies, or rhythmic figures, chime with something innate in us. Melody seems to be a particularly powerful trigger, linking very strongly with memory. In a great melody we recognise a fundamental rightness of form, we have a sense that it couldn’t be any other way.

    I think it’s rather the same with a really well-crafted lyric: it fits together so damn well that we immediately recognise – at a subconscious level – that it’s right, and it couldn’t really be any other way.

    You know how sometimes just being reminded of one line in a song will help bring a whole verse to mind? I wonder if sometimes we’re not strictly remembering the rest of the lyrics, as partly reconstructing them, recognising the pattern of them and digging out of our own brains the only words that fit.

    I think this might be a test of a really great lyric. With lyrics that are merely good, we struggle to think of alternative ways of completing them – but we may eventually come up with some, a few of which perhaps seem as good as or slightly better than the original. With a great lyric, we’re completely stumped: there just isn’t any way to improve upon it, only these words can fit this mould.

  13. Prescript. As a reconstructed booze hound, that drink mixture sounds tres revolting. Probably crafted by an alcoholic to keep their intake within manageable bounds.

    Got a problem. Forget AA and drink chartreuse and lemonade instead.

    Funny you mentioned Janis, since I posted Ball and Chain from Cheap Thrills on my site. Gut performance and just love the final wrenching note before it segues into the US national anthem. A patchy LP, but still up there with my greats.

    Also like Pearl, esp the Garnett Minns stuff, but I will come out an say it. The big daddy in my life has been and will remain Bobby Bland from his first Further on up the Road to the brilliant Reflections in Blue (with brass lines to die for).

  14. Another one for you…. (Sorry: I’ll stop soon.)

    Many Pogues fans would regard this as blasphemy, but I think they did a lot of their best stuff without Shane MacGowan. One of my very favourites of their songs is from Waiting For Herb, the first album after their big breakup. It’s Drunken Boat, written by Jem Finer (I think). It takes the idea of a seafaring life of adventure and blends it into a dark metaphor of alcoholism/mental illness. And it’s one of those songs where the lyrics are so good you can remember practically every word of it after hearing it once.

    I particularly like this penultimate verse where things start getting seriously weird:
    If we turned the table upside down and sailed around the bed,
    Clamped knives between our teeth and tied bandannas round our heads,
    With the wainscot our horizon and the ceiling as the sky,
    You’d not expect that anyone would go and fuckin’ die.

    • OK, here I am, at last…!!

      I note, first of all, that no one has nominated Morrissey. No? No. Okay then.

      As for Froog’s point about lyrics vs poetry, I agree a lyric doesn’t have to stand up on its own. It’s one element of a good song. I am often wary of artists who are lauded as “poetic” or who get adulated as being real *artists*: just like how I dislike wanky guitar solos etc. I’ve never listened to Nick Cave for precisely this reason, though I’d probably like him. Same with Tom Waits. I prefer me music which is a bit more rough and ready. No-one would ever think Kurt Cobain a great lyricist, but his disjointed-phrases-jumbled-together occasionally strikes gold. Better not to try to hard – your point about Elvis Costello is spot on.

      Of the many good examples nominated, I was particularly tickled by:

      If I were David Byrne,
      I’d go to galleries and not be too concerned.
      Well, I would have a cup of coffee,
      And I’d find my surroundings quite amusing,
      And people would ask me
      Which were my favorite paintings.

      Wry and funny and true.

  15. Other notable absences: Jim Morrison (a good thing really), Robert Smith, Captain Beefheart, Roger Waters, PJ Harvey, Mark Smith, Chuck D/Public Enemy, David Byrne, Leonard Cohen, Jerry Dammers, Ian Curtis.

  16. Pingback: Favourite Bands Through Time | booksandmusicandstuff

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