Friday, 4 March 2011

Lyrics - a Forgotten Art?

‘As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise’

Amazing how some lyrics can transport you to another place.  In this well known case you can see the setting sun glinting on the Thames as a chill wind whips through the concrete arches, yet it gives you a warm comfortable feeling.  Ray Davies was always at his best when conjuring images of old England – a place we’d all like to visit but never will as it only exists in our imagination.

I’ve always felt that a song is basically about the music and that whilst important, lyrics are secondary to a good tune but when the two come together the effect can be sublime.  In the hands of the best writers, it only takes a few words to create an image and some of them are quite strange.  One of my favourites is:

‘And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast’

Taken from Don McLean’s epic ‘American Pie’ this concept always makes me smile.  It’s the mixture of the celestial and the mundane that intrigues.  Were they strap hanging in a crowded carriage?  Did the Holy Ghost have an argument with the ticket inspector for not having a valid travel pass?  The possibilities are endless.

But if you want realism, look no further than a lyricist with a flair for kitchen sink drama - The Smiths’ Morrissey, whose ability to sum up teenage angst was legendary.  Try this;

‘Boy afraid
Prudence never pays
And everything she wants costs money’

Or this:

‘I was looking for a job and then I found a job
And heaven knows I’m miserable now’

Morrissey’s acute observation and black humour always makes me laugh.  He is one of the most humorous writers around yet has a reputation for being a miserable old sod.  Perhaps he is, but he’s a funny, miserable old sod.

My final example is a bit of a cheat as it is not a lyric at all but a piece of genuine poetry.  In the middle of Curved Air’s 12 minute prog masterpiece, ‘Piece of Mind’, Sonja Kristina recites the following over a rippling piano and violin theme:

The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails
Wide
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.

It comes from T S Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ and it sends shivers down my spine even today.  There is something about the imagery (the Thames again) and Curved Air’s classical rock musical hybrid that just works in this instance.  Of course this is a vast subject, I haven’t even started on Joni Mitchell or Jim Morrison, so I may return to it in the future.

In the final analysis a great lyric cannot save a poor song but it sure as hell elevates a good one.

9 comments:

Charlie said...

How about, "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school it's a wonder I can think at all," Paul Sinon's great opening line to "Kodachrome."

drewzepmeister said...

So many lyrics, so little time and space... So here's a couple..

I love the lyrics for "The Camera Eye" from Rush as it compares the cities of New York and London. Never been to either city, yet I can get a visual.

Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" takes me to America's heartland, where I live.

music obsessive said...

Charlie - Never a truer word spoken (or sung) methinks!

Drew - Interesting. I've always thought that song lyrics are a different animal from true poetry but it seems they have the same effect. Some people just have a way with words.

Brett said...

There are so many songs that have lyrics that have moved me over the years.

The Doors, "The End"
Led Zeppelin "That's The Way"
Dream Theater, "Honor Thy Father"
Royal Jelly, "Sky"
Black Sabbath, "The Writ"

The list goes forever.

music obsessive said...

Hi Brett - yes there's nothing like a good lyric to really elevate a song and the one's you have listed do just that. I may well have to return to this theme...

Brett said...

I have built a blog around how lyrics can spark memories. It VERY new but I am working at it. It is a great topic.

music obsessive said...

Brett - Interesting. I shall pop over and have a look!

Adrian said...

http://www.covermesongs.com/2011/06/five-good-covers-waterloo-sunset-the-kinks.html#more-20975

I've not yet heard these - but this post on the "Cover Me" blog features five interpretations of "Waterloo Sunset".

music obsessive said...

Adrian - The only one I know from that list is the Cathy Dennis version which I think is very good. Always interesting when you get a gender reversal in a song as it changes the meaning of the lyrics very slightly!