How did we end up with so many songs about putting your hands in the air or being sexy in the club? When did it become de rigueur to shove your own name into songs, over and over again? Is it a blatant marketing ploy to embed the artist’s name in the listener’s brain by virtue of dumb repetition? Or is it because the artist in question is in danger of forgetting their name if it’s not drummed into them every thirty seconds?
Shakira is a unique enough artist not to need to do this, writing in ‘Underneath Your Clothes’,
You’re a song written by the hands of God
Underneath your clothes, there’s an endless story,
There’s the man I chose, there’s my territory
Because of you I forgot the smart ways to lie
Because of you I’m running out of reasons to cry
but even she capitulates to the modern trend and inserts her own name into ‘Hips Don’t Lie’.Whatever, I’m sure I can’t be the only one who’s wondering why people write such crap lyrics these days. All right, it’s not solely a modern trend. Remember ‘D.I.S.C.O’ by Ottawan, for instance. That was hmm, well, less said about that the better but hey, at least it taught you how to spell.
And, of course, there’ll always be those staples of love songs along the lines of ‘You are beautiful to me’, ‘I would do anything for you’, ‘You’re the only one for me’ ad nauseam.
So I know that it’s a bit of a generalisation and that there are great lyricists still out there plying their trade with wit and acuity.
One of our greatest songwriters, Ray Davies, is still turning out songs that speak to us all. I can imagine this senior citizen scrawling down a verse or two on a till receipt while waiting for a bus, then losing it for weeks in an overcoat pocket. Maybe a drycleaner finds it, only to screw it up and throw it away.
Does he wake up in the night with a phrase rolling around in his head, capturing an emotion, moment or memory and then forget it while hunting around for pen and paper?
At least let’s hope he gets the majority down somewhere for posterity. Like
Then they towed away our culture
To a depot in South Wales
from ‘One More Time’.
In the past Kinks lyrics have anguished over the conflict between man and machine in the poignant ‘God’s Children’ or painted a picture of the quiet desperation of the jobless in the plaintively touching ‘Get Back in the Line’ –
Facing the world ain’t easy when there isn’t anything going
Standing at the corner waiting watching time go by
Will I go to work today or shall I bide my time
‘Cos when I see that union man walking down the street
He’s the man who decides if I live or I die, if I starve, or I eat.
Other times the eldest Davies brother tends to cast a slightly satirical yet affectionate eye on his subjects, as in, respectively, ‘Did Ya’ and ‘The Poseur’:
My Cuban heels are hurting my feet,
Just to add to my despair.
But he’s been practising days
To make his hair fall a certain way.
Anyone else speculate about whether Ray was thinking of a particular record in the following lines from ‘To the Bone’?
In my back room there’s an old 45
That we played all summer long
I always imagine it to be ‘Red Light Spells Danger’, a Billy Ocean standard. When I saw Ray at the Hop Farm, Billy Ocean was also on the bill and I picture Ray breaking into a dance backstage.
And one of his best subjects was of course himself. ‘The Road’ took a frank look at the life of The Kinks on the road, chronicling their rise and fall, from humble, hopeful beginnings in ‘far away places like Wigan and Birmingham’, while ‘Yours truly strummed away with a slightly limp wrist’ through the heights of their success, to humble, less hopeful endings, acknowledging that the music press had written them off as has-beens who had no business to still be touring.
So ‘Some are survivors, some are debris’ and Ray’s snapshot is not exactly Kodachrome:
The bed and breakfasts and the greasy spoons
The loser bars and the noisy rooms
The casualties who did too many lines
Wasted talent on women and wine.
But then let’s not forget that The Kinks frontman was also responsible for ‘Plastic Man’
He’s got plastic lips that hide his plastic teeth and gums,
And plastic legs that reach up to his plastic bum.
Everyone can have an off day. Nobody’s perfect.
Squeeze lyrics also effortlessly tapped into the zeitgeist. They have the casual throwaway brilliance of something scribbled on a serviette with a free turf accountant pen picked up from the pavement while Glenn Tilbrook waited for a knickerbocker glory in a Wimpy bar in 1976. Trying to look cool in pastel flares, doused in his Dad’s Old Spice filched from the top of the bathroom cabinet, hoping to bump into a girl he had a crush on in school.
The words have a quality of ease, an unstrained natural resonance, filtering relatable and universal themes through the particularities of a south London 70s-80s adolescence. These lyrics represent an object lesson in conveying a vivid impression in a few succinct words of observational iridescence. Match it to a melody and enliven with an irresistible hook from Chris Difford, paste in a rousing exultant chorus for a surefire top twenty hit.
Words whose first provenance was perhaps the backseat of a mushroom coloured Fiat 2300 estate or an Austin Maxi the exact shade of gypsy tart from school dinners on an annual 100-mile journey to a campsite in the New Forest, with a gang of unruly siblings, most of them carsick by the time you’ve reached the Hog’s Back, which you thought just the name for a layby to throw up in. You could have jotted down a Squeeze lyric on the inside cover of a colouring book, packed for the rainy day in-tent confinement typical of the annual camping trip.
Squinting faces at the sky
A Harold Robbins paperback.
But behind the chalet, my holiday’s complete
[…]Two fat ladies windowshop
Something for the mantelpiece
‘Pulling Mussels from a Shell’ instantly transports me back to six-week school summer holidays and sheltering behind one of those striped windbreaks so essential to any day on a beach on the south coast. You would get tar over your Woollies flip-flops and someone would always lose one in the suspiciously brownish surf, helplessly watching it get carried off by the tide. No-one could swim and risk chasing it into the sea. Resisting getting changed into cousin’s via sister hand-me-down swimsuits under fraying old towels. Dipping a toe into the edge of a wave, face braced and teeth gritted for the coldness of the frothy scum of tide.
The one meal we ever had out in my family was lunch at what we called Cliff’s Café (a vintage postcard has it as ‘The Cliff Café’ and more up-to-date sources as The Cliff Restaurant) in Barton on Sea, our day-trip destination from the campsite. Nosh looks a lot posher than it used to be. We would always have the same thing – plaice and chips followed by a banana split.
Then Squeeze also gave us the cautionary tale of ‘Up the Junction’ and plenty of stories of love gone bad/cold/indifferent like ‘Another Nail for My Heart’, with poetic lines like
With where have you beens
And faraway frowns
Trying to be good
By not being round.
‘Labelled with Love’ recounts the sad story of someone fallen on hard times taking refuge in alcohol, recreating her lonely world with deft touches of telling detail –
The postman delivers the final reminders
She sells off her silver and poodles in china.
Jarvis Cocker is another lyricist prone to build a picture so real and down to earth that you feel you could just walk into it and experience it for yourself. For ‘Babies’, it kind of helps that I know a girl who lived in Stanhope Road who had an older boyfriend and a younger sister.
Well it happened years ago when you lived on Stanhope Road.
We listened to your sister when she came home from school
‘cos she was two years older and she had boys in her room.
Or that I can remember long sultry afternoons playing 40-40 in the park, waiting to be called in for my tea, as in ‘Acrylic Afternoons’, which summons up that time so well that I can almost smell the mown grass and hot tarmac, school plimsolls and creosote.
On a pink quilted eiderdown, I want to pull your knickers down.
Net curtains blow slightly in the breeze.
Lemonade light filtering through the trees.
And I’m sure many young girls about to embark on their first sexual experience identify with the excruciating blend of vulnerability and embarrassment summoned up in ‘Underwear’.
Why don’t you close the door and shut the curtains
‘Cos you’re not going anywhere.
He’s coming up the stairs and in a moment he’ll want to see your underwear.
I couldn’t stop it now. There’s no way to get out.
He’s standing far too near. How the hell did you get here?
Semi-naked in somebody else’s room.
I particularly admire Jarvis for his seeming ability to effortlessly inhabit a female mindset and empathise so vividly.
Of course he can also wield this power in a critical fashion, as in ‘Common People’.
She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College, that’s where I caught her eye.
She told me that her Dad was loaded
I said in that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola.
Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job.
Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school.
But still you’ll never get it right
‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall
If you call your Dad he could stop it all.
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do.
College was where I too first became aware that there were people way better off than me who never seemed to realise it. I could briefly and successfully mingle in that milieu thanks to good A Level grades and a maximum grant but, come the vacation, our lives diverged wildly. I don’t think any of them got a summer job in a meat factory in Belvedere.
The Pulp singer can be cutting, as in ‘Razzmatazz’
Am I talking too fast or are you just playing dumb?
If you want I can write it down.
Songs can sometimes span a whole narrative, present you with a vignette, relate an anecdote or sometimes just tease you with an episode from a greater drama.
The weirdest people come up with poetry when you least expect it. From Guns’n’Roses’ ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, I love this couplet:
She’s got eyes of the bluest skies
As if they thought of rain.
Some of my favourite words that crop up in song lyrics are allegorically, horizontally, cavalier, facsimile, whoring, hubcap, debentures, Bonaparte, post-meridiem, punctured and gruesome, premonition, horny backed toad. I bet a few of you can identify the sources without me needing to tell you.
I’ll end with some great rhymes, some so bad they’re good. Another from Ray in ‘Well Respected Man’:
And he plays at stocks and shares
And he goes to the regatta.
He adores the girl next door
Because he’s dying to get at her.
While ‘A Fine Romance’ features
My heart’s not made of plastic
You’re the reason I’m sarcastic
And Bobbie Gentry in ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ complained:
What do you get when you fall in love?
You get enough germs to catch pneumonia.
And when you do, he’ll never phone ya.
But perhaps my favourite is culled from ‘Cry Me a River’, the brilliant
Told me love was too plebeian,
Told me you were through with me and …
My next lyric blog will take a look at more mondegreens (that’s misheard lyrics to most of us), words that had to be changed for TV, right-on social conscience lyrics, among other miscellany.
 This was before Ray achieved the hallowed status of National Treasure.
 Wikipedia traces the history of the landmark, mentioning that Jane Austen, in an 1813 letter to her sister Cassandra, wrote: ‘Upon the whole it was an excellent journey & very thoroughly enjoyed by me … I never saw the country from the Hogsback so advantageously.’ Less illustriously, the entry continues: The Hog’s Back Cafe is in a layby on the Guildford to Farnham (westbound) carriageway of the A31 along the Hog’s Back. It is popular with lorry drivers, who use the cafe and toilets during the day, while doggers used the adjacent hillside until the police cracked down on the practice.’