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Jarvis Cocker on lyrics

PostPosted: Fri May 30, 2008 8:57 am
by Ian M
Interesting piece by Jarvis (who knows a thing or two on the subject), from the Telegraph 29/5/08
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jh ... vis129.xml

Jarvis Cocker: the secret of saying the unsayable
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 29/05/2008

Bowie's a master, James Blunt misses the point completely. Singer-songwriter Jarvis Cocker celebrates the misunderstood art of composing pop lyrics:

Are lyrics important in pop music?
Take Louie Louie by the Kingsmen. The lyrics are unintelligible but it doesn't matter: it just sounds right. There are at least 130 versions of Louie Louie out there, but none of them comes even close to that one.

Yet when a lyric and a piece of music really work together, the combined effect is much more powerful than either of them on their own. "We could be heroes just for one day" is a vaguely uplifting sentiment. But when I listen to the song, I'm there. I am swimming with the dolphins. When I'm listening to that song, Bowie has me sold on the whole package.

Because, apart from the words and the music, the delivery of the song is a massive factor in its success or failure. David Bowie delivers "Heroes" as if he's trying to sing the throat out of his body, and the result is heroic.

I remember having an argument with Noel Gallagher over the lyrics to I Am the Walrus. Noel cited that as an example of how you could write any old nonsense and it didn't matter, which I vehemently disagreed with. To me, John Lennon is not just stringing together a load of unrelated imagery. It's an active rejection of meaning. A two-fingered salute to those who look for significance in song lyrics, and to the whole concept of making sense. A refusal to play the game or participate in the charade of straight society, which he felt at the time that his use of LSD had exposed as a sham.

But, although I Am the Walrus dispenses with most established rules, there is one it does adhere to - it rhymes. Should songs rhyme? My answer to this is a qualified yes. There's a sense of intense satisfaction when you get a good rhyme in a song. But beware: it can also lead to some of the greatest crimes that have ever been committed in the name of song.

I Am the Walrus uses internal rhymes, so you've got, "I am he, as you are he, as you are me" and "See how they run, like pigs from a gun". So the end of the lines are floating free. The more complicated rhyming structure gives the impression that the song doesn't really rhyme at all, but, in fact, it's quite carefully structured.

This question of rhyme is where many a songwriter comes a cropper. It's the one thing they know a song must do, and so they pursue it at all costs. And they become a rhyme whore. A rhyme whore will do anything for a rhyme. They will defy all notions of good sense, good English, intelligibility, logic, syntax, taste - you name it, anything goes as long as they get a rhyme. And this can have unintentionally hilarious results.

Take Life by Des'ree: "I don't want to see a ghost/That's the sight that I fear most/I'd rather have a piece of toast/Watch the evening news." Such a blatant use of a word just because it happens to rhyme destroys any credibility a song might have, especially when it has such a portentous title as Life.

All this naturally leads to bigger questions. Are lyrics poetry? Well, they both rhyme. They're both concentrated forms - both songs and poems tend to be very short, one or two pages at the most. If we look at the way that lyric sheets are generally laid out, the similarities seem undeniable. But typesetting does not create poetry. They're the words to a song. The only reason they exist is to be part of something else. And, when you see them on the printed page, you see them taken out of their natural habitat, away from that something else. To see a lyric in print is like watching the TV with the sound turned down. You only get half the story.

Great songs can have a poetic quality, but what really turns me on about lyrics is inappropriate subject matter. Take Heroin by the Velvet Undergound. That Lou Reed wrote so openly and intelligently about drugs would be pretty impressive today, but back in the Sixties it must have been totally unprecedented. You were simply not supposed to write songs about that sort of thing. He was saying the unsayable, putting a spotlight on things that many people would prefer to pretend did not exist, and in such a matter-of-fact, non-sensationalist manner.

Is the art of lyric-writing dead? My answer to that would be an emphatic no. In fact, I think that lyrics are becoming more and more important, because pop music as we know it has existed for more than 50 years. All the great riffs and chord progressions have probably been discovered by now. So one of the few ways that people can innovate, or make their song stand out from other people's, is in what they write about. That's why rap music has stayed in relatively good health, because it's almost all about the words.

Arctic Monkeys have made much of their love of hip hop, and I think you can hear that in Alex Turner's lyrics. Amy Winehouse goes one better and just makes words up. I think Pete Doherty harks back to I Am the Walrus - he plays games with words. So the art of lyric-writing is in good health.

What I look for in a song is something of the personality of the person who wrote it. Listening to a song should be like having a conversation with someone - afterwards you know more about them. And, if they do their job really well, the "m" can flip to make a "w", to make "we". The personal becomes the universal. They've expressed things that we have dimly perceived in ourselves but have been unable to give utterance to. They have bridged the gap between what we want life to be and what it actually is. They have said the unsayable.

This is an edited version of a lecture given at the Brighton Festival. For more Jarvis Cocker go to myspace.com/jarvspace

PostPosted: Fri May 30, 2008 9:34 am
by rongould
I agree with a lot of this but...

"Great songs can have a poetic quality, but what really turns me on about lyrics is inappropriate subject matter. Take Heroin by the Velvet Undergound. That Lou Reed wrote so openly and intelligently about drugs would be pretty impressive today, but back in the Sixties it must have been totally unprecedented. You were simply not supposed to write songs about that sort of thing. He was saying the unsayable, putting a spotlight on things that many people would prefer to pretend did not exist, and in such a matter-of-fact, non-sensationalist manner. "

Obviously Jarvis knows little of the history of "Popular Song" there have been explicit and double entendre songs about drugs and sex for as long as there has been song.

Fats Waller's "Viper's Drag" or anything else on "Reefer Songs" for that matter, and what was the subject matter of Hoagy's "Hong Kong Blues"?

If you want to see beautifully crafted lyrics about asubjects that are not supposed to be written about or aired in public then I refer you all to...

"In the Morning No." by Cole Porter.

PostPosted: Fri May 30, 2008 2:01 pm
by Ian M
True, Ron, but I think Jarvis was alluding to the way Lou Reed wrote about it - the experience of taking it, the graphic, brutal portrayal mimicked by the music - which has more in common with writers like Hugh Selby Jr, Bukowski etc, than the nods and winks and masked references to it in many other songs before this.

PostPosted: Fri May 30, 2008 2:13 pm
by rongould
I take your point but

" I dreamed about a reefer five feet long" is hardly a nod , a wink or a masked reference.

"The sky is high and so am I when you're a viper"

By the way, just for some of you oldies, why do you think that Wally Whyton called his Skiffle Group "The Vipers"?

PostPosted: Fri May 30, 2008 6:13 pm
by NormanD
Or "Take A Whiff On Me" in various versions, one of which has the lines:

"Since cocaine went out of style
People are shooting needles all the while..."

which suggests that nasal inhalation of cocaine is preferable to other injectable opiates. *

The song was changed, of course, by Lonnie Donegan to "Take A Drink On Me".

I guess that most of the earlier dope and reefer songs were celebratory and good time, rather than showing the scuzzy side of the tracks, as does Lou Reed's. I can't think of an earlier one than Reed's that hits home like his.

*an aside: this is an extension of an old Lenny Bruce line, but has anyone ever sung about the joys of morphine suppositories?

PostPosted: Fri May 30, 2008 8:42 pm
by rongould
Jake Leg Blues and Bay Rum Blues are very much the downside of drinking hair tonic during Prohibition.

PostPosted: Fri May 30, 2008 10:29 pm
by Hugh Weldon
Not quite sure what Jarvis means by
Amy Winehouse goes one better and just makes words up.
but maybe she should cover one of the above. Or possibly James Booker's 'Junco Partner'.

PostPosted: Fri May 30, 2008 11:48 pm
by Ted
rongould wrote:Wally Whyton called his Skiffle Group "The Vipers"?


You'll be telling us next that Ollie Beak and Fred Barker were somehow implicated in his web of vice.

PostPosted: Sat May 31, 2008 12:21 am
by MurkeyChris
Hugh Weldon wrote:Not quite sure what Jarvis means by
Amy Winehouse goes one better and just makes words up.


Possibly referring to one of my favourite examples of swearing in song (another thread?):

'What kind of fuckery is this?'

Amy Winehouse, 'Me & Mr Jones'

Chris

PostPosted: Sat May 31, 2008 11:37 am
by Ted
MurkeyChris wrote:
Hugh Weldon wrote:Not quite sure what Jarvis means by
Amy Winehouse goes one better and just makes words up.


Possibly referring to one of my favourite examples of swearing in song (another thread?):

'What kind of fuckery is this?'

Amy Winehouse, 'Me & Mr Jones'

Chris


This isn't made up, this is english as it is currently spoken in north london. Its originally Jamaican. My mother-in-law uses it in times of high stress.

PostPosted: Sat May 31, 2008 11:38 am
by Ted
MurkeyChris wrote:
Hugh Weldon wrote:Not quite sure what Jarvis means by
Amy Winehouse goes one better and just makes words up.


Possibly referring to one of my favourite examples of swearing in song (another thread?):

'What kind of fuckery is this?'

Amy Winehouse, 'Me & Mr Jones'

Chris


This isn't made up, this is english as it is currently spoken in north london. Its originally Jamaican. My mother-in-law uses it in times of high stress.

PostPosted: Sat May 31, 2008 11:59 am
by Jamie Renton
Ted wrote:This isn't made up, this is english as it is currently spoken in north london. Its originally Jamaican. My mother-in-law uses it in times of high stress.


If only that was where Amy's infatuation with all things Jamaican ended:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqCCSD5LMEg

Surely the least convincing & most cringeworthy fake Jamaican accent since Sacha Baron Cohen moved on to Borat.

Cheers

Jamie

PostPosted: Sat May 31, 2008 5:54 pm
by nikki akinjinmi
Ted wrote:
MurkeyChris wrote:
Hugh Weldon wrote:Not quite sure what Jarvis means by
Amy Winehouse goes one better and just makes words up.


Possibly referring to one of my favourite examples of swearing in song (another thread?):

'What kind of fuckery is this?'

Amy Winehouse, 'Me & Mr Jones'

Chris


This isn't made up, this is english as it is currently spoken in north london. Its originally Jamaican. My mother-in-law uses it in times of high stress.


The term is also used Daaaaaan South, too.

PostPosted: Sun Jun 01, 2008 12:08 am
by Hugh Weldon
I have always had a soft spot for crazy Amy since I taught her (very briefly) about ten years ago. I suspected that the word fuckery was not her invention which is why I wondered what Jarvis was on about there.

Incidentally some of you may have heard that the lyrics of her 'Love is a Losing Game' were set for commentary on a Cambridge University English paper the other week. John Sutherland had an interesting piece about it in today's Guardian, which countered the usual 'dumbing down' accusations with:

"Look at this stanza and ask yourself: is it from a 15th-century poet, or a 21st-century chanteuse?

Tho' I battled blind,
Love is a fate resigned
Memories mar my mind,
Love is a fate resigned.

In a blindfold test (another favourite prac-crit technique) a lot of readers, I believe, would think it's of Elizabeth I, not Elizabeth II vintage. It's Winehouse, of course. Top marks to whoever set the paper."

So she can do a lot more than make up rude words. Must be down to my teaching...

PostPosted: Sun Jun 01, 2008 11:04 am
by MurkeyChris
Ted wrote:This isn't made up, this is english as it is currently spoken in north london. Its originally Jamaican. My mother-in-law uses it in times of high stress.


Thanks Ted, you learn something new every day. I think we're practically neighbours (I'm currently in Stoke Newington, formerly Dalston), so must keep an ear out for a bit of 'fuckery'! I've been in the area for about a year and a half and I love living here for it's unique culture. I was pleasantly surprised if slightly thrown to be reading Jon Lusk's article on Turkish music in fRoots 295/296 and read that he was 'on some steps beside a Turkish supermarket in Dalston's wonderfully multicultural Ridley Road' - I only lived a few doors down and could have invited him in for tea!

Chris