Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, August 17, 2006

I bet Schubert’s lyricists didn’t catch this kind of grief


Interesting discussions over at Carl Wilson’s and Ali Marcus’s blogs on the ideal balance of words & music in the ideal song. I have my views on this, but something that seems clear: some time in the late ‘60s, it became possible to write influential, hugely popular songs with bleeaahh lyrics. Led Zeppelin, baby. Everybody who loves them for their lyrics, please raise your hands. But what a Sound! What riffs, what beats, what timbres!

This dovetails with something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The Beatles are the patron saints of bad lyric writing. Not that they were bad lyric writers, but that they wrote an awful lot of bad lyrics, especially early on -- as far as I can tell, they pretty much invented the “lyrics shmyrics” attitude toward popular-style songwriting. Nobody before them wrote so many songs with words so obviously thrown together so indifferently.

Ask me why.

No, that’s not a request, that’s the name of Exhibit A.

I love you, 'cause you tell me things I want to know.
And it's true that it really only goes to show,
That I know,
That I, I, I, I should never, never, never be blue.

Ahhhh, it doesn’t really make sense. And on the page, you miss all the pre-written melisma, which only makes it harder to parse.

I love you-woo-woo-woo-woo
Cuz you tell me things I want to know
And it’s true-woo-woo-woo-woo

Examples abound.

Whoa, woah, I never realized what a kiss could be
This could only happen to me;
Can't you see, can't you see?
That when I tell you that I love you, oh,
You're gonna say you love me too, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, oh . . .

Really now, can’t you see?


I, thought that you would realize
That if I ran away from you
Then you would want me to
But I got a big surprise Oh-h Oh-h

I can’t understand . . . why didn’t you realize it?

And the bad lyrics don’t ever completely go away. Take a really sweet, touching, interesting song like Hey Jude, and tell me, what in Orpheus’ name does this mean?

So let it out and let it in, hey, Jude, begin
You're waiting for someone to perform with
And don't you know that it's just you, hey, Jude,
You'll do, the movement you need is on your shoulder

Until the Beatles, these sorts of blandly nonsensical lyrics just didn’t make it onto records. Maybe I’m forgetting something, and if so, please let me know, but, much as I love the Beatles, I really think they have Robert Plant and Bernie Taupin and Prince and hosts of other multi-million-dollar bad lyricists to answer for.

Yeah, Zeppelin and bad lyrics. My brother and I, both Zeppelin freaks, joke about Robert Plant either singing about hobbits or sex. Thank God he never sang about hobbit sex. But the music, when Plant would shut up and let Page, Jones, and Bonham work their magic; I think it says something that Zeppelin is my favorite band ever, even with the atrocious lyrics and overwrought singing.
I love Zeppelin too, and I don't mind sex lyrics per se; and, I'd even go so far to say that some hobbit sex would have improved "Lord of the Rings." I even love Plant -- his singing, anyway, except sometimes when he strikes me as a Janis Joplin parody. (I love Janis.) But I agree -- Page, Bonham & Jones are musically magnificent and sonicly untoppable.

Forgotten in my original post: the Fabs' "Baby's in Black." Has there ever been a worse lyric?

I think of her
But she thinks only of him
And though it's only a whim
She thinks of him

The selfish hussy, still mourning her dead beloved!

Also forgot to underline: the Beatles wrote many excellent lyrics too, early and late.
Certainly the lyrics were an afterthought on many Beatles songs.
Allegedly McCartney wrote the music and melody for "Yesterday" singing "scrambled eggs" - nonsense lyrics to fit the phrasing. Yet I think the lyrics eventually arrived at are quite good.

Zepplin - such intensity of sound and playing. Their music always seemed more about a feeling than a story to me. I didn't care what Plant was wailing about, I just liked the intensity of the wailing.
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