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

Saturday, August 19, 2006

My post on bad Beatle lyrics the other night -- I tossed it off and left so much out. Here’s some of what I left out.

The Beatles did not augur an era of bad lyrics so much as they prophesied a de-emphasizing of lyrics in popular music. While lyrics became less important, vocals went lower in the mix. Even as early as the Beatles. Compared to the various forms of hard rock of today, indie and metal especially, the Beatles’ vocals are way up front, center & loud, but people complained about their low-mixed vocals way back in the ‘60s. (At least, Glenn Gould did, and while I may not always agree with his judgments, I trust his ears.)

The de-emphasizing of vocals and lyrics embodied the Romantic rebellion against Reason that happened in ‘60s popular culture and that remains current today. The rebels felt they couldn’t make rational sense of the world and human behavior, and lyrics consequently made less rational sense.

Psycho-acoustically, the de-emphasizing of vocals dramatizes the perception that the world overmatches people, in particular, the industrial world: our machines overmatch us, and the electric and electronic noise of our music overmatches our voices.

Others have pointed out that the post-war generation was the first in human history to grow up without an assurance of a future, in the shadow of the Bomb whose power could end human life (and whose status as a Capitalized Noun understandably connotes its quasi-supernatural diabolical status). Our machines do indeed overmatch us.

So it’s not that Robert Plant wrote bad lyrics -- it’s that the lyrics didn’t much matter any more. Popular music changed. Led Zeppelin rocks and astonishes me, but I still love the old-style well-made song.

In writing, “tone of voice” is the hardest aspect to control, because tone is arrived at partly unconsciously, and because the connotative aspects of language are indeterminate. The associations you bring to any word or phrase will be different than the associations I bring to it.

Any communicative act has a tinge of magic. An idea or emotion travels by my will from me to you. Powerful words can produce physiological changes. If you tell an embarrassing story of my youth in my presence, my skin may turn red. If you insult my family, my heart will beat fast with anger. A sad story can make me cry.

More importantly, the speaking voice conveys all sorts of emotional information that bare words do not, through tone of voice. Think of all the different ways you can say, “Come here, please,” from obsequeous to angry. And the words remain the same.

This is where we start to overlap with music. Music isn’t only about emotional tone, but it conveys enormous waves of information including emotional information. One piece of instrumental music by Duke Ellington can make me cry, another can raise thrills of excitement over my skin, another can fill me with languorous joy.

Words can do these things too.

I love the craft of songwriting, of matching emotional tones of words and music. The match need not be a neat parallel; it frequently is a contrast -- pleading words and confident music, angry words and sweet music, sympathetic words and schadenfreude music -- as many contrasts as you can imagine. The endless subtlety and complexity of life, consciousness, and the unconscious. The horizon that never arrives; the fire that never consumes; the wind and the waves that never rest.
The other reason why the balance of lyrics to vocals may have changed relates simply to the evolution of the technology of recording music and playing it back (especially drums and other loud instruments).

When you only have one or two tracks and minimal overdub ability, it's natural to either put the singer right up close to the mic and everyone else a little further back (to physically balance the sound) or to put all the instruments on one track and the vocals on the other. If the only variable you can really control after the fact is the balance between the vocals and the backing track, the tendency is to mix the vocals a bit louder (or so it seems to me).

A lot of those older recordings also have that really nice natural chamber reverb on the vocals, so they're big and lush, but still kind of more out in front with say a full big band sitting further back (to the extent it's possible to do that in a mono recording).

There are some amazing souding recordings done this way. But even still, folks are operating within some serious limitations.

From what I understand, even some of the early Beatles stuff was done this way, kind of around one mic or maybe just a couple. If those amps and the drums were loud, it's not surprising that maybe the vocals weren't quite as loud in the mix. Indeed, it's probably kind of how it sounded when they were rehearing too, because I bet they didn't have much of a PA or amp to sing through.

Along the same lines, when the plaback equipment can't really handle or reproduce things like drums very well, you tend to mix the music so it gives the player stuff that it can handle. Things like bass and drums are more likely to distort and also physically make records skip (if memory serves there was a rule at EMI studios that music couldn't be mastered past a certain level of loudness--they had done a louder mastering job on a pop record and lots of discs got returned, because they were skipping people's record players. So the beancounters made a rule against it. This frustrated some of the engineers there, because they heard the Motown stuff that was mastered much louder and the bass and drums that just jumped out of the speakers--at least that's how Geoff Emerick described it in an article I read in TapeOp).

Others who know more may disagree, but I think the technology of recording sound probably evolved more between say 1962 and 1972 than at any other time in history.

That's one of the big reason (imho) wht those Zep albums still resonate for so many people. The level of craft that went into capturing that sound is pretty amazing. But I expect they had at least 8 tracks they were working with, and probably 16 or 24 as they moved into the '70s. This just makes a huge difference in terms of what you can do sonically.

Really, at the end of the day, if a recording is sonically powerful, and the lyrics are well melded to the melody, any substance they may have is a bonus.

As I've said many times now, music is multi-faceted drug. Different people are effected by different parts of a performance, but that music has historically been so powerful and embraced so fully without words just underscores the subordinate role that words often play in the way we experience music. They're kind of like a bonus. Or perhaps back in the day before the written word, song served the practical purpose of melding the story to something (the song) that would activate a different part of the brain and help people remember it better. I think it's also been shown that putting things in song form can serve as a memory aid (which was important when people didn't know how to write things down).

Also it seems to me that there were plenty of nonsense lyrics before the Beatles. It's not like the lyrics to Louie Louie or Tutti Frutti are setting a super high bar. Seems like the Beatles were drawing more on that thread, which I suspect could probably be traced back a long time.

It's just that in the period starting in the 1950s and moving forward, this mode of expression became increasingly visible to the Topworld of middle class white people.

I agree a lot w/ you J-lon, especially in pointing out that the black R&B vernacular was an unheard stream. I think the Beatles were mostly casting themselves in the Buddy Holly lyrical image in the beginning. But, despite an accepted/excepted level of silliness, Buddy was never a lazy lyricist, which John's post points Lennon out to be (very often in the early days).

Offtopic, John, you choose two of my fave Lennon idiosyncratic moments to criticize -- the one-note 6 beat-held "I"s on I Should of Known Better and I'll Be Back (of which the latter's major/minor shenanagins more than make up for the lazy lyric).

Jake, I should have emphasized it in my original post, but my point was that the Beatles were the first to write *blandly* nonsensical lyrics and go huge.

The tradition of the nonsense refrain dating back to Medieval England (and, I would bet other countries whose languages and traditions I don't happen to know), from Fa la la la la la la la la ("Deck the Halls") to "A wop bop a loo bop," is a fascinating topic, but the sensible words of those songs, at least the ones I know, made sense.

The example of the Kingsmen shows that it was perfectly possible to bury the vocals decades before Michael Stipe deliberately obfuscated; the change in technology opened up new possibilities, but burying the vocal behind the sax (as almost happens in the Getz-Gilberto "Girl from Ipanema") could have happened any time. And as a rule it never did. That change interests me, regardless of the value of my speculations on it. I do think you're onto something, especially regarding Zep & their part in the story: the attraction to loud DRUMS wouldn't have been possible before the late '50s. (Check out Art Blakey's "African Beat" of 1962 for some LOUD drums. No vocals, one bass, one read, and many percussionists.)

I don't mean to say that the attraction to loud drums & guitars was necessarily a conscious statement on the limits of human agency and rationality. Just speculating on zeitgeistiness.

By the way, the lyrics of "Louie Louie," in versions where you can understand them, tell a comprehensible story. The verses of "Tutti Frutti" may be laden with cliches, but they make sense, and the tag line is magnificent. To me, one of the best lines the Beatles ever wrote was, "Yeah yeah yeah."

Jay, I shall always remember when you pointed out that major/minor shift to me, more than 20 years ago, in the very lovely "I'll Be Back." Please note, I like the music of all the Beatles examples I mentioned.

Thanks both for your comments.
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