Modern Lyrics

I should hope no apology is needed that this month's column is not about hi-fi as such, but about what hi-fi is for - music. Next month's column will be about another novel idea for a minimalist pre-amplifier. In the meantime I thought I'd take "time-out" from electronics and talk about what is sometimes (appallingly in my opinion) called , "the software".

The domination of the chart scene by dance music has had one profound effect on popular music today and that is the death of the lyric - indeed the threatened death of the popular song form itself. Put in this way, I believe we ought to regard dance as a "pure music" form - more akin to classical music than to the aural song tradition which has formed the basis of all folk, rock and pop music until now. Both the emphasis on the exploration of electronic timbre and texture for its own sake, and the use of sampling, betrays dance music's roots in the experimental electronic and "music concrete" studios of the post-war avant-garde. A very different kettle-of-fish it is then to the tradition of the song which reaches back to the pre-literate past. (Of course, rap music represents an important exception but in rap, the message - albeit often distastefully xenophobic and misogynous - is of such overriding importance that this type of music is a form of poetry and not a musical form at all.)

To me, this emergence of a pure, popular musical form is both a good thing and a bad. Good, because the exploration of pure-sound is very far from the meretricious experimentation which it is sometimes accused of being. (Why should musicians not blend sounds in a manner to delight our sense of hearing in the same way a cook might explore different ingredients to delight our sense of taste?) Bad, because it cuts us off from the vital tradition of the finely crafted three minute song. Put another way, where are the "our song"s of the future?

I don't suppose anyone can know exactly when the song-form first developed but it was an invention every bit as important as the wheel. (Although , come to think of it, where would Bruce Springsteen be without both inventions?) The first songs I remember were folk-tunes which we learned at school. And it's odd, how thirty years later I discover that I learned highly sanitised versions of these most early songs. For instance although I remember singing, "She Moved Through the Fair", I don't remember singing the final verse,

I dreamt it last night that my young love came in,
So softly she entered, her feet made no din,
She came close beside me, and this she did say,
"It will not be long, love, till our wedding day."

With the inclusion of this last verse, what a perfect blend of everything a good song should be this becomes. It's delightful, humorous in a way that is delicately self-mocking, erotic but not licentious. These attributes are what attracts me to, what I consider to be the great period of song writing, the nineteen-twenties, thirties and forties. Whether it's Jerome Kern's and Dorothy Fields' A Fine Romance or Cole Porter's,

There's no love song finer
But how strange, the change
From major to minor
Everytime we say goodbye.
where the delicate double rhymes and the musical prosody to mimic the words "major to minor" shows a creative deftness which is quite wonderful. Which brings me to Gershwin and Gershwin, and my "desert island" lyric,

In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble,
They're only made of clay
But our love is here to stay.

A characteristic of these lyrics, typical of the words of the popular song during the twenties, thirties and forties, is their air of urbane detachment. For instance, although it's fascinating to speculate that perhaps that most urbane and detached practicioner of all, Noel Coward, spoke a little from the heart of his homosexuality when he wrote,

I'm mad about the boy
And I know it's stupid
To be mad about the boy
I'm so ashamed of it
But must admit the sleepless nights
I've had about the boy

....... but somehow I doubt it. Nonetheless the song finishes with as brilliant an expression of unrequited love as I know,

Will it ever cloy
This odd diversity of misery and joy
I'm feeling quite insane
And young again
And all because I'm mad about the boy.

Now, I'm not for a minute suggesting that the art of great lyric writing is dead - far from it. However the modern songwriter just has to be so-o-o-o serious!

The boy child is locked in the fisherman's yard
There's a bloodless moon where the oceans die
A shoal of nightstars hang fire in the nets
And the chaos of cages where the crayfish lie.

It's brilliant but, blimey Sting, it's grim stuff - Samuel Taylor Coleridge on 48 track digital! Neither is the eloquent romantic dead either, at least whilst we still have Annie Lennox,

Stay by me
And make the moment last
Please take these lips
Even if I have been kissed
A million times
And I don't care if there is no tomorrow
When I could die here in your arms

but it is very earnest.

Of course teeny-pop still provides a lightweight alternative,but even the titles don't auger well for the following lyric. And when you listen to the lyric, well.....your pessimism's not disappointed!

Meanwhile in Napoleon's Pizza House there are the ghosts of Saturday night.

And a cab combs the snake trying to rake in that last night's fare and a solitary sailor who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers pauses inside peekhole park for a welcome 25 cents and the last bent butt from a package of Kent's as he dreams of the waitress with Maxwell House eyes and marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair and a rhinestone studded monarch he says "Irene" as she wipes a wisp of dishwater blonde from her eyes and the Texaco bacon burns on a steel belted attendant with a ringing valve special crying "fill her up and check that oil you know it could be the distributor and it could be your coil".

Is it any wonder, when lyrics have reached this sophisticated synthesis of James Joyce and Raymond Chandler, there's perhaps nowhere left to go. Conceivably, that's why dance music has emerged as a strong force. Not so much a denial of the lyric as a reaction against a kind of brick wall brought about by the polarization of the contemporary lyric between the high-brow existentialist's creation of meaning and the puerile. Perhaps rock has finally hit the same crisis which has hit all the arts in the 20th century, the "Where do we go now?" crisis.

In my heart, I don't believe it has. After all Brucey can still find it in his heart to write,

You can't start a fire
You can't start a fire without a spark
This gun's for hire
Even if we're just dancing in the dark.

I hope it hasn't because, to re-quote Tom Waits, if we don't have lyrics all we'll have is

Poetry and prose and Martha
All I had was you
And all you had was me.


© Richard Brice 1995 All rights reserved