Tag Archives: Lyrics

What Makes A Great Song Lyric?

Bubbles from The Wire.

The Wire is the greatest TV show ever to have been aired. It’s brilliantly dark, socially conscious crime fiction that’s truer to life than most journalism. But what I love most about it is not the incredible characters, the plotlines, or its moral compass: it’s the dialogue.

It fizzles and crackles with electric wit, full of bizarre and charming colloquialisms, intrigue and awareness flowing out of every syllable. Comparisons with other TV shows fall flat: I’d put it alongside Shakespeare.

Like many great playwrights, the writers hang their dialogue onto themes and messages which run throughout the show. Sometimes it can be accidental: one character, while talking about something completely different, sums up the entire premise of the final series in its very first scene: “The bigger the lie, the more they believe.” – Bunk Moreland.

More often it is carefully measured, but equally apt: after spending a day with a detective in mid-town suburbia, a homeless man called Bubbles sums up the divide between rich and poor America in one line: “Thin line ‘tween heaven and here.” – Bubbles. Beautiful.

But how does this apply to your songwriting? The Wire’s dialogue maintains one crucial rule which all songwriters would do well to pay attention to: never does poetry compromise the reality of the show. At no point does Bunk Moreland speak in Iambic Pentameter. At no point does Bubbles wander lonely as a cloud. Every character speaks as they normally would, and the metaphors appear either through deliberately placed accidents or through the perfectly timed use of their colloquialisms.

The most common problem with amateur songwriters is that they feel they have to be a Romantic poet in order to reach a deeper truth. Unfortunately, they aren’t. You need an incredible grasp of the English language, a sensibility which allows you to see the exquisite beauty in daffodils, plenty of patience and plenty more opiates.

But you already have an incredible vault of words and wisdom to dig in to: your language, the way you explain the world, the accrued phrases that help you make sense of life. The Wire is successful because the lines stay true to its characters: if your lyrics stay true to your character, you won’t need the opiates.

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Do Lyrics Matter In A Song?: Chuck Berry Vs B.B. King

The First Great Rock Lyricist: Dont Chuck Berry.

“The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you’ll be sorry someday”

The Thrill Is Gone – B.B. King

Reading B.B. King’s lyrics without accompaniment is a bit like peeing in a fridge: cold, unsatisfying, and not really what it’s meant for. Slapping his lyrics up on here does the great man a real disservice, but let’s take them as they are for a moment. They’re fairly pedestrian, without much depth or particular interest.

“Way down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
He never ever learned to read and write so well
But he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell

Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry

Compare his with Mr Berry’s. Chuck’s lyrics absolutely leap off the page. They’re so rich: full of character, energy, imagery, and humour. Mr Berry’s lyrics were so good they defined a whole genre. Not only that, but they lasted: I’ve heard that Johnny B. Goode has been appeared on more albums than any other song in history.

Before the King-ites come howling out of their Blues Dens, I’m not saying that Chuck beats B.B. I’m saying they’re equally good: Blues lyrics are more a vehicle for the music. They highlight the emotions in broad strokes, which is fine, but they struggle with detail.

What Chuck does differently is specificity. He narrows his focus, bringing in literary elements such as character, plot, and setting. He can tackle any subject – from political to romantic – and take it any way he wants – from humorous to sentimental.

The contrast between the two is huge: It’s the difference between seeing the world out of focus and seeing it in 20:20. Being able to accurately portray the world is the greatest and most important facility of the artist, and sometimes broad strokes is not enough.

So yes, lyrics do matter in a song. Unless, of course, you’re King of the Blues.

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Lyrics or Music: Which One First?

How to get the most out of your harvest. (Image Source: Flickr)

In my rather lengthy period of blogging absence I’ve noticed quite a trend amongst the twittersphere. In 140 characters, always the same question, repeated like a broken record. When you feel the sudden bolt of creativity, what should you reach for? Your right hand itches for the pen, but your left longs for the guitar. Which one?

I’ll tell you: Both. When you feel that raw pulp of creativity welling up, you’ve got to start singing what you’re thinking. If you play an instrument, strum some chords together and sing over it. If you release all those inhibitions, you’ll start finding lyrics and melodies that you wouldn’t be able to dream of if you worked through it one by one: working through both at the same time gives a song an incredible unity of elements that you can’t recapture when you separate them.

This is why I devoted an entire post to the Ernest Hemingway quote: “The First Draft Of Everthing is S**t”. The more you just let go, the more you stop censoring your work, the more good stuff you’ll get out of those spurts of creativity. It’s an elegant irony: The more you allow yourself to be s**t, the better you’ll be.

I can understand the appeal of “Lyrics Or Music”: it seems to provide a clear structure: first one, then the other. But separating the elements can do a great deal of harm to your songwriting, so what kind of structure can we place instead?

Think about a wheat harvest. You’ve got two stages of production (I assume: bear with me, readers, I ain’t no farmer). First, the combine harvester goes around and gathers all the wheat it can. No stalk is left untouched. You get a lot of chaff, but you get a fair bit of wheat as well. Let’s call it the harvest stage.

In the second stage, the farmers go around and pick all the wheat out of the chaff. The chaff gets thrown away, and the wheat gets stored. It’s a slow process, but it’s very deliberate and pre-meditated. Let’s call it the refinement stage.

You can apply the same logic to your songwriting. First, harvest. The sun may only shine on your creativity for half an hour a week, but you’ve got to gather all the material you can from that. Write down the chords, record voice memos of the melodies: do whatever you can to remember them, because this is where the best wheat comes from. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll write a lot of s**t, but this where the second part comes in.

Second, refinement. Take the wheat from the chaff. In between the creativity is where all the good work gets done. I mentioned Bruce Springsteen’s Car analogy in a separate post, but I’ll return to it again: If three cars aren’t working, you take all the parts that work and stick them in a new car, then bolt ’em all up and get it on the road.

If you write 3 terrible songs, I bet you that there’s enough good bits to get one song really revving hard. Thing is: songs are far more malleable than cars. Take a chorus from one and turn it into a bridge. Take a strong lyric and slap it onto a strong melody. You’ll have to tweak the lyrics, but the new combinations of verses and chorus’s will throw up delicious new themes and ideas. You really can’t go wrong.

The car analogy goes further: remember that 10-minute stream of consciousness piece you wrote about your ex-girlfriend? (read: beat-up 1970 Austin Maxi) Strip it for parts and move on. Start thinking of your songbook as a junkyard rather than a showroom. Don’t be afraid to go in there with a sledgehammer.

The Lyrics or Music debate really needs silencing. Don’t waste your creativity noodling away on meaningless melodies, or stressing over stale poetry. Dive upon your instrument of choice and play.

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Filed under Arrangement, Lyrics, Melody, Structure

Aside: The Greatest TV Moment of 2010 – SPOILER ALERT

The Trip (2010) Get it on DVD. Now.

I can unflinchingly say that The Trip is the best thing to appear on telly this year. Ironically, it’s based on a concept that sounds less interesting than Countryfile: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two well-known British comics, go for a six-day trip around the north of England reviewing restaurants. Yep, I know. Sounds like a hoot.

But here’s the catch. Both men play fictionalised versions of themselves. And there’s no pussyfooting around when it comes to character exploration. The series revolves around a coruscating analysis of Coogan’s character; he’s shown to be selfish, fame-obsessed, and pretentious. (Disclaimer: I’m sure he’s lovely in real life) Brydon is portrayed as an everyman: the grounded, sensible face of family-oriented decency, in contrast to Coogan’s idiocy.

It is therefore all the more shocking when Brydon attempts to make out with one of Coogan’s co-workers.

It comes out of the blue. During a rendition of Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’, Brydon playfully leans over the sofa the two are sitting on. He dives in close, but on her flinching back his voice trickles to a halt. I really can’t do it justice: you have to see it, in glorious cringe-worthy technicolour, for yourself.

The most brilliant part is that they keep on chatting: Brydon has attempted to conduct an affair behind his wife’s back, but there is no moral retribution. In any other TV show, he would be punished brutally by some twist in the plot: a potful of scarabs would unexpectedly fall on him, or his wife would be inexplicably watching behind the door. But no. They carry on with their coffee.

The fantastic thing about this moment is just how true it is. Unflinchingly, undeniably true. There’s no false moral message, or any kind of soap-opera justification in his character (Sociopathy, sexual addiction etc). It just tells you the simple fact: sometimes good people do bad things. Deal with it.

Songwriters: this is the ultimate way to avoid cliché. This moment was so good because it was genuinely shocking: the taboo of the sanctity of marriage had been broken, and new moral ground was being explored. The Trip had chiseled out a piece of our collective morality and shown it to be false, with only a camera and a pair of actors.

You can too. And you don’t even need a camera.

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Beyond The Pop-rizon: Folk Structure

Joni Mitchell and Axl Rose’s bony lovechild.

“Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star
And I said, constantly in the darkness?
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”

A Case Of You – Joni Mitchell

It’s the most played song on my iPod: it had to come out at some point or another. Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You is the epitome of songwriting at its best. The beautiful, ambiguous emblem of ‘A Case Of You’, the pure value-per-line of the lyrics, and a performance of arresting sincerity. It’s cracking. At some point I’ll talk about the long-uncredited awesomeness of this song, but for now I want to use it as an example of a classic Folk Structure.

What I mean by a Structure is what people refer to as the Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus formula by which pop songs are (in the vast majority) constructed. It’s the formula by which the song repeats certain melodies and chord sequences.

Each genre has a formula that it swears by. The Folk Structure, instead of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus, goes for Superverse-Superverse-Superverse. Each ‘Superverse’ may contain several different chord patterns and melodies within it, but really follows the same structure and often ends on an emblem; e.g. “I could drink a case of you”.

I’m not expecting any 50’s housewife reactions here, but the distinction is important because it allows the songwriter more lyricism and freedom. This repetition of melody allows you to rigidly structure your lyrics as if they were a poem, and really simplifies the songwriting process.

The Folk Structure also allows for a more natural build-up of instruments, adding them in slowly in each verse. The Pop Structure, by having to quickly ramp it up for each chorus, often forces you to slam everything in at once.

Plus, the three repetitions gives you a beautiful structural arc upon which to build your story. Remember your Year 9 teacher drumming ‘Beginning, Middle, and End?’ into you? She/He wasn’t lying. Three repetitions is just long enough for you to build up a Setting/Conflict/Resolution-type scenario without waffling.

So give it a go. It’s actually a fair whack easier than having to produce separate arrangements for Verses, Choruses, and Middle 8’s. Just make one little progression and repeat it three times. No wonder all those catheter-wielding octogenarian Folkies still cling to it.

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Tangled Up In Metaphor: How to Structure a Theme into Songwriting

Dylan circa 1975, sporting a Leo Sayer barnet.

“She was married when we first met, soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess, but I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night, both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me as I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder, ‘We’ll meet again someday on the avenue’
Tangled up in blue”

Tangled Up In Blue – Bob Dylan

Yes, oh yes, we’re on Bob Dylan again. Broken record, anyone? Yes, I know.

But what a writer. In his epic love story Tangled Up In Blue, which he said took ‘2 years to write and 10 years to live’, the main character travels all across America with the memory of a girl he once knew holed up in his heart. You could write a dissertation on Dylan’s use of pronouns, on the song’s intentionally ambiguous imagery, on Blood On The Tracks’ complete and utter awesomeness; but I want to focus on Dylan’s use of emblem, and why it is useful in songwriting.

At the end of each verse, Dylan refers back to his central image: “Tangled Up In Blue”. On first listening, it’s not quite apparent what he means (Who is this “Blue”? How can one be “Tangled Up” in her?), but as each verse unfolds, the phrase magically acquires new meaning through repetition.

The initially ambiguous phrase “Tangled Up In Blue” now embodies the main character’s longing for his estranged lover. It becomes the emblem of the song, both as a summary of the song’s feeling and as a handy way to refer back to the title.

This idea of emblem is particularly interesting when we consider how Dylan might have written the song. What came first, the emblem or the verses? My (utterly unworthy) guess is that Dylan heard the phrase ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and thought (imagine the voice) ‘Yeah, man, uh… I could use that, man…’ and began to create a song around this central metaphor.

This becomes a highly effective way to structure new songs. Not only is it useful in folk songwriting, but it is absolutely central to pop songwriting. If you can combine a hooky melody with a poetic emblem, then you are half-way towards a hit. Consider Lady Gaga’s (incredible, by the way) singles catalogue. Alejandro, Bad Romance, Just Dance, Telephone: all built around this combination.

Songs built around emblems are far more tightly focused and simply better. The scattergun approach works sometimes: Dylan’s (yes, him again) Subterranean Homesick Blues, for instance. But for those who need a tighter focus in their songwriting, this’ll work wonders for you.

But don’t take my word for it! Have a go! Next time a little phrase comes into your head that gives you a creative jolt, jot it down and build a song around it, and post the lyrics on the comments section. It’ll be fun. 🙂

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Filed under Lyrics, Structure