song lyrics

Are you one of those people, like me, who believes that great lyric writing died with the end of  the Beatles? To be honest McCartney had a tendency to come up with your moon, June and croon stuff when penning solo but together with Lennon they came up with some of the most intriguing lyrics and phrases. Who else would have come up with song titles and subjects as unusual and left field as I am the Walrus, Eleanor Rigby, Norwegian Wood, Strawberry Fields Forever, Hard Days Night, Paperback Writer, Yellow Submarine, Taxman, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and many more?

Now I’m not saying they’re all great songs (though some were of course); I just think they tried a bit harder to say something interesting and different. Now this might well be the result of getting older and more curmudgeonly but these days it just seems that songs employ a catchy hook and repeat a simple phrase endlessly. Take, for example, Bad Boys or Poker Face or I Gotta Feeling. All good fun songs but no-one’s going to be doing a thesis on the deeper meaning of the words are they?

Now I was prompted to think about this the other day after listening to radio 4’s The News Quiz. It became apparent that the questions were all going to be related to the wintry weather conditions when, as a kind of musical joke, they introduced each section with the first couple of lines from Dean Martin singing Let it Snow, a song played a lot over the last month or so. Now the thing that struck me about the song, apart from Martin’s effortless style, was the first line –    ‘Oh the weather outside is frightful’.  Can you imagine anyone using the word ‘frightful’ in a popular song these days? But lyricist Sammy Cahn did in 1945 and complemented it with the most beautifully scanned second line – ‘But the fire is so delightful’.  Now that’s how to use lyrics to create an intriguing opening which elegantly anticipates what’s to follow in terms of the statement in the song’s title.

Cahn was a prolific lyricist of course but perhaps the most impressive wordsmith was Cole Porter. These are some of the words from I Get a Kick Out of You. They still sound so contemporary despite being written in the early 10930’s:

I get no kick from Champagne
Mere alchohol doesn’t thrill me at all
so tell me why should it be true,
that I get a kick
out of you?

Some get a kick from cocaine.
I’m sure that if, I took even one sniff
that would bore me terrificly too.
Yet I get a kick out of you.

I get a kick every time I see you standing there before me
I get a kick, though it’s clear to me you obviously don’t
adore me.

I get no kick in a plane.
Flying too high
with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do

Yet I get a kick
Out of you.

Oh I wish I could write as economically as that, and I don’t have to worry about scan and perfect rhymes. Another example? What about the words from Under My Skin. Here are the first and final verses:

I’ve got you under my skin
I’ve got you deep in the heart of me
So deep in my heart, that you’re really a part of me
I’ve got you under my skin
Don’t you know little fool, you never can win
Use your mentality, wake up to reality
But each time I do, just the thought of you
Makes me stop before I begin
‘Cause I’ve got you under my skin

Very atmospheric. Finally the middle verse from You’re the Tops. Some of Porter’s verbal images are just brilliant – it’s almost a history and geography lesson and a love song in one:

You’re the top!
You’re the Coliseum.
You’re the top!
You’re the Louvre Museum.
You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You’re a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare’s sonnet,
You’re Mickey Mouse.
You’re the Nile,
You’re the Tower of Pisa,
You’re the smile on the Mona Lisa
I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I’m the bottom you’re the top!

No, you’re the tops Cole!

To conclude I’ve attached a video of Diana Krall doing a very breathy version of a Cole classic just to show how great the song still sounds today. It might just get under your skin….

If there are any songs and, more especially, lyrics that have stirred if not shaken you please let me know.


8 thoughts on “song lyrics

  1. Hi PP

    I guess this is the bit where I am shown to be a musical philistine, in that I’ve never considered the lyric to be separate from the tune, and in fact very few could stand alone as verse without the emotion of the tune to carry them – even the output of the basin cut boys from Bootle (who I have to say I was never a fan of…. I know blasphemy an all that, but they just don’t blow my frock up)

    As an example of my rationale, here are the lyrics to one of the most powerful & soulful songs of my youth, which kind of meet your criteria for delicate but precise crafting;

    You drink your coffee and I sip my tea
    And we’re sitting here playing so cool, thinking “What will be, will be”
    But it’s getting kind of late now
    Oh I wonder if you’ll stay now, stay now, stay now, stay now
    Or will you just politely say goodnight?

    I move a little closer to you, not knowing quite what to do
    And I’m feeling all fingers and thumbs, I spill my tea, oh silly me!
    But it’s getting kind of late now
    I wonder if you’ll stay now, stay now, stay now, stay now
    Or will you just politely say goodnight?

    And then we touch much too much
    This moment has been waiting for a long long time
    Makes me shiver, it makes me quiver
    This moment I am so unsure
    This moment I have waited for
    Was it something you’ve been waiting for, waiting for too?

    Take off your ice, bare your soul
    Gather me to you and make me whole
    Tell me your secrets, sing me the song
    Sing it to me in the silent dawn
    But it’s getting kind of late now
    I wonder if you’ll stay now, stay now, stay now, stay now
    Or will you just politely say goodnight?

    Now, those of you of a particular vintage will have spotted it as Hazel O’Connors Will You (co-written by Derek Magoogan), probably after the first line – however, it is nothing in its written form compared to how it is set with a searing saxaphone accompaniment.

    See an old TOTP video here

    For me I just can’t seperate the two elements.

    So, even the most banal lyric can become something potent as long as there is the power within the combination of tune and words to carry it.

    Having said all that, I do think that modern songwriting has become over reliant on the technology of sound rather than the eloquence of composition, and that allows a career for the likes of the Cheeky Girls (sorry to malign your fantasies there PP!), Any manufactured boy/girl band and most rap chaps!

    …….. light blue touch paper, and stand well back!



  2. Hi PP

    Sorry, just had a thought about the last comment…. I forgot to mention the brilliance of the Beautiful South, and Paul Heaton. Now there was a songwriter for the generation.

    Look up the likes of, Perfect Ten, Woman in the Wall or the uncensored Don’t Marry Her for an example of their finest.

    Pip pip


  3. Hi CC

    Insightful and thought-provoking as ever CC. I get what you’re saying and in most songs it’s the combination of the music and the lyrics which makes for a classic eg Stairway TH, Bohemian R, Good Vibrations, My Way etc.

    Hazel’s song is very powerful (though I would never have spotted it without the music – perhaps proving your point) but I tend to think the sax backing is the dominating force in the song. It’s just so haunting as you say. It’s almost like (though not quite as striking as the contrast in) Baker St – who can remember any of lyrics after the first line?

    V much agree about Beautiful South/Housemartins/Paul H – great lyricist. Pencil Case is almost Beatlesque in its oddness of subject. Also share your view that the Beatles weren’t always great. So much of their oddball approach also produced pap like Obla di obla da, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Octopus’ Garden. I much preferred the raw earthiness of the overall package from the Stones but lyrically Jagger wasn’t a patch on Lennon.

    I think i’m just intrigued by a clever phrase and provocative use of words and a 3 minute song is probably the toughest place to be a writer.


    ps I shalln’t have a word said against the Cheeky Girls who attended one of our great hospitality events at the BT Tower during the 2012 Bid (along with their dad). Another story….

  4. Hi Paul,
    Agree with you on the statement that the old ones were the best ones and Cahn, Porter and perhaps Sondheim for West Side Story takes some beating for great lyrics. I’ve always liked Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s songs and lyrics. It’s just that winning formula of a catchy tune complimented by perfect and often simple lyrics. Here’s lyrics for I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. Great song, and the lyrics just simply sums up the cynicism felt when a crappy relationship goes wrong yet includes some pathos in the chance that the perfect person may be just around the corner …

    What do you get when you fall in love?
    A guy with a pin to burst your bubble
    That’s what you get for all your trouble.
    I’ll never fall in love again.
    I’ll never fall in love again.

    What do you get when you kiss a guy?
    You get enough germs to catch pneumonia.
    After you do, he’ll never phone you.
    I’ll never fall in love again.
    I’ll never fall in love again.

    Don’t tell me what is all about,
    ‘Cause I’ve been there and I’m glad I’m out,
    Out of those chains, those chains that bind you
    That is why I’m here to remind you

    What do you get when you fall in love?
    You get enough tears to fill an ocean
    That’s what you get for your devotion.
    I’ll never fall in love again.
    I’ll never fall in love again.

    What do you get when you fall in love?
    You only get lies and pain and sorrow.
    So, for at least until tomorrow,
    I’ll never fall in love again!
    I’ll never fall in love again!

  5. Ray Davies as a British lyricist is up there with the best in my opinion.

    I met her in a club down in old Soho
    Where you drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry-cola [LP version:
    C-O-L-A cola
    She walked up to me and she asked me to dance
    I asked her her name and in a DARK BROWN voice she said Lola
    L-O-L-A Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola

    Well I’m not the world’s most physical guy
    But when she squeezed me tight she nearly broke my spine
    Oh my Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola
    Well I’m not dumb but I can’t understand
    Why she walked like a woman and talked like a man
    Oh my Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola

    Well we drank champagne and danced all night
    Under electric candlelight
    She picked me up and sat me on her knee
    And said little boy won’t you come home with me
    Well I’m not the world’s most passionate guy
    But when I looked in her eyes well I almost fell for my Lola
    Lo-lo-lo-lo Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola
    Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola

    I pushed her away
    I walked to the door
    I fell to the floor
    I got down on my knees
    Well I looked at her and she at me

    Well that’s the way that I want it to stay
    And I’ll always want it to be that way for my Lola
    Lo-lo-lo-lo Lola
    Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
    It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola
    Lo-lo-lo-lo Lola

    Well I’d left home just a week before
    And I’d never ever kissed a woman before
    But Lola smiled and took me by the hand
    And said little boy I’m gonna make you a man

    Well I’m not the world’s most masculine man
    But I know what I am and IN BED I’m a man
    And so is Lola
    Lo-lo-lo-lo Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola
    Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola

  6. Yep v good shout there Robelee. Really like that song and it never, ever seems to date. That said I find that Ray Davies has become a little too into himself in recent years; living off his reputation rather than recent success. But any guy who wrote that classic Kinks stuff gets into my Hall of Fame.


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