I was talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss. Actually I wasn’t. Because I don’t even know what that means. Good ole Frank Black/Black Francis – his Pixies work showed off several fascinations with UFOs and drugs and it’s great music. But a lot of the lyrics don’t stand up to scrutiny. Lyrics do not have to if the music is good. Within reason. But for everyone raving about this or that person being a true rock’n’roll poet I am often just as happy hearing Little Richard’s growl of awopbopaloobopalopbamboom! And that doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of understanding. But it means something when you’re listening to it.
What is the best song you can think of – a classic or just a good song by a well known artist – that has utterly ridiculous lyrics? Not necessarily complete nonsense (though they could be) it might just be that one line barks like a dog. Look no further than the title of this post and think of Stairway To Heaven; Robert Plant loved to, erm, ramble on with his token Tolkien-isms and wannabe mystic rubbish. And certainly Ramble On is a classic example. But there’s that bit in Stairway where all logic goes out the window: if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow don’t be alarmed now it’s just a spring clean for the May Queen
People might now try to say that Stairway is a crap song – they’re wrong, it’s just overplayed – but regardless of whether you think the song is still great, or not something you need to hear again, that line about spring cleaning and hedgerows bustling is absurd. If you need clarification by the way you could try some of Urban Dictionary’s meanings.
Of course it’s all subjective and sometimes a line that means nothing to you – is neither clever nor offensive – could stick out like dogs’ balls to someone else. I had a flatmate who hated – with a passion – the one bit in The Verve Pipe’s song Freshmen where he said “guilt stricken sobbing”. That bit was repeated. And my flatmate hated it. Every time. I just preferred to hate the whole song, that particular line never bothered me. It was more the song in general. Why like a song about date-raping in packs, I figure?
Sting is a clever enough songwriter when he’s on form, but a fairly terrible lyricist at the best of times. The Police lyrics have very little to say ever, which is fine, that’s no big deal, when you had Andy Summers’ guitar talking and Stewart Copeland’s drum trickery and Sting’s voice and basslines, the music was doing enough without the songs needing to say anything. But the all-time low for many people, even ardent Police fans, is generally De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da; a song that tries to poke fun at having nothing to say.
Songwriters will often work around sounds, literally singing nonsense to create a melody and then replacing the nonsense with real words. Sometimes they forget to replace the nonsense. The very first Captain Beefheart song I ever heard was Abba Zabba. I was about 12 years old and it blew my mind. What was this guy on about? However many years on and all of his albums later I still can’t answer that – but the sound of Abba Zabba both celebrated and transcended the absurd words.
I Zimbra by Talking Heads has always felt like a spiritual partner to Captain Beefheart’s aforementioned track for me. Not sure why. I guess I heard them both around a similar time and could feel the presence of African musical ideas – different within each song – in both tracks. And essentially nonsense lyrics.
All of these songs I’ve mentioned are good songs – successful songs. I may not like them all but can’t deny that they were made, released and did something for the artist.
But anyway, I’m interested in songs that you like, that you still think are great, even if they have some absurd lyrics – either gibberish/foreign as with some of the examples above, or more downright weird – as with Frank Black’s example I started with. Or Bruce Springsteen’s unofficial Dylan-parody, Blinded By The Light, which is more about the actual sound and style of words being spat out than it is about any meaning.
Of course sometimes language actually is the barrier in deciphering the nonsense. I was thinking again, just recently, of the song apparently called “Ken Lee”. Who knew?
I’ll leave you with Slim Galliard’s Serenade To A Poodle. Love that guy, nifty wee song. Ridiculous lyrics.