How to write a memorable song lyric

How do you come up with the perfect words to fit a killer tune? Rob Sharp learns from Don Black, the songwriting master who penned some of the best-loved lyrics of the past 50 years

Lyricist, Songwriters Hall of Fame-inductee and Oscar winner Don Black stands beside the snooker table in his plush Holland Park apartment and presses play on a CD player. The words to "Diamonds Are Forever", for which Black wrote the lyrics in 1971, boom out. Black explains that Brian May recently called him up and asked him to freshen up a few of its lines. May was producing an album for West End star Kerry Ellis and wanted to include the track.

Black says that every time he gets sent some music he plays it this way; he then sits at his desk, strolls across Holland Park or goes to get a cup of tea until inspiration takes hold. Sometimes it takes minutes, other times, days. The words that May wanted Black to change in this case were those that normally arrive mid-song via some typical Shirley Bassey lung-busting: "I don't need love/ for what good will love do me/ diamonds never lied to me/ for when love's gone/ they'll luster on". As Black's technique has gone under the microscope in Sky Arts' Songbook, a TV series looking at how various songsmiths conduct their business, I thought I'd better see how difficult it actually is, and try and write these words myself.

Black describes a few of the rules. The new lyrics have to be the same number of syllables as the original; they must evoke a similarly bittersweet sentiment, and say something similar, without going over identical ground. Black says there's no good way of doing it – you just have to bluster through, away from distractions. I "um" and "ah" for a while before coming up with a few suggestions, but my best efforts amount to: "When love dies/ diamonds will always shine for me" and I can't even think of a final line. It's rubbish. Not only is it incomplete, but it lacks the right number of syllables and doesn't set me up for a proper rhyme. Black's answer, the update he sent back to May, is typically tight, and evocative: "I don't trust love/ fancy words will not sway me/ diamonds never betray me". Sounds simple, doesn't it? Trust me: it isn't.

Black was born Donald Blackstone in London in 1938, the youngest of five children. "I started out in Hackney in a council flat," he says. "When did I get interested [in songwriting]? My sister wanted to go see a film. I said, 'are you going to see They Made Me a Fugitive [he mispronounces the name of the 1947 movie] and she laughed so hard. From then on I got interested in words and what they meant. My family loved songs. It's hard to explain."

In person he is congenial, often smiling to put you at your ease, a manner no doubt polished by collaborations with everyone from Michael Jackson to more recently, Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow. He looks great for his 71 years and he happily shows our photographer his endless notebooks full of jottings. Perhaps understandably, he is vague about his creative process; he comes from a school of thought in which you've either got what it takes or you haven't. "When I write a song I hope many singers will sing it," he says. "Tom Waits and Bob Dylan write for themselves. I'm looking for universal themes, adhering to a few basic rules, like not doing the high note on E. I've learned to find original things to say about the human condition. If you say 'you've lost that loving feeling' it's better than saying 'you don't love me any more'. 'Love changes everything', because it does. 'Tell me on a Sunday'; I think people can relate to that if you're about to break up with someone."

Does he ever get writer's block? "I've never had it," he says. "It may take an extra couple of days to come at it from a different angle, but I never felt I could call it writer's block. If I can't find the right lyric, I'll start again. It's not writer's block – it's the hiccups."

He says his next break was getting a job as an office boy for a music publishing firm on Denmark Street in central London. "It was a magical place to be," he adds. "It was full of musicians. The songwriters of the day. I used to bump into them all the time. I used to think, 'What a great way to make a living'. They used to go to the park and see if they could think of an idea." He says this was followed by stints working as a radio plugger, and some time as a stand-up comic which taught him "never to waste a syllable". He started writing lyrics with Terry Parsons (aka 1960s singer Matt Monro) – penning "Walk Away" in 1964 and "For Mama" the following year – and worked as his manager.

John Barry loved "Walk Away" and asked Black whether he would write the lyrics for the 1965 Bond film Thunderball; it was part of a series of Bond title tracks to which Black contributed the lyrics. With Barry's music, he penned "Diamonds Are Forever" and "The Man With the Golden Gun"; with David Arnold he wrote "Tomorrow Never Dies" and "The World Is Not Enough". Black says that Barry would spend a long time perfecting a song before unveiling it; with Arnold it was a much more collaborative process.

So how do you write a Bond theme? "With Thunderball the first thing I did was look it up in the dictionary," he says. "So I scratched my head and used it as a code word, you know, 'He strikes like thunderball'. The thing I remember most is Tom Jones's recording of the song in which he fainted on the last note. He got a head rush or something. The Bond songs I describe as the lure of the forbidden. It should have the whiff of a boudoir about it."

With Barry he wrote the title song for the 1966 film Born Free; it won the Oscar for Best Song that year. Barry says of Black: "It is Don's gift to put his finger on what he sees. He has been my best lyricist and my best friend and, as for the work, we have done some good things together, some of the best work in both our careers."

The former Hackney boy's stage credits are also impressive: Billy, Bar Mitzvah Boy, as well as Sunset Boulevard. "I love what it says about an older person clinging to a dream," he says of the latter. "Which is heartbreaking. It depends on your attitude whether you gracefully surrender to the years or not. My favourite bit, which is terrifying, is when she is going to Paramount Pictures and she looks around and someone recognises her. And her mind wanders and she is back in the spotlight where she was and she relishes that moment. It's a song called "As If We Never Said Goodbye".

So what's his secret? "One thing I learned from working with Don is that he makes things sound believable," says Arnold. "He creates words that are very singable. It might read poetically, but it is the way they tumble out of the mouth. He has a great love of the shape and meaning of words. He has a great sense of the vernacular. It sounds like you've heard it before, but you never have."

The best of Black: Four great lyrics


I used to say "I" and "me"

Now it's "us", now it's "we"

I used to say "I" and "me"

Now it's "us", now it's "we"

Ben, most people would turn you away

I don't listen to a word they say

They don't see you as I do

Diamonds Are Forever

Diamonds are forever,

They are all I need to please me,

They can stimulate and tease me,

They won't leave in the night,

I've no fear that they might desert me.

Diamonds are forever,

Hold one up and then caress it,

Touch it, stroke it and undress it,

I can see every part,

Nothing hides in the heart to hurt me.

Tell Me on a Sunday

Don't write a letter when you want

to leave.

Don't call me at 3am from

a friend's apartment.

I'd like to choose how I hear the news.

Take me to a park that's covered

with trees.

Tell me on a Sunday please.

Born Free

Born free, as free as the wind blows

As free as the grass grows

Born free to follow your heart

Live free, and beauty surrounds you

The world still astounds you

Each time you look at a star

Stay free, where no walls divide you

You're free as a roaring tide

So there's no need to hide

Born free, and life is worth living

But only worth living

Cause you're born free

Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?