Now that's what I call music...
A great lyric can bewitch, baffle or break your heart. Ahead of the Ivor Novello Awards, songwriters reveal the lyricists who have inspired them
Wednesday 16 May 2012
"Amelia" by Joni Mitchell
There is no one greater than Joni in the female singer-songwriter world. I love so many of her songs, where her poetic words perfectly match the tension and release of her music, but "Amelia" is particularly special:
"I was driving across the burning
desert/ When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapour trails
across the bleak terrain/It was the
hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia it was just a false alarm."
There are very few lyricists whose work translates directly as poetry, and Dylan qualifies. I get lost in his stories, and his words transport you to wherever he chooses.
Alison Clarkson (Betty Boo)
"Tears of a Clown", lyrics by Smokey Robinson
An amazing lyricist, once described by Bob Dylan as "America's greatest living poet".
"Graceland" by Paul Simon
Some of my favorite lyrics are from the song "Graceland" by Paul Simon:
"She comes back to tell me she's
gone/as if I didn't know that,
as if I didn't know my own bed.
As if I'd never noticed the way she
brushed her hair from her
Oh dear god, the heartbreak. I well up with tears every time.
"Born Free" by Don Black
I keep thinking about "Born Free" – how the simplest line about the meaning of freedom:
"As free as the wind blows,
as free as the grass grows"
can tell you be everything you need to know in two lines. Don Black knows how people speak and what they hear and how they hear it. That's why his lyrics, while deceptively simple, can reduce a complex idea and make it sound like anyone could have said it.
I love snatches of songs like: "This world was never meant for/ one as beautiful as you" by Don McLean; "Someday when I'm awfully low/ I will feel a glow just thinking of you/and the way you look tonight" by Dorothy Fields and "I was never crazy on my own" by Mike Batt.
As far as lyricists are concerned, in no particular order: Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin, Dorothy Fields, Tim Rice, Jake Thackray, Oscar Brown Jr, Herbert Kretzmer, Tom Waits, Oscar Hammerstein. I could say to each and every one of them what Bruce Forsyth says every week: "You're my favourite."
Timothy McKenzie (Labrinth)
As for lyricists, I'd say Pharoahe Monch, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Drake. I really like the lyrics to the song "John, I'm Only Dancing" by David Bowie . It's about a guy dancing with someone else's girl, saying "don't worry, I'm only dancing" – but really he has other plans. I think the lyrics to Coldplay's "Fix You" are beautiful too:
"Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you"
Martin Fry (ABC)
"Land" by Patti Smith
One of my favourite lyrics is "Land" by the incomparable Patti Smith. It's a song from Horses that I'm still trying to decode all these years on. It's a movie that jump cuts through hallucination after hallucination. Poetry that you can dance to. Not too many people pull that off. She manages to channel Arthur Rimbaud and James Brown and William Burroughs all at the same time.
Peter Liddle (Dry the River)
"A Thousand Kisses Deep" by Leonard Cohen
I think Leonard Cohen is my favourite lyricist. The words are effortless – moving and poignant with just the right level of ambiguity. Melancholy, but full of wry humour and wit.
Rhythmically too, I never feel as though a phrase is shoehorned into a song, he has this wonderfully natural way of writing as though he were talking.
The first example that jumps to mind is "A Thousand Kisses Deep" – the lyrics are different on various recordings, sometimes sung and sometimes recited in spoken word:
"And I'm still working with the
wine, /Still dancing, cheek to
cheek./The band is playing Auld
Lang Syne /The heart will not
retreat./And maybe I had miles to
drive,/And promises to keep.
You ditch it all to stay alive,
A thousand kisses deep.
And now you are the Angel Death,
And now the Paraclete.
And now you are
the Saviour's Breath,
And now the Belsen heap.
And turning from
the threat of love,
No transcendental leap –
As witnessed here in time,
A thousand kisses deep."
"The Thrill of it all" by Roxy Music
I like that it's philosophical in a pop-streetwise way, and has a sense of exhilaration that matches the music, which is very important:
"If you're feeling fraught with
mental strain,/ too much
thinking's got you down again,/
keep cool to the thrill of it all."
I couldn't say who my favourite lyricists are because I've worked with a few and if I leave someone out I'd be sure to get into trouble. Kirsty MacColl was great; Lou Reed.
Steve Sparrow (Morning Parade)
"Flowers and Football Tops" by Glasvegas
This changes weekly depending on who I'm listening to, I have a lot of favourites. One that springs to mind is "Flowers and Football Tops"; James Allan's lyrics really connect with me, in a way sometimes that I think he's inside my head. I'm also into Guy Garvey's lyrics; he has a great turn of phrase and wonderful imagery in his songs.
Adam Anderson (Hurts)
"Oh Mother, I can feel the soil
falling over my head/ and as I
climb into an empty bed,/ oh well,
enough said. I know it's over" is a Morrissey lyric I always liked.
"I'd love to wear a rainbow every
day/ and tell the world that
everything is okay/ but I'll try to
carry off a little darkness on my
back,/ until things are brighter
I'm the Man in Black" by Johnny Cash is another we like.
The further back you go in time the purer the lyrical messages become. I like the uncomplicated directness of many of the lyrics in Phil Spector songs, in Elvis songs etc.
A great lyric can also be so because it is so entwined with the music or the identity of the singer.
Who's to say "I'm a teen distortion,/ survived abortion,/ a rebel from the waist down" by Marilyn Manson isn't profound or poetic?
It's all about whether the words in a song provoke an emotion.
Sir Tim Rice
There are many, but one of my favourite lyrics is from Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues". I really love the words:
"Well I called my congressman and
he said quote:/ 'I'd like to help you
son, but you're too young to vote.'"
Another favourite lyric originates from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's My Fair Lady.
"Ev'ry time we looked around
there he was, that hairy hound
from Budapest/never leaving us
alone/never have I ever known
a ruder pest."
And finally, another favourite that comes to mind is "Love Potion No 9" – there are some fantastic lyrics in there:
"I told her that I was a flop
I've been this way since 1956,
she looked at my palm, and
she made a magic sign,
she said, what you need is
Love Potion No 9."
I hate to leave out fantastic records, but I'm sure all the great writers and lyricists would forgive me for saying Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind". It's a brilliant song – the lyrics have such depth and mean so much to so many people.
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