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They don't write 'em like Hal David did any more

The death of the great lyricist highlights how far pop has come from the 'story in a song', says David Hepworth
  • @davidhepworth

"LA is a great big freeway/put a hundred down and buy a car/in a week, maybe two, they'll make you a star/ weeks turn into months/ how quick they pass/and all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas." (At which point your sub-conscious supplies "Boom boom boom".)

In writing that lyric to Do You Know the Way to San Jose?, Hal David, who died on Saturday aged 91, managed the rare trick of encapsulating the eternal truth about showbusiness within a line as light as a souffle, which balanced so perfectly on Burt Bacharach's tune that, like all the great lyrics, it seems to sing itself into eternity.

He and Bacharach met in the Brill Building in New York, the song factory which the music publishers divided into hutches just big enough to accommodate a piano and two guys in braces and armbands hell-bent on impressing each other and coming up with a hit. The Brill Building was where they knocked out songs for the shows and they set great store by lyrics that moved the plot along. In those days songs had to make sense as well as cents, even when David was pushing things far enough to rhyme "pneumonia" and "phone ya" in I'll Never fall In Love Again, and "make-up" and "wake up" in I Say A Little Prayer.

Not all songwriting duos divide up their duties in the way that Bacharach and David did. Lennon and McCartney didn't write much together, although they performed the invaluable service of editing each other's excesses. Elton John and Bernie Taupin have never been together in the same room when they write and their records always begin with the words. Nowadays there can be six people listed as writers on a hit record.

Since the advent of the singer-songwriter in the 1970s the audience has been prepared to overlook the lyrics that it doesn't understand on the grounds that the song is supposed to be a message from the deepest recesses of the artist's soul rather than something that says something to us about our life, in the words of Morrissey. The latter is a classic case of the contemporary lyricist in that he knows that a modern audience will settle for a slogan rather than a story.

Songs that have three verses, a developed plot and a moral are few and far between and don't often trouble the charts these days. Kirsty MacColl's England 2 Colombia 0, which was all about a woman who discovers she's being lied to while watching a World Cup game in a pub in Belsize Park, is a favourite of mine, but was never going to be obvious enough for the radio. People like Tom Waits write great words, lots of rappers make great sounds with words, but in fact the last refuge of the song with a story is country music.

Country audiences alone still insist that songs say something. Kenny Chesney recently put out a record for Father's Day called While He Still Knows Who I Am. You don't even have to hear that to guess how it goes.

Walk On By, Always Something There To Remind Me, What's New Pussycat? and other great Hal David lyrics were internalised as a result of endless repetition. We've heard them so much they're inside us now in the way that hymns might have been for our forebears. Most of the people who could sing his songs in the shower don't realise that they already know the best poem about going home a failure. It's called Do You Know The Way To San Jose? and we all know it by heart, which is really the only way.

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