David Lister: Do lyrics really matter

The Week in Arts: A chorus of dissent, but do lyrics really matter?
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Alex Turner of the rock band Arctic Monkeys is acknowledged as one of the great lyricists of the age. The award-winning poet Simon Armitage recently hailed him as a fellow poet, whose words repay repeated study. Yet, few of Turner's biggest fans will ever have seen his lyrics, let alone studied them.

This week we were reminded of a glaringly obvious but actually rarely mentioned fact that has come with the revolution in how we listen to music. Downloads for the iPod do not come with lyrics.

The reminder came from an odd source and for an odd reason. The National Year of Reading campaign questioned 4,000 people to gauge the importance of lyrics, and found that 90 per cent felt reading the words helped them to gain a full appreciation of the music. But 50 per cent said that lyrics were less accessible now than five years ago. It's not just downloads to blame. CDs are also less likely to carry words than they used to be.

It gets worse. Even when you go to websites storing lyrics, these are often unreliable and incorrect. As many as 75 per cent of 18-25 year-olds found this to be the case. Honor Wilson-Fletcher, director of the National Year of Reading, is calling for lyrics to be available at the point of purchase, digitally as well as on CD covers. She says: "What most surprised us in this survey was how it goes across the generations. It didn't matter if you were 16 or 65; the emotional importance of lyrics was completely consistent."

The perverse advantage of just hearing a lyric and not seeing it is that you can often mis-hear it. I believed for years and years that Jimi Hendrix was an early campaigner for gay rights as he had sung in Purple Haze the line: "Scuse me while I kiss this guy." It was a shock to learn eventually that the words were "Scuse me while I kiss the sky." The American actor Peter Fonda was turned on to drugs in the Sixties after hearing a Beatles' track with the line "I get high". He was a good two years into recreational drug-taking before John Lennon informed him that he had actually sung "I can't hide."

Possibly, somewhere, there is a cloth-eared Arctic Monkeys fan singing "Albert, you look good on the dance floor." But probably not. Diction must have improved as there seems less scope these days for mis-hearing lyrics.

The joys of mis-hearing aside, I'm not sure that the National Year of Reading campaign is right in calling for all song lyrics to be available at the point of purchase. The trouble is that song lyrics can be a real disappointment. For every Alex Turner there are 50 Noel Gallaghers. Popular rock music, good rock music, even great rock music can often be accompanied by bog-standard lyrics. And seeing them on the printed page or on the computer screen can be a let-down. Even good and imaginative lyrics can lose their lustre when divorced from the music. And the repetition of chorus lines, necessary in many a great piece of music, can look daft in print.

The National Year of Reading should find other printed matter for their campaign. Old-fashioned as they are, there's always books. As for song lyrics, they don't need to be written down. Let's stick to the tried and tested habit of rock fans. We learn the lyrics of our heroes by playing the songs over and over again until they are imprinted on the brain, then casually show off to friends by dropping lines into the conversation. Never fails. OK, it doesn't do much for reading skills, but it does wonders for the street cred.

Martha's left leg...

Pete Townshend rotated his arm, windmill style, while playing the guitar. Chuck Berry had the duck walk. Leonard Cohen on his recent tour raised his hat after each song. But there hasn't really been a female musician with a trademark gesture that could enter rock mythology – until now. Watching the excellent Martha Wainwright performing at the Womad festival last weekend, I was fascinated by the way she continually lifted her left leg while singing and playing guitar.

This was no mere kick of the heels. Martha raised her entire leg from the knee, way up past her hip, narrowly and excitingly missing her guitar by millimetres on each occasion. I haven't seen any singer of either sex do this before. I'm not quite sure what the raising of the left leg signified, or whether it was deliberate or involuntary. But with Martha decked out in short skirt and high heels, it certainly proved a most diverting gesture in an already diverting set. She should patent it forthwith.

* The former Arts Council chief executive Peter Hewitt was given a "pay-off" of £128,000 when he left the Arts Council earlier this year. The figure has come to light in council accounts. Mr Hewitt was not made redundant. He did not resign. He had simply come to the end of his contract. The payment makes no sense, and is, frankly, outrageous. To add insult to taxpayers' injury, the payment was made at a time when the council under Mr Hewitt was cutting the grants of arts organisations.

The "pay-off" has been condemned by the Conservative arts spokesman, but we have heard nothing from the Culture Secretary Andy Burnham. Mr Burnham previously worked closely with the current Arts Council chief executive Alan Davey, when they were both in different jobs at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I hope their friendship will not deter Mr Burnham from speaking out on a matter which has angered the arts world.