Sunday, 30 January 2011

Musical Memories

Today Peter Ross, writing in the Scotland on Sunday, asks 'why do some songs move us in mysterious ways?'

The reason for his article was to promote a series of events beginning in Edinburgh and Glasgow next month, by Let's Get Lyrical, celebrating song lyrics.  Members of the public are being invited to discuss their own favourite lyrics online at and by filling in cards distributed in various libraries, cafes, shops and arts venues around the cities. I do find the parochial attitude of the organisers quite distressing because they're ignoring a much more varied part of Scottish opinion.  It's not lost on us who live outwith the central belt that we are so often ignored because the central belt homes the majority of Scotland's population. It has a very defined culture which isn't necessarily appreciated by those outside of that niche.

My contribution will be via the online facility but choosing is difficult, because for me it's usually the combination of the lyrics and music which make a song memorable.  Having to decide upon lyrics alone is like choosing a sandwich filling without a favourite bread.  With so many styles of music, I've opted for modern/pop.

Tim Rice must rate as one of the best British lyricists in my lifetime.  Not only does he produce quality lyrics but he produces them in amazing quantities.  Combine his words with the music of Andrew Lloyd Weber and there's little can beat the results. Of course the Beatles also made a sensational contribution towards modern music but their lyrics were seldom greater than their musical compositions - although many may contradict me. Bernie Taupin - Elton John's lyricist - also deserves a place in my top ten.

Further afield, Abba also produced lyrics and music to suit any mood for many young people in the 70s and 80s and their lyrics always mattered more than the music, which was often similar in composition and rhythm.  Bob Dylan's Blowing in the Wind, Dorothy Field's Big Spender and Johnny Mercer's Moon River rate high on my list.

Selecting one lyricist is complicated particularly when so much quality music was produced in the 60s and 70s, but without spending days digging into my own musical experiences, I've selected Memory from Cats., written by Trevor Nunn and adapted from a poem by the cat lover TS Elliot entitled Rhapsody on Windy Night. Now, that to me is the essence of outstanding lyrics.

The real question is can lyrics stand alone? I think not although some may argue poetry can. But poets aren't lyricists are they? Without Trevor Nunn's intervention TS Elliot's poem would have slipped into history.

So that's my choice.  Would I play it at my funeral?  I don't think so but that's another subject altogether.


WitteringsfromWitney said...

Besides the music and the lyrics, SR a singer can 'make' a song with their voice and their 'understanding' of the music and the feeling they put into the lyrics.

Examples are Shirley Bassey in Never, Never, Never and Neil Diamond in The Story of My Life.

Nice, different, post anyway, SR. Well done!

subrosa said...

WfW, the post was about lyrics we like and you've said it - it's very difficult to consider lyrics without the accompanying music.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

Sorry SR, dutifully chastened and tail in the prescribed place, I am now back in my box!

John said...

My daughter's name is Caroline so the Neil Diamond version comes high. It is the memories that music/vocals evokes that leads me to my choices. At college we sang Ave Maria as the last every term and the first on coming back - that turns my backbone to jelly. Almost anything with a military attachment does it as well especially pipes and drums. The Last Post causes my eyes to run quite copiously.

Dioclese said...

The most prolific British songwriter is not as one might suspect the likes of Elton John or Paul McCartney (who I think is a terrible lyricist), but is in fact Ray Davies late of the Kinks. As the old saying goes, not a lot of people know that.

Listen to Phantom of the Opera and you would have to include - er - Richard Stilgoe!

Personally I quite like Neil Innes, late of Bonzos and Rutles. Unfortunately his lyrics are far superior to his tunes.

On the other hand, my stuff is pretty good, but then that would reveal telling you who I realy am!

RMcGeddon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Woodsy42 said...

"because the central belt homes the majority of Scotland's population. It has a very defined culture"

To hark back to a previous post, and remembering our autumn drive from Crewe to Dornoch and back, they are blessed with traffic jams - the rest of you are denied them. Is that it?

Re Lyrics, I find the music is more important in setting the mood, otherwise instrumentals, and most of the classical oeuvre would be superfluous.

subrosa said...

Oh WfW, I'm laughing. It wasn't my intention to put you in a box, believe me.

subrosa said...

Quite a variety there John. From a musical aspect the Last Post does that for me too.

subrosa said...

Dioclese I was tempted to mention Neil Innes because I agree, he's an excellent lyricist.

How about publishing just one of your songs Dioclese. With a copyright beside it of course.

subrosa said...

Part of it Woodsy. ;)

Yes, although this website only wants lyrics to be discussed, it is very difficult to disassociate them from a particular melody.

Doug Daniel said...

There are some excellent lyricists whose words are just as powerful on paper as they are when sung. The most obvious examples for me are the late, great Joe Strummer from The Clash (particularly their last two albums, Sandinista! and Combat Rock), the late, great Ian Curtis from Joy Division, and Richey Edwards, formerly of the Manic Street Preachers (and possibly life, but that is still unknown). The latter's lyrics on their 3rd album, The Holy Bible, are particularly stunning examples of the written word, and all three men were capable of producing lyrics that read more like poetry. I spent many a night in my late teens reading the lyrics of these men in my bed.

Of course, we mustn't forget Scotland's greatest lyricist, the man who wrote great poetry, but whose most famous words are arguably those he wrote for songs: Robert Burns!

subrosa said...

Great choices there Doug.

Lyricists would argue that they are not poets. I can understand why because lyricists have a defined stanza to produce. Burns was able to be be both.

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