Writing good lyrics is really hard. Yesterday and Scrambled Eggs. Talking Heads and cleaning. Bad lyrics are what killed Progressive Rock. Phonemes, Siberian Khatru and abstraction. Love Beach is a terrible lyric. But What A Wonderful World is a great lyric. Obituaries.
JCHYes and that means words. Lyrics. And there is almost nothing I seem to hate worse in life than lyrics.
JCHYes. OK, I’m going to swing the camera around for a second. Notice anything?
RCWhat am I supposed to notice?
JCHI’m a bachelor pushing sixty. That should be your first clue. How does the place look?
JCHTOO clean. The place is fucking immaculate. That should tell you something.
RCTell me what?
JCHThat I’m engaging in almost constant task avoidance. When I’m cleaning? That means I’m doing ‘busy work’ to avoid doing some actually important shit that I don’t wanna be doing.
RCI’m thinking of that Talking Heads song. “I’m cleaning. Cleaning my brain.”
JCHNow that’s a great lyric! Sadly, housecleaning never triggers decent lyrics. It’s simply procrastination.
JCHAnd that, coupled with non-stop fucking headaches AND it’s official, this is like the rainiest, darkest Spring in Seattle history.
JCHReally. So it’s DARK. By this time of year, we usually are past the chronic gray. But not this year, noooooooo. So I’m doing something I totally hate. In the fucking DARK. And you can say ‘whine, whine, whine’?
RCWhine whine whine.
JCHSure. I knew you could. (Mr. Rogers voice.) But that’s just the deal for zeeee artiste. And recently I finally decided to stop feeling guilty about it. I’m not wired like you. If I was wired like you, I’d be an account manager like you. But I’m not an account manager like you. So I need SUN. And I need these fuckin’ headaches to go away. And I need these LYRICS to work! Grrrrrr. Hulk. Smash!
RCDoes that help the creative process?
JCHNo more so than whining. But ya gotta try something and when whining doesn’t do the trick I try to change it up. Some guys exercise. Some jerk off. Some take walks. Whatever. Like I always say. Rule #1 of composing: Ya gotta keep trying something different. Because you can’t escape. It’s not like a term paper where you can bullshit your way through. Because the thing is? Bad lyrics are worse than no lyrics.
JCHOh yeah. If you want my opinion, bad lyrics are what destroyed progressive rock. Not Punk. Not Disco. Not excess. Just bad lyrics.
JCHWell think about the lyrical content of all ‘prog’ bands after about 1975. It shifts dramatically to more mundane shite. Phil Collins’ love songs. Jon Anderson’s whales. Gentle Giant’s junk about their failure to achieve commercial success.
JCHIndeed. That’s what killed the genre: crap lyrics.
RCThat never occurred to me before, but I suppose you’re right. When we deride songs from a particular era, we always make fun of the lyrics.
JCHEXACTLY! People will say that the arrangements were cliche or the clothes naff or whatever but the words do have a staying power. And every song I’ve done that has been a failure has been a failure of lyric writing. I got impatient and just put out a song with crappy lyrics. And what I wonder sometimes is: if I go back and redo those clunkers, can I get away with changing the words and still call it the same song.
RCIntriguing. OK, but now you have to give some examples.
JCHI’m. Not. Telling. But hey, we all know, right? (laughs) It’s not like fans haven’t shared that with me a few hundred times.
JCHOh sure. After a few drinks, they’ll just talk, matter-of-factly, about how they liked album ‘X’ except for those two songs ‘Y’ and ‘Z’. And they just assume I know the ones they mean… and that, of course, I agree with them. Like it’s gravity.
RCAn unseen law that everyone knows.
JCHBut to be fair? They’re usually right. I do agree with them ninety five percent of the time.
RCLet’s hear it for gravity!
JCHIndeed. Ya know, I’m hitting this so hard because, as an instrumentalist, I used to click my tongue at lyric writers. But not any more. A guy who writes a great lyric deserves all the gold and blow jobs he can get.
RCIt’s funny you say that because before we started talking today I am not sure I would have guessed that the average person cared much about lyrics at all.
JCHI know it seems that way, especially now with all the emphasis on ‘dance’, but again, lyrics have to be right. They may not seem like they’re making a big difference to any song, but if they aren’t perfect for that song? It’s all over. The fact is that we tend to be dismissive because so many songs are so trite. But even a trite song, hell maybe especially a trite song needs the lyric to be spot on.
RCOK, assuming you’re not doing ‘trite’, how do you get there?
JCHIt can go two ways. The first way, if God is smiling on me, is that I get a nice idea for a lyric and then I build the music around that. That is the easy way to write a song. The texture of the syllables guides you to create the melody and rhythm.
JCHThen there’s the hard way. I come up with a fantastic melody or rhythmic idea. This is the Lennon and McCartney deal of ‘Scrambled Eggs’.
RCWhere Paul came up with the melody and just sang nonsense words like ‘Scrambled Eggs’ to fit it. He then later went to John and they bashed out the words to ‘Yesterday’.
JCHCorrect. And unfortunately, I don’t have John Lennon hanging around next door to borrow a cup of sugar and sing ‘Scrambled Eggs’ to.
RCDarn. So what to do?
JCHWhat I used to do was (cough) “wait for inspiration”. And wait. And wait. And then finally I’d hit myself in the balls with a hammer to see if I was still alive. Now I do something only slightly more pleasant.
JCHI write down some words, any words, that fit the theme of the song; ie. the sentiment I’m trying to get across or maybe I’ll throw in some words where the phonemes fit the rhythms and melody.
JCHYeah, the sound of the syllables. Like “Ma” and “Puh” and “Low” and so on. Jon Anderson was a big fan of that. One reason early Yes music was so gibberishy was that he focused not on ‘meaning’ but just that the sound of the words, ie. the phonemes matched the melodies. Think about how the words to Siberian Khatru fit the texture of the song. I have no idea what it means, right? It’s just painting with words. But it works. And I would argue that his lyrics got worse over time as he started caring about ‘meaning’ (laughs). I know that sounds a bit silly, but he was better off when he kept it abstract. Anyhoo, it’s very important that the lyrics feel good in the mouth. A bad lyric sounds forced. It sounds like you’re forcing words to fit where they don’t belong. And it’s better to have a lyric that doesn’t make as much ‘sense’ but sounds good.
JCHSo anyhoo, I write down some stuff and then I start singing; doing run throughs. And this is the painful part.
JCHYeah. Because the task then is to listen over and over to all the crappy lyrics until it jogs something in the mind which tells you what the better lyric is.
JCHYou have to hear the wrong thing; you have to have something REALLY BAD to listen to in order to learn what something really good is.
RCHow very Yin Yang.
JCHIsn’t it, though? But I’ve found that without suffering through HOURS of listening to absolute crap nothing good ever happens for me.
RCOK, you won’t tell me some of your bad lyrics. So let’s close by giving me at least one that you still like?
RCThat is a great lyric. I was listening to that the other day. In the part where the friend kills himself he says, “Guess he didn’t think he’d be retrained”. That was twenty years ahead of its time, my friend. Twenty years.
JCHThe more things change. By the way, ya know how you’re always trying to limit these rants to 800 words?
JCHI heard an article on the radio about how the New York Times sets that as the length for an obituary. Any connection?
RCNothing conscious. And anyways, you know I don’t read those Yankee rags.