I’ve been listening to The Icicle Works again lately – Ian McNab’s epic bombast suits my mood, especially here under the grey dome of a typical late spring bank holiday.
Their breakout single “Love Is A Wonderful Colour” is wonderful, widescreen bellow-along stuff, but the opening line almost knocks you out of the spell the band are trying to create.
“My friend and I were talking one evening, beside some burning wood…”
That, I guess, would be a bonfire. I’d listened to the song for years, but only recently glommed on to how clumsy that opening line is. Now, of course, it’s all I can hear. Great.
This fumbled attempt at mystery and atmosphere, while at the same time trying to keep the metre and rhyme of the song in check can lead to some unexpectedly hilarious or outright bizarre lyrical choices. Take, for example, one of my favourites, Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak”. Phil Lynott asserts:
“Tonight there’s going to be a jailbreak, somewhere in this town…”
I’d start with the jail.
Comedian Russell Howard pointed this one out, and I have to hold back from yelling “try the jail!” whenever I hear the song. The song also contains a prime example of Lynott’s way with the ladies:
“Searchlight on my trail
Tonight’s the night all systems fail
Hey you, good lookin’ female
You can’t resist, can you? This is the man who allegedly coined the come-on line “Got any Irish in you? Would you like some?” You have to at least admire the swagger and testosterone in the couplet above, and the wink in it is almost visible.
Sometimes, all you need is one syllable to make a line scan, and the temptation is to jam one in and damn the consequences. That’s all that I can think was going through Paul McCartney’s mind when he wrote the opening verse of “Live And Let Die”. It starts off with a philosophical flourish:
“When you were young, and your heart was an open book, you used to say live and let live…”
All good so far. But then we get a sentence that doesn’t seem to know when to finish.
“But in this everchanging world in which we live in…”
CLANG. Brakes on. A binful of prepositions, and all of a sudden Sir Paul is tripping over his own feet. Makes me give in and cry.
Readership, you all know of my love and admiration for R.E.M. but even the saintly Michael Stipe gets it wrong every so often. Famously, the band’s first album Murmur was titled after Michael’s less than clear vocal delivery. Sometimes, it might be better if he mumbled a bit more. The lovely Leaving New York contains the line
“…leaving was never my proud…”
which I would dearly love someone to explain to me. It doesn’t even rhyme properly with the next line of the chorus. In a song that has a strong personal meaning for TLC and I, that line sticks out like a gangrenous thumb.
Of course, the king of rotten lyrics is Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran. He seems to be quite happy to sling together any old word salad as long as it matches the tune. My personal favourite is from “Wild Boys”, where our Simon loses the plot and the ability to string a sentence together all at once:
“You got sirens for a welcome
There’s bloodstain for your pain
And your telephone been ringing while
You’re dancing in the rain
Wild boys wonder where is glory
Where is all you angels
Now the figureheads have fell
And lovers war with arrows over secrets they could tell…”
There’s plenty more where that came from. Although I’d disagree with the school of thought that claims the line “You’re about as easy as a nuclear war” is one of the worst ever. It has the right level of over-the-top silliness that suits the Dran in their heyday.
We could go on and on, but I don’t want to turn this into a simple “crap lyrics” post. It’s the lines that almost work that are the most fun. Besides which quoting out of context does every songwriter here a disservice. There is one that always makes me smile, though, and I want to conclude with Sade. I am happy to say she taught me something about American geography when she sang:
“Coast to coast, LA to Chicago…”
The Windy City is, as any fule with access to Google Maps no, 800 miles inland. I guess “LA to New Jersey” didn’t have the glamourous cosmopolitan ring Sade was after.