Jarvis On Song: Saying The Unsayable
Brighton Dome, Friday 23 May 2008

Jarvis delivered a specially commissioned lecture to 1,800 people on the role of lyrics in popular music as part of the Brighton Festival. The two and a quarter hour lecture was built around a set of propositions and questions which he used PowerPoint slides and You Tube video clips to explore. As you'd expect from Jarvis, the lecture was well researched, informative, humourous and exceptionally well received. Sadly it appears to have been a truly one-off event so captured below are Jarvis' key thoughts along with the video clips he showed on the night. These notes aren't 100% accurate in every respect and are in no way exhaustive. In fact, it'd be impossible for them to do the lecture justice. But hopefully they provide a flavour for those unable to be there on the night.

1. Introduction

Jarvis arrived on stage brandishing a long cane and wearing his now customary suit and tie. He told the audience that what they were about to hear represented nothing more than his own subjective opinions... but that he was always right! Using his cane to periodically point towards the projector screen, he kicked off by showing a 1966 clip of The Kingsmen playing 'Louie Louie'. He asked the audience to listen to the lyrics.

Louie Louie: The Kingsmen

The first thing you'll notice about the song is that the lyrics are very hard - if not impossible to decipher. And yet they were subject to a 31 month-long investigation by the FBI following complaints they were obscene. Here's a letter taken from the FBI's files which was received from a concerned parent. It reads:

"Who do you turn to when your teenage daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the teenage market in every City, Village and Record shop in this nation? My daughter brought home a record of "LOUIE LOUIE" and I, after reading that the record had been banned from being played on the air because it was obscene, proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I can-not enclose them in this letter. I would like to see these people, The "artists", the Record company and the promoters prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation what with this record, the biggest hit movies and the sex and violence exploited on T.V."

So what was the fuss all about? We'll hear the song again only this time we'll project the 'obscene' lyrics which some people heard in the song. See what you think:

"Louie Louie, oh grab her way down low
Louie Louie, oh grab her way down low

A fine little girl, she waits for me (0.17 in the You Tube clip)
She gets her kicks on top of me
Each night I take her out all alone
She ain't the girl I lay at home

Each night at ten I lay her again (0:49 in the You Tube clip)
I fuck my girl all kinds of ways
And on that chair I lay her there
I felt my boner in her hair

If she's got a rag on I'll move above (1:54 in the You Tube clip)
It won't be long she'll slip it off
I'll take her in my arms again
Tell her I'd rather lay her again"

So were they obscene? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows? My core argument is that lyrics don't really matter - they're an optional extra, much like a sunroof or a patio. But when music and lyrics work together they're better than the sum of parts. But that's not all there is to it. Here's the 1971 promo video from David Bowie's Heroes which'll illustrate my basic equation:

Music +

Lyrics +

Performance =


Heroes: David Bowie

If you were to read the lyrics to Heroes, you wouldn't really be bothered either way about all that dolphins and kings stuff. You know, you could take it or leave it. But when you see a performance like that, you're alongside him swimming with the dolphins. It's great: it's like he's trying to sing the throat out of his body. That's where the performance part of the equation comes in.

I suppose the first lyric really to blow me away was 'If You Could Read My Mind' by Gordon Lightfoot in 1970. I'd have been just six years' old. As a child you understand lyrics literally, so that was very exciting. My first attempt at lyric writing happened a little while later in 1978. I wrote a song called 'Shakespeare Rock'. Do you want to hear me play it? [An emphatic 'yes' from the audience as Jarvis picked up an acoustic guitar. The lyrics went something like this:]

"Got a baby only one thing wrong
She quotes Shakespeare all day long

Said baby why you ignoring me?
She said "To be or not to be"

Shakespeare Rock, Shakespeare Roll
Shakespeare Rock, Shakespeare Roll

Said Shakespeare makes me sick
She said "Alas, poor Yoric"

Shakespeare Rock, Shakespeare Roll
Shakespeare Rock, Shakespeare Roll

Got a baby only one thing wrong
She quotes Shakespeare all day long

Said baby why you ignoring me?
She said "To be or not to be"

Aah. They don't make 'em like that anymore! Some people say that Oasis are guilty or writing lyrics which don't make sense, but I think that 'Cigarettes And Alcohol' is pretty much spot-on lyrically. When I got together with some people to do a review of 1994 for the NME, I got into a bit of a discussion with Noel Gallagher. He said that The Beatles 'I Am The Walrus' proved that you could write any old rubbish lyrically and get away with it. Here's the video clip for those who are unfamiliar:

I Am The Walrus: The Beatles

I told Noel I disagreed with him. Walrus is as much about Lennon's refusal to play the game and fit in with mainstream society at a time when he was taking lots of LSD. While Walrus feels like a lyrical outburst, it's very carefully crafted. The lyrics even rhyme, but in a very subtle way: the rhymes are inside the lines, not at the end. For example:

"I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
See how they run like pigs from a gun see how they fly."

This brings us on to our next question.

2. Should Songs Rhyme?

In my view, yes they should. But sadly this leads to some real crimes. I want to introduce you to the concept of a 'rhyme whore'. A rhyme whore is someone will do anything for a rhyme. A great example of this is Des'ree's 'Life'. It was recently voted as the worst ever pop lyric by listeners of BBC 6 Music.

Life: Des'ree

In the song she rhymes 'ghost', 'most' and 'toast':

"I don't want to see a ghost
It's a sight that I fear most
I'd rather have a piece of toast"

She's tried so hard to make the song rhyme, but 'toast' is a step too far. Another example is 'That Was Then But This Is Now' by ABC which features the line:

"Can't complain, mustn't grumble
Help yourself to another peace of apple crumble"

Now take a look at these lyrics for 'Abattoir Blues' by Nick Cave:

"I went to bed last night and my moral code got jammed
I woke up this morning with a Frappucino in my hand"

So why is Nick Cave's Frappucino different to Des'ree's piece of toast and ABC's apple crumble? Well firstly, he's not using the Frappucino to rhyme with another word. Secondly, he's not positioned the word at the end of the line where - like Des'ree's toast - it would have most prominence. He's another interesting Nick Cave lyric from 'The Lyre of Orpheus':

"Eurydice appeared brindled in blood
And she said to Orpheus
If you play that fucking thing down here
I'll stick it up your orifice"

I really like this because 'brindled' is quite a florid word. He could've just said 'covered'. So it starts off quite high-brow and then along comes the word 'fucking' which takes us to the gutter. And with the word 'orifice' - even though it doesn't quite rhyme with 'Orpheus' it sounds similar enough - it takes us from the mythological to the scatalogical in a matter of seconds.

Now let's look at a lyric from Sham 69's 'Everybody's Wrong Everybody's Right'. Do you remember that TV programme 'A Question of Sport'? If you do, you'll remember that there was a round called 'What Happens Next?'. I'm going to show you the incomplete lyric and you can guess what comes next:

"Everybody's wrong everybody's right
I get up in the morning and I go..."

[The audience shouted out various suggestions, the best of which was "...for a shite"]

Actually it's "to bed at night"!

What we've learnt from all this is that the trouble with rhyming the last word of each line is that these words have the most prominence and they simply can't cope with the pressure. You're left in a permanent state of suspension waiting to get to the end of each line to see how it rhymes.

3. Are lyrics poetry?

Leonard Cohen wrote a lot of poetry and is known both for that and for his songwriting. Here's a clip of him from a TV performance doing his best to trash his own lyrics [Jarvis faded out the clip at 1:54 saying that he'd spare us the saxophone solo...]:

Memories: Leonard Cohen

I prefer to see lyrics presented as prose - as a single block of text - rather than as poetry. This is how they appear in Pulp's albums:

When lyrics are presented like this they're far more neutral and unimposing. Another feature of Pulp's albums is the message: "N.B. Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings." If you read them whilst listening to the recordings you're extracting the lyrics from their natural habitat - when you read words from a page it's different to listening to them as part of a song. When you're listening to a song, the lyrics are subservient to the rhyme. Whereas if you read them off a page they have a natural rhythm. Here's an example: I recently recorded a demo of a new song called 'Girls Like It Too', but before I play a clip of it to you I want you to read the lyrics... [the lyrics were projected on the screen for the audience to read. Interestingly, their format was closer to poetry than prose!]

... Now you've read the lyrics you can hear the song and you'll almost certainly hear the lyrics differently. [Jarvis then played the audio clip of a reasonably accomplished yet simple demo of the song]

Incidentally, someone wrote on my MySpace page asking why I didn't want Nick Banks to read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings. I had to explain that I wasn't making an anti-drummer point!

So to answer the question 'Are lyrics poetry?', I think lyrics are different to poetry because poetry is standalone whereas lyrics are part of something else: the song. If you look at the examples of where Leonard Cohen translated his poems into song you can see an obvious difference. [Using the example of 'I Left A Woman Standing', he reproduced the poem on the left hand side of the screen alongside the lyrics to the accompanying song on the right hand side.] You can see that the song lyrics are both longer and have far more repetition than the poem. This is because the lyrics have to fit the verse>chorus>verse song structure. Songs can therefore tolerate more repetition. [Jarvis then proceeded to illustrate the point about repetition with a brilliant solo acoustic rendition of Babies.]

But just because lyrics and poetry are different doesn't mean to say that songs can't have a poetic quality. A great example of this is Dory Previn's 'Lady With The Braid'. The lyrics and the music perfectly complement each other in this song - as it progresses the lyrics become more melancholic and the music changes to match the lyrics.

But music doesn't have to match the lyrics. Scott Walker songs like 'Montague Terrace' and 'Plastic Palace People' have cinematic widescreen backgrounds but with everyday lyrics. [Jarvis couldn't find the promo video for 'Plastic Palace People' so instead showed a film he made while at art college in 1988 which uses the song as its soundtrack]. I first heard 'Plastic Palace People' on a compilation tape a friend had made for me. I listened to it while I was lying in bed with the flu. From that day my musical landscape expanded massively.

4. Inappropriate Subject Matter

As a teenager I felt cheated that life wasn't all chocolate boxes and roses, as it was often romanticised in songs. But not all music was like that. Here's a clip of Lee Hazlewood doing his best to dampen the spirit on the Rolf Harris Show in 1971:

Cold Hard Times: Lee Hazlewood

Taking that theme further, there were some subjects that were so taboo that you wouldn't have ever expected them to be dealt with in a pop record. Here's Lou Reid singing 'Heroin'. It was pretty brave for him to sing about something that wasn't supposed to exist or be talked about:

"Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a centre in my head
And then I'm better off than dead

Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don't care anymore
About all the jim-jims in this town
And all the politicians making crazy sounds
And everybody putting everybody else down
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds"

Heroin: Velvet Underground

Another example is 'Emma' by Hot Chocolate which tells the story of a suicide. It's strange to think that they followed this up with 'You Sexy Thing' the following year.

"And every day Emma would go out searching for that play
That never, ever came her way
You know sometimes she'd come home, so depressed
I'd hear her crying in the back room, feel so distressed"

Emma: Hot Chocolate

[Not sure how this next bit fits within Inappropriate Subject Matter...] I went to see The Fall with a friend and we had different opinions about Mark E. Smith. She said it sounded as if he was just mumbling random words over loud music. I quite enjoyed it - I think there's a logic at work if you can penetrate it.

Wings: The Fall

5. Is the art of lyric writing dead?

No! I think lyrics are now more important than ever because so many riffs have been discovered. If we go back to 'Louie Louie', just imagine how exciting it would have been to come up with that simple yet catchy riff. It's been copied time after time ever since. This brings us to what I call 'Consumer Music'. This sort of music pinches its influences from all places and seems to be everywhere. There's this hotel in Paris that even has its own soundtrack playing through the hotel. Those guests who want to take the hotel experience home with them can even buy a CD of it. You can also buy their authentic pasta sauce that they use in the restaurant. But even though so many riffs have already been discovered, you can still innovate in what you write about. And that's why I think rap music is still in a rude state of health.

I really like the new album by the Arctic Monkeys guy [The Age Of The Understatement]. On one of the songs ['Separate And Ever Deadly'], he's somehow managed to rhyme secateurs, and I really like that:

"Save me from the secateurs
I'll pretend I didn't hear"
There are also those artists who make words up. Here's an Amy Winehouse lyric:
"What kind of fuckery is this?"

What kind of fuckery is this? I don't know what kind of fuckery it is, but I like it!

Pete Doherty plays with his words in 'You Talk' by Babyshambles. He sings the lyric "You talk, you talk a good game" which later on in the song becomes "Utah, remember Utah in the rain". They don't rhyme, but the way he sings the lyric 'you talk' makes it easily become 'Utah' in a later verse. Pete gets a lot of stuff written about him in the press, but any guy who writes the lyric "Look out for the man who will bum your wife and then shake your hand" ['Baddies Boogie'] is alright by me!

MGMT are another band who've written really good lyrics, such as in their song 'Time To Pretend'. When you read the lyrics at the start you think it's going to be one of those rock 'n' roll live-fast 'n' die-young types of song:

"I'm feeling rough, I'm feeling raw, I'm in the prime of my life
Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives
I'll move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars
You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars"

But then later on the lyrics change, and you realise they have a certain maturity because they reflect an awareness of the myth of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle:

"I'll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms
I'll miss the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world
I'll miss my sister, miss my father, miss my dog and my home
Yeah, I'll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone"

It's similar to that Eminem song 'Stan'. Rather than getting all freaked out by the obsessive fan who's stalking him he writes the song from the fan's viewpoint. I really like the song, but I refuse to play it 'cause it features a vocal from Dido!

Most recently, I think Rihanna's 'Take A Bow' is excellent. It's everything a song should be: it's clever, touching and sarcastic. The video's not too good, but have a listen anyway:

Take A Bow: Rihanna

But it's not all good. Consider James Blunt. I know that attacking him may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but I'm going to do it anyway. Let's look at the lyrics for 'You're Beautiful'.

"My life is brilliant."

Hmmm. It doesn't really get off to the best start does it? Anyway, let's carry on...

"My love is pure. I saw an angel. Of that I'm sure
She smiled at me on the subway. She was with another man
But I won't lose no sleep on that, cause I've got a plan"

Okay, that sounds pretty interesting. It makes you wonder what the plan is and how he's going to get the woman. So you naturally want to keep listening...

"You're beautiful. You're beautiful. You're beautiful, it's true
I saw you face in a crowded place, and I don't know what to do, cause I'll never be with you"

Oh? But he just told us he had a plan - now he's telling us he'll never see her again.

"Yeah, she caught my eye, as we walked on by. She could see from my face that I was flying high
And I don't think that I'll see her again, but we shared a moment that will last till the end"

Okay, there's still no sign of the plan. I'm starting to worry about all this...

"You're beautiful. You're beautiful. You're beautiful, it's true
I saw you face in a crowded place, and I don't know what to do, cause I'll never be with you"

A bit of repetition there. And he's leaving it a bit late to tell us about his plan...

"You're beautiful. You're beautiful. You're beautiful, it's true.
There must be an angel with a smile on her face when she thought up that I should be with you
But it's time to face the truth, I will never be with you"

Can you believe it? There was no plan. It was a LIE!

6. The Art of the Punchline

To illustrate the art of the punchline, Jarvis performed Leonard Cohen's 'Tonight Will Be Fine':
"Sometimes I find I get to thinking of the past
We swore to each other then that our love would surely last
You kept right on loving, I went on a fast
Now I am too thin and your love is too vast

But I know from your eyes and I know from your smile
That tonight will be fine, will be fine, will be fine, will be fine
For a while

I choose the rooms that I live in with care
The windows are small and the walls almost bare
There's only one bed and there's only one prayer
I listen all night for your step on the stair

But I know from your eyes and I know from your smile
That tonight will be fine, will be fine, will be fine, will be fine
For a while

Oh sometimes I see her undressing for me
She's the soft naked lady love meant her to be
And she's moving her body so brave and so free
If I've got to remember that's a fine memory

And I know from her eyes and I know from her smile
That tonight will be fine, will be fine, will be fine, will be fine
For a while"
I really like the way he adds "for a while" at the end. I thought about a punchline for a track on my own album:
"Well did you hear, there's a natural order
Those most deserving will end up with the most
That the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top
Well I say: shit floats"
['Cunts Are Still Running The World']

Who can guess what the most frequent word used in pop lyrics is? 'La'? 'Baby'? No, but that's a good guess. It's 'Me'. I think that's a good thing because I think lyrics should be personal - they should say something about you or an experience you've had. And that's the key to the magic of all this, because by sharing a part of yourself with someone else, the 'Me' becomes 'We' and the personal becomes the universal. [Using an intentionally cheesy PowerPoint trick, the letter 'M' rotated 180 degrees to become a 'W'.]

Jarvis concluded his lecture with a quote from Alan Watts:

"The task and delight of poetry is to say what cannot be said, to eff the ineffable, and to unscrew the inscrutable."

7. Question & Answer

Q1. Do music videos enhance or detract from the lyrics?
That depends on the singer. I hate literal videos. If it's abstract then you can get away with putting whatever you want in it. I'm not sure whether artists bother with videos as much as they used to because they cost so much to make. In any case I don't get to see that many videos these days 'cause I've not been able to get my cable TV sorted out!

Q2. What comes first: music or the lyric?
I think it depends on the person. My modus operandi is to leave it 'till the night before, panic and then drink. In the last few years I've started to write ideas for the lyrics beforehand. But I've never written a song where I had the lyric first. Chris Thomas - one of Pulp's producers - told me how Elton John would do it. He'd fax his lyrics over in advance and when he got into the studio he'd put them on the piano and read the lyrics while making up the music. Sometimes when you're not trying too hard a phrase will come into your head which it wouldn't have done otherwise.

Q3. How autobiographical are your lyrics? For example, have you ever hidden in a wardrobe?
I did once hide in a wardrobe when my mum took me and my sister on holiday to Mallorca. My sister and I had a separate room to my Mum. It was the first time I came across a walk-in wardrobe. I said to my sister that it was so big you could sleep in it. So we decided to remove all the sheets from the beds and sleep in the wardrobe. After a while my sister got a bit uncomfortable and decided to take her sheets back to the proper bed and sleep there, leaving me in the wardrobe. Before my Mum went to bed she popped her head around the door to check that we were okay. She was shocked to see that there was only one child! Rather than worrying my sister she went to tell the hotel staff who started a manhunt for me. This went on for about two hours. When things got really bad my Mum woke my sister up to tell her what was happening. My sister woke up and told her: "oh, he's in the wardrobe"! For the rest of the holiday I got strange looks from the hotel staff who thought I was some weird English boy who slept in wardrobes. That's probably what gave me the idea but the sexual shenanigans in the song ['Babies'] are made up. I think a song has to be based on something in real life. My girlfriends would sometimes come to our concerts and recognise specific events I mentioned in the songs. But they'd think the rest of the song was real too. In 'Common People' the Greek girl really existed but she never wanted to have sex with me. That bit I made up! It's like an iceberg: the top part is based on real life and the rest of it sitting underneath isn't.

Q4. Thinking about the impact that Bob Dylan had on the civil rights movement, do you think that artists can have the same cultural, social and political impact nowadays?
I've wondered that too. If you compare Iraq with Vietnam, the protest songs just haven't seized the public's imagination, whereas music used to be at the forefront of protest. Is it because people aren't drafted these days? We watch the conflict on TV rather than think there's a chance we might have to get involved. I think it was Michael Moore who wrote in Rolling Stone that to be into music in those days was in itself protesting against the status quo. It's not like that anymore.

Q5. What one song do you think was covered by another artist who totally nailed it, making the other versions irrelevant?
That's difficult. Unfortunately all I've got in the front of my mind is Whitney Houston, which is not appropriate! When William Shatner covered 'Common People' it was a bittersweet experience. As a kid, it would have been beyond my wildest dreams to imagine that Dr. Spock would one day cover one of my songs. People haven't really covered Pulp songs. I don't know why - maybe it's because the lyrics are personal. Or maybe because they think the songs are rubbish! To answer the question, I'd go for Jimi Hendrix's cover of 'All Along The Watchtower'.

Q6. How do you feel about artists who get so far above themselves that they dispense advice to their fans?
Songs have to be personal. By the way, I don't really know if 'Me' is the most frequent pop lyric as I said earlier! Although they should be personal the ego part is the dark side of that. It can lead to people thinking they know everything. Phil Collins' 'Another Day In Paradise' was all about him being a superstar but also caring about people who live on the streets. It's all a bit fake - I bet he doesn't give a toss about homelessness.

Q7. Where were you when that photo [projected behind Jarvis and pictured right] was taken and what was the photographer saying to you?
It was a building in Paris that had something to do with foreign affairs. It couldn't have been in a very salubrious area because of the grilles up against the windows. The idea was that because it was a solo album, we'd pick places where no-one else would be in the picture.

What were you thinking at the time and what were you looking at?
I can't remember what the photographer was saying or what I was thinking. Probably it was pure vanity: 'will my head look good if I hold it in this way? Am I holding in my stomach enough?'

Is that the same jacket you're wearing now?
No... I've retired that jacket and the belt buckle but those trousers are still going strong!

Q8. What's your philosophy on splitting publishing royalties between band members?
That's an interesting question because the established practice in publishing is that the words and music are each given 50%. I thought that was daft - the words couldn't exist without the music to go with them. 50:50 just isn't fair. Pulp decided to split all the money evenly.

And with that, Jarvis waved us goodbye. He thanked the crowd saying that he'd enjoyed the evening despite being nervous beforehand since he'd never delivered a lecture before. Yet if tonight was anything to go by, he'd be crazy not to put his hand to it again.

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