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Heaven knows I’m miserable now over our so-called great lyricists

By Robert McNeil

Published 12/11/2009

Morrissey is the greatest lyricist in the history of British popular music, according to a top academic.

Dr Gavin Hopps even compares the big M to literary figures such as leading tedium explorer Samuel Beckett and notable bald person in a Hull library, Philip Larkin.

Having a pop “album” in the house — 20 Greatest Hits To Do The Ironing By (Reader's Digest Psychedelia Series) — I feel qualified, perhaps over-qualified, to address this subject. I’ve also seen Mr Morrissey on television. He’s a gangly fellow with a flower dangling from the pocket of his jeans. Personally, had I met him in the flesh, I'd have been tempted to summon a constable immediately. But I had to admit he was new and different. Clearly, too, he was suffering from angst, which we all like to see in another person.

Here are some Morrissey lyrics: “I was looking for a job/and then I found a job/and heaven knows I'm miserable now”; “I have just discovered — some girls are bigger than others”. These are excellent, the former explaining the unhappiness caused by employment, the latter conjuring up pleasing images of mammarial wobbling.

Pop lyrics don’t often qualify as literature. The worst ever were these: “People are people/So why should it be/You and I should get along/So awfully?” It’s arguably the case that people are people, but you cannot make “be” rhyme with “awfully”. Not on my watch.

The song was by Depeche Mode — French for “outside lavatory” — and, for a period in my life, I couldn’t get to sleep without calming myself with the thought of these untutored berks languishing in some ancient jail, their hands and feet manacled as gimlet-eyed rats wandered hither and yon amidst the dripping dampness.

I was in a friend's car recently and he put some music on. “Who is that?” I said, as my ears bled. “Rage Against the Machine,” he said.

“Well, they certainly sound jolly irritated about something,” I said.

“You should listen to the lyrics,” he said.

“I can't hear them for all the noise,” I said.

So he ululated: “To escape from the pain and an existence mundane/I gotta 9, a sign, a set and now I gotta name.”

“I see,” I said. I could only guess the 9 was something rude, the sign involved drugs (always a fair bet where young people are involved; see also 9), and the set referred to dentures. But I couldn't let “existence mundane” pass without comment. “Who wrote that, ruddy Yoda?” I inquired.

As with the aforementioned Mode, these inelegant word-manglers felt obliged to rhyme, as childishly they dabbled in poesy. At one time in our short and smelly lives, we all believed poetry and rhyme went together like rosemary and thyme.

But, eventually, most of us outgrow that herb-based nincompoopery and come to believe it more important that poetry be euphonious, that it has rhythm and that it scans, ken what I mean, like, eh?

My own favourite pop lyric is from the traditional standard, Barnacle Bill the Sailor. My researchers tell me that, as with much pop, the lyrics cloak references to rudeness, though I cannot see it myself. Here's a sample: “It's me and my crew and we've come for a screw!” I've always taken this to mean they were doing repairs to their ship, perhaps some DIY to the mainbrace.

Accordingly, the words might have benefited from elucidation: “It's me and my crew and we've come for a screw! We’ve tried Homebase and now B&Q.” Strictly speaking, it should say “and now we’re at B&Q” but, that way, it wouldn’t scan, d’you see?

Belfast Telegraph

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