‘A notion at which we had but guessed.’ So said the poet Paul Muldoon recently, publicising Paul McCartney’s forthcoming book The Lyrics, an autobiograpy-through-the-songs based on conversations between the ex-Beatle and Muldoon. The notion in question was the one that ‘McCartney is a major literary figure who draws upon, and extends, the long tradition of poetry in English’. You can tell from the fact that ‘we had but guessed’ at it that Muldoon is an Important Poet.
Fair enough, if it’s Macca’s own thoughts about his life as seen through his lyrics, with recollections of how he wrote them and what he was doing at the time, then it’s going to be good. Lots of stories, fascinating memories (we assume). But it’s what everyone else will have to say – starting with Muldoon himself – that’s worrying me. Analysing music too closely always leads to trouble.
Lyrics, shorn of the notes that go with them, are just words. You’re always influenced by having heard the song, so you invest the words with emotions and power they don’t necessarily have on their own. And even when they are great words, put together in inventive ways which can (yes) qualify them as poetry, writing lengthy essays about them puts you in grave danger of sounding like Fry and Laurie’s comedy critics. ‘I thought the sketch worked on two levels.’ ‘Only two?’ ‘Ah, yes, you’re right, I’m being simplistic. I thought it worked on nine levels.’ ‘I thought I spotted twelve.’
Bob Dylan knows. His songs have had the backside analysed out of them for half a century now, with not just PhD theses but entire academic careers devoted to the real meaning of the third verse of Subterranean Homesick Blues. For all I know Princeton University may well have established a Chair of Dylanology by now. Yet you get the feeling that Dylan himself is laughing up his sleeve at the misguided, over-inflated pseudishness of it all. Certainly he was in 1966, when he told one interviewer: ‘I do know what my songs are about.’ ‘And what’s that?’ asked the journalist. ‘Oh,’ replied Dylan, ‘some are about four minutes, some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.’
I must be the only Beatles fan in the world who doesn’t worship Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald’s book giving the history of, and judgements on, every one of the band’s songs. People seem to love it, but I found it tedious and up-itself. A typical entry is the one on We Can Work It Out: ‘The song unburdens itself with vivid urgency … Lennon’s middle eight – one of his cleverest – shifts focus from McCartney’s concrete reality to a philosophical perspective … This was probably meant to suggest tiresome struggle, but doubles as an ironic image of the karmic roundabout of heedless egoism.’ If you say so, Ian. For my money, the most interesting fact about We Can Work It Out is that Macca sang it during a voicemail message he left Heather Mills during the early stages of their break-up.
I’m not saying that pop lyrics can never be the starting points for interesting discussions, or indeed interesting articles and books. Of course they can. But more often than not the writers of those articles and books get carried away, attributing all sorts of ‘deeper’ meanings to words and phrases that were usually chosen simply because they fitted the rhyme scheme, or had the right number of syllables. The same goes for a lot of poetry criticism. The added danger with pop journalism is that it’s impossible to capture the beauty of a chord in print. As John Peel put it, the trouble with any record review is that essentially it’s taking ‘I liked this’ or ‘I didn’t like this’ and expanding it to a thousand words.
Then there’s the issue of reflected glory. I once tried to cheat some emotion into a novel I was writing by setting one scene to Purple Rain by Prince. The main character was listening to the song as he realised that he was in love with a particular girl. Needless to say I listened to Purple Rain as I was writing the scene, with the result that I thought it (the scene) far better than it actually was. I was so moved by the song (of course I was – it’s Purple Rain) that I stupidly assumed readers would be equally moved when they read the novel. Of course they wouldn’t – it was up to my words to achieve that, and I was too lazy to put in the work. Forget the fact that when the novel got bought by a publisher, and Prince wanted £900 for us to use a few lines of the lyrics, I had to rewrite the scene. It was a stupid thing to do in the first place.
In the end, writing about music means setting yourself up for a fall. At least some of those falls are amusing. Steve Wright’s radio show used to feature a comedy character called the Pretentious Music Journalist, who was always droning on about ‘sonic cathedrals of sound’. Someone should have played that to Stephen Davis, author of the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods. In discussing Immigrant Song from Led Zeppelin III, Davis writes: ‘Robert’s wails became war cries; his moans were the north wind wailing through ruined Mercian monasteries’.