Paperback writers and rock’n’roll poets

Rock and pop lyrics had their heyday in the wake of the Beatles, but the best songwriters have left

In the four and a bit decades since rock lyrics began to be printed on album sleeves - latterly in CD booklets - great claims have been made
for them. Christopher Ricks has taken his obsession with Bob Dylan into the lecture hall.

A S Byatt once declared that "Eleanor Rigby" had "the minimalist perfection of a Beckett story". In April, critics were falling over themselves to applaud the analysis of literary allusions from Syd Barrett's album The Madcap Laughs in Rob Chapman's compendious biography, A Very Irregular Head. Colonised over the years by troubadours, poets manqués and disaffected teenagers drawn by Morrissey's claim that "There's more to life than books, you know,/But not much more", the rock lyric has turned, almost by stealth, into a hybrid literary genre quite unlike anything else.

But what sort of genre? And fulfilling what function? If great claims have been made for lyrics since the days of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, they have not been made regularly, if only because of the defiantly cartoonish nature of 95 per cent of the material on offer, particularly at the heavy-metal end of the market ("Keep your hand on my lever/Watch it whilst I stab your beaver", as Gillan enjoined back in 1979). As in most highly stylised art forms, parodic self-awareness is never far away. When Dr Feelgood produced the memorable quatrain "Looking for a good time, hotel queen/Took her up to your room; the boys go green/She asks you for a hand with the zip on her dress/And you say 'Oui babe' 'cos that's French for yes", they were not, one suspects, being wholly serious but sending up the ancient tradition of the "fag-packet vocal", scribbled down five minutes before entering the recording studio.

How seriously should rock lyrics be taken? The answer, perhaps, is as seriously as the people writing them want them to be. Some rock artists have taken the trouble to have their lyrics reproduced in book form, among them Lou Reed, Paul Weller and Howard Devoto, or, like Damon Albarn, supplied versions of them to poetry anthologies. This might seem to confirm the commonly held belief that rock lyrics are only a bastardised form of poetry. Several rock bands have collaborated with poets: Peter Sinfield wrote lyrics for King Crimson; the 1970s prog outfit Renaissance collaborated with the Cornish poet Betty Thatcher.

Against this is the performer's habit of setting his own demarcation lines and deciding that what works in one medium won't necessarily transfer to another unrevised. The version of the Blur song "Essex Dogs" that Albarn offered to Michael Horovitz's POW! Anthology (". . . on the plains of cement/The English army grind their teeth/In terminal pubs") differs from the CD inlay, and the difference, arguably, is that Albarn has been at pains to render it more conventionally "poetic".

All this gestures at one of the great conflicts of the rock form: with a self-advertised wordsmith - a Morrissey, an Elvis Costello, an Ian Dury - at the helm, too many words, and of too abstruse a kind, can dull the impact of the guitar, bass and drums thumping on in the background. It was Devoto who remarked, on leaving the Buzzcocks in 1977, that he was using eight words when sometimes one was too many. Even diehard fans of the Shins' James Mercer, much given to gnomic lines about "eloquent young pilgrims passing", sometimes suggest that the songs are simply too wordy and, as such, insufficiently harmonised with a notably terse accompaniment. Some of the most effective lyrics, it might be argued, work in counterpoint to the instrumentation or actively exploit it to illustrate their imagery. For example, Weller's account of a late-night mugging in the Jam's "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight", in which the unsparing detail ("I first felt a fist, and then a kick") is punctuated by Bruce Foxton's three-note bass.

Inevitably, nearly all of this - lyrical preoccupations, interplay between voice and backing, the assumption that the words are important in themselves - takes us back to the single most important influence on modern pop: the Beatles. In the context of their time, the fag end of an era when "moon" usually rhymed with "June" and the railroad ran through the middle of the house, Lennon and McCartney were startlingly innovative. They were probably the first British rock composers to introduce idiom into their songs ("She was just seventeen/You know what I mean", from "I Saw Her Standing There") or deal in third-person reportage ("She Loves You"). And, in "I Am the Walrus", Lennon produced arguably the greatest lyrical achievement of the period - a song that, as Ian MacDonald demonstrates in Revolution in the Head: the Beatles' Records and the 1960s, is less a ragbag of literary allusions and Lear-like surrealism than a sustained, countercultural critique of mid-century English life and, by implication, Lennon himself.

On the other hand, it is 43 years now since Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play. The Beatles operated in an unprecedented hothouse period in British life, one where the avant-garde infiltrated the mainstream to the point where songs such as "Revolution 9" - free-form cut-ups and tape loops - could appear on a number-one album. Four decades on, with the form splintered into a dozen or more contending genres, the position of the rock lyricist is a great deal less comfortable, a great deal more liable to be constrained by rock music itself.

Though regularly elevated to (and presumably gratified by) "cult status", the best contemporary lyricists - Devoto, the Fall's Mark E Smith, Cathal Coughlan, late of Microdisney and the Fatima Mansions - deal in very different subject matters by way of very different styles. Smith, for example, specialises in loudly orchestrated harangues or, with the volume reduced, immensely pointed meditations, as in the Great War landscapes of "Gross Chapel - GB Grenadiers". Devoto's early work, audible on the first Magazine album Real Life, wouldn't look out of place in a seminar conducted by J L Austin: quasi-philosophical statements to the effect that "What is legal is just what's real" ("Shot by Both Sides") or, as in the wonderful "Definitive Gaze", tongue-in-cheek asides on the nature of perception:

So this is real life
You're telling me
And everything
Is where it ought to be.

Coughlan's current output, which is more folk-inflected than the aural assault of such Fatima Mansions classics as "Blues for Ceausescu" ("Go to England, baby-raper, false economist/Call yourself King Charles III/No one will notice, no one will be alarmed/There is no constitution . . ."), is increasingly focused on statelessness, the "belonging nowhere" theme that ran through the final Fatima Mansions album, Lost in the Former West. His latest album, Rancho Tetrahedron, deals in haunting projections of modern California, including a spectral prose poem, "Terylene Ghosts in the Sunshine", in which a dying Irish actor becalmed on a film set has visions of "the River Shannon flowing through the Mojave Desert".

Or there is "Mr Bib's Saorstát Star Time" (a reference to the pre-1937 Irish Free State), in which a wily immigrant impresario ("Mr Bib is from Breslau, his name was truncated at sea") brings "culture" to the rural audience:

Tenors and acrobats
Step-dancers, mimes
Mr Bib's Saorstát star time
Beauty queens, strongmen,
Five-girl chorus lines
Mr Bib's wagon of sunshine . . .

Not quite poetry, but full of intensely poetic language, politically engaged, at all times deeply unsettling, Coughlan's output is, like Devoto's (last chart entry 1981) and, to a lesser extent, Smith's, distinguished by its resolute lack of commercial clout. No doubt this is something to do with the debatable territory it now occupies: too obviously "not poetry" for the poetry fancier, too abstruse for the average rock fan and consequently ignored by both - but, to these ears, far more deserving of critical notice than most of what gets chewed over by the poetry mafia of the Times Literary Supplement.

“Rancho Tetrahedron" (Kitchenware Records) is released on 9 August

Have song lyrics had their heyday? Jude Rogers responds.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis