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1 October 2016

Why so many great lyrics come from the post-punk era

The lead singer of The Divine Comedy on the genius of Pulp, Squeeze, and the Human League.

By Neil Hannon

I never thought it would happen

With me and the girl from Clapham . . .

If you find these lines tremendously romantic and evocative, you are probably, like myself, of a certain vintage. You are also, perhaps, yearning for the days when pop lyrics had a bit more to them – when they had a little more, shall we say, character. The (almost) rhyming couplet is the opening salvo of the 1979 Squeeze song “Up the Junction”, which documents the travails of a south London couple in a darkly comic, kitchen-sink language.

These lines are just so enticing. They evoke a series of questions that the listener expects the song to answer. Who is this “girl from Clapham”? Why was what happened so unexpected to the narrator? Who is the narrator? What happened afterwards? This propels the song towards its slightly gloomy conclusion. Isn’t that why we like stories? They keep us interested, and keep us from turning the dial.

It was an odd quirk of the post-punk years that the movement produced so many purveyors of finely turned lyrics. Punk was the rasping, snarling animal that tore at the throats of saccharine Seventies careerists such as the Osmonds and the Bay City Rollers; it rendered impotent the self-satisfied monoliths of prog almost overnight. Most politicians and parents assumed that punks were brutish yobbos whose sole aim was to shock, disgust and destroy everything good and wholesome about society.

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Yet it seems obvious now that they were, on the whole, intelligent and literate kids who were fed up with the dross being served up to them by the mainstream. After the brief and deafening alarm call of punk, the world of music didn’t end. Instead, there was an outpouring of some of the finest songwriting that Britain had ever heard, and will possibly ever hear.

Chris Difford, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Annie Lennox, Jerry Dammers – their lyrics had weight and style and life, and that unmistakable stench of reality. And they told stories. Sometimes straightforwardly, sometimes in fragments. Sometimes, as in “Ghosts” by Japan, or “Ghost Town” by the Specials, they gave you the feeling that there was a darker story lurking just beneath the surface. But a story, nonetheless.

Story songs in those days were more generally associated with maudlin country singers. Most were vile and drenched in sentimentality, but some had a certain charm. I still have a sneaking regard for Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue”, which was a hit for Johnny Cash. Most of the writers I have mentioned would have run a mile from such an association, though some, such as Costello, drew proudly from the country well. So, notably, did Difford and Tilbrook in their 1981 Squeeze single “Labelled With Love”. But it was a bridge too far for the ­ten-year-old Hannon. At that time, I was only interested in musicians who stood behind synthesisers, looking bored.

There is often a limit to how much of a story you can safely put into a song before it crumbles under the weight of its ambition. “Up the Junction” can synopsise several years’ worth of a relationship in just three minutes and ten seconds because of its seven- or eight-syllable lines, its concise – nay, abrupt – style of language and the way that it doesn’t have a chorus.

The Human League’s 1981 synth-pop blockbuster “Don’t You Want Me”, however, tells an endearingly slight tale of a would-be Svengali, jilted by the female star he believes he created:

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you

I picked you out, I shook you up and turned you around,

Turned you into someone new . . .

The songwriters don’t go into great detail about the relationship. The structure wouldn’t allow for it even if they’d wanted to. The lines are quite long. If you try to stuff long lines full of plot, they become horribly unwieldy. And it’s all about creating an other-worldly glamour. There’s no room for cockney grit here. We’re given just enough information for the listener’s imagination to take over and do the rest.

The song also has to leave enough room for one of the catchiest choruses in pop ­history. Yet it’s a great story. You feel like you know these people – and that’s especially true for those of us who watched the video, spellbound, that Christmas (1981) on Top of the Pops, inwardly cheering at Susan Ann Sulley’s skilful riposte to Phil Oakey’s wicked insinuations in the first verse. Their trench coats and freezing breath will remain with me always.

There’s an unfair, clichéd idea of what synth-pop songs were all about in the late Seventies and early Eighties: that it was all just a lot of dancing like robots and singing about . . . well, robots. Yes, there were plenty of songs that dwelled on technology and futurism – the brilliant “Electricity” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark springs happily to mind – but most of the acts came at it in such a pleasingly British way that it gave songs such as Tubeway Army’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and the Human League’s “I Am the Law” a lot more humanity than the artists probably intended.

Yes, Gary Numan was from another planet, but that planet looked a lot like west London. Listen to him sing, in that Tubeway Army song, “And now I’m alone and I can think for myself.” It’s Blade Runner shot on location in Slough. More often than not, the Roland, Korg and Moog synthesisers were just a cracking backdrop to tales of everyday life and love. Your honour, may I present exhibit A:

Standing in the door of the Pink Flamingo crying in the rain

It was a kind of so-so love, and I’m gonna make sure it never happens again . . .

In “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” – Soft Cell’s caustic break-up masterpiece – Marc Almond conjures up a deliciously tragic scene. You can smell the cheap perfume and cigarettes and taste the salty tears running down the face of his slightly unhinged former lover. When he cries, “Take your hands off me,” in the chorus, it still sends shivers down my melodramatic spine. I could go on and on and on. Perhaps I already have!

It all makes me wonder why we are now treated to so few of these moments. Why has contemporary pop become so averse to poetry, to drama, to storytelling? These have been present in popular music for as long as it has existed. And yet there are few modern examples of them.

When I have been drafted in to pen stanzas for other mouths to sing, I have been left with the distinct impression that the lyrics were not a priority: they were just a necessary adjunct to the main event. At best, the icing on the cake; at worst, a mundane task that must be completed in order to call what you have made a song. I would often have to excuse myself and go to the toilet just to give the poor things the concentration they deserved.

I am often asked in interviews why I put so much time into the text (as our French friends call it). This is like asking why I write songs at all. Without words, a song is an instrumental. If we can all agree that a song should include some language-based noises, surely one should invest as much energy in them as in the music. Otherwise, why bother singing at all?

It also seems self-evident that sometimes these songs need stories and characters to inhabit them. It’s a time-honoured means of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – one of the primary reasons that art exists. And while we’re at it, let’s make sure we ­describe all of this in a way that resonates. A bit of weight, style and life and the stench of reality never go amiss.

I will leave you with another well-known opening lyric, written by one of the finest lyricists of my own little pop era – if only to poke him and say, “Any chance of a new record, Jarv?”

She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge

She studied sculpture at St Martin’s College

That’s where I caught her eye . . .

Neil Hannon’s latest Divine Comedy album, “Foreverland” (Divine Comedy Records), is out now

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories