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