~ Peter Sinfield ~
- chapter index -
Songwriting - Passion is a blue pencil | King Crimson - Enclosures of the word kind
Peter Sinfield - Marginalia maketh the man
- page index -
Black Worm Seed |
Notes to an Aspiring Songwriter
Notes to an Aspiring Songwriter II |
The Art of Songwriting
The Craft of Songwriting
(unedited transcript of a lecture by Peter Sinfield)
......I had a very unusual background...it’s enough to say that I was brought up by a German high wire walker (this is true) from the famous Flying Wallendas, and I had a very bohemian upbringing. After I left school,
I went into computers, back in the early sixties...I was hanging around, smoking lots of dope with friends from the Chelsea Arts School, all very creative people, and I started to write bits of poetry - I bought a guitar and a copy of Bert Weedon's"Play In A Day" book - it's true, it teaches you how to play a song called "Sinner Man" in A minor and E minor (it only has two chords) - this kind of idea is, of course, fatal for the world, because it makes you believe that you're a guitarist, and there are many, many people who call themselves guitarists (they ought to have a different name, until they get to a certain level, like Jeff Beck or John Williams - associate guitarists, if you like...) anyway, I was doing this to keep up with my friends, and to impress the various young women about the place, and if you add this to the stuff I was doing with my computer (running the record statements, sales figures, etc.) I was amazed to see how much money could be earned from records - it occurred to me that to make a few quid you either had to invent something , one thing, like a tin opener, that lots of people could buy, that they couldn’t do without, or you had to write songs...eventually, I walked into my boss’s office and announced that I was going to be a songwriter! I remember he said, “Well, that’s very nice, Peter, your job will be here when you want it back!”...So, I would have crawled over broken glass rather than go back to that pompous bastard...!
I did actually do the year of starving and living off chip sandwiches etc., and then I got very lucky and met a guy called Ian MacDonald, and went on to join a band called King Crimson...the rest (fortunately for me) is history...that sounds rather simplistic, the way I did that, because of course there were very many elements that went into making this happen...I must mention here that my mother’s influence probably played a part in all this, she being an unconventional, bohemian type of person - she used to go down to the East End to join the anti-fascist marches and rallies, and no doubt she inspired in me a sense of justice and freedom and such values, which on top of all the other traits in my character, youth, sexuality, energy etc. actually fuelled the songwriting and poetry, provoking thought and rhyme; I think it’s terribly important, that you have an underlying motor that drives you along, be it anger and/or passion of life for this work , as well as a certain talent for understanding words and their reason for being written, and to be written excellently...there is no point in doing it in any way less - most of which one writes first off (unless you are a Shakespeare or Hans Christian Anderson(!) is less than best - I usually assume that the first thing I write is rubbish, which is a good yardstick, if you like, and only good for working on further...there are two ways of doing this - either to keep on polishing the original, until it’s so good that it’s impossible to improve, or to rather start in the middle and work outwards, so to speak, towards the first and last verse - it sounds strange, but I actually did this with a song with Andy Hill - we wrote the first verse in ten minutes, and then two and a half weeks to do the next two verses! This happens a lot, ‘cos you get the initial inspiration, and then, as somebody once said, it’s all down to ‘perspiration’!
People come up to me and they say, “hey, I wrote three songs yesterday!” I say, “oh, how do you do that?” I find it quite extraordinary, ‘cos I can spend three weeks on a middle eight...perhaps they are cleverer than I...but then when I hear their three songs I can say, in general, that although they’re not necessarily bad, they’re not good - there’s something about them that has only the style and personality of the writer in them, but not something extra for the song itself that will endure. There is precious little respect as it is for songwriters, without mediocre songwriting, and there seems no sense in writing anything less than best, that won’t stand the test of time. A good singer will not make a bad song better - contrary to what others may say - the sounds of the words and their relationship to each other is terribly important, even in a foreign language where their meaning is not understood - rather, their sounds are ‘felt’, not simply ‘heard’.
I have prepared for you a chapter on a poet called Edith Sitwell - she wrote a book that has been extraordinarily valuable to me, both for my understanding of music and also songs - it’s called “A Poet’s Notebook” and it’s out of print - I have only ever found one copy, so if you ever come across one, buy it and give it to a loved one - this particular chapter is on techniques of sound and it’s applied to poems - however, you can easily apply it to lyrics in songs - of course, lyrics are not necessarily poems, but they have a poetic nature insofar as people can ‘feel’ the oh's, the aah’s, the ‘t’ sounds...”just wants you to know”, for example...there’s a sharp, cracking to these sounds...this chapter is on texture, sounds and vowels and the length of vowels and consonants, and rhymes - you will hear endlessly the rhyme of ‘time’ and ‘mind’ - 95% of the time that is not a rhyme, but it’s just laziness, and it’s a particularly horrible example; also, when writing lyrics for others to sing, there are certain sounds that are not welcome, such as too many ‘b’s or ‘p’s in a row, like ‘big bass drum’ or ‘pretty popular people’ (recording engineer’s nightmare for pops)! There are words that just don’t sing, and amongst other things, like sense and format, lyrics must be singable. I have written for all sorts of diverse singers and it’s always a challenge in this respect.
I’d like you to think about why you have decided to be songwriters and the responsibility you have taken on board to write for all the people and the way, therefore, that you may affect all of those who hear your words - that there should be a kind of magic, a timelessness in the songs that is greater than the writer...you must be prepared to edit it and edit it until it comes to itself, as it were, and not just a regurgitation of what has gone before - it comes through your experiences and filters - I believe that there is a vocabulary of only about five or six hundred words that are singable, generally speaking - for an artist like Joni Mitchell or Janis Ian, of course, the exception is more likely the rule, because they can sing anything like angels!
Now I’ve rambled on enough, so at this point I’d like to give some examples; first, I have a book about a man called EY "Yip" Harburg - now, Yip wrote “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, which is a very beautiful song, but more importantly, he also wrote "Brother, Can You Spare Me A Dime?" which is actually a very left wing, socially aware, humanitarian kind of song - in fact, when Bing Crosby sang it, it was banned from the radio, because of the lyrics - he also wrote “April In Paris”, which is musically very beautiful - the thing about the latter is that it only has about sixty nine words, with no real chorus, and it peaks only once without repeat - a very unusual song, really...anyway, I would say that with songwriting, until you know the rules you can’t really break them - once you do know them it’s an awful lot of fun breaking them, and gives everything a lot more validity - this very much applies to songs, as to whether you have half rhymes that work or don’t, or how you can twist them (how you can do things with the grammar, changing nouns into verbs etc...) and cheat rotten...! but you should have an underlying theory of why you are doing this, rather than from a state of sheer ignorance, and this generally applies to the English popular song, as opposed to rap music (though I must add that since i”m not black and from Chicago, I don’t listen to it that much - it’s not my genre...although I did write a couple of rap songs way back before it was generally done - there was a thing called talking blues - Bob Dylan did a bit and there was also a guy called Rambling Jack Elliot, back in the late fifties, and they did songs with a sort of boogie bass and a rhythm rap over the top - it was just folk music played with rhythm guitars, so today’s rap is not necessarily new - there is nothing ‘new’ under the sun - it just gets changed around to reflect its time, and have the energy and angst of its time and rhythm . . .
But I digress...to get back to our main point, Ira Gershwin wrote “that a period of development and adjustment was always inevitable for the fledgling lyricist” - this also applies to songwriters as well, but particularly to lyricists - and he goes on, “Given a fondness for music which one assumes that one has, a feeling for rhyme, and a sense of whimsy and humour, an eye for the balanced sentence, an ear for the current phrase...”(this is very important, because there are various words and phrases which get used and abused, and simply don’t work out of their specific era, which is why you must research current magazines and books, and listen to how people speak, in the street and colloquially - this is also relevant to music - of course, you can take from the past, but try and be a bit brave and bend it a bit here and twist it about there - a jazz guitarist once told me that the “problem” with playing old Beatle songs was that the chords were all “wrong”...?! Ira went on to say that “the ability to imagine oneself as the performer” (if you are writing for someone else to perform) is very important...I think I always did that, though I don’t like to think small...I see a spotlight and a stadium....yes, nothing less...I’m sorry, I’ve been spoiled...! Actually, stadiums can be pretty boring - Greg Lake used to point out to me while we were writing together that he had to stand out in front of fifty thousand people and make them believe what he was saying, albeit temporarily - they have to be taken by what he’s singing -I read something relating to that in a book about films, called “Adventures In The Screen Trade” by William Goldman - a fantastic book, which I recommend highly if you haven’t read it - he was a screen writer - he wrote “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (which he had on the shelf for eight years, by the way) and he says that when writing for certain lead actors and actresses you have to “make them look good” - I don’t necessarily go along with that way of thinking - it’s too “safe” and “bland” to not disturb anybody - in fact, I always try and slip in a couple of edgy lines, slightly more political lines etc., to wake people up...Ira continues . . .
“it’s important to join together, so that there’s a spiritual quality to this...you have to grab the people from the first line, like in books - it has to be a page turner - it doesn’t mean it’s a cheat, or commercial - actually, there’s nothing wrong with being commercial - it sells lots of copies...Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. for example, that’s commercial, it sells a lot of copies...Ira says, “it takes four to five years collaborating with knowledgeable composers to become a well rounded lyricist.” This implies that you don’t want to be a one-hit wonder, but rather that you want to be capable of moving from your initial chosen field (or you’ll only get bored doing the same sort of songs - you’ve got to be brave - if you like writing the big rock song, why don’t you for a change try and write something for just a jazz bass and singer...? You’ll probably write a better rock song for having tried this...!
It’s also very important for musicians to understand what the lyrics are saying, as well as the music, because as a friend of mine once said, “a great song is a great song, but a great song with a great lyric is a copyright (he’s a publisher, of course...!) What this means is that it gives the song longevity, a timelessness, and it will become a classic - for example, “Fly Me To The Moon”, even when played as an instrumental is all the more memorable because the lyrics make the tune become more playful and animated...I quote, “the intuitions and aesthetic powers of the songwriters’ craft are the least understood aspects of musical theatre", and however much a left wing or protesting or angry person you are, as soon as you’re on a stage, you are theatre.” I remember once, at Midem in the early seventies, someone called my work “product”, and it was a terrible shock to me, to be thought of in this way, as if it were just a tin of beans - in America they use the term “pieces” for records - I believe they do this because they feel awkward and embarrassed at knowing fuck all about the creative process - but you have to learn to live with this...
It’s very easy to write songs, but to write a good hit song is incredibly difficult - I was just reading something on the Internet from The Velvet Rope, a web site full of hierarchical American lawyers and A & R guys and other “important” people slagging each other off, and proving how resilient you have to be to put up with the arseholes and their attitudes, their ignorance and stupidity towards your work - you may never get the credit (or money)! that you deserve...there’s a saying that goes, “poets should not be given money nor have it taken away from them”...that’s not to say that you must live in a loft and eat bread and cheese, but there is a thing about being hungry and angry and keen, and I see lots of examples of people (and I am one of them) who suddenly have a large amount of success, and just start repeating old formula - very much human nature, this, to just repeat oneself...there are those who think they want you to just do what you did before, they think they want more of the same, but actually, if you do that, ninety percent of the time they will then criticise you for it - half the trick of surviving in this business is knowing when to say yes or no, and selling only little bits of your soul, because when you write something so good you will forget about the doubts - it’s terribly important to know that you are going to have to be very, very tough!
And the reason is because you care...the same reason that I am here talking to you for nothing today...! I care because the standard of the popular song is not going up - if you look in Rolling Stone’s top 100, at people’s favourite songs, there are some from the eighties and nineties, but most of them are from the fifties to the seventies, (Beatles, etc.) when songs had more bite, more feeling, which has got lost, somewhat - of course, it doesn’t get any easier to write in this less simple and naive age that we’re in now, and I wonder how many will last a further twenty five years - the world moves very quickly these days - it’s not like in Mozart’s time when it took comparatively ages for people to appreciate certain composers or painters - now, it all moves so much more quickly - King Crimson, for example now enjoys a third generation of followers, and I’m very happy to say, listening to stuff we did back in 1969 (this is almost more fun than it was then, because it has lasted, and there is such a wide choice of music for people to go back to now, and so to be still appreciated now is jolly satisfying, and I hope you can understand some of that...!
So, to return to our point...everything has to be larger than life, in order to reach the listener, so if you’re ever in the position, either musically or lyrically, when you think that you’ve gone too far, that it’s perhaps too much, think again and leave it, because unless it is really unbalanced, it probably has the right amount of theatre, and of content to fully reach your audience. As lyricists approach a new lyric, they begin with an infinite number of possibilities that must be crafted to fit an unforgiving matrix of minuscule proportions - what that means is that you’ve got to get it in three and a half minutes (the length of a typical single), often no more than eighty words long. Within this control and concentrated form there lies tremendous power that is the lyricists’ job during his apprenticeship (which never finishes)! to learn to harness that power by filling the matrix (or the frame - I always see songs in a little frame) with fresh lyrics that match the metrical pattern of the music, that is, when they sit dead right on the right note - it’s magic - and when it isn’t, rewrite it...they must grow from character, therefore one leads to another, following a natural progression...lyrics must reflect your point of view, that is to say, the words must be yours, you must say the if’s, but’s and possibilities of the song from your head - though you’re appealing to other people, they must have something of you...I’m going to play you “Think Twice” by way of an example of all this - there’s one line in it (I won’t say which one}, towards the end, which I actually hate (I wonder if anyone will spot it) which was left in there though I wanted to throw it out, but Andy (Hill) thought it sang well - I’ve always hated it, and I always will, but it is in there...
I tend to play my new songs to friends, my “committee” and this line was spotted by one such friend who said straight away, “that’s not you!” This idea usually works quite well - if they say, “Hmmm, it’s quite nice,” then I think that it’s not so good then...if they say “play it again,”that is the minimum I require to know that I might have done something that ‘s half good!...”Quite nice, quite good...” forget it...”play it again” is the only thing you ever want to hear from an A & R guy or a friend, or even from yourself...! A good song is a small masterpiece - the challenge of becoming a lyricist involves not only perfecting individual writing skills, but also learning to be an effective collaborator - one of the most demanding human relationships ...my long term collaborator, Andy Hill and I fell out because of something his wife said to him about him never having really been my friend - I don’t know what was said exactly, but he was very upset, and we didn't speak to each other for two years...we are now speaking , but I”m not quite sure about it all - traditionally, people don’t get back together - something gets lost in the collaboration - and you have to be extraordinarily unselfish and patient on occasions, and very forceful on others...it’s most peculiar, and worse than marriage, I can assure you!
Not only must lyricists find a way to transfer their intent to the minds of their listeners, they must make their message heard and understood in tandem with their musical collaborators... I used to have a system with Greg Lake whereby he would award my lyrics points out of ten, which is about as masochistic as it gets! He’d say “well, I think that’s a six, Peter, whereas we really need a seven or eight here!” You cannot imagine how painful that was! But you have to allow for people being wrong, especially if they’re very clever - they’re usually only wrong two times out of ten - and of course, if you really feel strongly about your position, then argue about it - if they’re bright, they’ll give way! The lyricist must employ many of the same tools as poets although the demands of their craft are significantly different - whilst lyrics and poetry both employ meter, rhyme and sound, it is music which constrains and compels the lyric, shaping it’s form as well as it’s content, with melody, harmony and rhythm. That is to say, perhaps, that it’s the music that supplies the emotion, the feeling, and it’s the lyric that supplies the intellectual context.
Then my world changed - I went away to become the world’s poorest tax exile, but having lots of fun in Ibiza... on my return I no longer wrote for big rock bands, but had to learn how to write proper pop songs -I sat around with some friends and I wrote some blues, some country songs (they were really terrible, most of them)! and then I met Andy, who is a pop song genius, on a good day! He thinks of three or four chords and he always has an answering line - he knows there has to be an intro...INTROS, please, everybody, put intros in...four bars of arppegios is not an intro - an intro is something that sets you up so that you want to hear the first line and you get led on - it’s like drawing the curtains back in the theatre, and you see the stage set, with lights etc., and then the first line of the song comes in to set the scene, so to speak - to set up the following situation and draw the listener in...you’ve got to give them a chance to be led into the song - if you listen to any of the classic songs, Beatles’ songs, they nearly all have an intro so that the first line hits you and subconsciously you want to hear the next line and then the next...once you have them past that point, you could give them comparatively anything, because you’ve hooked them, and they’ll roll with it until you bring them back to the chorus, and they still feel like they did when the song started, the chorus reinforcing it - then you have to have a great ending - it’s like making movies...movies are made in three acts, simplistically speaking, beginning, middle and end, and the same structure applies to songwriting - it’s to do with the light and the shade, and leading people in and holding them sufficiently to make them feel what you hopefully set out to do, with the same deep feelings as yourself.
I’ll now play you “Heart of Stone” to demonstrate various points - firstly, although it’s a big rock song, it has no chorus and gets away from the traditional formula - this is good if you can do this, because it contains the elements of the structured song - this one also has no intro, but very strong guitar part instead......
This is a big song indeed - I can see it as a country song and also as a reggae song - I always think that if you can see what you’ve written in other more simplistic forms than the original, it’s a very good thing - to break it down, now, the intro sets it all up...”beneath the white fire of the moon...” the word “white” gives you this cold, scary feeling about the moon, which gives it a bit of romance, and just when you think you’re going to get the romance, you get...”love’s wings are broken...” - the “love’s” is sort of soft, but then you get...”are broken all too soon...” - it gets really hard there, the “broken all too soon” is like something being crumpled......(interjection by student follows, alluding to Icarus)......and really the whole song is the story of my life, in a way, that is, bits of it, and when Cher did the video for it, it was wonderful, because it’s all just her with two big video screens, showing images of Vietnam, Jimi Hendrix, her husband etc., and it’s just her life flashing past...and I was generally flattered that she saw it that way, really simply - she just smiles once, throughout the whole thing - she took it really seriously......and then having done this kind of floaty opening bit, I put in something that I thought was “Sinfieldeski”, the repetition of “we never learn hurt together hurt alone...” (it’s why I get called pretentious, of course)!...but you have to be brave and say, “well, I think it’s because of this”...but then having done that, I thought it was a bit heavy, so, knowing I was going to get to “Heart of Stone” (actually, what I considered to be a ‘throwaway’ line, but which had some power and emotion - eventually, I almost did it ‘scientifically’ ...there had to be an ‘n’ and then probably an ‘o’, which gave it the loneliness and emptiness...you’ll understand more about the abstract things I’m talking about when you read Edith Sitwell’s wonderful paragraphs about texture and sound, expanding the emotion that is felt by people - it doesn’t always matter what it says...it’s as important the noises that it says it with)......so I then bring it all back to a childlike feel, and then with lots of internal rhymes, wheel, steel etc., a kind of industrial feel...this song has an awful lot to do with both tension and release, and like poetry and/or plays, it builds up to a point and then you let it go (very orgasmic, really)!
And life itself is like that - good songs, generally, reflect that tension and release. If you find that you’ve written something that goes on and on, then perhaps you’re missing an adverb or an adjective to make it ‘real’ - it doesn’t have to be like a soap opera, of course, but you only have about three and a half minutes in which to do it. Normally a song would have a chorus, but because of the repetitive line, “Heart of Stone”, and the way Andy wrote it, it went into this odd bit, and I thought the only thing to do with that was to get into the reasons why life is hard, because of the madness and the stupidity of it, etc., (in the video, there’s a picture of Reagan falling off a horse...it’s wonderful... and Nixon getting out of a helicopter - I’ve never seen such a good video put to my lyrics like that before), and then it slowly leads back to why life is hard, and goes back to being a sort of love song and to the world...if you’re ever stuck (usually on or about the third verse), ‘cos you’ve said it all in the first and second verses, what I nearly always do is to try and make a parallel with the world - you take it to a more universal context - when in doubt, shout...! and have a go at the world...! It’s more complicated these days - it used to be easier to write about wars and world strife in the past, with simpler politicians etc., but now they’re promising everything and they spin everything so well, but then you’ve got to write about people spinning things - it’s much harder nowadays to write about political situations, but it is necessary, and much more difficult to do...well, that’s just a personal view of it all...and then the song finally ends up with a mystical feel, having done the ‘personal’ and ‘universal’, spiritually self-questioning......and there, that’s the song......
(Student’s question re: the backing vocals) Yes, I knew they would be there when I wrote the song, and one of the reasons there is no chorus is that there is enough interest inherently in the backing vocals - what the song needed was added interest(which would normally have been a chorus, going somewhere and coming back), and we did it that way instead.
Student: The first two verses seem to be figurative, metaphors, but quite easy to understand, but then I’m not so clear about the next part - are you still being on the ‘conscious’ level......?
......What you have are the noises, the sounds of the words, like, crowds, queue, jokers...’c’, ‘c’, ‘c’, do you see? You get this sharp cracking sound, and then it softens again...what is very important, even if you don’t pick up on it, is the feel of these hard sounds, even if you don’t understand the words, that there is something going on here - it was quite intentional to cause this effect - Bob Dylan admits to doing the same - it’s like playing games, but the games you play with the noises, the sounds and the syllables, and especially the consonants in this example, should keep the listener right there, suspended - it’s all in the way these are constructed, and Edith Sitwell tells you lots and lots about that, too. The next part of the song is different again, with stranger, more dusty echoes evoked by the sounds, in contrast......anyway, that’s more or less what went on......! A song I was less happy with was “Peace In Our Time”, although it was well received and covered by various artists around the world, not least of all Cliff Richard, of course - you’re not a proper songwriter until you’ve had at least one song with Cliff! And this was it...! He did the Olympic version, but the Eddie Money version was more rock ‘n rolly and ballsy and real, but I thought it was fun to try and do it for the Olympics - an interesting challenge - and one mustn’t be too proud if someone else sees it another way (especially if it’s an executive from CBS)!
(Student’s question re: his own songwriting regarding unbalanced compression of ideas or format through the verses)
Well, you can either go back and take some of the compression out of the first ones, so that you haven’t set yourself quite so hard a task, or, you sit down for three weeks and try to write the next one - I’ve done it both ways - it’s most relevant to songs that you write something that you think is so brilliant, original and wonderful, that you never want to change it, but everything else in the song doesn’t compare well with it, or looks inferior - now, you can really drive yourself crazy, and live with the fact, or you can go back and say to yourself, well, although I’ve had the joy and the pleasure of thinking that, now I must be more practical and make the rest of the song work - perhaps just take one bit out and/or soften another, so leaving myself some place to go, so to speak - it’s very difficult to change someone else’s mind if you’re writing with a partner, but when you find yourself driven into a corner because you have said it all (like, you’ve written the history of the world in two lines)! then you have to re-think and save something for the second verse, where it can really make some impact, and where the song could possibly drop, so then I’ll set the scene, like I do on “Heart of Stone”......I have a tendency to do this, anyway, like on “Think Twice”, which I’d also like to play to you......second verses can be difficult, so you tend to go to “scenery”, and “open the curtains”, as with a play, and so set the mood, as if to say,”this is the real point of the story, in the second verse. Like paintings that have light and contrast, songs are very much in tune with the senses, with vibrations......I would say that I actually almost “smell” the words and the sounds - they become shapes, and it’s really organic...(you can see that I get quite intense about it)! But I think that’s how it’s done, and you must get that involved - if you’re writing a novel, you should almost act out your characters...
Now to play you “Think Twice” - Andy and I wrote two songs for Celine Dion - in fact, the last two songs we ever wrote, before we became estranged - it’s an interesting point that just because you sit down with someone and write great songs together, that everyone’s happy and everything’s easy, but, of course, it’s not necessarily like that - we used to drive each other mad, in fact! In my opinion, most bands create the best songs out of some conflict between themselves, rather than from a happy go-lightly atmosphere - they’re written out of argument, friction and fire, disagreement and discovery.
.......When I first heard this I thought it was a bit cold, though I think that Chris Neil is a wonderful producer - the original version was more moody and laid back somehow. But he has made this larger than life, and of course, so is her fabulous voice......(end of tape)
© 2002. ASAABOS Ltd., PO Box 22, Leiston, Suffolk, IP15 5NZ. UK.
Black Worm Seed
"It turns out that "black worm seed" is a very specific reference to Islam.
"Indeed. Well it is now. When written, my knowlege of Islam being less
extensive than it is now after reading Karen Armstrong's wonderful book
"The History Of God" etc. etc , it was more of um, a word game to scrawl &
illume the word 'insidious' - the 'feeling' of it but of course KNOT using it.
Kiosk...Kiosk, what a delicious word (from the Turkish kioshk it appears
and among its meanings 'bandstand' - it says in my at hand shorter Ox Dic,
better and better) ...His ki... (rattles? key......flash of permitted entry)..
osk. . . ( built in shadow... behind officiall-esque curt, cramped, crabby
issuer of 'tickets' and tempting sweetmeats)... black worm.. (see Dune?
hear the slime in bl... the echo 'ack' rattlin again ... the subliminal 'curse'
sound of 'worm'.... to the final hiss in seed.. (seething with corruption ...)
[Whilst writing this; around about 'Turkish' I lit a small green stick of
Japanese incence ...as I do... and now most spookily two crows have flown
and perched, cawing and cawing most horridly in the holly tree outside
my window!.... now they have flown off... but I swear the yellow teeth of
Laburnham tree nearbye are grinning. The light is impending ... the first
roses challenge the gloom like flaring beacons.. . ;-) ]"
One of the Bob Dylan lines that has always deeply impressed me is in I and I:
Noontime, and I'm still pushin' myself along the
road, the darkest part,
Into the narrow lanes, I can't stumble or stay put.
Someone else is speakin' with my mouth, but I'm
listening only to my heart.
I've made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.
I love the anger in the 'even you' phrase - just like in positively 4th street. Its enough to kill off any would-be critic at fifty paces!
"I love it too but for different reasons. The tension and release of the internal rhymes /half-rhymes is delicious. Plus the percussion of e.g darkest/speakin. I have a somewhat ineffable theory (much influenced by Edith Sitwell's "A Poet's Notebook") that there is a 'power' (ahem, scientifically speaking) that can be variably allocated to strings of syllable/vowel sounds that lure the listener towards the sum of an aural/oral equation where you can then joyfully proceed to stab them with steel pointed consonants.
e.g - canT.. . parry and poise with... sTumble and sTay.... now >>>> Pierce with PuT!!
The "even you" is angry...? ironic?
Set up by the shuffling hollowness of the 'u' in shoes thru the very important raspy knife sharpener 'V' in everyone...to the endlessly enigmatic eve - level- twilight- etc etc of 'even' ...you. (a wolf howl?).. then the last phrase is surely a wry joke upon himself for being clever enough to write all that went before perhaps ?? --- Phew.
Also I think this peculiar confident wonder of wit is to critics as the detritus of a picnic is
to ants. ... They're hungry for it."
Mind you, you can do that pretty well yourself:
"Don't blame me if my smoke and steam obscured your
I only meant to startle you not offer you my back
To ride upon and overload with your jars of unbaked clay."
That put me off writing to you for quite a long time, I can tell you!
"Tsk... It was directed, for a weary pyramid of unreasons, at just about anyone but you.
Sort of gimme a break. Where is the exit - should 'this' really get beyond a game of cricket . . . . Something like that. [On other hand Ghost Trains are such fun to make ;-) ]
I recently read a very well written article on Bob Dylan (a mere 60 years young!),
who has just won an Oscar for his song "Things Have Changed", and you dear reader
might also find it interesting."
Here is an excerpt..
"Bob Dylan, as he has told us over and over again, in one way or another, does not fit.
Bob Dylan belongs somewhere else: outside of pop, outside of fame, outside, even, of
time as it is now measured in pop terms. And yet, Bob Dylan lives on in pop, and pop
legend: inviolate, iconic and enduringly mysterious, despite himself.
'I'd rather just do my work and see it as a trade.' This, too, is where Dylan is at right
now. His view of his work, and, by extension, of himself, is as wildly out of step with
the broad thrust of contemporary pop culture as his self-styled 'wild mercury sound'
was with the prevailing tameness of the pre-electric pop Sixties.. . . . ."
The complete article can be found at:
Notes to an Aspiring Songwriter I
Just to say, one of the tracks commented on as a 'possible' single is the one titled 'Angel'
that you have already on the CD.
.. . . And as the Gods move in their mysterious synchronistic ways...indeed I do!
" Hey man .... any song can be a hit single all you gotta do is change it until it is."
(said Phil Spectre, er, whenever he said it & IMHO, HE dead right!)
If you can have a listen in the meantime, it will save time..The vibe is there, but we
feel it needs some attention.
I have - half a dozen or more plays....So first the good news/points - - -
Yeah - I agree ... 'the vibe' is there. i.e. it has 'haunt', mystique, sweet,aching
harmonies, an angsty lead vocal with 'personality', the bass playing is sexy
and the construction has a mellow dream-dynamic that probably will keep
many a listener suspended 'on hold'. I expect it works very well live. . . . .
However --- I sternly ;-) agree that it does, as you say, need 'some attention'!
Without going into all the Sinfield (Phil S) theories of the - %10 - that makes
the VITAL difference between possible HIT potential (INSURED even, as A.H. was
wont to mutter) and what is just another pleasant enough song among many, many,
many pleasant enough songs. - Dr. Sinfield he say. ahem, ahem. . . . .
1) The intro is missing a vital 'hook' to make the song most instantly recognisable.
(probably a counterpoint variation on a snatch of later melody?) The folksy guitar
lick is very attractive and works well throughout the rest of the song as a comfort
factor: not the least because it is an echo of many other similar licks....But it is not
strong enough to make an instant... erm...mark! I'd say a touch of the vulgar required?
2) Given the 'dark', 'brave'; some idiots will say 'pretentious', subject matter of the
lyric (adjs from King Crimson to Celine Dion oft found like gulls a'pecking at my heart)
the continuous use of blank or half/feminine rhymes is, ha ho, always a ... mind-field.
When they work they are very very good and when they don't they are horrid. There is
a fashion, anti-art/slackerish vogue for such. The problem is much of said style is not
truly thought out and round - but is sadly, for want of a better phrase, just plain old
fuckin' laziness! Lack of tension-building, lead-up, internal rhymes, curves unlearnt etc?
(Wow! But do I sound pompous and patronising writing this? Hey = Nothing new there.)
OK. a couple of examples . Lets start right at the beginning -
"Sad reflections on . . . . .a blue canal
And the sunshine fails to make it through to you. . . ."
Got an ersatz poetic quality to it but is it a LYRIC?- (sorry John... drinks on me). IS 'sad';
a threadbare word lacking 'noise' beguiling enough to come in on? Have weight? Need a
harder consonant? Is the line a 'page turner'...? Do we care ? Or even allowing for a more
sung accent on SAD and the double 'a' rhyme in canal all those 'a's are then destroyed by
the, mayhap not needed anyway, weakness of the lead note/word 'and' going into the 2nd line...? (Yeah - I think feel what you R tryin 2 do. . . ) .Also I mention it took me three
listens to catch 'blue canal' Which doesn't help this mystery story.... So, well I could go on
... no really I could...
All right smart arse, you're thinking, so what would you write... and I have given it an hour
or sos (ho) thought ...and now of course i try too hard and lose the erm, simplistic charm
of it.. . . But that is always the problem (certainly always my problem!) How to balance the odd/weird with the cliche and how and at what point in the song it adds or subtracts and
when it matters. ( I speak with regard to reaching and intriguing an increasingly dumbed
down audience within 15 seconds here... ie the play or two of a song as a single - versus expression of artistic feeling).
Anyway... having rewritten the opening 2 lines 6 times.... apart from the fact that the 'and'
is, and I have now heard it twenty times, a 'clunk' which disturbs ... it pusheth in and
nudges the mood... there are quite a few more occurrences of this sort of thing through
out what is really a lovely song. They are what is giving you the feeling that it needs 'some attention'. Is the rhyme of - 'bottom' with 'forgotten' a moment of genius or with all
those hard 't's a nasty nodule? etc etc.
Notes to an Aspiring Songwriter II
Sunday is catching up day... and in that process I played your tape.
I have a trepidation (ego problem) when I do this thing. What if its
really boring ... what does one positively say? However - HA! ZING!
I am relieved and delighted to say that U GOT me from the first bar.
Still playing it.... as I write... as you do.
" All songs are potential HIT songs. All you gotta do is keep
rewriting them until they are." (Phil Spector)
I like writing with bass players. They often have an inherent knack,
I guess it goes with the gig, of creating melodies that stretch and yearn
over their chord structures." (Peter Sinfield)
1) "Attitude"... love it! In particular the pushed answering guitar phrase,
after the ace melody on the verse opening; well pretty much all the melody.
& yes over the chorus..with its vague references to the Beach Boys/Mamas
& Papas in the harmonies. This is a song I'd love to
2) "One Last Kiss" - It doesn't sit in any genre/box..is this good? Not as such!
If the rythm guitar was tighter and snappier (think marracas) and the
whole thing more Latin...( ahem, depite your comments on your web site
It might help the 'drop' at end of verse?
There is no intro .. . I like intros... & 'people' do like BIG... 'signals'... this is
only important if you desire to enter the fray and jungle of placing your
work before the paranoid ears of Artless & Recked folk. (er, lyric is weak.)
3) "Like A Child" - I am getting to hate that Bill Wyman clunky snare! ....
I can see this; But only much modernised. Sexier/drum'nbass with lots more
harmonies and gaps - So, think All Saints or suchlike... or not? Just a forte.
4) "Respond To My Touch" -Tsk What do we have? A pale Pretenderish/F Mac
song with odd hints of the Supremes. + Key too low for singer; who aint at
all a bad singer? Restucture/rebuild over a slower 'groove' perhaps..........
It occurs, after a beer or four that one needs, perhaps like a wine critic,
a certain jargon or vocabulary to do THIS. So, I imagine a new dinner party
game for the chatterin' classes... "Well, yes darling, its certainly 'black'
but is it 'current' (sic)? "Hints of crutch & leer, but all rather transient
like a Harvey Nick's window display...wot.. donchaknow" - "A basic offthe-
-shelf little thing but enlived by a suggestion of the nubile nipple upon
the entry of the flanged merge of township guitar and gamine triangle in
the chorus + lovely use of underlying, musky, verboten valve-synth sample."
ETC ETC -- Anyway streuth... enough of this irresistable meanderment.
There really is something magic about "Attitude" so lets start by having
a chat about it and how I might possibly help lift it a tad here and there.
The Art of Songwriting
Songs, particularly timeless hit songs, are made on a battlefield where you are
begrudgingly engaged because your partner though realising that fifty percent of a lot
is better than 100 per cent of nothing and he/she needs your superior skill at writing
a tune or a lyric which you do - but because he/she is very talented and as a songwriter
of course although a fragile sensitive human being just can't ever entirely lose the itchy
wormy thought that lurks behind - "Yes that is great! Just what we", ie his or her melody
or words, "needed". What the worms whisper of course is , given time, I could've written
that myself. Do I cyclically jest?
Well now - only slightly. For it is my strongly held belief that the best songs are not
made in the spirit of - "Wow Yeah groovy man" but are forged in the heat of argument, the
friction of endless disagreement, and the traded spice and ground pepper of 'well you can
have yours if I can have mine'. In passing I do include here the finest songs by singer
Songwriters who clearly cannot let a day pass without a good argument with themselves.
Many have been the long, fascinating arguments/disscussions I've had with Greg & Andy Hill
over the subject of... " No Peter we can't say that... people won't understand it... its just too
obscure... it will put them off." ie. they won't buy the record... i.e WE won't make any MONEY!
Well - Excuse me... But if the tune were good/ haunting enough; seems to me they will "Skip
a light fandango, turn cartwheels 'cross the floor & Be taken down to Strawberry Fields" -
Because the sounds of the words are as important as their meanings..... Or so I believe ;-)
[It now has to be admitted that, often to much joyous, mutual hilarity, (I claim in a hazy
panic to empty my brain) I disgorged many a 'line', not only mad but, completely unsingable!]
In a state of non conclusion I will leave you to consider a paragraph taken from the
prologue of a book called " Who Put the Rainbow In the Wizard Of Oz",
it was written by the subject of the book, the very fine lyricist Yip Harburg.
"The reason is obvious - words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling.
But a song makes you feel a thought. That's the great advantage to feel the thought. You
rarely feel a thought with just dialogue itself. And that's why song is the most powerful
weapon there is. You can teach more through song and you can rouse more through song than
all the prose in the world or all the poems".
Yip during his long career co-wrote 537 songs including 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow',
'Brother, Can You Spare A Dime' and 'April in Paris'. He worked with 42 composers. Now that's
what I call colab... er, co... er, not easy.
- Peter Sinfield
Return to the Song Soup On Sea Homepage
- email -
These Pages Created
and Maintained usingArachnophilia
© 2001 ~ Song Soup On Sea /All rights reserved