By The Landlord
"There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact." – Arthur Conan Doyle
"We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men." – George Orwell
Is anything obvious? When Archimedes leapt out of his bath, crying “Eureka!” and conceived his principle – a method for determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape, in this case the irregular shape of his body – was it obvious all along, or was it only clear to his neighbours that he was just stark-bollock naked old fella running around like a lunatic and yelling? Was it less obvious however when Archimedes thought up his screw? And when Sir Isaac Newton watched caught or was hit by an apple fall from a tree, and formed his theory of gravity, surely it was obvious that this is what caused objects to fall? Or, like many discoveries that now seem so, was it just another core idea that was there all along?
“The more original a discovery, the more obvious it seems afterwards,” said Arthur Koestler.
So this week, we’re touching on songs that talk about the obvious in all its forms. And all kinds of characters have piled into the Bar to tell us about it. That will mainly be in lyrics, but it might also be in the music itself. Obvious really? No? When Paul McCartney woke up with the song Yesterday in his head, and played it out on the piano, it seemed so familiar, and obvious, and yet it was new. And now other music stars can be heard give us a blast of their tunes. “Why deny the obvious child?” sings Paul Simon. “Ain't it obvious I'm just a man like you,” sings Boy George mischievously. “Everybody knows that I love you. Everybody knows that I need you. Everybody knows that I do, except you,” sings The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, rather beautifully.
But is it always been obvious when you fall in love? Vanessa Paradis thinks so. “When you meet the love of your life, it's just obvious and natural and easier.” Well it is at the time, but for how long? The writer Henry Miller, who liked to casually fall in and out of love frequently, puts a different spin on things:
“Life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.”
So what is obvious to some is an utter mystery to others, and that could be any realm, of love, politics, work science, society, or any strata or society. There’s a whole real of lyrics in songs that reveal or talk about this directly, or obliquely.
“The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply,” says the Lebanese-American artist and poet, Khalil Gibran.
“To spell out the obvious is often to call it in question,” says the American philosopher Eric Hoffer. Rings true enough:
And now here’s the ever-humorous writer Douglas Adams, who managed to sell out the obvious in the most original way in his books. “It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto non-existent blindingly obvious. The cry 'I could have thought of that' is a very popular and misleading one, for the fact is that they didn't, and a very significant and revealing fact it is too.” He is bang on about that. How many times have we all heard or seen a piece of work and thought the same?
But many musicians and others, try to avoid being obvious, just as most weeks, you, the sagacious and imaginative Song Bar visitors, regularly succeed in when suggesting the less-than-obvious for our playlists. Now here’s Bob Dylan, wading in on the topic, with a no-nonsense attitude. (Mind you, he’ll still want his songs nominated, even it that is a bit obvious.): “Anybody can be specific and obvious. That's always been the easy way. It's not that it's so difficult to be unspecific and less obvious; it's just that there's nothing, absolutely nothing, to be specific and obvious about.”
And here’s an old associate of his, Robbie Robertson: “The Band was rebelling against the rebellion. The rebellion went to a place where it became too obvious, too trendy, like you were just following the pack. So it was our choice to get off the bandwagon - no pun intended - and do things that were in our background and what was the most honest thing to do.” Mind you, Robbie, you still called the band The Band. So obvious it was also original. A bit like calling your cat Felix or your dog Rover. Nobody does it because it’s so obvious, so when you do, it’s refreshing.
And now even more musicians are here. “I'm allergic to doing the obvious thing.” says Neneh Cherry. But if you do, are there musical antihistamines?
Many artists look different. David Bowie never seemed to do the obvious at any stage in his career. And similarly, many other innovative artist’s styles aren’t obvious, but here The Cure’s Robert Smith mischievously turns his original look on its head. “Perhaps not as badly applied and not as obvious, but for thousands of years, people have worn makeup on stage.” he says. The best artists of course state the obvious in an original way.
Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam, meanwhile tells us, that it was always obvious what he was going to do with his life: “I grew up in the West End, so my whole background was living among theatres and musicals and the West End's coffee bars and clubs. It's kind of obvious that one day I should do something like that.”
Some forms of music seem obvious after the fact, but then at the time the process happens by chance and gradual change, and even punk, while it seemed to explode into British culture, also happened this way. Here’s Rolling Stone critic meanwhile talking about another band, who are about to release another album. “The key thing about LCD Soundsystem is that people always wanted this band to exist. For years, it was glaringly obvious that a band like this should exist, and people were impatiently waiting for them to show up.”
Much the same mixture of perspective applies to film-makers. “I'm a little bit perverse, and I just hate doing the thing that's the most obvious,” says Daniel Day-Lewis.
While Day-Lewis’s roles and characters are often indeed perverse, strange and extraordinary, others go a different way. The offbeat, and definitely original Jim Jarmusch, for example, who made Down By Law starring Tom Waits, tells us his approach:
“I always start with characters rather than with a plot, which many critics would say is very obvious from the lack of plot in my films – although I think they do have plots – but the plot is not of primary importance to me, the characters are.” And yet the result is so easy and natural, it also seems obvious. The same can be said of other directors such as Richard Linklater, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, whose films are, sort of obviously, about ordinary people, but in which we find the extraordinary. Enjoy these clips of stating of the obvious and then the very surprising, from Down By Law: "It's a sad a beautiful world," says the wonderful Roberto Begnini:
And our film visitors’ comments are closed by that most dazzling of scriptwriters, who wrote, among other films, the glamorous, fast and funny Some Like It Hot. Billy Wilder: “Don't be too clever for an audience. Make it obvious. Make the subtleties obvious also.”
I’ve already touched on science, and now there are more greats from that sphere with things to say. “'Obvious' is the most dangerous word in mathematics. said the Scottish mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who also wrote science fiction. Science indeed must be very careful with assumptions. But how does a eureka discovery of what appears to be obvious afterwards happen. Roger Penrose reckons it is a series of smaller realisations: “People think of these eureka moments and my feeling is that they tend to be little things, a little realisation and then a little realisation built on that.”
It is easy to assume obvious knowledge today, but easy also to forget what others did not know before us. Here’s James Gleick: “Information is crucial to our biological substance – our genetic code is information. But before 1950, it was not obvious that inheritance had anything to do with code. And it was only after the invention of the telegraph that we understood that our nerves carry messages, just like wires.
The brilliant and charismatic Richard P. Feynman, who was more than capable of thinking outside the box, here states something very obvious about science, that it is only obvious it itself in how it has changed the world: “The most obvious characteristic of science is its application: the fact that, as a consequence of science, one has a power to do things. And the effect this power has had need hardly be mentioned. The whole industrial revolution would almost have been impossible without the development of science.”
Obviously indeed, science changes the world more than anything else. Writing about the atom bomb, Albert Einstein remarked:” It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” That remains as clear today as ever, and in many other ways …
Which brings me to the obvious in that backstabbing, media-manipulating sphere that is politics. Inthe 1930s, the dangers of fascism must have been obvious, at least to some but they were ignored. But in 2017 they are absolutely as obvious to everyone as can possibly be. And it seems to me obvious that the US president is a narcissistic, greedy, aggressive, confused, floundering neo-Nazi sympathiser psychopath leading the world into a dangerous position of nuclear war, and tipping it closer and closer into the impending chaos of climate change. And yet millions of Americans still see, or cling on to the hope that he is different to that, or simply don’t care. Perhaps I am under a liberalistic illusion and he is just a great guy after all who will lead us all to the promised land. OK, not really. The danger is here right now. The elephant isn’t just in the room. It is trampling over everything and smashing through the wall.
But is anything obvious at all? As anthropologists and scholars will tell you, from Yuval Noah Harari, who wrote the fantastic Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity, to the witty travel writer Bill Bryson, people around the world, beneath their fears and bad behaviour, are more or less the same. The are evolved to be gatherers, gossiper, time-wasters, dancers, players, frolickers, fuckers, dreamers, crafters, creators, inventors, and overall simply apes and apers who need to love and be loved. And of course, nominate and share songs …
So then, it anything is indeed obvious, we have yet another brilliant guest guru behind the bar, full to the brim with wisdom, experience and taste, and not to mention a few margaritas. Let us welcome back the terrific treefrogdemon, who will decide on your lyrical or musical offerings on the topic of the obvious with playlists published next Wednesday. Deadline? 11pm (UK time) this coming Monday. That’s obvious anyway …
New to comment? It is quick and easy. You just need to login to Disqus once. All is explained in About/FAQs ...
Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.