What a way to make an entrance. “Bless my cotton socks, I’m in the news,” whoops an exuberant Julian Cope at the beginning of The Teardrop Explodes’ barnstorming hit Reward. Of course Julian knows that he can’t pronounce benediction (and he probably isn’t wearing any socks anyway), but he knows the power of an arresting image – in this case a sly allusion to his own self-perceived lovability, setting an agenda for the rest of the song.
Many rate William Shakespeare as the greatest single source of enduring idioms (others cite the Bible); he was by nature a poetic writer whose trade depended on fresh use of language. Peter Hammill collects some resounding phrases in The Play’s The Thing – “Stiffen the sinews! Wear hard-favour'd rage! All history's drama, the world is a stage…” and, incidentally, sets a few hares running with the unanswered question: “How did he know so much?”
There are magpie minds at work amongst contemporary songwriters who freely use strings of idioms to bulk out lyrics, or to spin ideas from. Two frequent idiom users (and very unlikely bedfellows) are Edwyn Collins, here with Orange Juice’s Poor Old Soul, and Wayne Hussey represented by The Mission and Beyond The Pale – two promising titles. Poor Old Soul (an early 7-inch on the Postcard label) includes at least 8 idioms or phrases in its 150 seconds (“You’d better come clean, I will not be a party to your scheme” etc). Beyond The Pale is a series of riverine and nautical idioms carefully reversed and rewritten to avoid cliché: “Cold still waters running deep, pale before the eyes – ravaged by the hands that feed thunder clouds the skies…”
Almost in a field of his own (which is probably how he’d like it) is Elvis Costello. His lyrical output during his years with The Attractions is almost top-heavy with idioms, allusions, vernacular phrases and rictus-inducing puns, some of which appear to be his own creation. The breathlessly wordy Beyond Belief offers elaborate constructions such as “the wind-up world of the nervous tick” (not a typo) and – a personal favourite – “bone orchard” for a graveyard.
The Temptations’ late 60s/early 70s recordings popularised a new radical sound in black American music, and their lyrics (mostly by producer Norman Whitfield) were rich in conversational imagery. The less-remembered Law Of The Land begins with a series of weather-related images and moves on to gambling to signify decision-making maturity: “Live by the Good Book if you're able, you must play your cards on top of the table. When you gather you either win or lose, in life's everybody's got to pay some dues…”
Popular music has generated its own fair share of idioms and axioms. “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry” sounds like something from an 18th- or 19th-century spiritual. In fact it only originates from William Bell’s self-penned 1961 US hit, and the context is doomed romance: “When you left me and said bye-bye, I missed my water… my well ran dry”. Bell also coined the phrase “Born Under A Bad Sign”, as recorded by Albert King and (later) Cream.
Love is the drug for so many lyric writers. Is there anything new to say? Probably, but that’s not what you get from Lee Hazlewood’s duet with Nancy Sinatra on “Sand”, which piles together every possible cliché from one of those Regency romances I know I’ll never read – “At night when stars light up the sky - oh sir, I dream my fire is high. Oh, taste these lips, sir, if you can - wandering man, I call thee Sand”. Nonsense. Did I mention that it’s brilliant? Todd Rundgren understands the power of cliché too, and articulates it: “Where are the words? And it's almost not worth singing about… it seems so everyday anyway. Still we play that old cliché”.
Hip-hop has revolutionised the way music makes use of language – the best performers can create something entirely fresh and new out of the ocean of words. Listen to Propaganda’s state-of-the-nation Crooked Ways – “Your kingdom can catch flames as effortless as riots…what is man but rich soil toiled in fine Hennessy? A beautiful garden that cost a pretty penny. Listen - it's freely given, but you've been warned. These halos stay balanced on the tip of our horns!”
Phrases can have specific meanings in different cultures. “Don’t take my kindness for weakness” is a potent phrase in black American society, being a recognised affirmation of personal strength. Meshell Ndegeocello makes the point – oh so gently: “The sweeter my love is while you have it, the more you’ll miss it, yeah, when it’s gone”. And we can only scratch the surface of idioms in other languages. Daouda Koné sings in French in his native Côte d'Ivoire, and the phrase “Mon Coeur Balance” is open to as many interpretations as there are online translation sites. How about the bittersweet “my heart could go either way”?
Finally, the all-purpose one-word idiom. Musicians have been jamming together for decades, but for Bob Marley the word was all-inclusive: play, party, celebrate, enjoy. And after a marathon session at the Song Bar, I hope we’ll all be jammin’ too.
Attractions, Allusions, Ad Infinitum A-list Playlist:
1. The Teardrop Explodes – Reward
2. Peter Hammill – The Play’s The Thing
3. Orange Juice – Poor Old Soul (Part One)
4. The Mission – Beyond The Pale
5. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Beyond Belief
6. The Temptations – Law Of The Land
7. William Bell – You Don’t Miss Your Water
8. Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood - Sand
9. Todd Rundgren – Cliché
10. Propaganda ft. Terence F. Clark – Crooked Ways
11. Meshell Ndegeocello – Don’t Take My Kindness For Weakness
12. Daouda Koné - Mon Coeur Balance
13. Bob Marley & The Wailers – Jammin’
Beyond Belief To Black Box Recorder B-List Playlist:
1. Rita & The Tiaras – Gone With The Wind Is My Love
2. Viva Voce – Good As Gold
3. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Bats In The Attic
4. Colourbox – Arena II
5. Mother Hips – Gold Plated
6. Mary Gauthier – Slip Of The Tongue
7. Gary Louris – True Blue
8. Max Romeo & The Upsetters – One Step Forward
9. Easterhouse – Whistling In The Dark
10. Cock Sparrer – Before The Flame Dies
11. Ronnie Burns – Exit Stage Right
12. John Greaves, Peter Blegvad & Lisa Herman – Twenty-Two Proverbs
13. Black Box Recorder – The Facts Of Life
Guru’s Wildcard Pick:
Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Pidgin English
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Going for a song: lyrics using idioms, common phrases and expressions. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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