By The Landlord
I like bananas (because they have no bone). Every time I eat vegetables it makes me think of you. Well, mine smell like honey. But you can't have your Kate and Edith too! Really? The world’s my oyster soup kitchen floor wax museum. But where in the hell did you go with my toothbrush? Fuck you! You’re the reason our kids are so ugly. Oh yeah? If you can't live without me, why aren't you dead yet? Our lawyer made us change the name of this song so we wouldn’t get sued. Well, if my nose were running money, I'd blow it all on you. Now I’m surgically removing the tracking device. Why? Because … Life is a circus run by a platypus. I’m the disco godfather! And my guitar wants to kill your mama. Killer tomatoes eat France! Aliens ate my Buick. Don’t worry, we'll think of a title …
Welcome then all to the crazy world of titles, where the wonderful and awful, the clever and the clumsy, the slick and the sick can all collide, depending on your taste and perspective, and already a heated debate, as you can see above, has broken out, at the bar. Some song titles sound like those from a book, or a film, or an instruction leaflet, some are just plain strange, and rather mischievously, I’ve mixed them up a little, to see if it’s possible to tell the difference. And this week it’s all about the finding the strangest, most tantalising, striking, quirky, perhaps sometimes violent sounding or sexually strange, offbeat. Some used bizarre combinations of words. Some use numbers or symbols and more. Some are long or short, but that’s not the criteria here - this time it’s about titles that really stand out, songs with titles that cry out to be heard and, while outstanding in that respect, also stand up, and live up to their title.
And as usual, an assorted collection of songwriters have dropped in, eager to talk about the topic. But does the title rule the song or the song rule the title? Ideally they are perfectly paired.
“For every song, the title dictates the architecture of the song” says the great Broadway and romantic Sinatra-era lyricist Sammy Cahn. Call him irresponsible, toss him three coins in a fountain, and he may have high hopes, but he’s probably right.
But how carefully thought out are titles? Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips is a connoisseur of the tantalisingly titular, but confesses the creative process is more random than perhaps those of Cahn’s era: “Sometimes the song title comes with the songs, other times you just sorta make something up afterwards,” he admits with a shrug.
Silliness? There's plenty of that. Neil Innes, that brilliant writer and performer of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and The Ruttles, says that strange titles often come from browsing: “We used to go to flea markets and things, and look for old 78 records that had silly song titles.” But what makes for a good title when you see or think of one? The country singer Cole Swindell reckons that there’s also a visual element to the words. “If it looks good on a T-shirt, it would probably be a pretty cool title or cool song.”
Some artists are hot and cold about titles. Damon Albarn has dropped by, in a slightly grumpy mood, and he who was of course involved in Blur’s “Song 2”, says rather indifferently, “I can't be bothered anymore about giving songs titles.” Really? Well … woo, hoo! Actually not giving a song a proper title can be as much a way of attracting attention as looking to write the most outrageous one. Meanwhile Brendon Urie, lead singer of Panic! at the Disco, a band name that cries out for attention from the beginning, is the opposite, but where do theirs come from? “Nobody had song titles that were as long as ours. A lot of it was just inside jokes.”
So what qualities make a striking title? Well, this is where we might see the worlds of best and worst collide. Some cry out for attention through pathos, but where Johnny Cash is concerned, what level of pain makes you want to say: I've Been Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart? Oh Johnny!
Here then I’m going to dip more into album titles (not applicable for nominations) so as to leave many more songs for you, dear readers, to dig out. What’s really bad could also be really good, which is of course highly subjective, but it’s a risky business. Such titles variously mix the downright filthy and tasteless with the funny or meaningless. So where might you stand on Beyonce’s B-Day, Charlotte Church’s Tissues And Issues, Guns N’ Roses’ The Spaghetti Incident, Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion Technician, Final Fantasy’s He Poos Clouds, or The Police’s pretentious Zenyatta Mondatta, which, with Sting involved of course, means 'Top Of The World’ in Sanskrit. Does that translate for you, or turn you off?
Some artists use numbers and symbols, but how well does this work? Bon Iver’s 22, A Million Has track names such as “666 ʇ” And 21 M♢♢N WATER. Great album, but what about the song titles?
Life or death situations also make for attention grabbing titles, especially those involving humour. How about Noise Gunk Murder Castle’s I Don’t Know Whether to Kill Myself or Go Bowling?
Another great technique is strange combinations of words and a little bit of half rhyme, such as Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Or Tom Wait’s album title Swordfishtrombones, to Stereolab’s Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, to Sparklehorse’s Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot.
Certainly playing with well-known sayings can also be eye-catching, such as Omar Rodríguez-López’s Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fungus, but can it be contrived or brilliant? How about Elvis Costello’s Put Your Big Toe In The Milk Of Human Kindness?
Questions, statements, or commands are also great approaches to titles that are far more active than passive in use of language. And directness is another recurring quality that works from the short and punchy, such as System Of A Down’s Steal This Album, or The Beatles song Why Don’t We Do It In the Road? Or indeed the very lengthy, as in Soulwax’s album: Most of the remixes we’ve made for other people over the years except for the one for Einstürzende Neubauten because we lost it and a few we didn’t think sounded good enough or just didn’t fit in length-wise, but including some that are hard…
Chumbawumba are famous for a long album title, but surely Fiona Apple takes the biscuit, with: When the pawn hits the conflicts he thinks like a king / What he knows throws the blows when he goes to the fight / And he’ll win the whole thing ‘fore he enters the ring / There’s no body to batter when your mind is your might / So when you go solo, you hold your own hand / And remember that depth is the greatest of heights / And if you know where you stand, then you know where to land / And if you fall it won’t matter, cause you’ll know that you’re right.
Bodily functions and sex are a very regular theme in provocative song or album titles and Frank Zappa is master of this, from I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth, to Burnt Weeny Sandwich, to the more surreal and violent Weasels Ripped My Flesh. But what was Paul McCartney thinking in 2012 with Kisses On The Bottom? Or George Clinton with – Hey Man Smell My Finger? Surely that's more like Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove than Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove. And as for Gary Glitter’s Touch Me (1973) the less said the better.
Books and films are full of great titles, but could easily be song titles and many songs have copied, or altered them. Who might have written songs with titles such as The Haunted Vagina, The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art, Nude Nuns with Big Guns, Razor Wire Pubic Hair, How to Poo On A Date, or indeed Fifty Shades of Bacon Flavoured Vagina Spray? Or or better known, The Ticket That Exploded, The Cry of Lot 49, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Any of these might be written by The Flaming Lips or Frank Zappa, but they weren’t.
This could go on for some time, but now it’s over to you. And I’m delighted to announce that this week’s titan of the title, and bandleader of the banner is the awesome attwilightlarks, coming back for more about previously doing a splendid job with songs featuring irony. And there may well be more of that here with titles. I’m sure it will not only be titular but also spectacular.
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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.