Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Five Favourites |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Five Favourites

‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’

A cocktail piano song of rare power, ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ combines a sweet melody by Gene de Paul with a bitter lyric by Don Raye, who started out as a vaudeville hoofer, a suitable background for the man who wrote the peltingly rhythmic words for the Andrews Sisters’ swing hit ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’. In this more plaintive number, however, he was out to affect the tear-ducts, not the feet. Billie Holiday was one of the many singers who knew they were on to something great when they sang the penultimate line ‘Until you’ve faced each dawn with sleepless eyes’. The trick is for the singer not to overdo it: the emotion is already in the words.

‘I Wonder What Became of Me’

The quiet titan of the American music business, Johnny Mercer sang with big bands from Paul Whiteman through to Benny Goodman before, as the founder of Capitol Records, he became one of the formative talent scouts, a task in which it must have helped to have so much talent himself. His singing abilities probably lay at the heart of his gift for writing lyrics that sound inevitable from line to line. Of the countless songs he wrote with Harold Arlen, none beats ‘I Wonder What Became of Me’. A couplet like ‘And they pour champagne / Just like it was rain’ sounds so simple, but nobody ever wrote like that by accident.

‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’

Cole Porter was the man in the velvet mask. As a gay patrician who had to disguise the gender of his feelings, he often wrote regretful lyrics even to his most exultant melodies, and when the melody was regretful the lyrics could be desperate. ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ is the complaint of someone whose heart is being broken not just once, but over and over, so the little flashes of wordplay sound like tears being fought back. ‘When you’re near there’s such an air of spring about it / I can hear a lark somewhere begin to sing about it.’ When Ella Fitzgerald sang this song the way it should be sung, plainly and without emphasis, she was up there with Edith Piaf singing ‘Et moi’, and Marlene Dietrich singing ‘In den Ruinen von Berlin’. A song can be monumental.

‘Folsom Prison Blues’

When the vaunted personal expression of the singer/songwriter movement took over from the old-style songwriters who wrote for anybody, the distance between the best lyrics and the average opened to the width and depth of the Grand Canyon. The time-honoured neatness of the well-crafted professional lyric, however, continued to flourish in an unexpected area: country music. ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, written as well as sung by Johnny Cash, is only one of hundreds of country songs that become even more enjoyable when you look closely at how they are put together. Cash was especially good at approximate rhymes, which are very tricky to do. ‘I hear that train a-comin’ / It’s rollin’ round the bend / And I ain’t seen the sunshine / Since I dunno when’. ‘Bend’ and ‘when’ didn’t really rhyme, but they did when he sang them, because that’s the way he spoke.

‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’

A victim of palsy, Ian Dury had a lot more to offer on stage than his exemplary bravery. That twisted body of his was the incarnation of rhythm. One of his most vivid flights of fancy, ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ hasn’t really got a melody, just a relentless forward drive, over which he speaks the lyric rather than sings it. Yet the lyric is perfect in every respect. In a catalogue song that does nothing much except name the names of exotic places, he gets a wonderful air of adventure just out of the precision of his rhymes. ‘In the deserts of Sudan / And the gardens of Japan / From Milan to Yucatan / Every woman, every man ...’ The effortless way the fragments of French and German are pieced into the lyric is diabolically clever. If only the rap lyricists could write like that. There’s no way of telling, but among all the million musical moments on YouTube at the moment, Dury singing this amazing song is probably the single most exciting thing. I tune in half a dozen times a day, wondering what I have to do to make my words even half that good.

(Guardian, April 1, 2008)


Requests from newspapers and magazines to supply lists of favourite things are generally to be avoided. It makes you look as if you think in crumbs. But when a plug is part of the fee, suddenly the prospect looks more attractive. I contributed this list to the Guardian as an addendum to the preceding article, just because the editor wanted an eye-catching featurette to offset the comparatively weighty-looking chunk of prose. Back in the 1970s, when I first had off-trail merchandise to publicize, it was made clear to me that editors would like paragraphs as well as pieces. I tried to make a virtue out of necessity and pack the paragraph with as much action as I could. My aim was to write what my young Web colleague Nichola Deane calls the bonsai essay. There was a hidden reward attached to getting better at it. When I finally realized that my website could expand infinitely sideways if I wrote enough short introductions to jewels lifted from YouTube and similar sources, the techniques for saying a lot in a short space came in handy. Nowadays, short of time all round, I am usually turning out a few bonsai numbers when not slogging away at something larger, and there is already a strange and previously unheard-of system of echoes building up between what I write for the page and what I write for the Web. The above brief remarks on Ian Dury, for example, were the rehearsal for what I finally set down as his introductory paragraph in the Video Finds section of my website. It will be interesting to see, in the future, how the two kinds of writing converge. Have they a different tempo? I hope they don’t have different standards. I won’t be here to do the seeing, alas, so it’s all in the hands of a new generation of wandering scholars. Starting out from an academic fortress, they have chosen the path of adventure. I wish I was going with them, but I was there to see them off, and half the trick of life is to be as glad for the lives of those who will outlive you as you are for the lives of those you have outlived.