Sunday, 31 August 2008

Songwriting 101; Lesson One. How to write song lyrics, penguin style.

Jack - People often ask us how we write our lyrics. Well, not that often, but they’re obviously curious, so why wait for them to ask, right? Instead of a direct question, after someone listens to one of our tunes we may get a comment like:

“Were you high when you wrote this?”

“You must have been really drunk when you wrote this.”

“What were you guys on when you wrote this?”

Disagrees - What foolishness.

Jack – Hmm. Well, alchohol and drugs may work for some people, but our songs are usually written under the influence of tea, hunger, and a semi-invisible penguin. Not everybody can have the assistance of a penguin, however.

Disagrees – That’s not quite accurate, Jack. In the spirit of self-promotion, I have decided to conduct some songwriting masterclasses, to help any would be songwriters out there produce quality work that might meet my exacting standards. Lesson one is lyric writing.

Jack – Ten tips for successful lyric writing?

Disagrees – I think not. Perhaps eleven.

Jack – So here it is: lesson 1 in our “Songwriting 101” series. Your comments, and any additional thoughts or suggestions, will be appreciated.

Disagrees – Pah!

1. Say something!

“You singers are spineless, as you sing your senseless songs to the mindless. Your general subject, love, is minimal (it’s sex for profit).” Public Enemy: “Caught, Can We Get A Witness?”

When you start to write lyrics, unless you have a specific thing to say, the mind quickly starts to boggle at all the things you can say. It is therefore best to start of with something in specific you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a story, or a protest song; it can be a feeling or an observation.

Our first album is entitled “We’ve Got A Point To Make But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Is”. You do not necessarily have to say anything coherent, but some sort of message is helpful.

Example: “Che Guevara t-shirt; what the f**k is that all about?”

2. Have a hook

“The revolution will not be televised” (Gil Scott Heron) – listen here

Taylor Mali’s "How To Write A Political Poem" is a good read on the subject of having a ‘hook’

3. Poetry

Some people say that lyric writing is like writing a poem. Think of some of your favourite songs, and imagine if you read the lyrics written out as a poem. Often the resulting poem is not very good. Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, for example. Song lyrics can be memorable and singable without being good poetry.

On the other hand, turning a poem into lyrics can be successful, for example the verses of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do”, which are based on a poem called “Fun”, by one Wyn Cooper.

4. The David Bowie Approach

“Tactful Cactus, by a Window

Surveys the Prairie of your room.

Mobile spins, to its collision.

Clara puts her head between her paws.

Open shops, down the west side

Will all the Cacti find a home?

But the key, to the city

Is in the sun that pins the branches to the sky

Woah oh oh.”

David Bowie- “Eight Line Poem”

There’s some story about David Bowie cutting out random lyrics and rearranging them to create his songs. Here is David Bowie writing a song using a different method.

5. Rhyme

“I’m gonna be, yours in a simple rhyme”- Van Halen – “In A Simple Rhyme”

“All the tired horses in the sun, how’m I gonna get any riding done.” – Bob Dylan – “All the Tired Horses”

“I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like

It’s got a basket a bell that rings and things to make it look good

I’d give it to you if I could

but I borrowed it.” – Syd Barrett – “Bike”

Sometimes obvious rhymes are the best. It is also possible to construct a song around rhymes that while in themselves ‘obvious’ are a little bit of a stretch in context, which can give your song an interesting vibe.

Example: “Didn’t feel too popular, I bought myself binoculars”

The Bye Byes’ song “Binoculars”

Also have a listen to Arlo Guthrie's "Motorcycle (Significance of the Pickle) Song".

"I don't want a pickle

Just wanna ride on my motorcycle

And I don't want a tickle

Just wanna ride on my motorcycle

And I don't wanna die

Just wann ride on my motorcy...cle."

6. Pun and Cliché

“Holly wants to go to California. Holly would, if only Holly could.” – Funkadelic

“Evil will prevail” – The Flaming Lips

“Cos she thinks she’s so…phisticated.” – Public Enemy

Play around with words and meanings, words that sound the same, and split words into component parts, etc. Taking a clichéd expression and changing it is a popular hook-making technique, second only in popularity to simply taking a common expression or figure of speech and leaving it as it is, but possibly taking it more literally than normal, or giving it an obvious double meaning- AC/DC commonly do this, e.g. “Givin’ the Dog A Bone”, or “Shake A Leg”, or “Let me put my love into you”.

7. Imagery

Use powerful imagery:

“And maybe Marlon Brando

Will be there by the fire,

We'll sit and talk of Hollywood,

and the good things there for hire

And the Astrodome

And the first Teepee

Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and Me”

Neil Young – “Pocahontas”

“Some people seem to stare, like I’m Don King’s hair” – Plastic Dave – “DragonsLair”

8. References

The above are also pop-culture references; another example is Public Enemy’s hook-

“Party for your right to fight”, which cleverly turns around the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for your right to party” to give it a whole different meaning. Our song “I have to say I love you in a solo”, is partly inspired by Jim Croce, who wrote “I have to say I love you in a song”

Our rap, “A Mind To Disagree”, is packed full of references. Here are some examples from that piece:

“Silly rabbit, your habits don’t fit in my habitat, the fit survive, I’m fitter, that is that.”

This is a reference both to Darwin’s theory of evolution and to a breakfast cereal commercial featuring a silly rabbit, via Flava Flav’s line in “Caught, Can We Get A Witness” where he says “I see your tape recorder and I grab it; No you can’t have it back, you silly rabbit”, which also makes this a rapping reference;

“I’m a rhyming wizard, unleashing lyrical blizzards, you’re not in Kansas anymore and you’re freezing to your gizzards”, is obviously a Wizard of Oz reference.

“It’s most icy not Mos Eisley but it’s still a wretched hive of scum and villainy”

refers to a line in Star Wars spoken by Obi Wan Kenobi;

“…not gonna be an alien space ship, we’ve only got one planet so lets not waste it”

Is self-referential, referring to another song of ours, “Space Cadet”

This kind of referencing is most appropriate in rap songs. It can also be used to subtly remind people of any kind of “beef” you may have with another rapper.

9. Psychadelic

Listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold As Love”. He clearly has something to say, but he says it using very flowery language.

10. Bridge – take it to another level

The bridge of the song, immediately preceding a mind-blowing solo, is a good place to ramp up your lyrical efforts and expand into new territory.

A good example of this is in the Crash Test Dummies’ song “When I Go Out With Artists”. The singer has been pondering this topic, but when he gets to the bridge something else occurs to him:

“What if the artists ran the TV?

All the ads would be for fine scotch whisky;

Glennfiddich, Glenlivet, the whole single malt


The bridge can also be a cool refreshing place where you can expand before returning to the main drive of the song with renewed energy and vigour. You can use it with or without a key change. We use bridges in our songs “Haggis the Wondercow”, “Uncle Sam”, and “Facemelter of the Old Country” for this kind of effect.

11. Make It Up As You Go Along (MIUAYGA)

“Well I put down my bush

And I took off my pants and felt… free.

The breeze blowing up… me.

And up the canyon…

Far as I could see”

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - “The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back.”

This song is almost like a poem, and in between many of the phrases you here a clicking sound, which makes me wonder whether this song wasn’t written in one go using the MIUAYGA method and turning the tape-recorder off and on. Our song “Pharaoh” was also written using the MIUAYGA method, and many of our best lyrics are written on the fly to fill in a space or fit to the music. Also known as improvisation, but that sounds lazy.


Jack - So, now you know how to write better lyrics. Go and write a song. Good luck!

Disagrees - No. We’ve only covered lyrics today. They are not yet ready to write an entire song.

Jack – Right. If you want to listen to any of our songs mentioned here, try one of the links on the right of the page. For more songwriting tricks and tips, don’t forget to check back frequently, as Disagrees will be casting more pearls before you in due course.

1 comment:

Disagrees said...

Nb. you can also use Wikipedia as a source of lyrics.