Lyrics that stick and lyrics that don’t

I have speculated more than once in these posts about people’s ability to remember the words to songs. There’s a memory from my 20s here, speculation about whether there’s a link between people’s ability to remember jokes and lyrics here and this more recent piece looks at songs that I have heard thousands of times but only recently worked out what David Bowie and Tom Waits were singing.

Mostly, for songs that I like and listen to repeatedly, the lyrics stick. I could belt out any one of a thousand songs, all verses and choruses intact. Often the words to a song will be committed to memory even when I haven’t consciously tried to learn them.

When Whitney Houston died, five years ago today, I was saddened by the news, and all the words to her first hit (“Saving all my love for you”) immediately came to mind. I sat on the sofa and sang it through, and soon afterwards added it to my repertoire of a #1 song for every year. At the time I didn’t know that the lyrics were written by Gerry Goffin (former husband of Carole King and co-writer with her of many of her best-known hits), and it’s no surprise to find that they were written by someone who followed the craft of lyric-writing properly: he didn’t just throw these things together at the last minute.

To some extent, though, that’s what David Bowie and Mick Jagger have done with some of their songs. The rest of the track is put together and the words come last. This excellent piece from Sound on Sound, about the recording of Bowie’s “Heroes” documents the process. The backing track would be created and finally, according to the great Tony Visconti, who produced it:

“David would just throw his lyrics on at the very last minute. He would write his lyrics in a morning, it would take him an hour or two, but beforehand he’d also need a month or two to let the ideas really germinate.”

It is nearly 40 years since “Heroes” was released. I have heard it thousands of times but for most of those years did not feel fully confident with the lyrics. This lack of certainty comes partly from the different versions that were released (the 7” single and the album version) but even so I should have mastered the words sooner than I did. I learnt them consciously last year, adding the song to my #1 repertoire. (It was a 2010 #1 here in the UK when released by the X-Factor Finalists.) I wonder if my difficulty remembering the verses reflects the fact that, to quote Tony Visconti again, “David would just throw his lyrics on at the very last minute”.

It’s the same with “Mr Tambourine Man”, a Bob Dylan song I have tried to learn at various times over the last 20 years. I just can’t master the verses. Every time I read them, whether it’s in “The Definitive Dylan Songbook”, or his “Writings and Drawings” (yellow cover), or “Lyrics 1962-1985” (black cover), some phrases jump out at me as if for the first time. I wonder if he wrote it in more of a hurry than “Tangled up in blue” or “Idiot Wind”, both of which I can recount word for word, in multiple formats, with their pronoun changes, or with whole verses rewritten. It doesn’t look like he threw any of the lyrics on “Blood on the tracks” together at the last minute. To quote (from memory) from “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”: “There’s something funny going on, he said, I can just feel it in the air.”


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