Lyrics · Music · Trivia

“Yes sir I can boogie” and other self-referential lyrics

This month, while thinking about lyrics, I seem to be stuck in 1977. Last week it was “God Save the Queen” (the Sex Pistols version) and this week it’s something very different, “Yes sir I can boogie”, the global disco hit by Spanish duo Baccara. The song’s title featured in a recent edition of the ITV quiz show “The Chase”. The contestant had to match up the artist name with the title. Paul Sinha (The Sinnerman) explained that it is one of the biggest selling singles of all time, and (he believes) the biggest selling single ever that wasn’t a hit in the USA, something like 16 million copies sold. That was all news to me.

In April 2011 BBC4 started showing old episodes of “Top of the Pops”. They were screened exactly 35 years after their original broadcasts, so throughout that year we were able to relive the charts starting from the spring of 1976 (“Save all your kisses for me” by Brotherhood of Man and Abba’s “Fernando” spent 10 weeks between them at #1). The following year was similar. As 2012 progressed we were able to watch the corresponding week’s episodes of “Top of the Pops” from 1977. With the subtitles on I could read the words to songs that I had never taken the time to work out for myself. “Yes Sir I Can Boogie” reached #1 late in October that year, a single week at the top in between David Soul’s “Silver Lady” and Abba’s “Name of the Game”. Earlier this autumn 1977 was featured on Paul Gambaccini’s “Pick of the Pops” on BBC Radio 2. I listened live that Saturday afternoon while doing the Weekend Guardian’s puzzles (Futoshiki, Hard Sudoku and Hard Killer Sudoku). It’s a habit of mine. As “Silver Lady” played I was taken back to what I recall as a particularly dreary time. “Yes sir I can boogie”, however, always brings a smile to my face. It’s the lyrics in the second verse that do it, referring back to the first verse and chorus.

There isn’t much of a message in the song. It is, after all, a 1970s Euro disco hit. In the opening verse the girl has met a guy, his “eyes are full of hesitation”. Does he know what he’s looking for? Well, if he tries her once he’ll beg for more. Cue the first chorus: “Yes sir I can boogie, but I need a certain song / I can boogie, boogie boogie all night long.” In the second verse, we learn, the unnamed guy wants to know if she can dance. She replies: “Yes sir, already told you in the first verse / and in the chorus / but I will give you one more chance”. These are the words that make me smile. It’s partly the delivery – very strong Spanish accents (“kor-oose” rather than “chorus”) – but also the self-referential nature of the lines. Wasn’t he even listening during that first verse and chorus? We’d better have the chorus again, and again, and again. You can hear the whole thing here. Forward to 1:41 if you want to start at the second verse. And if you don’t want to play it at all I can understand, but next time you hear the song (and you will, sometime in your life) listen out for that second verse.

It’s got me thinking about other songs that refer to themselves, or to the process of writing. Three other chart-toppers come to mind. In Spandau Ballet’s “True” (#1 in 1983) the pre-chorus asks “Why do I find it hard to write the next line?” Natasha Bedingfield’s “These Words” (#1 in 2004) is all about the trouble she’s having trying to write the song (“trying to find the magic / trying to write a classic”). She’s “Read some Byron, Shelley, and Keats / Recited it over a hip-hop beat”, and at the start she’s even told us what the chord pattern is: “Threw some chords together / The combination D-E-F … I’m trying to focus my attention / But I feel so A-D-D”. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (a UK #1 for Alexandra Burke in 2008) also tells us something about the chord pattern in the opening verse: “It goes like this / the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall and the major lift”.

Finally, the Robbie Williams song “Strong” (not a UK #1 – it got as high as #4 in 1999) has these lines: “Early morning when I wake up / I look like Kiss but without the make up / And that’s a good line to take it to the bridge”. Not just self-referential but self-congratulatory too. “That’s a good line to take it to the bridge”? If you say so, Robbie, but it’s “Yes sir I can boogie” that makes me smile.




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