Good vs. Bad<BR>

Good vs. Bad

Summary: ...and the Fabs' songwriting talents

Mr. writes:

>Why is it always so necessary to judge a Paul song by the lyrical quality?
>Just because a song has bad lyrics doesn't make it lousy or lame. Granted
>pathetic lyrics like Bip Bop can be a real turn-off, but that's an extreme
>case. The song "Why Don't We do it In the Road" is not really all that
>deep but musically it is catchy and raw. Why do we like this song
>(I am sure we can agree it is high on the list)? Because of the music.
>Eventhough the words to Yesterday are beautiful, would we still like it
>if were a raunchy heavy metal.

>sorry for the rambling

Never apologize for long as you don't mind if others do the same. :-)

But it sounds like you're making a declaration similar to "Just because a movie has bad photography doesn't make it lousy or lame." A film's made up of sight and sound. If one of those vital elements is poorly executed, then one of two things happens. Either you love so much what little is there that you excuse its faults, or you fail to get the filmmaker's message. And an artist whose art fails to reach his public has stumbled most profoundly.

I suppose lyrics matter very little, if you're Duane Eddy or Dick Dale or the Shadows; they were, after all, wizards of the instrumental pop song. But for the preeminent songwriting team of the sixties, Messrs. Lennon and McCartney, lyrics were, more often than not, a vital part of their artistic mix.

Not always, as you point out. "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" is not akin to "Yesterday", either melodically or lyrically. Not every song is a work of genius, nor does it need to be. You can't have fun if you're a songwriter straightjacketed into solemnity. "Why Don't We Etc.", "Wild Honey Pie", "You Know My Name...." are rare examples from the Fabs' musical pantheon that suggest a spirit of self-parody is at work. Lennon & McCartney's talent is not challenged by the fact that these lyrics exist---but it might be, if someone insisted on ranking them with the rest of their output in strict equivalence. That's not what you're suggesting, I'm sure.

So if you want to compare "Why Don't We Etc." to another song that's catchy and raw, don't pick "Yesterday"; try "Back In The USSR". Now *there's* a song that melds political satire, surf-sound parody, traditional rock-and-roll lyrical themes with a musical arrangement that'll have you up on your feet in an instant, unless you're dead.

And it's no diminution of John and Paul's accomplishments to suggest that "USSR" is the more accomplished song of these two. Everybody deserves some fun. But when the Fabs mixed fun with creative wit, there's no question which is better.

The old argument about "Mr. Melody" McCartney and "Mr. Lyrics" Lennon has been much defused over the years. It's no good citing Paul's solo lyrical missteps (when they occur...and that's up for debate, as we can see :-) as evidence that he's fallen far from his Beatles days when John was still handy to supply mellifluous words. We now know that the team rarely wrote in tandem; that most of Paul's best songs as a Beatle came forth, fully or partly formed, from his own hand, augmented as necessary by Lennon's comments or criticism.

John wrote the same way. Their songs bear the stamp of variant weights of influence. You can hear the shift from one mind to another in "A Day in the Life", for instance, or experience the minimal presence of John in Paul's "Getting Better". But some songs show no such seams: "Thank You, Girl", "She Loves You", "I Want To Hold Your Hand". Here both creative personalities blend.

This isn't the surprise. What amazes the pop analyst today is that both writers were really inevitably at home in melody *and* lyric. In formative stages, songs came into Abbey Road written on the backs of envelopes or in notebooks, melodies captured simply in the minds of each composer, or later on tape. In studio, prefigured riffs were transformed into complex musical extensions; harmonies multiplied; choruses repeated.

On the bones of rough instrumentation came Paul's innovative bass lines, George's religiously-rehearsed leads, John's infallible rhythm, Ringo's beat. Yet all this was built around the lyrics, which by most accounts changed very little once the music-building started. I wouldn't say that lyrics were preeminent; but they were, in the case of Lennon & McCartney, often at least half of the package. And as much as possible, they had to be good.

For evidence, witness the hapless case of "If You've Got Trouble" or "That Means A Lot", recently discussed in this esteemed newsgroup. The only exception I might suggest is "Hey Jude", whose lyrics retain an experimental gloss, but whose sentimental sincerity is buoyed by its sterling arrangement. In most cases, you could easily say that if the lyrics were weak the song would be severely compromised.

Odd to think of it that way, because when they first caught fire, the Beatles were noted for their sound, not their words. It was the sound that swept down from the north of England and electrified their homeland. This same sound, independent of well-intentioned pre-planned publicity, changed the substance of American airwaves (and record-buying habits) before the Boys ever set foot in the States. To those who were there, it was a melodic revolution. At first, lyrics seemed secondary, if they could be heard at all.

British music critics were more enthusiastic about the Beatles' oeuvre than their compatriots on our side of the pond. American commentators on Beatlemania, a phenomenon which arrived full-force this week just twenty-nine years ago, often dismissed the Fabs' lyrics as drivel. Perhaps that was because they couldn't hear them properly, due to fans' screams. Perhaps they were focused on the Boys' odd (for that time) appearance (hey, at least they wore suits! :-)

Or perhaps more of that familiar sentiment about love and longing and heartbreak and infatuation and sheer youthful energy was seen as Still The Same Old Story....which it was, of course. The fundamental things apply.

So these days, when someone complains that Paul's new release has songs of questionable lyrical strength, it's a serious charge. But it's not merely bashing. After all, if a song is melodically or lyrically deficient, you've got less a song and more a workin -progress. It's worth remembering that this is a man who regularly wrote songs that could break your heart with their beauty. He still can, now and again. And it's not unkind to suggest that he shouldn't be expected to reach those heights with every new offering. John couldn't, either. His "Double Fantasy" showed immense promise from a man whose songwriting talents had lain quiescent for almost half a decade. Promise is good; full delivery is better. But it's not perpetually possible.

With cosmic good fortune, the two young men who met each other in 1957 at a humble school fete collaborated on some of the best music of the twentieth century. But it's a brief exquisite moment in the universal history of songwriting. It would be unreasonable to expect either writer to have the same resonant gift during the full measure of their lives.

What has happened is that their words *and* music have become a part of history. History won't care to preserve---or make excuses for---songs that are less than exemplary. And as strong as the melody may be for "Bip Bop" or "Let Him In" or "Silly Love Songs" or "Ballroom Dancing" (if that's the hypothetical argument here), or if "Long Leather Coat" or "Hope of Deliverance" are melodically catchy but lyrically weak...well, that's a problem. Not for you or me, perhaps. We're here now. We can love a song for its audiophonic glory and forgive its lyrical trespasses. But such songs won't stand up to past works that have both memorable lyrics *as well as* indelible melodies---or which, at the very *least*, express some universal truth about love, passion, loss, hope. Which are almost the only subjects that humankind values in its popular tunes. And I quote:

I'll be loving you, always. Only you beneath the moon and under the sun. Fate seems to give my heart a twist. Tomorrow night will all our thrills be gone? Am I the fire or just another flame? Somewhere there's music, how faint the tune. Life could be a dream. A love to last more than one day. Would you believe that yesterday this girl was in my arms and swore to me she'd be mine eternally? Seems that I'm always thinking of you. So, love, you'd better wake up, yeah, before we break up. So in love are we two, that we don't know what to do. I smell the roses in her hair. The price of love---the debt you pay with tears and pain.

And further:

You know I love you. You're the only love that I've ever had. Only a fool would doubt our love. Remember I'll always be true. I'm the one who wants you. All I do is hang my head and moan. Is it for her or myself that I cry? I wonder what went wrong. Same old thing happens everyday. The way you treat her, what else can I do? Why should I feel the way I do? It's so fine, it's sunshine. Still you don't regret a single day. Nobody can deny that there's something there. A love that could have lasted years. Where would I be without you? You have always been my inspiration. Will I wait a lonely lifetime?

Lyrics like these, broken apart from their melodies, still pack a wallop, though there's no question that they do their walloping much more effectively intertwined with tunes. But one ought not to be a crutch for the other. Truly successful songwriters---which our Mr. Lennon & Mr. McCartney most certainly were---wove their genius into a fabric of sublime texture; words and music blend together and thrill the senses. You don't just hear what they're singing about. You see it; you taste it; you bear the burden or the joy in your soul.

The historical kicker is this. Somewhere down the pike, perhaps millennia from now, students of twentieth-century music will unearth remnants of our hit parade. In the event that technology has changed by then---or has failed utterly to preserve players that could decode these odd scraps of vinyl or shining discs---the melody itself may be gone. Of course there's always musical notation; but we'll have to rely on forthcoming generations to figure out how it's to be read, and (heaven help them) how to reproduce the sound of John's voice coming out of a revolving Leslie speaker. Now *that* would be a challenge to future afficionados of "original instrumentation"! :-)

For societies in *our* past, whatever rudimentary musical notation they offered has proved controversial to contemporary interpreters (ancient Greek music), or had been dispensed with entirely (by ancient Egyptians). Guess what's left?

Just lyrics. And not the ancient equivalent of "Bip Bop", either. :-)

If the Beatles, together or solo, have created songs that speak to the human heart (which, history suggests, is a fairly constant target over time), then my guess is that lyrics which speak most sincerely, most affectingly, most eloquently---the good ones, in short---will survive. That, in itself, is the ultimate judgment...and as much as we love to argue our respective points, I suspect than in the long run it's quite out of our hands.

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