Late last I week I listened with interest as Megan Washington told JJJ listeners about the 5 songs she wished she’d written, for a regular segment of the same name I rarely catch because I’m not in the car at the time, and I don’t get to listen to the radio at work. Which got me thinking, because I’ve written my fair share of poetry, and had some of it performed, and while I haven’t yet written to music, it’s lack of an outlet rather than lack of desire that’s seen me turn to other pursuits. So, like any air guitar hero worth his tennis racket and dreams of I-coulda-ness despite knowing deep in my little back heart that JJJ ain’t ever gonna come calling, here are 5 songs I wish I’d written:
Growing up in Rockingham during the 1980s was not, you may be surprised to hear, a psychedelic journey into the heartland of musical diversity. Surfers liked Aussie Crawl; Bogans worshipped AC/DC and the Angels if they wanted something lighter; everyone loved Chisel and Baaaaaaaaahnsie; and if you didn’t like any of them you were a poofter and deserved the kicking you invariably got. Surviving High School was bad enough, but I liked Queen. I liked Bowie. I liked Adam Ant. I liked Pink Floyd and Alice Cooper. I worshipped Madness. I liked Slade, fer chrissake: what hope did I have among the Bogan Sloblords when this was the sort of thing I was grooving to?
So 1989 was a big year for me, one of the biggest. I finished High School in 1988. 1989 brought University, and an escape from Rockingham, and a widening of my personal horizons that has never, to this day, entirely abated. I discovered art, and writing, and drugs, and liberal thinking, and a whole bunch of sex tricks I’d only ever read about. I found poetry, and alternative cinema, and theatre, and music. Oh, the music. They Might be Giants and Velvet Underground and New York Dolls and the Slits and Michelle Shocked and Sinead O’Connor and on, and on, and then, in the space of a year and a bit, Guns and Roses released the Use Your Illusion double set, Metallica released the Black album, Soundgarden’s Louder than Love came along, Nirvana started doing their thing, Pearl Jam were even better with Ten, Red Hot Chilli Peppers gave us Mother’s Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik… and before all that, leading them all out and blowing my fucking mind wide open……
Faith No More. The Real Thing. And this utter, utter mind fuck of a song. Epic. 5 minutes of machine gun insanity, lyrics spat out like a staccato street poet, banshee guitars screaming in counterpoint, and then, rising out of all that mayhem and anger and gonzo lyricism, that perfect, perfect piano, fading away into a melodious death rattle….
There is nothing about this song that isn’t a sublime graffiti-poem to the death of my childhood and the effect that experiencing that tsunami orgasm of freedom had on my burgeoning consciousness. It is the anthem of my awakening, and I wish I had the art and the anger and the white-hot tiger-riding creative balls to have written it.
I’m a poet at heart. That’s how I started out: my first sales were all poems, and I still turn to poetry when I’m feeling dry and the words won’t come. It’s the same reason that my first, and greatest, artistic love is the New Wave of the late 1960s– the whirling, skirling beats and rhythms of words and music and lines across the page that typify the period, where the rules were being broken down and re-arranged and, in so many cases, taken out to the kerb and left for passers by to take for free. Harlan Ellison and Hendrix and Roger McGough and Robert Crumb and Lester Bangs and The Pink Floyd and The Prisoner and all that artistic glory that I sucked on like a hungry baby.
Bowie is Science Fiction’s greatest poet, our highest selling artist. I could unpick the lyrics of The Bewlay Brothers into any number of images, each incomplete, each one competing with the other, each one the basis for an inferior copy. It’s a palimpsest, a mathom, a mosaic. It’s an act of artistic bravura. It’s a musical kaleidoscope, and I love its fractured imagery, its mosquito narratives. It’s psychedelic nearly to the point of caricature, before it stops just short, teetering on the brink, self-aware and laughing. I could dream for such self-control, such wild-eyed abandon. It’s not quite my favourite Bowie song, but it is the one I wish I’d written.
Ah, I do loves me a good musical narrative, and as I lack the patience and willingness to overlook bland songs and horrendous performances, my drug of choice is the concept album rather than musical theatre. One gives you The Wall and The Temptation of Alice Cooper, the other gives you The Lion King and Grease. ‘Nuff said.
So, I’m a fan of the Floyd. I love the way they developed their themes through their albums, building narratives across songs so that each song built upon what came before like short stories in a perfectly-weighted collection. I love the cracked-mirror world view they espouse, the despairing intelligence, the jaundice and pain that unfolds as Roger Waters picked obsessively at his scars, creating new scar material to pick at later, until, of course, the scars built up too much and the band members turned on each other, and themselves, and the group imploded. But for 5 albums, from 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon to The Final Cut in 1983, no band in the world created such a sustained narrative. It’s rock’s great series, the musical equivalent to the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings or Gormenghast books: you can listen to them as stand-alones, out of sequence, if you wish, and still partake of their meaning. But you only get their true power if you read from beginning to end, in order, as the author intended.
So why this song in particular? It’s the quiet at its heart. There’s so much despair here, so much resignation. Whatever has been grasped for has proven out of reach, whatever has been hoped for has turned to ashes. There’s no anger here, no fire. That time has passed. It’s a song that deals with the aftermath of loss, with the cold, remorseless resignation that each individual tragedy goes unnoticed by the Universe, that no matter how great the story, how great the event that unfolded before, there is a tomorrow, and for the loser, that day will be cold and grey, and uncaring, It’s a magnificent inversion of every narrative trope, and I’ve spent so much of my career trying to capture that inversion that I wish I’d just managed to write this song and get it right the first time.
The perfect combination of anger, logic, reason, hurt, poetry and perfect, perfect pop music.
Let’s be honest: I could spend my entire career wishing I could write XTC songs. But this is the one whose lyrics resonate, whose approach sits like a slice of surgical steel in my heart. Perhaps it’s because I’m an atheist, raised by a lapsed Anglican who spent as much time angry at her lapse as at the upbringing. Perhaps it’s just because this song is the perfect example of the narrative art of inversion that I try so desperately to capture when I write– to openly reinforce a status quo through the act of inverting it, or invert that status quo by appearing to agree with it. An angry denial of belief, via writing a letter to the deity you are telling of that disbelief. It’s brilliant. It’s perfect. I could die wishing for one-tenth of its perfection.
And here is the last, and amongst all the noble intentions and high-falutin’ talk of narrative inversion and portmanteau lyricism and deep psychological insight, this is exactly what it is: a rip-snorting, balls-out, rollicking horror story told at a motherfucker-per-hour rush; an off-kilter shanty swimming in glee and hat-waving hold-onto-yerself foot to the pedal joy. It is, quite simply, the best romp I’ve ever seen set to music. Blood-soaked, laughing, drunken balladeering like it aught to be. I wish all my horror stories were this much sheer damn bloody fun. I wish I could gather this much noise and ramshackle exuberance and utter voice in one such controlled explosion. Because when it’s all stripped away, the aim is to tell a story, and entertain, and sink your audience so deep into your world they forget where they are until the wander out the other end, dazed and bleeding and reaching into their pocket for the coins to take another ride. And this is the foot-stomping, beer-swinging, head-thrown-back-and-wolf-howling apotheosis of the art. Dance, motherfucker, dance!
So, there it is. Five songs I wish I’d written. Five elements of popular lyric culture that I wish I could capture in as pure, crystalline form as the artists who originated them.
It’s all good, clean fun.