I’ve been listening to a lot of old soul music lately (not an unusual occurrence) and happened to have a sequence of three metaphor songs in a short spell. All three are great greats songs from the ‘60s, and it’s easier to just put up the YouTube videos than to try and explain in words what I mean by this type of song.
First up is Mel & Tim’s classic “Backfield In Motion.” Sports infractions are the metaphor for cheating in love. The metaphor covers football (“offside & holdin’”), baseball (“balkin’”), boxing (“you hit me below the belt”), and basketball (“double dribble”). This video has all the lyrics.
Then there’s 100 Proof Aged In Soul’s sole hit “Somebody’s Been Sleeping.” This was one of the early hits on the Hot Wax label, formed by the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, after they left Motown in 1968. Here the metaphor is the Goldilocks & The Three Bears fable. And it’s an interesting metaphor in that it is both metaphor and not metaphor. Somebody has been sleeping in his bed! Here’s the lyrics video for this one.
By the way, this is the album version, which I didn’t hear until many years after this was a hit in 1970. When I first heard this version I definitely preferred the single edit; now I love the album version and don’t want to hear the song without the instrumental break that comes 2 minutes in – a minute and a half of pure funky soul horns.
The third is “Agent Double-O-Soul”, Edwin Starr’s first hit from 1965. This was on the Ric-Tic label, which was bought by Berry Gordy a few years later. Bond, James Bond is the metaphor here. Here’s a great (albeit lip-synced) performance video from a 1960s teen dance program; sorry, I couldn’t find one with lyrics.
Recently, I decided to answer a question on Faceblearrgh that nobody had actually asked me — namely: “hey, HVB. Can you name 10 albums that are absolutely perfect?” Like a gladiator, I rose to my own challenge, and, facing myself as disdainful Caesar in the stands, recited my list, boldly, proudly, flawless disc by flawless disc, as the hungry lions circled. I was thoroughly pleased as I watched myself lift my royal thumb towards the sky in approval of my own bold opinions.
But, no, I’m not here to tell you which albums made my list — nor am I asking you for yours. We’re supposed to be above that kind of shit here in the Halls of Rocke Towne.
I will, however, spend a few moments explaining why one album from my list — an album you’ve probably never heard, called “Powerage” — is not just the best album in AC/DC’s career; it may also be one of the best albums ever made.
Howzabout we *not* start with a discussion of Angus Young’s “manic”/“slashing”/“angry”/whatever guitar playing. That is a thing, for sure, but yawn. Ditto for the overall quality of the songs, musically speaking. Those are givens here. No, I want to talk about the lyrics.
Lord knows, Bon Scott has a well deserved reputation for writing leering single-entendres about big butts, crabs, booze, and the general, universe-wide, triumphant reality of feeling good (as opposed to the pointless pursuit of being good, or things that actually are good). But there’s a strong current of Bon’s songwriting that speaks to ordinary losers, and about the stacked decks, con artists, and rich dickheads that keep them down.
To be clear, “Powerage” features a few fine songs about sexual frustration (“Gimme a Bullet”), romantic rejection/betrayal (“Kicked In the Teeth”), actually-scary S&M perversion (“What’s Next To the Moon”) and so forth, and they’re all surprisingly compelling — no, really — but most of the record is about (are you ready for this?) the class war, and whether or not Bon thinks it’s worth your time to fight in it.
Most of the time, he doesn’t seem to think there’s any point. His characters revel in the freedom their lack of status grants them (“Riff Raff”), find humor in their own materialism and harmless hypocrisies (“Down Payment Blues”) — or he sings from his own heart about the perpetual unfairness of capitalism (and his cynical wish to be the top dog), as in “Sin City.”
But, meta-analysis aside, here’s the last point I want to make: Bon’s words *sound* great. Any student of Chuck Berry (as Bon was) knows that’s the really important thing. Do the words sound good? Do they make your reptile brain happy? Are they good to your earhole? Do they make you want to sing along? All across this working man’s hard rock album, the answer to those questions is a full-on, beer-drenched “yes.”
“Powerage” by AC/DC is flawless, and Bon Scott’s lyrics are a big part of the reason why. I have spoken.
I know I’m out of touch with current slang and modern jargon. I know what OMG and LOL mean, but there are too many Internet terms I need to look up. Same for rap/hip-hop slang. I’m glad there’s such a thing as the Urban Dictionary. This all makes listening to current songs problematic.
Then, I heard this song recently:
Yes, South Philly’s, Upper Darby’s, and Villanova’s very one Jim Croce! (And how about those Wildcats last night?!?!)
Listening to it, I realized there are references that might baffle kids these days (or, to quote another Philly legend, Jerry Blavat, the Geator with the Heater, “the yon’ teens in the Delaware Valley”).
For some time, I’ve been thinking about starting a thread about prosody and the relationship of words to music. Ironically, I’ve never been sure I had a substantial premise to spur a conversation and I’m not sure what I want to say.
Recently I was in a conversation about the Police song, “Every Breath You Take,” about how the song was misinterpreted as being romantic, when really the lyric is basically about stalking. I can see how giving the lyrics less than half of your attention might lead to misinterpretation—but this is heavily aided by the lyrical nature of the music itself. Perhaps Sting abetted misinterpretation by mismatching the sentiment of the lyric to the lilting music he wrote. As little credence I give to Puff Daddy’s rap appropriation of the song, perhaps his changing of the lyric to “I’ll be missing you” is actually a better match.
Contrast this against another misunderstood song, REM’s “The One I Love,” where the music really matches the anger of the lyric and the misinterpretation come from a narrow view of noting that the singer loves someone (and the listener’s projection of this onto themselves) and disregarding everything else. Here, I pin the guilt upon those listeners.
But for my favorite example of a prosody mismatch, here’s a special nugget, which I heard on a CD handed out at the Philly Music Conference, circa 1994. This song sounded dated to me back then, the product of some suburban local band still into Scandal and Pat Benatar. To me, the combination of this (trying-to-be) strident and tense music and the serious subject matter of the lyric, leads to a tragicomedy of a chorus, where the feeling of the music undermines the lyric. Bear with this song by Keiran Kacy for 1 minute:
Oops! So painful, on several fronts.
Then there are songs where the feel of the music leads to an obvious musical direction (or v/v). XTC’s “Here Comes President Kill Again” seems to fit this model. Here, I think the songwriter walks a high-wire of having to match the music to the lyric, otherwise, they run the risk of the type of comical mismatch in Keiran Kacy’s song.
If it’s not clear from the title of this thread, the following video is Not Safe for Work, excluding perhaps, those of you working as fishmongers and truck drivers. Take caution before clicking Play on this video.Despite becoming a super-square and super-late-to-the-party fan of Ice Cube through his Barbershop movies and other mostly family fare Hollywood movies, I didn’t purchase any of his music until yesterday, when I bought N.W.A.‘s Straight Outta Compton album. I knew a couple of songs from that album and a couple of solo Ice Cube songs from mix CDs friends gave me through the years, and I liked them. However, I objected to supporting any band with a name containing any variation of the word nigger. Despite liking the music I heard from this crew, the band’s name and the frequent use of that word and constant cursing in their songs always struck me as that set of highly inappropriate and unnecessary things out there that I could easily avoid, much like I avoid buying a bag of pork rinds, no matter how appealing those things sometimes look to me.
Well, yesterday I bought this musical bag of pork rinds. I don’t know how or when I’ll be able to listen to this stuff. I don’t support the language, but the music is excellent. I even dig the nasty language in the context of the music, much like I dig extremely foul language and brutal violence in Martin Scorsese’s movies. For some reason, though, watching a movie with NSFW content in the company of other people doesn’t bug me. Listening to music that goes well beyond my personal rules for social engagement, however, is a more difficult hurdle for me to overcome. Why?
Is the way content is framed within a film somehow safer than the way the same content is framed within a song? We don’t drive down the street with our car projecting scenes from Taxi Driver for pedestrians and other drivers to see. Would I subject others to that if I could? I can’t imagine driving down the street blasting a song like “Straight Outta Compton.” That makes sense, doesn’t it?
When can I listen to my Straight Outta Compton album? Can I play it in my backyard with my fellow middle-age, upper middle-class white friends this weekend? Can I play it in the car, with the windows up, as I drive around with my boys, or even alone? Can I play it while I’m cooking dinner? Can I play it on my iPod while I’m working out at the gym? Do I need to beware of the people around me, in case they can hear the music bleeding through my headphones? You know, headphones aren’t my bag.
Do you see what I’m getting at? Do you run across this with certain NSFW music? I like being as free and easy as the next rock ‘n roll rebel, but are there limits?