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Lyricists by Various (Various, 2017)

During M.I.A.’s Meltdown in June 2017, we held a book club looking at the work of 5 lyricists. We had been thinking about running a book club on song lyrics for a while and Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature confirmed to us that it was about time.

At our book club we looked at the lyrics of one song each, in date order, by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Chuck D of Public Enemy and Kate Tempest.

A Very brief history of lyricists in the National Poetry Library collection:

We’ve never made a distinction between poets and songwriters when it comes to the books we collect because many of the most famous poets were actually writers of songs - for example the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who we have in modern translations in the collection, wrote her poems to be accompanied by music and Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, was also a lyricist, putting words to Scottish folk melodies and airs which he collected (he wrote Auld Lang Syne as a song, it wasn’t a poem set to music). Book editions of songwriters lyrics are continually being published and Faber and Faber, the UK's most famous poetry publisher, have been publishing songwriters as part of their poetry series over the past few years including Jarvis Cocker and Van Morrison. We have a whole range of songwriters in the collection including Nick Cave, Kurt Cobain, Noel Coward, Flanders & Swann, Joyce Grenfell, Kristin Hersch, Ewan MacColl, Shane MacGowan, Cole Porter, Patti Smith, Ricky Ross, Paul Weller and anthologies of hymns and music hall songs. Songwriters have also published volumes of poetry and we have poetry books by Billy Corgan, Ani DiFranco, Bob Dylan, P J Harvey and Patti Smith. 

Our ice-breaker question to get the discussion going was to ask, "What was the first single you ever bought?" Most of our answers were pretty uncool.

Before we got started we has some words of caution from Bob Dylan from his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech:
“But songs are unlike literature. They're meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare's plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days.”
The full acceptance speech can be listened to here:

Leonard Cohen - Famous Blue Raincoat (1971)

You can read biographies of Leonard Cohen online here:

We’re going to look at 'Famous Blue Raincoat', It is the sixth track on his third album, Songs of Love and Hate, released in 1971.

Play song:

We looked at a copy of the lyrics as published in Stranger music : selected poems and songs / Leonard Cohen (London : Jonathan Cape, 1993) and compared it to the lyrics presented in verses in copies of the lyrics online:

1. Are any of your familiar with prose poems? Do you prefer the way Cohen has presented it as prose in his collected lyrics or do you prefer it presented in verses emphasising the rhymes?
2. The rhymes get stronger as the song progresses (in the first stanza they’re just half-rhymes). What effect does this create?
3. These lyrics are famous for being written in amphibrachs. Is it this metre that gives the song its rhythm rather than the music? Is the music just background to the words?
4. In a programme about lyricists on 6 Music, songwriter Guy Chambers said best songs create a world and are sound pictures that leave space for you to imagine. Would you say that was true of this song?
5. Apparently the refrain in the song about going "clear" relates to Scientology. Did you know that? Do you have another interpretation?
6. Why is this song called 'Famous Blue Raincoat'? Why not 'Love Triangle'?
Joni Mitchell - Sweet bird (1975) - Another Candian!

You can read biographies of Joni Mitchell online here:

We’re going to look at a song 'Sweet Bird' from her 7th studio album 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Initially, due to the jazz influence and highly experimental nature of the album, the record received harsh criticism, with Rolling Stone listing it as one of the worst albums of the year. However, the record's reputation has grown in stature and has been called Mitchell's masterpiece and it was one of Prince's favourite albums.
We looked at a copy of the lyrics as published in Joni Mitchell: the complete poems and lyrics  (London : Chatto & Windus, 1997). First we read and discussed the lyrics: 

1. Is the sweet bird just a bird? What is the bird a metaphor for?
2. Are these words melancholy?
3. What does the repeated last line mean?

Play the song:

4. After listening to the song does it seem even more melancholy or more positive?
5. Does the last line have more meaning with music added?
6. This song has what is called in songwriting a middle 8 or bridge (the piano solo in the middle of the song). What does the music suggest to you? When we come back to the words has the piano solo caused a change in how you respond to them?

Ian Curtis - Atmosphere (1979)

Ian Curtis was lead singer and lyricist of the post-punk band Joy Division. You can read  biographies of Ian Curtis and Joy Division here:

Ian Curtis had a stock of notebooks into which he jotted ideas as they came to him. These were published as So this is permanence in 2014 by Faber and Faber.

We're going to look at the song 'Atmosphere' by Joy Division. It was originally released in March 1980 by record label Sordide Sentimental as 'Licht und Blindheit' (German for "Light and Blindness"), a France-only limited edition single featuring the track 'Dead Souls' as the B-side. Following Ian Curtis's death two months later, it was re-released as a 12" single by record label Factory with 'She's Lost Control" as the B-side'.

At our book club had a copy of the lyrics in notebook form and as they appear on the record copied from So this is permanence : Joy Division lyrics and notebooks / Ian Curtis ; edited by Deborah Curtis and John Savage. (London : Faber & Faber, 2014). 

1. Thomas Hardy has said that “Poetry is emotion put into measure.” This language is quite plain but do you get a sense of the emotion behind the words just by reading them?

Play the song:

2. Now that we've listened to the song are the words more emotive? Is the music, the singing voice intensifying the words?
3. Why is this song called ‘Atmosphere’?
4. Are there any lines in the notebook version that you wish had made it into the recorded version? Or do you agree with the edits made for the recorded version?
5. One of our librarian's has admitted to only listening to the odd song by Joy Division because they find the thought of listening to a whole album too much. Am they allowing Ian Curtis’s suicide to overshadow their response to the music? Can we listen to Joy Division without being affected by Ian Curtis’s death?

Chuck D - Don’t believe the hype (1988)

Chuck D is leader of the hip hop group Public Enemy. You can read about Chuck D here:

We looked at the lyrics of 'Don’t believe the hype' released in 1988, the second single to be released from their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.  This single reached number 18 on the American and R&B chart and number 18 on the UK charts. The album charted for 49 weeks on the US Billboard 200, peaking at number 42. The album was very well received by music critics, who hailed it for its production techniques and the socially and politically charged lyricism of Chuck D. Public Enemy had set out to make the hip hop equivalent to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971), an album noted for its strong social commentary.  Since its initial reception, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back has been regarded by music writers and publications as one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time.

We looked at the lyrics from Chuck D (London : Guardian, 2008 - Great lyricists series) 

Play the song:

1. Writing about the album this track is from, music critic Dorian Lynskey says “Nation of Millions is so jammed with data, both musical and lyrical, that I'm still finding new clues and resonances…” (Read the full appreciation here.)
Looking at the lyrics on the page do you get information overload? Did you get information overload when we were listening to the song? Is the hip-hop rhythm and Chuck D’s delivery creating sense? Or are the printed lyrics allowing you to unpick things and make more sense?
2. If I had said we were going to read the lyrics first would any of you have felt up to the challenge of reading them out? Do they need to be rapped?
3. Do you like Chuck D’s rhymes, do they surprise you?
4. What hype should not be believed? Is the song an instruction to the listener? To the band’s critics? Is the song an instruction to the band themselves?
5. Chuck D has stated that this song was inspired by the work of Noam Chomsky. Is this song even more relevant in the age of social media and disinformation.

Kate Tempest - Europe is Lost (2016)

Tempest has said “Someone asked Bob Dylan if he was a poet or a singer once, and he said: ‘I’m a song and dance man’ Sometimes I say I’m a writer, and I write different things: music, poetry, plays, fiction. The commonality between it all is the words.” Interview with The Evening Standard 2016. Read the full interview here.

Read a biography of Kate Tempest on the Poetry Archive here:

We looked at the lyrics of 'Europe is Lost' included on her 2016 album Let Them Eat Chaos. The track was first released in November 2015. A version of these lyrics are available in her poetry collectio Let them eat chaos / Kate Tempest (London : Picador, 2016). They are also available online:

We watched Kate Tempest performing the song live:

1. Is this a protest song? Is it humorous? Does it offer any hope? 
2. What purpose does the intro about Esther serve?
3. There is more of a narrative for us to hold on to in this song than with 'Don’t Believe The Hype'. Do you prefer having more of a narrative structure or did you prefer being bombarded by Chuck D?
4. Can you see similarities between Chuck D and Kate Tempest?
5. Is the music just background rhythm? What work is it doing?

Concluding questions:

1. Would you agree that all the lyricists we’ve looked at today are poets?
2. At a talk M.I.A. gave at Southbank Centre on 11 June 2017 she made a distinction between music that is introspective, which she called “shoe gazing”, and music that is politically engaged. Is it fair to say that the songs we’ve looked at by Cohen, Mitchell and Curtis are shoe gazing while Chuck D and Kate Tempest are politically engaged?
3. Do all the lyrics stand alone or do some rely on their music? Or do they all rely on their music? Would it be wrong to just read these lyrics and not listen to the songs as Bob Dylan says?

Search the National Poetry Library catalogue for the work of lyricists.
Go to Browse Search and search under Genre Heading - Lyrics 

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