So often, too often, the songs sound awesome, but the lyrics leave you feeling short changed. I grew up on great lyrics and spent a great amount of my teenage years reading them studiously as I listened to much great music.
I like lyrics with a story, a message or a new idea. I have no problem with “Baby Baby Baby“, but I prefer some poetry, message and thought to move me. Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy basic rock n’ roll without the embellishments, but hearing some thought between guitar solos is always appreciated! This set me thinking about the top five heavy rock poets of my generation (sic). This list is personal, filled with bias and will be subject to debate, but my list goes like this, in no particular order.
#5 – Jim Morrison (the Doors)
The beat poet with a lust for life, Morrison‘s lyrics were dark artistic vignettes of brooding intent. From the lyrical waxing of the first Doors album to the final howls of LA Woman, Morrison set the bar high for all those artists who were deeper thinkers than normal.
Common subjects for Morrison were love, sex, death and freedom. My favourite lyrics are from the first Doors album, including “The Crystal Ship“, which has the following absolute gem of “The days are bright and filled with pain/Enclose me in your gentle rain.” The sadness here is ever poignant and remarkable.
I also love the way Morrison twists the everyday and makes it extraordinary. This can be seen on the Strange Days song “When the Music’s Over”, with the lines “What have they done to the earth?/What have they done to our fair sister?/Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her/Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn/And tied her with fences and dragged her down.” Never one to do obvious rhymes, Jim Morrison had a meter to his words that enraged and beguiled in equal measure.
Some would say that his words were intellectual BS, but the way in which he sang about life was passionate and he was like the proverbial shooting star, burning out in the night sky.
“The End” haunts souls with “Can you picture what will be/So limitless and free?/Desperately in need/Of some stranger’s hand/In a desperate land“. There is a restless angst in “Moonlight Drive” with its “Let’s swim to the moon/Let’s climb through the tide/Penetrate the evenin’ that the/City sleeps to hide“. There is also desperation in the words to “Summer’s Almost Gone” with the stanza “Morning found us calmly unaware/Noon burn gold into our hair/At night we swim the laughin’ sea/When summer’s gone/Where will we be?”
#4 – Bon Scott (AC/DC)
For me, Bon Scott of AC/DC was a philosopher in rocker’s clothing. He sang of booze and women with aplomb and some smut, but he also covered other areas which are not naturally thought of as being typical rock fare…
From the hard luck story of “It’s A Long Way to the Top” to the fever of “Dog Eat Dog“, the life of struggle was woven into his lyrical arsenal. Self reflection crept into “Ride On” and “Highway to Hell” was an exercise in self-awareness of what the actions of his hard partying could cause.
For me, his greatest lyrics came on the criminally overlooked Powerage record, by far my favourite of the AC/DC catalogue. “Gone Shooting“, “Gimme A Bullet” and “What’s Next To The Moon?” all were very bitter shots of bourbon. The lyrics of “Down Payment Blues” speak volumes to me with the line “can’t even feed my cat on Social Security“…Absolute genius!
#3 – Neil Peart (Rush)
No drummer in rock has been as influential as Neil Peart in dispelling the myth that drummers are not intelligent artists. Peart not only drums like nobody else, but his lyrics can be as poetic as Walt Whitman or W H Davies. His lyrics cover emotional, physical and mental journeys and delve into the psychology of human beings.
He is also very oblique in his lyrics, questioning everything without nailing his colours to the mast and boxing himself in. When 2112 came out, it was generally assumed that Peart was a Libertarian, but he was not one to easily align himself to one ideology.
Peart is an observational poet, taking a quirky look at the world around him, such as on songs like “Subdivisions“. “Middletown Dreams” also fed into this reality, with the great lines “The office door closed early/The hidden bottle came out/The salesman turned to close the blinds/A little slow now, a little stout“.
The great thing about Neil‘s lyrics is that they have a huge emotional footprint. They take you to places with emotional content. This is shown on the amazing “Nobody’s Hero“, with the touching lines “I didn’t know the girl, but I knew her family/All their lives were shattered in a nightmare of brutality/They try to carry on, try to bear the agony/Try to hold some faith in the goodness of humanity“.
My favourite Peart lyrics are on “Marathon“, recounting the physical and mental effort of a race. The lyrics fizz with sweat and tears and you can almost put yourself in the racer’s point of view – “It’s a test of ultimate will/The heartbreak climb uphill/Got to pick up the pace/If you want to stay in the race“.
#2 – Paul Weller (The Jam)
I’m not sure whether any Decibel Geeks would know of the seminal UK band of the Seventies and early Eighties, The Jam, but they produced some of the most brilliant Punk Pop music ever, driven on by fantastic lyrics by Paul Weller. The guy just oozed class that put people like Pete Townsend to shame. Make no mistake, Weller adored The Who, but his words were so much cleverer to me than Townsend‘s.
He sang about Britain and the class wars and the effect of the government on ordinary people. He gave voice to every disaffected person and he wrote about life in a warm and yet cynical way.
From the punk power of “In the City” to the bleak “Private Hell“, Weller takes the listener through a lyrical wonderland of broken dreams. Make no mistake, these songs do not offer much hope, but boy are they angry!
“Going Underground” was a call to wake up the masses with its “What you see is what you get/You’ve made your bed, you’d better lie in it/You choose your leaders and place your trust/As their lies wash you down and their promises rust“. Likewise, the bitterness of squandered opportunity is shown in “Running on the Spot” which laments “Any tiny step of advancement/Is like a raindrop falling into the ocean“.
Weller is most successful when he is documenting the ordinary in an extraordinary exposition such as “Saturday’s Kids” – “Saturday’s girls work in Tesco’s and Woolworths/Wear cheap perfume ’cause its all they can afford/Go to discos they drink Babycham talk to Jan – in bingo accents“. For those in the USA, replace Tesco‘s with Walmart…
Great writer and songsmith. Unfortunately, he moved on to more bland ventures and lyrics that are far less fantastic.
#1 – Fish (Marillion)
Fish (aka Derek K Dick) was the larger than life Scottish singer in UK prog band Marillion. Apologies if this means nothing to you, but Marillion with Fish were ingrained in my life from age 15. I could recite the poetic prose of this hero forever. The man, with Marillion, had no equal when it came to lyrics that would blow doors off their hinges at fifty paces…He was that good! With his soulful voice and dark lyrical output, the guy was a natural successor to Jim Morrison, only better!
From the opening lines of “Script for a Jester’s Tear” with its “So here am I once more/In the playground of the broken heart“, you know the man is a lyrical warrior, clambering over the bloodied corpses of the cliched.
His output with Marillion spanned only four studio albums, but the words will live on in the hearts of many for centuries. Highlights include the title track of the Fugazi album – “From the Time-Life-Guardians in their conscience bubbles/Safe and dry in my sea of troubles/Nine to five with suitable ties/Cast adrift as their side-show, peepshow, stereo hero/Becalm bestill, bewitch, drowning in the real”.
My favourite lyrics can be found on the Clutching at Straws track “Torch Song”, with the immortal lyrics “Doctor says my liver looks like leaving with my lover, need another time-out now/Like any sort of hero turning down to zero still standing out in any crowd/Pulling seventeen with experience and dreams, sweating out a happy hour/Where you’re hiding 29 you know it ain’t a crime/To burn a little brighter now, burn a little brighter now.”
Absolute poetry, absolute power…Case closed.