Sunday, October 16, 2011

The fantastic lyrics of Paul McCartney

Steve Allen, one of the creators and the original host of the late-night talk show "The Tonight Show," used to have a bit in which he would recite lyrics from popular songs. Here he is giving this treatment to the song "Be-Bop-A-Lula":

More recently, in England, late-night chat show host Jonathan Ross "borrowed" the idea, and had American actor Christopher Walken recite lyrics from Lady GaGa's song "Poker Face":

And then, American talk show host Jimmy Fallon had British actor Jude Law recite the lyrics from Lady GaGa's song "Poker Face":

(As Krusty the Clown once said, "If this is anyone other than Steve Allen, you're stealing my bit!")

More successful was when Dr. Frasier Crane quoted the song "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" on an episode of "Cheers":

He is earnestly attempting to fit in-- as far as he's concerned (he's not a consumer of popular music) the phrase "Everybody Wang Chung tonight" has some deep-rooted meaning for the hoi polloi. But putting those lyrics in Dr. Crane's mouth, it's a deflation not only of the lyrics themselves, but of the man reciting them.

To the extent that any of the above clips are amusing, they're also patently unfair. A song is not just lyrics-- it's a combination of both music and lyrics. Quoting just the lyrics to a song, without the benefit of the music created to accompany those lyrics, is like reciting every other line of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy.
To be, or not to be--that is the question:

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

Must give us pause. There's the respect

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
It's just not fair.

And yet, there are times when it just doesn't matter. Some lyrics are just so fantastically outlandish, bizarre, and beautifully wrongheaded that not even Beethoven could have rescued them. Paul McCartney, formerly of the musical group The Beatles, is the author of some of the most wonderful lyrics of all time.

I was thinking about Mr. McCartney because he recently got remarried. This is his third stab at marriage. I genuinely hope that Mr. McCartney's marriage is long and happy and never-ending. He has given me hours of enjoyment-- specifically, one line of one of his songs has given me hours of enjoyment.
...If this ever-changing world in which we live in...
That line, from the song "Live and Let Die," is, I submit to you, the greatest line ever written by anyone, ever. No other line has ever made me so happy. No other line has made ever made me laugh out loud, every time I have ever heard it, no matter what I happened to be doing when the song came on the radio.

But this perfectly illustrates my point: The music is dramatic and stirring. Try listening to that music without being stirred, and maybe even shaken (it's from a James Bond movie!). So what if Mr. McCartney needed four syllables at the end of that one line. Did you hear that big boom right after that one line? I actually didn't hear that boom, because I was laughing, and wondering why he didn't just say something like "this ever changing world in which we're living," which is what I thought the line was when I was a little kid and the song was popular.

Mr. McCartney has himself admitted in at least one interview that "sometimes a little bit of dross slips through":

In a brilliant career that has spanned at least 50 years, Mr. McCartney-- a genuine, bonafide genius who deserves almost nothing but praise for his musical wit and cleverness-- has let a little bit of dross slip through.

Mr. McCartney did another title song from a film, something called "Spies Like Us," which featured former Steely Dan drummer Chevy Chase, and former Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd. This song is dull and listless, a real phone-in job, with nothing that matches the powerful absurdity of "in which we live in":
Hey don't feel afraid
Of an undercover aid
There's no need to fuss
There ain't nobody that spies like us
Another major problem I had with this song was the fact that the music was infectious, by which I mean that it was like an infection of the brain, and I couldn't get it out all day after the song had come on the radio. It was always a rush to the dial to switch the channel when I heard the first few bars (or, even better, if the DJ had warned listeners that the song was coming up).


Mr. McCartney nearly matched his "in which we live in" absurdity with a song called "Let 'Em In," which features the immortal lyrics:
Someone's knockin' at the door
somebody's ringin' the bell
Someone's knockin' at the door
somebody's ringin' the bell
Do me a favour open the door and let'em in.
These lines are repeated forty-seven times, along with a list of the people who are, apparently, knocking at the door and waiting to be let in:
Sister Suzie
brother John
Martin Luther
Phil and Don
Brother Michael
auntie Gin
open the door and let'em in.
This song boils down to:
1)Knock knock
2)Who's there?
3)A bunch of people
4)Open the door
Naturally, we have some questions. To whom is Mr. McCartney speaking? And, more importantly, when can we expect Mr. McCartney's song about his grocery list?

Some of Mr. McCartney's lyrics are just so damned whimsical that they make me feel dumb for thinking they sound dumb. For instance, what is going on in the "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" song?
Admiral Halsey notified me,
He had to have a berth or he couldn't get to sea.
I had another look and I had a cup of tea and a butter pie.
Somehow, that entire sprawling epic of silliness makes perfect sense in combination with the music:

This is one of those songs that I simultaneously think must have some deeper meaning I'm not getting (it's a parody of something?), and is also just a bit of flukey nonsense. A sort of a PoMo metaphor or something.

Speaking of metaphors, Mr. McCartney crafted at least one song that is an extended mixed metaphor that starts out grounded on earth, blows up an entire town, flies out into space, explodes a comet, and then finds protection from inclement weather:

I have always very much liked this song. When I was a kid it was one of my favorites, and my opinion of it hasn't changed. But those lyrics have some real head scratchers:
With a little love we can lay it down
Can't you feel the town exploding
And a little luck we can clear it up
We can bring it in for a landing
With a little push, we could set it off
We can send it rocketing skywards
With a little love we could shake it up
Don't you feel the comet exploding
That's a lot of stuff that doesn't really seem to go together, but Mr. McCartney makes everything right with a single line:
There is no end to what we can do together
This is almost as brilliant a line as "in which we live in" is ridiculous, because it completely excuses the excesses and nonsensical weirdness of the rest of the lyrics. Together, Mr.and Mrs. McCartney can do anything, be it making comets explode or making towns explode. Violence mingled with sentiment.

Maybe the silliest love song that Mr. McCartney ever wrote was the intricately banal epic "Press," the lyrics of which must be quoted in full:
Darling, I love you very, very, very much
And I really am relying on your touch
But with all these people listening in
I don't know where I ought to begin
Maybe we could hit upon a word
Something that the others haven't heard

When you want me to love you just tell me to press
Right there, that's it, yes, when you feel the stress
Don't just stand there tell me to press
You can give me what I want, I must confess
My body needs attention my mind is in a mess

Oklahoma was never like this, never like this
It was never like this
Ever like this, hey, was it ever like this?
Oklahoma was never like this, it was never like this

Darling, I know it really wouldn't be a crime
If I say I want to love you all the time
But with all these people listening in
I don't know where I ought to begin
Maybe we should have a secret code
Before we both get ready to explode

When you want me to love you just tell me to press
Right there, that's it, yes, when you feel the stress
Don't just stand there tell me to press
You can give me what I want, I must confess
My body needs attention my mind is in a mess
Here Mr. McCartney relays the sad situation of a major celebrity who is unable to tell his lover that he would like to engage in the act of coitus with her, because there are too many people around. So he tells her that they should have a secret code word that they can use, to signal when either of them gets randy. It turns out that he has given this some thought, and has already come up with such a word. That word is "press." Sort of like "press my button," but it's even more subtle than that, because the paparazzi might be listening in.

Okay, that's all well and good. But what the hell is the story with Oklahoma? It's not just one line about "Oklahoma," Mr. McCartney goes off on an entire tangent about it. At first I thought it might be a reference to the 46th state (perhaps Mr. McCartney and his wife had a particularly memorable lovemaking session while he was on tour through the American south?), then I thought it might be a reference to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (maybe this song is intended to be an answer to "People Will Say We're in Love"?), and then I thought maybe "Oklahoma" was their original "when-you-want-to-have-sex" code word, but people caught on so he had to change it to "press." Now, however, I'm starting to think that it doesn't mean anything at all, it just fills space in the song.

As inscrutable as much of the song is, the video is one of my all-time favorites, with Mr. McCartney riding around on the tube, interacting with people who seem genuinely excited to see him:

I'd be excited to see Mr. McCartney on the tube as well. I would run up to him and say "In this ever changing world in which we live in, your lyrics have always managed to make me happy!"

1 comment:

Poodle Bitch said...

Poodle Bitch is surprised that you forgot to mention these lyrics from Mr. McCartney's song "My Love":

"My love does it good."

Poodle Bitch believes that his love actually does it well.