Paperback Writers: The Rock Lyric, Often Scribbled on the Back of a Fag Packet Five Minutes before Recording, Has Turned into a Literary Genre of Its Own

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In the four and a bit decades since rock lyrics began to be printed on album sleeves--latterly in CD booklets--great claims have been made for them. Christopher Ricks has taken his obsession with Bob Dylan into the lecture hall. A S Byatt once declared that "Eleanor Rigby" had "the minimalist perfection of a Beckett story". In April, critics were falling over themselves to applaud the analysis of literary allusions from Syd Barrett's album The Madcap Laughs in Rob Chapman's compendious biography, A Very Irregular Head. Colonised over the years by troubadours, poets manques and disaffected teenagers drawn by Morrissey's claim that "There's more to life than books, you know,/But not much more", the rock lyric has turned, almost by stealth, into a hybrid literary genre quite unlike anything else.

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But what sort of genre? And fulfilling what function? If great claims have been made for lyrics since the days of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, they have not been made regularly, if only because of the defiantly cartoonish nature of 95 per cent of the material on offer, particularly at the heavy-metal end of the market ("Keep your hand on my lever/Watch it whilst I stab your beaver", as Gillan enjoined back in 1979). As in most highly stylised art forms, parodic self-awareness is never far away. When Dr Feelgood produced the memorable quatrain "Looking for a good time, hotel queen/Took her up to your room; the boys go green/She asks you for a hand with the zip on her dress/And you say 'Oui babe' 'cos that's French for yes", they were not, one suspects, being wholly serious but sending up the ancient tradition of the "fag-packet vocal", scribbled down five minutes before entering the recording studio.

How seriously should rock lyrics be taken? The answer, perhaps, is as seriously as the people writing them want them to be. Some rock artists have taken the trouble to have their lyrics reproduced in book form, among them Lou Reed, Paul Weller and Howard Devoto, or, like Damon Albarn, supplied versions of them to poetry anthologies. This might seem to confirm the commonly held belief that rock lyrics are only a bastardised form of poetry. Several rock bands have collaborated with poets: Peter Sinfield wrote lyrics for King Crimson; the 1970s prog outfit Renaissance collaborated with the Cornish poet Betty Thatcher.

Against this is the performer's habit of setting his own demarcation lines and deciding that what works in one medium won't necessarily transfer to another unrevised. The version of the Blur song "Essex Dogs" that Albarn offered to Michael Horovitz's POW! Anthology ("... on the plains of cement/The English army grind their teeth/In terminal pubs") differs from the CD inlay, and the difference, arguably, is that Albarn has been at pains to render it more conventionally "poetic".

All this gestures at one of the great conflicts of the rock form: with a self-advertised wordsmith--a Morrissey, an Elvis Costello, an Ian Dury--at the helm, too many words, and of too abstruse a kind, can dull the impact of the guitar, bass and drums thumping on in the background. It was Devoto who remarked, on leaving the Buzzcocks in 1977, that he was using eight words when sometimes one was too many. Even diehard fans of the Shins' James Mercer, much given to gnomic lines about "eloquent young pilgrims passing", sometimes suggest that the songs are simply too wordy and, as such, insufficiently harmonised with a notably terse accompaniment. Some of the most effective lyrics, it might be argued, work in counterpoint to the instrumentation or actively exploit it to illustrate their imagery. For example, Weller's account of a late-night mugging in the Jam's "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight", in which the unsparing detail ("I first felt a fist, and then a kick") is punctuated by Bruce Foxton's three-note bass.

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Inevitably, nearly all of this--lyrical preoccupations, interplay between voice and backing, the assumption that the words are important in themselves--takes us back to the single most important influence on modern pop: the Beatles. …