The Word, February 2005

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The Word

UK & Ireland magazines


How to write a song

Elvis Costello: "Revenge and guilt a speciality"


How do you go about writing lyrics?

I write passing thoughts, overheard conversations, discovered quotations, advertising signs, mumbled threats and words of kindness and endearment on scraps of paper. Sometimes I mutter them into dictaphones or record them onto my answer-machine when there is not an eyebrow pencil to hand in order to commit them to the page. Only very occasionally do I actually write directly into one of the numerous beautifully bound notebooks that I have purchased for the task. These usually contain lists of probable titles or 'long-form' descriptions of possible songs that some might call short stories. In the end they are filled with the various drafts of songs in progress.

When I begin to write, I sometimes like to transfer fragments — collected weeks, months or even years apart — on to a page in an A2 sketch pad (very large, very white paper). Connections can then be established and the page quickly resembles a mad equation of fluorescent pink arrows connecting one stanza to another, circled in lime green highlighter.

Eventually, some sense and rhythm emerges and they are married to music. Sometimes it's then better to remove dull, literal sense once the meaning is clear to oneself. It is this space that the listener's imagination may choose to reside or invent.

It is easier to cheat the rhythmic structure of the musical material when one is composing alone. Many of my early songs have irregular structure for this reason.

A computer is only of use to me to type a final legible draft. I have a writer friend who only writes on one model of typewriter, because the quirks of the mechanism and the appearances of typeface are reassuring. I find that, despite the variety of fonts available, the ordered appearance of the computer screen kills the rhythm of the written word. Sometimes the page needs to be tiny and crumpled. Sometimes it needs to be vast and pristine.

Some small tips:

1) Always get up in the night to write down that line that comes to you just before sleep. You won't remember it in the morning.

2) Practice writing legibly in the dark.

3) Make sure that scrap of paper by your bedside is not a valuable cheque or priceless antique manuscript or something that you will not want to deface. It will also make your nocturnal script hard to decipher.

4) Some of the best songs arrive in the imagination, complete in words and music.

5) A song that you heard in your dreams just before you awoke is nearly always impossible to recall. Anyway, it was probably "The Teddy Bear's Picnic" played backwards.

Give us an example of an immortal lyric.

I misread the question as 'immoral lyric', of which I can think of many. I believe that very little is 'immortal' but much that is modest is impressive.

Lucinda Williams adds one attribute of the "Lonely Girls" per verse in a lyric with the almost impossible economy of Hank Williams — 'heavy blankets that fall upon them; sweet sad songs sung by them; pretty hairdos that they wear; sparkly rhinestones that shine upon them' — until she places herself among them with the resigned line, 'I oughta know about lonely girls'. Simple and perfect.

Mostly, I'm attracted to denser lyrics with passing novelistic description — Joni Mitchell's 'magnolias hopeful in her auburn hair' and 'dressed in stolen clothes she stands cast-iron and frail with her impossibly gentle hand and blood red fingernails' from "Shades of Scarlet Conquering"; Joe Strummer's 'the all-night drug prowling wolf who looks so sick in the sun' from "White Man in Hammersmith Palais"; the poignancy in the mere title of Ron Sexsmith's "Clown In Broad Daylight"; and Chris Difford's aside 'the cab took us home through a night I'd not noticed / the neon club lights of adult films and Trini Lopez' from "Piccadilly."

One of the most enduring moments is an absence, It is in Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's "Hold On." Having perfectly pictured a girl with 'charcoal eyes and Monroe hips' they conclude the portrait of an affair: 'By a 99 cents store, she closed her eyes and started swaying / But it is so hard to dance that way when it's cold and there's no music'. Your ear anticipates 'no music playing' but it doesn't arrive and there is just a measure of accompaniment. This is very beautiful. Then the song pays off: 'Any your old hometown's so far away / But inside your head there's a record that's playing...hold on'.

Best opening line?

'Is there anybody going to listen to my story / All about the girl who came to stay?' from the Beatles' "Girl." Many folk songs start this way but few pay off with such erotic promise, although that is probably a lot to do with the way John Lennon sings this opening.

Alternatively there's 'In the time of my confession / In the hour of my deepest need' from Bob Dylan's "Every Grain Of Sand." It has a gravity that the song entirely justifies.

Are there any particular emotions that are easier to write about — like revenge or guilt?

Don't you know that I only write about revenge and guilt?!! There are probably five subjects in all human song — I want someone, I lost someone, I believe in something, someone died, and a "Dukla Prague Away Kit."

On the whole, sad is easier than cruel, as both cruel and happy are close to vain and foolish. They require qualification or totally unbridled joy (or relish in the case of cruel) as in 'You ain't livin' until you're lovin'. There is just more sadness in the world. Angry sad songs, sometimes mistakenly called 'political', don't often change ugly minds, but they make those in sympathy with them feel less lonely. 'Sad' is not necessarily bad or indulgent. It is why we sing in church and why John Dowland and Skip James had the blues.

Reverie is difficult to achieve without being cute. It might have been easier in the days of romantic convention. It is hard to imagine anyone writing a lyric as contrived and yet as utterly perfect as Lorenz Hart's "Dancing On The Ceiling." The singer imagines his lover in the apartment overhead and remarks 'I try to hide in vain underneath my counterpane / But there's my love up there above'. It's reminiscent of a 30's movie dream sequence. I don't think anyone would put the word 'counterpane' into a song today, although I was quite happy to include one mention of 'bakelite' and two references to 'shellac' in my songs.

Any golden rules — like there's no rhyme for 'orange'?

I disagree. I think 'revenge' can be made to rhyme with 'orange', though I accept it is not a pure rhyme. They are also both dishes best eaten cold.

A few random observations:

1) Assonance can be very liberating and tart.

2) Puns are better saved for bad greeting cards that you could buy your annoying uncle.

3) Could rap exist without the simile?

4) There is music in words and meaning is music. This is probably why so many show singers over emote. They do not seem to trust the music because they are actors at heart and trust in words.

5) Maybe they are all just dreadful hams.

There are certain words that clang and reverberate in the middle of a line. Sex is wonderful to write about, allude to — and enjoy at every possible occasion — but the word itself goes off like a bomb in a line, whereas the word 'taboo' is delightful. See "Sex Bomb" if you don't believe me.

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The Word, No 24, February 2005

Word interviews Elvis Costello for its "How to write a song" feature.

David Hepworth's subscriber letter recounts his first encounter with EC.


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Clipping and page scan.

Elvis Costello

David Hepworth

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Dear Friend

In the year 1977 I was working as a record plugger and found myself driving emergent new talent Elvis Costello around to radio interviews. At the time nobody knew anything about Elvis except his manager Jake Riviera had "found" him working as a computer operator and had changed his name in an effort to expunge any previous personal history. Further curiosity was not encouraged and Elvis avoided any mention of the past.

So there we were, Elvis and I, our Morris 1000 stalled in traffic outside Madame Tussauds on the Marleybone Road, and the talk drifted back to the subject of BBC music output pre-Radio One, to the old days of the Light Programme in fact, when hardly any records were played and the Corporation filled up its airtime with band shows starring Joe Loss or the Northern Dance Orchestra (otherwise rather racily known as the "NDO"). These bands had featured singers who were called upon to render their own versions of "Satisfaction" or "Like A Rolling Stone" to the immense disgust of 15 year old connoisseurs like me. Did he remember those people? Weren't they just terrible? (I was getting up a fair head of steam by this time while Elvis was no longer contributing quite as energetically.) There was one in particular who I actually clapped eyes on during a telecast. Looked a bit like Roy Orbison. Frilly shirt. Ghastly man. What was he called? Ross McManus! That was it!

At that point the traffic moved on and the subject was changed; mercifully, as it turned out, because the following day I was told by a DJ in Liverpool that Elvis was really called Declan McManus, his father's name was Ross and he sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra. In the middle of the radio station I bent over and adopted the fetal position of maximum embarrassment. I have seen Elvis many times in the near-thirty years since and the subject has never been raised, thankfully. Anyway, Elvis turned 5o recently which will no doubt have made him take a more philosophical attitude to such matters. He also has an excellent new album on the way called The Delivery Man and he features in Word Of Mouth in this issue plugging, among other things, the excellent Rilo Kiley.

Other things I would like to draw your attention to in this issue: Gary Younge's piece about the effect that the entertainment industry might have on an American election that appears to be balanced on a knife edge; Jonathan Coe's thoughts about David Nobbs in Word Of Mouth; Rob Brydon's thoughts about the thong in Word To The Wise and Stuart Maconie's account of the night that the world of Yes intersected with that of Roger De Courcey and Nookie Bear.

The Elvis Costello story is a free bonus, added for the benefit of the subscriber who wrote complaining that the subs letter was getting a bit repetitive.

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Photo credit Redferns.

Photo by Richard Young.
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Contents page clipping.

Clipping for Top Of The Pops story.
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