Sometimes an awkward lyric shows up and mars an otherwise perfectly reasonable song. I don’t mean songs such as Paul McCartney’s “Spies Like Us” or Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” or Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory.” Those songs are just plain bad.
Wings’ “Live and Let Die” is one of my favorite of Sir Paul’s post-Beatles songs, but I refuse to sing along with the phrase “this ever changing world in which we live in.” Poor grammar makes me want to give in and cry.
John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” pays tribute to many rock and soul greats of the 1960s. It’s a crackin’ little number but I always cringe when he sings “let’s don’t forget James Brown.” “Let’s not” uses just as many syllables, is grammatically-correct, and doesn’t detract from the message of not forgetting James Brown.
There are times when lyrics are bad not because of their grammar, but because they sound like place holders that remained in the song because the lyricist couldn’t come up with anything with which to replace them. Take Elton John’s classic hit “Your Song.” “If I was a sculptor, but then again, no.” Why is that in the song? You’re not a sculptor. You weren’t a sculptor. What would happen if you were a sculptor? Instead of giving the object of your affection the gift of song, would you make a bust of their face, a la Lionel Richie’s “Hello” video?
One of my favorite bad lyrics is in the Diana Ross and the Supremes hit “I’m Livin’ in Shame,” in which Diana sings “Came the telegram – Ma passed away while making homemade jam.” Telegram messages were charged by the letter, so including the details of what Ma was doing when she died is a bad choice lyrically and financially. What lyrics were discarded in favor of that? “Came the telegram – Ma passed away while carving up the ham?” “Came the telegram – Ma passed away with her finger in a dam?” “Came the telegram – Ma passed away serving in Viet Nam?” “Came the telegram – Ma passed away from an attack by a ram?” “Came the telegram – Ma passed away from choking on a yam?” That last one is good, but then again, no.
“I Started a Joke” by the Bee Gees is an okay song that would be better if Johnny Marr played guitar on it. Then it may sound like a Smiths song. Not a Smiths single. Maybe an album track. I’m not sure what the over-the-top lyrics are about. It seems Robin Gibb is not a gifted comedian and his joke made everyone cry and then he cried and everyone started laughing and then he died but kept singing this song. That’s all well and good. The line that made me include it in this blog entry is “I fell out of bed hurting my head from things that I said.” I think you hurt your head when you fell out of bed and banged said head on a jar of homemade jam.
Let’s don’t forget Robin and Maurice Gibb on their birthday.
I thought the whole point of “Your Song” was to portray a character that had a lot of heart but wasn’t very eloquent, and “but then again, no” just feeds into that? After all, he calls his own song “not much” and “quite simple”, admits he doesn’t like some of the verses, and stutters through the line “Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean…”
Thank you for the comment, Scintilla. It gave me something to think about. I agree with your interpretation that the song’s persona is a guy who isn’t particularly articulate, and that is partly why the song is effective. On the other hand, the song’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin, is articulate. We’ve heard that in many of Elton John’s other hits. Eloquently expressing one’s lack of eloquence is challenging, and I think he does it beautifully with the line “Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean.” However, the “But then again, no” still strikes me as a line thrown in the song because nothing better came along prior to its recording. If you were a sculptor, what would happen? Is the object of his affection known for having a thing for sculptors? I’m not crazy about the following line either. If you were a man who makes potions, you’d what? Slip a drug into this person’s drink that will get them to love you? I’m with you as to the song’s point, but these lines feel out of place to me.
Thank you for reading! I very much appreciate your feedback!