Words Full of Chopstick
"He's a poet, Simon. He was always writing words - the gold dust of the music business. It's all about the lyrics."
John Taylor, 2018*
"Stalked in the forest too close to hide
I'll be upon you by the moonlight side"
"On first glance it looks like a guy chasing a girl. It's... slightly uncomfortable actually."
Simon Le Bon, 2018*
John was right – words matter. And he is rightly proud to be in band in which the lead lyricist is so talented and imaginative with his words. Of course, in the example of 'Hungry Like The Wolf', even the author is a little cautious these days about what he has written. But it has not stopped him singing those same words enthusiastically pretty much non-stop for the past 40 years. 'HLTW' is the most played Duran song live, even with those rather dubious lyrics. But who cares? It is a great pop sing – fantastic driving guitar, instantly catchy ‘do dos’, and a clattering drum riff in the middle. It was made for radio and the big American market. It sounds both macho and fun. Who cares what Simon’s actually singing?
Someone who cares very much about what Simon sings is Ruth Galvin. Ruth has been writing blogs on her website Head Full Of Chopstick for two years, and it is about to close down. Ruth, who has also written for Cherry Lipstick, writes considered, in-depth pieces about a particular song, exploring themes within it.
These essays on a specific song made me think about how I listen to music. I was struck that I do not tend to pay much attention to the lyrics, at least at first. As someone that writes about Duran Duran, I realised that I tend to focus on themes, or the musicality of a track. I consider a particular song in the context of the band’s career, or where it fits on an album. I am not musical myself, so I am untrained in what guitar or drum effect is specifically used. The lyric of a song has an effect on me in terms of the way it enhances or disrupts the mood of the track itself, rather than as a stand-alone thing to appreciate.
For example, like many people, one of my favourite tracks is 'My Antarctica'. I love the heart-beating opening, the plaintive vocals, the imagery and emotion of the lyrics (“This is what we’ve made and I will stay here…”) and the shimmering sadness that flows throughout. I love that it follows logically from the earlier 'Land', and will echo into 'Come Undone'. It gives me hope for my band that it exists on an album that includes 'Read My Lips'. But I haven’t had the skill or inclination to unpick it further. Enter Ruth with her analysis for the Cherry Lipstick album review of Liberty:
“The track explores co-dependency, longing and loneliness in long term relationships (“cold and sheltered”) and its schizophrenic presence as a life support (“hearts beating” and “one life pumping”), yet also a prison cell (“and you will stay here with me”) analogous to survival in the harshest environment on earth. Somehow, that synthetic top melody is absolutely fitting here, its clinical sound evokes the stark, snow-white landscape of an intensive care unit, rhythmically beating to sustain something far deeper, the pained beauty of a shared existence. The gorgeous, plaintive vocal of the chorus thaws the song's frozen heart, resonating with unfulfilled longing and grief.”
A key aspect of Duran Duran that sets them apart from any other mass-selling band has been the total lack of boy-meets-girl lyrics. Paul McCartney was clear that he deliberately wrote those early Beatles songs to be sung directly to fans as a way of establishing a personal connection. 'Love Me Do'. 'P.S I Love You'. 'From Me To You'. 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'. Writing 'She Loves You' was considered a huge leap forward as it avoided the 'you and me' lyric to a 'her and you' perspective.
Check out most pop bands as this dull template continues, with a preponderance of ‘you and I’ in the lyric. Part of the reason Rio has proved to be the most accessible Duran album is due to the (for them) excessive amount of such direct lyrics. We find 'Rio' (“I’ve seen you on the beach, and I’ve seen you on TV”), 'Lonely In Your Nightmare' (“…Let me in”), 'Last Chance On The Stairway' (“Baby dance with me”), 'Save A Prayer' (“You wanted to dance so I asked you to dance”) and, er, 'HLTW' (“I’m on the hunt, I’m after you”).
Simon, in other words, writes poetry.
One of the best bits about Ruth’s site is that she has chosen to write about most of my favourite songs. And without exception, even though I have been listening to some of these songs for over 30 years, she manages to make me love and appreciate them even more. In doing so, she has introduced me to another way to enjoy songs by giving greater focus on the lyrics as a gateway to appreciation.
Hopefully Ruth will continue to find some time to write for Cherry Lipstick, but in the meantime, here are some of the best bits from Head Full of Chopstick. Please check out these links while the website is still up:
"A stormy summer is rolling closer lighten up this holy smoker".
The oppressive heat of endless summer days is suffocating, and something has to give. There are forceful, potentially dangerous flashes of light (lightning) potentially representing realisation through the sudden darkness, illustrated as smoke-coloured clouds. Interestingly a "holy smoker" is also a type of gun, and there is a sense in the song that he is being held at gunpoint by guilt.
"And if this drinking could ease the thinking
I'd toast to my home truth with this glass"
A few drinks certainly opens up some windows in the mind... a few more tend to have the opposite effect. The drink is the poison and the medicine all at once.
When the synths kick in at "all rise" you can hear the first raindrops fall. He's been put on courtroom trial by all his misdeeds, lovers or otherwise, there are no faceless memories here, each misdeed being represented as it was "by their names". Each memory is demanding accountability.
"Standing on the edge of a quay, no lights flashing on the water for me"
The visual here is of a man in the brink of bleak hopelessness and doom, not a cliff but a quay, because there is still some vague hope of being rescued or swallowed by the sea, read expansive darkness.
"Fog in my mind darkens my eyes, silently streaming for a distant sound"
That mental fog or inability to think clearly has made the path ahead unclear.
"Ripple river yellows rising for a breath of breeding and drowns"
The distant sound is hope and ripple river yellow a hint of light bouncing on the water, that light / hope he had been looking for, only to be submerged by blackness again, and the momentary movement of water a sign of hope, or moving forward.
"Stillness overcomes me in the night - listen to the rising water moan"
The rising water has been personified by moaning. The heavy unmoving emotional "stillness" weighing heavily overcoming him in the dark night of the soul.
With Vertigo I can draw parallels between it and New Religion in that I consider both deal with internal conflict. With Vertigo, what really moves me here is the perfect marriage of the music and lyrics in evoking a sensation of spiralling self-destructive behaviour. To me, this song is about the lies we tell ourselves, ignoring those nagging inner voices, as a means of enabling continued self destruction / addictive behaviour. Simon has said of the first three albums, that they never looked down, and the title, though Vertigo is never mentioned in the song itself, is appropriate, as a reflection of a band taking stock for the first time from the dizzy heights of fame. However, it also captures the notion of how self-realisation can make you dizzy and nauseous, the highs of your altered reality are challenged by inner voices.
* both quotes taken from There's Something You Should Know BBC documentary