Three Pillars of Fantastic - Part 3. Lyrics: Always Be Diving for Pearls

A post on lyric writing. But everything on these pages is about lyric writing. There are books and lives and a whole universe out there of different lyrics and different reactions. 

All we can really do is listen critically and try to absorb something into our own worlds. Most songs have something if we know where to look, that we can add to our portfolio of techniques.

Where to start? SongExpresso is going for a personal favorite, which I think few would disagree with: "Shipbuilding". It may have been written quickly but we can feel thought, preparation, feeling and rigour. We won't ever write this. But can we learn something that might help us tie together the circumstances that we see in something of a similar way?

The entire lyrics are at the end.

If you don't know it please go and listen to it now - the Robert Wyatt version of course. Or Elvis's own. Often copied, never bettered. Yes, it's a political song but that's not what we are interested in. Actually it's a really human song about compromise, responsibility, and obligation.

It's a little bit rooted in time: the Falklands "conflict" (one of the last "old school" wars without Internet or 24 news coverage - I'm sure they still did use telegrams to notify the next of kin. And the British government found out about the invasion of the Falklands by telex). This is a pre-digital time of Walkmen, VCRs. Rumours not Facebook. Heavy industry in decline, strikes, riots, unemployment. Change, class consciousness, political polarism - those days it was quite normal to hear people describe themselves as Marxists. Thirty years have changed a lot of things.

Another interesting thing - Ellis Costello later wrote a response to this song (in true SongExpresso style), from the Argentinean point of view ("Cinco Minutos con Vos") - also an interesting song portraying normal Argentineans living under an oppressive military regime. All in all plenty of material for writing....

What makes "Shipbuilding" so great? The following things struck SongExpresso:

1. Start Strong

"Is it worth it?" This line sums up the entire song. And even better, does so using an everyday phrase. And even, even, better the melody perfectly matches the music of the phrase. Whenever I or someone else says this, I think of this song. Possible other contenders: "I Should Have Known Better" - The Beatles. "Hold on" (from "Stop Crying Your Heart Out") - Oasis.

If got right, these types of day-to-day expressions are fertile ground for leading listeners back into the song - "well, I ask you", "it's just a rumour" or "with all the will in the world" work in a similar way - this is very spoken language.

2. Match tone/feeling to subject matter

It's interesting to consider that: (i) the melody was written first and the lyrics added later - so the jazzy, downbeat atmosphere was probably already there; and (ii) it was specifically intended for Robert Wyatt to sing. So we imagine in Elvis's mind the ghostly, beaten-down, Englishness of Robert's voice (and I wouldn't disregard either the evocative combination of sea-dog beard, beret and wheelchair that we later see in the music video). A direction to follow can unlock great ideas.

3. Contrasts 

  • Diving for dear life vs. diving for pearls
  • Telegram vs. picture postcard
  • The boy (wanting the bike) vs. the boy (taken to task)
  • Re-opening the shipyards vs. notifying the next of kin

In one of his first jobs, SongExpresso was described as the "however man". Perhaps I did like juxtaposing opposing ideas a little too much for business memos. But here these are great for showing conflicts of the time: faith against reality, aspiration against realism.

4. Just clever enough

There's "clever original" and "clever annoying". Take the line "someone got filled in". It sits on that dangerous borderline which could become annoying. Yes, it's there because of the rhyme - but on the other hand is something that the people in the story could easily say. SongExpresso wonders whether and how much Elvis had to wrestle with it. Somehow I hope so. If he was in two minds then it paid off to go with the bold choice: the musicality and "vernacular" of it swings it over to the good side; it does seem right.

This also goes for "take me to task". This is only real reference to the precise time period (the British navy/air contingent sent to the Falkland Islands was the 'Task Force'). It's brilliant in some ways as anyone who was around in Britain at the time will know that this means 'war'. But as it's both a play on words and a euphemism, Elvis relies on us to get it or the significance is lost. It's one of those things that works perfectly locally but is potentially lost in translation to a wider audience. Take the example of "I took my Chevy to the levee". A levee may be normal parlance in let's say Louisiana (I'm speculating), but for non-Americans potentially meaningless. These localisms add realism to our characters but we always need to think whether our audience will understand, and how much they'll lose if they don't. Elvis needed to get a reference to the war in, and this is a brilliantly subtle way to do that. Just clever enough. The skill we need is to see these amber lights and then consciously decide how to handle them.

5. Verse Structure

You don't have to have verse--pre-chorus--chorus--break etc.! We don't know whether the melody already had this slightly off-balance progression that plays with different verse lengths, sometimes circles back on itself and repeats different sections. Maybe it did or maybe the more informal flow fitted the lyrics. Parameters can help, but can and should be disregarded if they get in the way of what feels right.

6. Show don't tell

"Diving for dear life". I always see the sailor/airman trying to extricate themselves from sinking wreckage. With some thought that they might have been somewhere else living a full life and not absurdly dying in the freezing South Atlantic. Of course, this is also the thought of the working man back home, making a living from whatever work available, no time for ideals or dreams. Works fantastically for both situations.

7. Is there anything we don't like?

If this was a SongExpresso song, I would lie awake at night going over and over the line "Diving for Pearls". It's the right image. It's the right rhyme. It's the right lyric. But - with all the will in world - it really does not scan with the melody. The emphasis falls on the "ving" and not the "di". It's just unnatural. Some of the covers try to correct this. That destabilizes the melody and sounds equally jarring. This has been described as "sublime phrasing ... of which Stan Getz would have been mighty proud". I'm going to call that pretentious rubbish and say this was just a compromise. Of course we hope that all options were explored. It's imperfect: but the good things about it outweigh the slight problem. If we fixed it we would lose more than we gain.

 

More than ever this article makes me ask - who am I to critique. I'm a fan, yes. And grew up with this song. So I feel some pressure to do justice - this is my one shot at this. But if SongExpresso has a goal then it's to improve the lyrics gene pool. All I can do is pick out some things that I appreciate. And maybe convince some others to listen. What do you think?

 

This is Part 3 of SongExpresso's Three Pillars of Fantastic:
Part 1: Bring Your Own Feeling
Part 2: Melody (coming soon)

 

Shipbuilding
COSTELLO, ELVIS / LANGER, CLIVE WILLIAM
© Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy's birthday
It's just a rumor that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we'll be shipbuilding...

Well I ask you
The boy said "Dad they're going to take me to task,
but I'll be back by Christmas"
It's just a rumor that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls

It's just a rumor that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin
Once again

It's all we're skilled in
We will be shipbuilding...

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls.