Lyrics Ramblings

Magic Lantern Show

With apologies to friends who’ve read this – I thought it worth mentioning on the band blog as we’ve been working on this as a band and, all being well, we’ll be giving it a Layers début at a gig soon.

If you’re famous, fascinating or just fucking charismatic, you may be able to get away with telling the story of how you came to write the song. Once or twice. Most of the time your listening public would just as soon listen to the songs and if they want to know your life story they’ll buy your autobiography.

So I offer this in writing now so that if you give a damn, you can read it and I can spare you a minute’s rambling at a forthcoming gig.

In the sepia-tinted, stove-pipe-millinered days of my youth I had a friend whose girlfriend had fallen asleep at the wheel of a car and tragically suffered a fatal crash. He’d wandered by as I was presenting a radio show, seen me through the window and popped in. This wasn’t unusual as it was the habit of ‘Ranting’ Joe and mine to pick up a bottle of bourbon en route the studio and use it to render the coffee from next door’s cafe drinkable enough to keep us awake through our graveyard shift. Friends who knew this would often drop in to share a ‘coffee’ and an off-colour story.

On this particular evening, as I was flying solo and a little busier with the sliders, there was a lull in conversation where my visitor picked up the sleeve to the record I was playing and started reading the lyrics which were, as luck would have it, about losing someone dear[1].

I thought that this might trigger some sort of collapse but instead, in a calm and mildly amused voice, he started telling me how he’d been in town that day and impulse-bought a tee shirt that he thought she’d love, only realising when he got it home and laid it on the bed to fold and wrap that he was never going to get to give it to her. Then he drained his coffee (about 30% by vol), gave me a sad smile, got up and went.

There’s funny on-air stories and there’s that. If only someone had been listening it might have made great radio. Those particular radio waves are now 21[2] light years or so out into space.

An experience like that (plus a litre of coffee tending in increasingly large ratios to Canadian Club) will keep you awake at night and in the small hours of the morning that followed I had one of those cathartic lyric-writing moments that were sometimes the only thing, in those days, that would finally summon Morpheus.

The song’s called ‘Magic Lantern Show’ and we’ve been reworking it with The Layers. It became something that I found myself returning to, in the years that followed, when someone died; my Tralfamadorian ‘so it goes’. I wrote this post on my own blog originally because it just occurred to me that it was almost exactly eighteen years since a dear friend of mine had passed and I found myself playing and singing in the living room – this song just rushed back to me.

So I won’t bore you with the intro if you come to hear the song played but for all of my lost friends and because of when this thought hit me, especially for Jez: here are the lyrics to Magic Lantern Show:

Forgotten dreams… lost poetry,
pinwheel through the corner of my mind
as I sit, adrift in contemplation.
Unspoken words to lost love:
A magic lantern show
in desolation

Raging at blind Fortune
for snatching future seconds
but lost and impotent without you here.
Unstoppable, unmerciful –
time’s river thunders on.
Awake, to drown in loneliness and fear.

Not the purest of their priests
not the wisest of their teachers
could ever hope to bring you back to me
but not the darkest thief of night time
could steal the love we shared
could steal away our past from memory.

[1] For the curious, the song was ‘Afterimage’ by Rush

[2] At the time of writing. The year in question was 1991.


Kiss the Girls

Yes, yes, it’s been a little quiet on the update front from the Layers of late. What can I say? We’re busy chaps, in demand.
One of the things that we have been busy with, however, is new songs. Next one to debut live (possibly even this Sunday if we’re lucky) is ‘Kiss the Girls’
In case you’re making a study of our lyrics for your English coursework or as part of a legal petition to have Neil sectioned, here they are:

Kiss the girls

Done up in glitter and her angel wings – high on tequila and adrenaline
You don’t want to know the things she’s seen, or be alone in places that she’s been
She’ll kiss the boys… and make them cry
Captivated in a single beat; the smell of perfume and the taste of meat
She might not drink your blood
But she’ll take your soul anyway

Pumped up to music from their mobile phones, full of Dutch courage, doused in pheromones;
But every evening ending all alone, ‘cos you’re the only one who’ll take her home
You’ll kiss the girls… and make them cry
But in the morning when you wake up there to the stink of spermicide and cold despair
And those blue pills that you take
Can’t take away that cold ache

They don’t need sports cars of a chat-up line, can smell a broken heart from half a mile
Just a cocktail and a knowing smile: three parts loneliness and one denial
They’ll kiss you once… make you cry
And you’ll have something to remember this, morning after pill or syphilis
And they’re not after blood,
They’re just misunderstood.


Different Footprints

Here we are, folks… for those of you that take an interest in this sort of things, the lyrics for Different Footprints.

The days are busy, being filled up with emptiness.
Occupied, always doing more to feel less.
Another packed day that she can’t tell from the rest:
pre-packaged Saturdays and crowded loneliness.

And she can still hear
his laughter ringing on the summer breeze.
She can still be
happy in her memories.
So happy…

Different footprints on the beaches where we played,
the castles washed away, the child inside remains
in the places we’ve come back to; the pilgrimage we made
to drink to absent friends, to all the rest of us that stayed.

We can still hear
his laughter ringing on the the summer breeze
and we can still be
happy in the memory.
So happy…

No one’s ever lost –
everything we treasured;
love endures:
we will remember.

We can still hear…


And yes, I realise that those of you who’ve chosen to offer analysis of our lyrics before will point out that it’s not the most cheerful of subject matter. No surprises there – but I’d like to say that this is not a downbeat song. It’s saying that even if someone’s gone from our lives, we can still celebrate the joy that they brought us. This is a song about joy and hope, not about missing someone. So there…


I have no mouth yet I must scream.

It seems more appropriate to post these lyrics now than when I wrote them, oddly. Not only has the music kind of come together – hopefully a sign that we’re gelling ever more surely as musicians – but also some of the topics herein have become more topical. Tonight, I notice, there’s a documentary airing that expresses some concern that our nation’s youth are obtaining their sex education from porn movies. Hmmm… I don’t see any problem there: we’ll just have a nation of young people who think that turning up to fix a washing machine is considered foreplay (an improvement on a lot of men, am I right, sisters? {whooping from studio audience}) and moustaches may come back into fashion. And perhaps there will be a funk revival.

At the same time, as we’ve gone from credit crunch to slowdown, to recession, climatologists have offered their bleakest warnings yet about the state that our rapacious pursuit of profit is getting us into whilst their voices are silenced beneath the weight of banality, ill-informed opinion and thinly-veiled racism that constitutes the vast majority of news in this once green and pleasant land.

So, as a savoury relish to this smorgasbord of despair, I present the lyrics to IHNMYIMS, as it appears on setlists. Enjoy.

I wish I had the strength of character to tell you how I feel,
wish you had the sense to look behind the censor on your screen,
when all I ask for is that we reach out for the things we see in dreams
but this machine is just too big: I have no mouth yet I must scream

Catch the stink of something rotten here-
Don’t you think you deserve more?
Can’t you read the writing on the wall?
Don’t you see that this means war?

I see your vacant stare at bodies locked together on your screen;
desensitised and listless – paralysed by your pornnui,
deafened by the sound of moaning – missed the tolling of the bell
while all this crap they’re selling you will drag you straight down into hell!

Catch the stink…

When every headline that you read is breeding something to abhor-
they’ve sold their principles, they’re not invincible, they are just whores.
Ignore the consequences? – Let them stretch the long reach of their hate?
How many innocents must bleed to feed the jackals at your gate?

Catch the stink…


My baby, she’s a neonate…

In a quest for inspitation, I’ve been having a quick read through some of my old sets of lyrics. It’s kind of like picking over the carcass of a long-finished Christmas turkey looking for enough tasty bits to complete a soup.

Anyhow, as I was singing along to something or other on the DVD player (I’m currently sans stereo – there’s no story) it struck me that I don’t think that I’ve ever added the word ‘baby’ to any of my lyrics. Not as a self conscious statement that I wouldn’t patronise a woman by equating her to a newborn (anyone that knows me is fully aware that I’m never afraid to be patronising…) but because I try to avoid those ‘filler’ words in a song. I try to say what I mean and I’m not sure what I’d mean by baby. I found myself thinking about this far too much.

Things one might be implying with ‘baby’:

You look like Winston Churchill; You are selfish and demanding by nature; You cry a lot; You smell of baby powder and poo; You are utterly incapable of doing anything for yourself; You’re bald, fat and dribble a lot; You’re incontinent; I don’t understand a word you say…

Other suggestions welcome.

I guessed that this wasn’t it. ‘Baby’ is a nice, punchy, two-syllable filler and it ends up in so many songs just because it’s in so many songs. At some point there was a tipping point and it just became universal. But how did it enter the first few songs? And why does it persist so?

Here’s my unresearched, unsubstantiated theory (ah – blogs; home of the unresearched rant…). Babies bring out the protective side in us all – even non-baby people like myself. They get our unconditional love. We forgive them all of their annoying qualities – and not, I think, because we intellectually know that they can’t help it; we’re much less forgiving of adults who let us down even when circumstances make it inevitable – I think that we forgive them because something inside us is hard-wired to protect our progeny. When you call someone baby, I think that the true meaning there is that you’re offering that uncondtional love. ‘Baby’ means ‘I’ll carry on loving you even though you might well shit all over me’. (I’m not good at tender, am I?)

I don’t think that we think it through that far when we sing ‘baby I love you’, we’re just following an acquired behaviour pattern, but it’s interesting to think about what might be at the root of it. Maybe I’ll pop it into a song soon.

Next blog , the philosophy of ‘Doo-wah-diddy’


Hey-na, hey-na… the lyrics matter.

I think that the words are as important as the tune. Of course, I would say that, as I’m a lyricist.Lyrics, like music and, for that matter, art in any form, are a matter of taste, so we find ourselves navigating tricky waters here. I’m sure that I can find a www full of fans who think that Robbie Williams is the greatest lyricist of the modern age. We love the lyrics of our favourite artists, cheesy or not. I think that there’s room to appreciate a well-crafted or a meaningful lyric regardless of the music that you like, though.

I’m not saying that I think that every lyric has to be deep and meaningful – just beautifully poetic will more than do – in that respect I’m with old Archie MacLeish – “…a poem should not mean, but be.” (Ars Poetica). But let’s not get too deeply lost up in our own ars…

There are lyrics that I love. I grew up with my parents’ creaky old record collection – a lot of Eagles, Simon and Garfunkel, Fleetwood Mac – a selection that influenced my love for strong melody and harmony more than anything else, I suspect. Paul Simon’s lyrics were the first that I remember loving – “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school / it’s a wonder I can think at all…”, (Kodachrome) along with The Boxer and American Tune.

As I got into my teens I was introduced to Rush, another huge influence on me, and the lyrics of Neil Peart – at his best a stunning wordsmith –

“The dancer slows her frantic pace in pain and desperation,
Her aching limbs and downcast face aglow with perspiration.
Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire with just the briefest pause
Then flooding through her memory; the echoes of old applause.” (Losing it)

I became a great admirer of the lyrics of Steve Taylor – witty and laced with puns, like ‘Jung and the Restless’ a pop at pop psychology:

“Jung and the restless / primal screams
ain’t showbiz bewitching?
first came stats pulling habits out of rats / now they may need more attention”

I loved the (admittedly pretentious at times) musings of Fish in Marillion’s latter albums – an excerpt from ‘Warm Wet Circles’ remains one of my all-time favourite lyrics:

“I saw teenaged girls like gaudy moths: a classroom’s shabby butterflies
Flirt in the glow of stranded telephone boxes;
Planning white lace weddings from smeared hearts and token proclamations –
rolled from stolen lipsticks across the razored webs of glass.
Sharing cigarettes with experience with her giggling jealous confidantes,
she faithfully traces his name with quick-bitten fingers
Through the tears of condensation that’ll cry through the night
As the glancing headlights of the last bus kiss adolescence goodbye.”

I think that’s poetry in its own right.

I’ve come to love the lyrics of artists like Joe Jackson and Squeeze for the wit and artists like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits for the power of the pictures that they paint with words: if small-town America has a purer, more plaintive chronicler than Bruce, I’d like to hear from them. I still get a lump in my throat singing along to The River in the car sometimes.

I could go on about lyrics and lyricists that I love all night – I’ve not touched on Dylan, Suzanne Vega, Joan Armatrading, Willy Mason, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, Barenaked Ladies…

The point is, I think that lyrics are often under rated and under appreciated. They end up as filler in too many songs, just syllables to fit a vocal around, pretty much scat (pun intended).

The problem is: writing lyrics is hard. Writing even bad lyrics is a challenge for a lot of people, writing good lyrics (let’s, for the sake of argument, say that lyrics can be judged on quality for some reasons independent of personal taste) harder still.

Lots and lots of musicians put hours into learning their instruments, finding new chords, rhythms, runs and licks. Fewer, I think, are willing to put the same craft and effort into lyrics – there’s a tendency to say ‘that’ll do’. I know, I’ve done it. Partly because you suspect that nobody’s listening, partly because there’s a touch of inverse snobbery about classy lyrics – it’s easy to be overly sensitive to accusations of pretension. Partly, though, I think, because it’s just so easy to end up sat there with writer’s block and think “screw it, nobody listens to the words anyway”.

“The writer stares with glassy eyes, defies the empty page

His beard is white, his face is lined and streaked with tears of rage.

Thirty years ago, how the words would flow – with passion and precision

but now his mind is dark and dulled by sickness and indecision.” (Losing it)

This always haunts me when I’m sat with half a song. Bloody Peart, smart-arse.

I hope that I’ll never lose the spark that makes me want to write. It can be a pain in the behind, pacing the floor and rejigging a set of lines again and again, trying to condense something that you really want to say into some elegant, rhythmic, rhyming structure. It’s so worth it when you get it right, though.

I’d like to say thanks to all the people that have complimented us on our lyrics after hearing us play. It means a lot to me. It also means kudos to Rob, Trev and Dave, who have done sound for us, that people can actually make the words out. I’m delighted that people have enjoyed our lyrics, I’ll be putting some of them up on the site shortly.

There are loads of people round here that write great lyrics, Kev’s (Millner) and Sian’s (Just to Annoy Ray) songs are lyrically (as well as musically) brilliant, keep your ears open.

To all of the existing, budding and would-be lyricists out there – keep writing. I’ve discarded three times as many lyrics as I’ve ever kept and I have loads that I’ve never been prepared to put out there. We all improve with practice and we all inspire and challenge each other. Pick up that pen. In the mean time, I’ll be posting some of our lyrics soon; comments welcome.