Pop Against Language
My most recent writing about music was a short book about a Talking Heads’ album, called “Fear of Music”. The most difficult part of the assignment was dealing with the album’s first track, “I Zimbra”, a song which employs a nonsense poem written by the Dadaist Hugo Ball in place of English lyrics. Though fairly irresistible, the song has always irked me, standing as it does as the official clarion-call of the “stop making sense” imperative for subsequent albums by the band – not my preferred direction in their work (as if I had a vote!). The use of Ball’s poem was suggested by Brian Eno, another favorite musician who’s pitted himself against “meaning” in lyrics, remarking frequently on his disinterest in what the singer actually has to say, and his preference for the use of automatic writing or nonsense as lyrics.
I suppose as a writer I take this kind of thing a bit personally.
The whole subject became a focusing lens for me, on the related difficulty of talking about music in words, of course – that famous difficulty of music criticism, known also as “dancing about architecture”. I realized at some point that I’d turned into an unconscious collector or aficionado of pop songs that put up this kind of resistance – musical resistance to definite and coherent language, that is – into one or another kind of foreground. So, here are a few examples, an iceberg-tip of a subject that’s vast, once you begin to recognize its outlines. I’ve included here some classic and recognizable songs, some completely outré and obscure, each standing for dozens of others that might have been selected. “Surfin’ Bird”, for instance, just because it amuses me a bit more than “Louie Louie” or “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”. “He Was Really Sayin’ Something” and “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” are here to cover the genre of the song which explicitly problematize the “sentiment impossible to reproduce in words” – much as does “Da Doo Doo Doo, Da Da Da Da” by The Police, but I never want to hear that song again, so I haven’t imposed it on you. R.E.M. were the masters of the mumblingly-indecipherable track, of course – another way out of the problem – and Shark Quest and Dirty Three are here to remind you – or me – that there is such a thing not only as the instrumental rock song, but the band which does nothing but. The rest is pretty much self-explanatory – hah!
Talking Heads, “I Zimbra”
Trashmen, “Surfin’ Bird”
Syd Barrett, “Gigolo Aunt”
The Velvettes, “He Was Really Sayin’ Something”
Dirty Three, “Some Things I Just Don’t Want To Know”
Brian Eno, “King’s Lead Hat”
Major Lance, “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”
The Soft Boys, “Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole”
The Stooges, “Asthma Attack”
James Brown, “Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses?)”
Can, “Father Cannot Yell”
Bob Dylan, “All The Tired Horses”
Shark Quest, “Lunch At Sara’s”