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What was that?

11 November 2016


ALL of us, at one time or another, have misheard song lyrics and thought the absurd to be authentic. Take two of the Beach Boys’ lines from “Cabinessence”, a song from their late period: “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield Over and over the thresher and hovers the wheatfield.”

Utter nonsense, you would think: surely a “mondegreen”, or mishearing of something more comprehensible? Except that the lyric in this case is what was intended: no mondegreen, but a piece of impenetrable codswallop embedded in a reasonably good song.

As recounted on The Escaped Lyric (Radio 4, weekdays), the couplet proved the downfall of the Californian boy-band. Mike Love refused to sing it until somebody explained what it meant; and nobody could, not even the lyricist. The album Smile, on which the song was to feature, later collapsed, and that, in turn, contributed to the demise of the group.

Love’s moment of rebellion is remarkable, not least because pop singers routinely have to spout texts that would never survive outside the music that ennobles them. Bob Dylan might have got a Nobel Prize, but nobody’s going to give Jim Jacobs a prize for “We go together Like ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong.”

Nick Berkeley’s initial pitch — and the rationale behind the series title — was that lyrics escape their context and revisit us when we are in need of a phrase to articulate some barely formed emotion. This may, indeed, be the case for some — although, despite the hours I spent as an adolescent copying out lyrics from their albums, I have never yet reached in desperation for even one line from the canon of the Electric Light Orchestra.

Green Gartside, a singer-songwriter with the Welsh band Scritti Politti, went one stage further and claimed that his self-consciously pop-y tunes, which carry words inspired by the likes of Derrida, have inspired listeners to pursue careers as academic philosophers. Certainly there are some fascinating questions to be addressed here, not least the cognitive interdependence of lyric and tune when it comes to recalling songs; but Berkeley’s ten-minute programmes were restricted to giving us a procession of great lyrics, as chosen by him and his friends.

Meanwhile, the writer David Greig is blocked: he cannot even manage a “doo-wop”. In Butterfly Mind (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) he gave us a powerful sense of what it is like to have one’s creative voices fall silent, and the extreme measures that he took to get them chattering again. Some in his position might try going for a run, or self-medicate with mind-altering drugs; but Greig is in need of something more exotic, and checks out his local shaman.

Carol was his shaman of choice, and is pleasant enough, though not somebody you would necessarily trust as a portal-keeper between your spirit and ancestral realms. Her tools are a rattle and a small drum. She also whistles liberally. On her journey through Grieg’s other dimensions, she encounters a jester sitting on a milestone. She urges him to move on; and Greig awakes from his reverie, full of ideas.

All of which goes to show that there is nothing as effective as a Radio 4 documentary commission to revive the creative instinct.

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