Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Worst. Lyricist. Ever.

By Michael J.W. Stickings

If you like lists, like I do, and you like rock music, like I do, and you want something really funny to read, check out Blender's new list of the 40 worst lyricists in rock (and check out that fine magazine's other lists while you're at it, especially if you're at work, bored, or have a paper to write, or are otherwise looking to procrastinate).

I won't give away who's #1 -- until the end of the post. Suffice it to say that I don't agree. He's not that bad and in fact has been quite good throughout a long and distinguished career. (And I love his older stuff.)

Otherwise, some comments:

-- Paul McCartney (#38) has written some great lyrics and some pretty awful ones. The Beatles-era McCartney was brilliant -- especially on Sgt. Pepper's and the White album, and also Abbey Road. But the post-Beatles-era McCartney descended into the pits of pop crap. They're right to single out "Ebony and Ivory," one of the more horrendous songs of all time. And "Say, Say, Say" isn't much better.

-- A fellow Canadian, Bryan Adams, deserves to be higher on the list than #37. Have you ever heard "Heaven"? ("I'm findin' it hard to believe... he's had such a long and successful career.")

-- Diddy at #33? How does his "music" qualify as rock? How does it qualify as anything other than self-absorbed cacophony?

-- #31: Carly Simon. Yeah, but that's one song, and it's about Warren Beatty. C'mon! (Okay, a lot of her songs suck. "Let the River Run" works at the end of Working Girl, but, well, as a song...)

-- Simon Le Bon (i.e., Duran Duran) at #26. You know, I loved Duran Duran when I was, er, an adolescent. Who didn't like the unrated version of "Girls on Film"? And I loved "The Reflex" and "Rio" and the rest of that drivel. Even now, there's a certain warm nostalgia. I even saw them at Radio City Music Hall during their comeback of the early-'90s. Thankfully, however, one outgrows one's adolescence. Usually.

-- Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant comes in at #23. And rightfully so. Although I've come to like "Stairway to Heaven" more and more, believe it or not, as well as a few of their other classics, they remain an appallingly overrated band. And, yes, too much Tolkien is not a good thing.

-- Jon Bon Jovi's lucky to be only at #22. Sheer and utter shit.

-- Another fellow Canadian, Alanis, at #21. Such potential she once had. Jagged Little Pill is a pretty good album. Seriously. But then: poof! So much for potential. I once saw her in concert at Jones Beach in New York. Way back when, and everyone was excited to be there, just for her, and everyone knew the lyrics to "Ironic". I liked her, but the opening act, which I didn't know, was awfully impressive, much more so, and I ran into them backstage (waiting for Alanis, who never showed, much to our chagrin). The name of that opening act? -- Radiohead. Awesome.

-- #15: Bernie Taupin. Which means, Elton John. Enough said. Catchy tunes, but, overall, crap. I saw him at Shea Stadium in New York in... oh, back when I was in college. '93, maybe. I liked the guy who came on before him: Eric Clapton. Now that was impressive.

-- The Genesis crew come in at #13. Really? Were they that bad? Like, worse than Elton John, Duran Duran, and Bon Jovi? I don't think so. Sure, the prog-rock routine was tiresome, and Phil Collins has gone on, after a decent start to his solo career, to do some of the more repellent soft pop of our time, but Invisible Touch remains a classic album. "Tonight, tonight, tonight... we're gonna make it right..." Fine, that's... that's terrible.

-- Jim "Lizard King" Morrison deserves a high spot on the list, but... #10? If pretension is the key factor, then, yes, absolutely, fine. But, again, were his drug-induced visions worse than the banal, unintentionally hilarious excrescence of, say, the '80s?

-- #7: Paul Stanley. I'll say it here: KISS sucks. Sorry, Peter Griffin.

-- #4: Noel Gallagher. It must be tough to rip off The Beatles while doing lines, stroking your inflated ego, and engaging in some serious sibling rivalry with your far-less-talented brother. And what the hell's a "champagne supernova"? Still, when they're good -- and they've been very good -- they're not bad. Oasis, I mean.

-- Rush's Neil Peart, yet another fellow Canadian, is the next-to-worst at #2. Again: really? I don't much care for early Rush, the prog-rock Rush, the Rush of concept-album inanity, but Peart outgrew his adolescent infatuation with Ayn Rand and became a pretty good lyricist -- solid words to accompany the undeniable musical genius of the band. Songs like "Subdivisions" captured, without being trite, the alienation of suburban existence. And Roll the Bones, one of their best albums, obliterated for good whatever lingering attachments they may have had to Ayn Rand, although she was long gone well before then. And, overall, the lyrics, from about 1980 on, explored social, political, and philosophical issues maturely and intelligently. #2? -- I think not. Not even close.

And, okay, here's #1, the worst lyricist ever:

-- Sting. He'd be high on the list if, again, the key factor were pretension, but how can this be justified? I'm hardly a fan of the lute-wielding Sting of today, nor even of some of his "world music" explorations of recent albums, but he wrote some amazing songs for The Police and his first four solo albums were excellent. He is criticized here for name-dropping Nabokov, but "Don't Stand So Close to Me" is a brilliant song. So, too, pretty much everything on Synchronicity. And who doesn't like "Roxanne" and "Message in a Bottle"? Sure, much of his solo work is preachy, if not politically infantile, but most political rock is far, far worse. Sting isn't nearly as annoying as, say, Bono. And from his solo work, there are some amazing songs: "Fortress Around Your Heart," "They Dance Alone," "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You," among others. Sorry, he's a big name and all, and he has done some dreck, I admit, but there's no way he belongs anywhere near the top of this list, let alone at the very top.

On a more pleasurable note, it's good not to see Roger Waters on the list. He and Pink Floyd have so many (misguided) detractors, after all, many of whom simply can't stand his lyrics, perhaps because they don't get them. But I'll make the argument that he is the best lyricist in rock, and, if you require evidence, I'll direct you to everything they ever did -- but especially, just to name a few, "Time," "Us and Them," "Brain Damage," "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," "Wish You Were Here," "Mother," "Hey You," and "The Final Cut".


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  • Nobody in their right mind would include Waters in a category of bad lyricists. Pink Floyd has always been a band that made an album worth listening to, over and over, just to make sure you catch everything.

    They rock!

    By Blogger Deb, at 1:43 AM  

  • Yuck - it's all self-absorbed, narcissistic teenagery.

    Wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bom-bom
    Tutti Frutti, aw rutti
    Tutti Frutti, aw rutti
    Tutti Frutti, aw rutti
    Tutti Frutti, aw rutti
    Tutti Frutti, aw rutti
    Awop-bop-a-loo-mop alop bom bom

    Now that's music!

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 9:09 AM  

  • Of course I agree with you, Deb. The problem is, there are a lot of people out there, and particularly in the music-criticism business, who aren't quite in their right minds.

    Capt. Fogg: Yes, we could do another list for pre-rock pop. Some of it was pretty, well, inane. Or should we see this more as pre-lingual (meta-lingual?) genius akin to Sting's De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da?

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 9:27 AM  

  • Roxanne gets on my last nerve and Susudio or whatever by Phil Collins makes me wonder about command of the English language.

    By Blogger Deb, at 12:39 PM  

  • Fair enough on "Roxanne". I used to hate it, then I didn't mind it, then I sorta liked it, now I think it's okay -- much better live than not.

    And "Susudio" is indeed horrible. There are only a few songs that salvage Collins's solo career: "In the Air Tonight," for example, although it, too, can grate on one's nerves.

    Back to Sting: I really do like his first four solo albums. Even the unheralded The Soul Cages. Things started going awry on the fourth, however, Ten Summoner's Tales. The politics of Dream of the Blue Turtles is at times awfully superficial ("the Russians love their children too"? -- yes, I'm sure they do -- thanks, Sting), but it's a solid album.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:50 PM  

  • To the person who thinks that Sting wrote a good song with 'Message In A Bottle'. The lyrics and concept were stolen nearly word-for-word from a book by AMERICAN writer, Walker Percy. The great guitar hook was credited to Andy Summers, but was, again, stolen from AMERICAN band Blue Oyster Cult ("Don't Fear the Reaper").

    Favorite Sting faux pas: "Americans stole their music from 'the blacks'". Even Jesse Helms would have understood that black people from New Orleans were, in fact, Americans. I also seem to remember something about 'poets, priests, and politicians' in that book, but my point has been made.

    Mark Twain was once asked to review the work of a budding writer. His response seems entirely relevant to Sting...'You work is both good and original. But the original parts aren't good, and the good parts aren't original...'.

    The second most annoying person in popular music has to be John Mayer. If you go back to the tapes of him inducting Sting into the R&R Hall of Shame, you will see an bemused Elvis Costello..having to endure Mayer thanking Sting for his inspiration. Has Mayer ever listened to 'Veronica' by Costello? Wasn't that his first hit?

    Don't even start me on Norah Jones 'Don't Know Why' and the similarities to 'Christmas Time is Here' from Charlie Brown.

    Although, when it comes to stealing, Sting has NOTHING on Bowie.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:00 PM  

  • If there is anything which proves Sting's challenge with lyric-writing, it must be 'Roxanne'. "...I wouldn't talk down to ya...I won't share you with another boy.'

    He told her once, he won't tell her again.

    This girl is better off on the streets...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:04 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:34 PM  

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