Friday, April 4, 2008

I Just Can't Find The Words

I've loved music all my life. I think much of that is a Sri Lankan thing and that many of us have been brought up in an environment in which music was continually in the background. Maybe it's the same for you, maybe not.

But, I've never been a fellow who pays much attention to lyrics. I know chaps who listen to every word of a song, who can recite the vocal line to every one of their favourite songs at the drop of a hat. Then they go home and talk to other chaps about the deep and meaningful second verse of the song that they heard earlier. Well, that's not me, which could explain partly why I play the drums rather than ponce about with a microphone flicking my hair and being late for every band practice.

These days when I learn a song I often use the lyrics as signposts to get my drum part right. I pay attention to the words to learn that, when the singer says that bit, I have to go to my ride cymbal or change my part to a different groove, or whatever. Of course this is a poor substitute for learning the drum part properly, which involves ignoring the lyrics and concentrating on the feel of the song and the structure of it and whole signpost principle is only as good as the singer's ability to remember the words. Most of the singers I've played with always remember the words but aren't always sure of the order.

Yes I know that songwriters cite lyrics as being vitally important to the success of a song, but they remain something I pay little attention to. The norm in the music industry is that half of the royalties are paid to the lyricist and half to the composer, so they are clearly held in high regard by others.

I was watching a slightly fantastic jazz funk band the other night in the regular gig at my local that I told you about here. They were a bunch of twenty something guys, all brilliant musicians, the type that could easily have filled me with envy and jealousy and, well, they did. Bastards.

The drummer was a bloke that I've read about in a few of my drum magazines, quite well known in the drum world and this was the first time I'd ever seen or heard him play. He looked to be an unassuming sort of guy and walked casually aruond the pub beforehand as if he was a tad on the shy and nervous side. But, as soon as he was behind the kit, he was a changed man. I understood. He looked as if sitting behind the kit was the place that made him feel the most comfortable and not just because his drum stool had a lot of padding.

The band was great, a bit more on the jazz side than the funk side for my liking but I could appreciate their immense musicianship. The guitarist did most of the talking and introduced one song along these lines:

"This song's about a date the drummer had a while ago"

I was surprised at the whole concept of a drummer having a date but other than that all seemed normal. They played the song and I listened with baited ears, thinking that I'd ask him later how to get a date.

The next song was given another introduction by the guitarist:

"This song's called 'Dinner with Dave'. It's about a dinner that our drummer had with a famous drummer called Dave Weckl."

They kicked off, in a musical way. Another good song followed. Bastards. Again. One word sentences. More.

I decided to leave after their first set. I was a bit knackered and had made a spectacularly nice mince curry the night before. The leftovers were calling me, the rice was cooked and I strolled home with a nonchalent air and a slightly rumbling stomach. As I strolled past the Teddington kebab shop it hit me, like a raspberry jelly falling out of a plane.

What hit me was the indisputable fact that none of the songs the band played had any words. They were all instrumentals. Words were not involved, not even a random "the" chucked in or a stray "love" anywhere.

Even with my disregard for lyrics at the best of times I struggle with this concept, particularly considering the introductions and stories behind the two songs I mentioned. How the hell can a song be about a dinner that the drummer had with Dave Weckl when it's got no words? How can another be about the drummer's date with someone when it doesn't tell us anything?

Perhaps the quiet bit in the Dave Weckl song reflected the few minutes when Mr Weckl went off for a pee during dinner, maybe the loud and thrashy bit in the date song was about the argument that the drummer and his date had about the merits of BMWs compared to Mercs. Frankly I don't understand.

I understand if an instrumental is called "Song 1" or "Song 3". If one were named "Song 2" that would be a rip off because Blur have already done that and it's got words too. But the whole long story behind an instrmental, the whole "this is what it's about" thing and the plot and background are mysteries to me.

Call an instrumental "Beethoven's ninth" or even his seventh by all means but all this story stuff baffles me.

It's probably me being simplistic I'm expecting an avalanche of Javas and Theenas to come up with complex and detailed examples of instrumentals with highly involved plots and sub plots.

But I just don't get it.


Java Jones said...

One would assume that a 'song' is something that could be sung, as opposed to a tune without words (which can't be called a 'song'). So I guess the guitarist didn't know his English!

T said...

sometimes instrumentals tell better stories than songs with lyrics. it invokes more emotion and is open for interpretation. at least thats how i felt when i listened to incubus' 'look alive' and even when i heard thriloka.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Java - I don't know what the technical definition of a song is but I'm happy with the principle of calling an instrumental a song, just couldn't relate to the "stories" behind each song, when there were no lyrics.

T - I agree about the emotion that can be invoked by a wordless piece of music for sure.

Theena said...

I don't like to think of songs without vocals as instrumentals, purely because the voice is an instrument in itself (and partly because 'instrumentals' makes me think of elevator music).

As far as lyrics go, in general I don't really care. Being into metal, I can't take most of the lyrics that I listen to seriously. When it comes to vocals, I am more interested in the vocalists sense of melody and his/her vocal range.

When it comes to pop, run of the mill rock and folk, I pay more attention to lyrics.