Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Most Contorted Lyrics in a Pop Song

This is one of these postings to which you quite legitimately say 'why did he suddenly start going on about that'. Well, the whole point of this blog was to extract the odd things that had been floating around in my brain and get them out of my system like the tablets of lead with curses or prayers that Romans would throw into sacred pools. Some of these things have been in my head only a short time and some, like today's have been there for many years.

I was driving across southern Hampshire yesterday lunchtime tuned to a local radio station and they had a feature in which they play three songs in a row by the same group or artist. The performers and the tunes selected are picked by listeners. Yesterday someone selected Toto as one member was performing locally this week. Someone once described the band to me as a 'super-group', i.e. not a spectactularly successful band but one that was made up of performers who had established careers of their own or in other groups. Toto was formed in 1977 of session musicians and peaked in success in the 1980s before breaking up in 2008. At various times there were 12 official band members and a further 27 musicians and vocalists performed with them at various times on tour. They performed what has been termed 'adult-orientated rock' and sometimes 'soft rock' or even 'progressive rock' though I imagine if they did the latter that must appear on their albums rather than their successful singles. The three singles selected yesterday were their most successful, certainly in the UK: 'Hold the Line' (1978), 'Rosanna' (1982) and 'Africa' (1982).

Now, it is about that third single, 'Africa' that I want to comment. I was reminded of it recently through working with a white and a mixed-race South African who spoke of their affinity for Africa, when as someone who had been a member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement I found and still do find, it difficult to feel that white people in Africa are at all right, or at best they should feel themselves at best guests and in most cases intruders. I was angered by a white composer of (appalling) Classical music I heard speaking some years ago who talked about how him growing up in Africa had influenced his music. I felt he was stealing from the continent in the way colonists stole people and resources. I was reminded of this too watching the movie 'The Saint' (2003) which is one I enjoy thoroughly, but Val Kilmer playing Simon Templar disguises himself as a white South African (apparently a resident of Cape Town), Thomas More in order to seduce Dr. Emma Russell (played by Elizabeth Shue) he refers to his home in Africa.

Anyway, because of those references and how my odd mind works the song was in my thinking even before I heard it yesterday. It reached Number 1 in the USA in February 1983 but had almost been left off their album imaginatively called 'Toto IV' in 1982 because band members felt it was out of step with other things they were producing. Apparently they were very tired of it by the time it was put on the album. It does seem like an overchewed piece all round. I have now found out that the fact that I cringe every time I hear it is something that I share with other people as it was voted containing the 6th worst set of lyrics in a BBC poll a few years ago.

The music itself is fine. It is a typical rock arrangement with references as the performers have noted, to the kind of music used in documentaries about Africa. The key problem which makes me shudder whenever the tune comes on is the lyrics. What David Paich and Jeff Porcaro were thinking when they wrote the lyrics I am not sure. It was inspired by Paich's reflections on someone who had never visited Africa envisaging it. However, the 'story' with the reference of the young man wandering around seeking inspiration seems to be about someone in Africa, awaiting a woman coming on an aeroplane. Why they had to jam so much into a number of the lines is beyond me, it is almost comical how they try to stretch the words across the music and stunning that such a song could be so successful.
The particularly bad bits are: 'The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation' which is allowed as long in the song as the preceding line; 'She's coming in: twelve thiry flight'. Further in the same verse you get 'I stopped and old man on the way' which is fine, but the next line is twice the length squeezed painfully into the space: 'Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies', something like 'Hoping to some rare melody' would have been more than enough.

In the second verse overlong lyrics ruin the impact of the song which at other times is punchy. 'The wild dogs cry out in the night' that is fine but when followed up by 'As they grow restless longing for some solitary company' it weakens it entirely. Something along the lines of 'Remind me of how I am solitary'. I am not a lyricist, but trying to squeeze the far longer line in is painful. What is 'solitary company' anyway? You did not need the additional two or three syllables of the contradictory word, there is enough in the line already. Then comes the piece de resistance the line which received the high ranking in the BBC poll. 'I know that I must do what's right' - yes, great, nice and forceful, decisive the kind of thing you need in a rock song, but then it is doused by the poll-rated lyric: 'Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti'. Now why do you need Olympus in there? Below are photos of the two mountains. Yes, they have snow on top and they are mountains, but that is where the similarity ends. I imagine there should be some punctuation in the lyrics otherwise it is entirely wrong as Olympus does not rise above the Serengeti. Using Kilimanjaro was always going to be difficult let alone when you have Serengeti in the line. Keep it simple 'As sure as the Sun rises over Serengeti' would have been more than enough or 'As sure as Kilimajaro rises into the sky'.

I can understand why it needed a lot of production just to stop the song breaking down. Steve Lukather, one of the leading members of Toto, said in 2003 that 'I didn't think it was any good' and he was right, though clearly the record-buying public disagree. I have been accused of paying too much attention to lyrics and it seems that many people pay little attention to anything beyond the chorus of a song. I was told yesterday by someone that they had not known that the song 'All Together Now' (1990) by The Farm contained any references to the First World War. This is despite the lyrics saying: 'Remember boy that your forefathers died/ Lost in millions for a country's pride/ But they never mention the trenches of Belgium/ When they stopped fighting and they were one/ A spirit stronger than war was at work that night/ December 1914 cold, clear and bright/ Countries' borders were right out of sight/ When they joined together and decided not to fight' which cannot be mistaken for anything else.

I suppose Toto's example of the most contorted pop lyrics in existence is more about the force of record companies and an undiscerning consuming public making something that sounds as if it was written by an over-eager 13 year old back from visiting his grandparents in Johannesburg into a best-selling record still being played on prime-time radio 27 years after it was released. It has not got to the stage as it has with some pop songs that I loathe them so much that I will turn them off when they come on, mainly because I wait for some different version to come on with the vocalist going 'I can't sing this, let's try something a bit more rational' and but always painfully stretching the words over the necessary number of bars so that the song does not entirely collapse.

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