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Brit Grit Alley

Brit Grit Alley features interviews, news and updates on what's happening down British crime fiction's booze and blood soaked alleyways.

By Paul D. Brazill 

This week down Brit Grit Alley, I have a musical guest column from Allen Miles.

Every Day I Wrote The Book

When Paul asked me to write a piece for his site, I wasn't too sure what I should talk about. When I asked him, he said, "You know your music, why not write about that? But pimp your new book too." So, I thought, how could I write an article about music, yet work my own written work into it as well? After a small amount of time, it struck me: lyrics.

Song lyrics have had as much as an influence on my writing career as novellists. I used to be a lyricist myself, in my ill-fated band, Sal Paradise. I used to enjoy the restraint of trying to say everything I could in three verses and a chorus, but after a while I found the medium of indie-punk music terribly stifling. My lyrics would become longer and longer, rambled narratives clinging loosely to some sort of vague rhyme scheme. When Sal Paradise clattered to its tragi-comic end, I found myself discussing with various other musically-inclined friends the possibility of starting new bands. One man in particular, a very talented musician called Dave Gouldson, who remains to this day one of my best friends, was enthusiastic about the prospect. I'm nothing more than an adequate musician, and I have no idea how to write a song, but Dave could, and he asked me if I had any lyrics. I answered in the affirmative and a couple of days later in the pub I stuffed a couple of sheets of paper in his pocket and told him to look at it the next day when the beer had evaporated from his veins. A week or so later, he threw the pages back at me and the following discourse took place:

"What the fuck do you want me to do with that?"

"Write a song to it. Why?"

"Its twenty-six fucking verses!"


"I can't do it Al, sorry. This ain't happening."

So my career as a lyricist screeched to a halt. But my fledgling career as a writer began. And I took on board how much I had enjoyed the words of the songs that I loved while I was trying to write songs of my own, and now stories of my own. Therefore, I've decided to write about some of my favourite lyricists, and their best work.

The first lyricist that really changed the way I think about words was Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers; the excellent punk sloganeering on exuberant scissor-kicking singles such as Motown Junk and You Love Us, but in particular his work on The Holy Bible album. By the time it was recorded Edwards had fallen into a savage depression, and rather than spray-painting his Fisher Price political agenda over the songs, he was writing lyrics about the holocaust, anorexia and prostitution. Yes, Of Walking Abortion and Faster are amazing staccato diatribes about the decline of the human race, and like John Lennon and Lou Reed before him, Edwards had the ability to use words to hurt, accuse and disturb. He is also utterly convincing of his opinion at all times. In 4st 7lbs, in which he romanticises his own eating disorder, he writes "Self-worth scatters, self-esteem's a bore/I've long since moved to a higher plateau/This discipline's so rare so please applaud/Just look at the fat scum who pamper me so." Astonishing and deeply upsetting lines. No-one has metaphorically grabbed his fellow man by the hair, forced him to look in the mirror and howled "look, look at what you and your pathetic species have become", in the way that Richey did. His "lost lyrics" on the Journal For Plague Lovers album are also intensely profound, in particular the remarkable Doors Closing Slowly, which I rate as his best ever.

From there I would become familiar with the verse of Joy Division's Ian Curtis and Thom Yorke of Radiohead, yet it would be a rather more floral and languid wordsmith who would next make my ears prick up. Enter one Steven Patrick Morrissey. Morrissey is a true original as a lyricist in that he never really took influence from songwriters past, instead embracing writers such as Oscar Wilde and Graham Greene. Only really Bret Anderson and Stuart Murdoch have successfully aped his style and the fact that he was able to weave such wonderful gallows humour into his lines make a mockery of the nay-sayers who claim he's merely a moaner. His words often form his own versions of the classic fifties kitchen-sink dramas such as Look Back In Anger and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, evocative of a time and place yet at the same time completely transcendent of all barriers, connecting with people on the most human emotional level. The lines in How Soon Is Now? for example: "There's a club if you'd like to go/You could meet somebody who really loves you/So you go and you stand on your own/And you leave on your own/And you go home and you cry/And you want to die." Every single intelligent, slightly awkward young man in the civilised world has felt like that. Jaysus, I know I have. The howling repeated refrain at the end of That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore, "I've seen this happen in other people's lives/And now it's happening in mine.": again, something that everyone stuck in a dead-end job or miserable relationship has felt. The lyrics of Morrissey taught me that you should write about what you know. There is no point trying to write about some fantasy rock n' roll lifestyle if you're not living it. You should write about the rain rolling down the back of your neck, the damp in the corner of your bedroom or the wine stains on your dog-eared copy of Road To Wigan Pier. I've been accused many times of being a drama queen in my writings, and I don't care. I'd like to think that people know I'm being true to myself, even if they are laughing behind their hands.

After Morrissey I would thrall to the genius poetry of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, undoubtedly some of the most beautiful language ever committed to tape, but in both cases often quite meandering and indulgent. I was always a fan of the more direct use of words in my music, so from the old guard, I'd like to pick Leonard Cohen.

"Laughing Len" is in my opinion, the most authoritative lyricist in all of music. I think his major attribute is, certainly in his early work, that the music is so simple, it forces you to listen to the words. The same themes come up again and again in his songs, jilted lovers, honest men who have been wronged, divisions of men marching to certain death, religious figures dying without shame. At the age of about twenty two I became absolutely addicted to the Songs Of Love And Hate Album, a compendium of some the most utterly barren and self-flagellating songs ever written. The imagery, the utter weight and gravitas of the words used in the songs; it's absolutely mesmerizing. On Last Year's Man, a song about the horror of religious war: "And though I wear a uniform/I was not born to fight/all these wounded boys you lie beside/goodnight, my friends, goodnight." From Famous Blue Raincoat, an incredibly intricate ballad in the form of a letter to the other male in a doomed love triangle: "And you treated my woman/To a flake of your life/And when she came back/She was nobody's wife." Cohen was a moderately successful poet before he was a songwriter, and it shows. His lyrics have no peer in the world of music, and his true rivals are writers such as Dante and Milton, writers that have been set in stone through the centuries as absolute masters of their craft. My favourite song of his is Anthem, which connected with me on a personal level when my wife and I lost our first child, lines such as "Don't dwell on what has passed away/And what is yet to be.... There's a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." making a mockery of the idea that he's miserable. Those who listen properly will know that he's the greatest commentator on human emotions of all time. The way he influenced me was his amazing gift for description, and how important it is if you want to get into someone's head. Whether of image or feeling, there simply is no-one to touch him.

So after Leonard Cohen, I became drawn to the lyricists I refer to as the scriptwriters. The ones who are sat in the corners of bars, watching all the characters go about their business from afar with a glass of potent spirit in their hand. The ones who can place you down a rainy alley with soaked shoes and broken dreams just by listening to their words. I believe there is a holy trinity of these guys. The first is Shane McGowan, who is easily the most romantic lyricist to have ever lived. His songs on many an occasion seem to be literally written from the gutter, serenading the moon about all the woman and friends he has lost to the demon drink. In the same vein we have Tom Waits, who writes plays set to music about the violent and seedy underworlds in which he dwells, the ultimate musical voyeur, Charles Bukowski with a piano. And the other, who would be my fourth choice on this list, formerly of the Birthday Party and occasionally of Grinderman, the leader of the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave.

Nick Cave is the most wide-ranging lyricist I've ever heard. His main three themes are, as with his spiritual-forbearers Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan; Love, Death and God. The Boatman's Call album is, in my opinion, the greatest set of lyrics ever committed to tape; an intense, nakedly-honest account of the highs and lows of relationships (Opening line is "I don't believe in an interventionist God/But I know darling, that you do."). Yet he can go from talking of how the smell of his lover on his hands sullies his experience of taking Holy Communion (Brompton Oratory), to writing comedy murder ballads about sodomising a pimp in a bar in the wild west (Stagger Lee). It is that ease of switching between the protagonist and the antagonist that is Cave's greatest strength. The Mercy Seat, widely recognised as his greatest song, is a first person account of a condemned man's journey to the electric chair, into which he crams a ludicrously intense litany of imagery, stopping to ponder the irony of how the chair is made of wood and Christ was "a carpenter by trade/Or at least that's what I'm told", before his head is shaved and wired. On the remarkable Oh My Lord, he makes something as simple as going for a haircut sound like the most apocalyptic nervous breakdown imaginable, as he starts to doubt his image, his integrity and his vocation: "And I'm down on my hands and knees/And it's so fucking hot/People cry 'What are you looking for?'/And I cry 'The plot! The plot!'" I suppose what I took from the work of Nick Cave is that you can use beautiful words to describe horrific scenarios, and ugly words to describe beautiful things. I'll quote his best few lines here, from (Are You The One) I've Been Waiting For: "We will know, won't we?/The stars will explode in the sky/But they don't, do they?/Stars have their moment/Then they die" If you do nothing else this weekend, buy The Boatman's Call. Even if it's just to read the lyric sheet.

So one more... there's no pre-amble to this one, so I'll just sneak in a couple more near-misses. I love the early work of Suede's Brett Anderson, his bedsit romances having the traits of a sleazier Morrissey; in a similar vein, the early work of Scott Walker was very much lonely young man's poetry, completely at odds with the era it came from. I'm also a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, and for one to wrong-foot you, I'll chuck in George Michael, only his solo stuff though. Which leaves us with the man I believe to be the greatest lyricist of all time, a truly gifted and prolific writer, the former computer operator known as Declan McManus. Here's a quote from one of his most famous songs: "You snatch a tune, you a match a cigarette/She pulls the eyes out with a face like a magnet/I don't know how much more of this I can take/She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake."

Elvis Costello, for me, is simply the greatest purveyor of the English language through the medium of song, to have ever lived. He can do love, politics, rage, humour, anger, guilt, introspection, narrative... he can do it all. If you take the song I Want You, for example, he details a failing affair that he doesn't want to let go of, and he makes you feel he would be willing to murder that person rather than let anyone else have her. It is genuinely terrifying in places, the amount of hatred he can put into words about someone he loves. "I want you/You've had your fun you don't get well no more/I want you/Your fingernails go dragging down the wall/Be careful darling you might fall."

Costello once claimed to be driven by "guilt and revenge" when writing lyrics, and I think that's as accurate a description as I could think of. I don't know of any other lyricist, not even Eminem, who has so deliberately gone out to wound people with his words. Many of his songs find him stuck in mundane relationships, bound only by the distain he has for the other person. The resigned pay-off to Man Out Of Time, for example: "Who's nerves are always on a knife edge?/Who's up late polishing the blade?/Love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning/You drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning"

But it's not just his love interests, he rages against anything and everything. I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea finds him sneering at the London hipsters he found himself adored by, in Radio Radio he's mercilessly slagging off the asinine DJs who refused to play the more controversial songs of the punk era, and in possibly the angriest song ever written (certainly I deduced so in one of my own blogs here he articulates so eloquently why he wants to dance on the grave of
Margaret Thatcher in Tramp The Dirt Down.

Perhaps his finest moment though, is one that takes a more sombre and resigned tone. Shipbuilding is a neat and wistful ballad about dockyard workers who were offered danger money to build the war fleets that would be sent to the Falklands conflict. Sounding utterly bereft of a grasp on the workings of the world, Costello doesn't waste a single word as he writes of how "Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards/And notifying the next of kin/Once again." His greatest gift of all is revealed in this song; it is his talent for making the political personal. The repeated refrain "With all the will in the world/Diving for dear life/When we could be diving for pearls," is one of the saddest lines ever written.

I took no influence from the writings of Elvis Costello. If I'd tried to I'd have packed up and gone home by now, in the knowledge that some men will always be better than others.

Bio: Allen Miles is a six-foot three anaemic stick insect with a bit of a cold. He is 32 years old and lives in Hull with his wife Sally and his daughter Gabriella. He rarely sleeps, drinks too much and is useless with money. His new collection of short stories, This Is How You Disappear, can be found on both Kindle and paperback.

  There'll be more carryings on down Brit Grit Alley very soon, sorta kinda thing, like.

Paul D. Brazill is the author of A Case Of Noir,Guns Of Brixton and The Neon Boneyard. He was born in England and lives in Poland. He is an International Thriller Writers Inc member whose writing has been translated into Italian, Finnish, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime 8,10 and 11. He has edited a few anthologies, including the best-selling True Brit Grit – with Luca Veste. His blog is here.