Pop music gives ordinary people the power to be heard and the material they come up with entitles them to be called “songwriters”. And technically that is correct, of course; you can be a songwriter without having your songs published or recorded and released professionally, but if you do manage to do it officially, your words of wisdom are out there for all to see and marvel at.
That is all very well for the likes of Cole Porter (Miss Otis Regrets, I Get a Kick out of You, Every Time We Say Goodbye), Sammy Kahn (Three Coins in the Fountain, Call me Irresponsible, All the Way) and the rest of those old masters, because they were skilled and their material was chosen and recorded by other people because it was good, not because they were sexy or controversial or otherwise fashionable.
The goalposts moved when The Beatles started writing their own songs – which they didn’t much at the beginning – and they moved again when the same groundbreaking band gave their version of psychedelic music a lyrical flourish where making literal sense was not a requirement.
So when John Lennon wrote Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, a dreamy, spaced out insight into LSD tripping, he opened the floodgates for what became known as “progressive music”, or “prog rock”, which took the idea beyond The Beatles’ economical four minute epics and allowed rock musicians to extend their “works” to classical music dimensions.
There is, however, a big difference between rambling playfully and pretending you have something meaningful and important to say. A band such as King Crimson, for instance, could conjure up strange images in songs such as 21st Century Schizoid Man and you know they’re just playing with the paints, while Yes, the uncomfortably serious British noodlers, and more specifically their angelic-voiced singer Jon Anderson, came over as if you were supposed to take them as seriously as they took themselves.
To nominate just one Yes song for the Pretentious category is to ignore dozens more, but The Yes Album gave us I’ve Seen All Good People, a chess-themed piece of nonsense which will do very well.
I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day
So satisfied, I’m on my way.
Take a straight and stronger course
To the corner of your life
Make the white queen run so fast
She hasn’t got time to make you a wife
The song is full of little clauses that make the listener think it’s actually about something, but really it’s just a collection of rhyming lines that don’t add up to anything much.
A far more famous song, whose anthemic quality ensures it is still popular decades after its initial devotees have grown old enough to know better is Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. This piece of head-in-the-clouds drivel comes from a band who cut their teeth on no-nonsense blues rock. The first line is enough to tell you what’s afoot here:
There’s a lady who’s sure all the glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
But it gets worse:
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen
Hang your head in shame, lyricist Robert Plant, who may well argue that millions of people who love the song can’t be wrong.
However, follow the man’s career just a few years down the line and you come to a solo single, Big Log, which begins with the whimpering line:
My love is in league with the freeway
Pull yourself together, man. You’re a testosterone-fuelled philanderer who doinked half the impressionable girls in the US in your heyday.
Even before the progressive 70s, though, the freedom to write whatever you liked had persuaded Jimmy Webb, author of By The Time I get to Phoenix and Wichita Lineman, to give us Macarthur Park, an ode to an elaborate bit of pastry-cheffing.
Macarthur Park is melting in the dark
All that sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
Cos it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
Or are we not supposed to take it literally? The otherwise admirable Webb has said it was inspired by the breakup of his relationship with a girl he used to meet up with in Macarthur Park, Los Angeles. Whatever the truth may be, it took Richard Harris, an actor rather than a singer, to have the confidence to take it on, and the royalties must have soothed the writer’s aching heart a bit.
Another 70s favourite that unfortunately falls into this category is Bohemian Rhapsody, which perhaps is saved by Freddie Mercury’s camp persona despite such outrageous lyrics as:
I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?
Thunderbolt and lightning,
Very, very frightening me.
What does it mean? A doting Mum might give this rationale:
“Little Freddie just gets carried away sometimes – he’s very clever and he has a vivid imagination. And he means well.”