Quite a few of my lists have been inspired by The Robert Elms show on BBC Radio London. Today was one such list. I didn't have a list prepared and I wasn't going to bother doing one today, but Robert did what he calls a Fourfer on his show, as I was returning from walking the dogs. The subject was Paul Simon. I'm not a massive fan of Paul Simon, but I acknowledge the man is a genius. The way a fourfer works, is that Robert picks a topic and four people suggest tracks. One lady rang and suggested The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel. As I listened, it reminded me of just what a brilliant lyricist is. It got me thinking, "What are the ten best song lyrics ever?". Would The Boxer feature?
It may surprise you to learn that even though I write songs and really care about the lyrics, I rarely listen to them in songs. However there are some that have made a real impact. Some people think good song lyrics have to be about important subjects, protest, social injustice. I think that good lyrics put you in a different space and transport you to places sometimes you'd love to go and sometimes you wouldn't. I think this is a pretty fine list. In truth it should have been at least 25 and there are some glaring omissions, due to the constraints of picking ten. Most of the artists could have had ten of their own.
So here are my top ten.
1. The Hurricane by Bob Dylan. The story of a miscarriage of justice. Perhaps the most powerful lyrics of all. I'm not a massive Dylan fan, but this really is the work of a genius. It is a shame that the BBC don't play it due to offensive words in the lyrics. My view is that if offensive words are in context then the rule should not apply. If you have a few minutes, check these songs out.
2. Glad to be gay by The Tom Robinson Band. This is perhaps the most powerful protest song of all. Tom Robinson had a big hit with 2-4-6-8 Motorway, which was a brilliant pop song. He followed it up with Glad to be gay. It was the first time I'd heard homosexuality portrayed in a sympathetic way. I was at Finchley Catholic High School at the time which was a highly homophobic environment and to have openly expressed a liking for the TRB after was lethal (literally). Shortly after I moved to Orange Hill School, which was a lot more grown up and liberal. Although I am not gay, I think this is a hugely important song and it changed my views on the subject. It made me realise that police brutality against people with a different sexuality was pure evil. For that I owe Mr Robinson the world.
3. Betrayal takes two by Richard Hell and the Voidoids. This song is a true masterpiece of the complex condition which is human loyalty. I may have listened to the song a thousand times, but the lyrics still inspire me. In truth, the musical arrangement doesn't do the words justice. It is not a nice song in the true sense of the word, but it reminds me that it's okay not to be perfect and also that forbidden fruits always taste best.
4. I feel like I'm fixing to die - Country Joe and The Fish. The best anti war song ever. Written at the height of the Vietnam war and featured in the Woodstock movie. There really is no better summing up of the futility of war and the corporate interests that drive it.
5. Rise - Public Image Ltd. John Lydon is a brilliant lyricist. Unlike most of the other songs in this list, this song is brilliant for its simplicity. The refrain 'Anger is an energy' is something that I can really associate with. Good lyrics evoke strong feelings. This certainly does.
6. Up the Junction - Squeeze. The story of a life falling apart. It is clever, funny and tragic. It is almost a play set to music in three minutes and eleven seconds. This song inspired a generation of lyricists.
7. White man in Hammersmith Palais - The Clash. There were dozens of songs I could have picked, but this is the one that takes me back to a time and place. Joe Strummer at his best. It describes an era and sets a scene.
8. Too much too young - The Specials. Another band that could have had all ten songs, but this really is the very best. The story of the dangers of not using contraception.
9. The tracks of my tears - Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I believe that Smokey Robinson is a better lyricist than Bob Dylan. This is perhaps his masterpiece, this song is perhaps the best example of the feeling of hurt at the end of a relationship.
10. Wake and make love with me - Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Dury was a genius. This to me is his masterpiece. There is not a day that I don't think of Mr Ian Dury. His lyrics were tender, funny, cheeky, rude and absolutely magnificent.
Now enjoy them!