Lyrics Workshop Report

Panellists (L-R):   Leslie Moss, Sylfest Muldal, Mel Powell (Chair), Roy Brown, Andrew Long

Images of women in Monty Python, a shameless plug for Roy Brown's latest parody, and the sheer unlikeliness of Clive James ever really being Tongue-Tied all featured in a wide ranging discussion at the Midnight Voices' first-ever live Lyrics Workshop.

Although both the audience and the panel supplied a variety of questions, the discussion concentrated on two main topics History and Geography, and images of women in the lyrics.

History and Geography

Even the title of History and Geography generated many different interpretations. For Sylfest, it implied that the narrator was locked in the past, haunting a dusty old schoolroom: for Ben Coulson, that he had considered every place and time but found no happiness in any of them. There was no division on the subject though: a narrator who "knows every nook and cranny of his own sadness", as Sylfest put it.

As Leslie pointed out, the opening line "The History and Geography of feeling less than wonderful is known to me" is a brilliant understatement, considering the precise delineation of deep depression that follows. Far from the generality of 'feeling less than wonderful', the narrator can pinpoint the exact times and places at which he started to lose his idealism.

According to Leslie again, the reference in verse 2 to "the flowing speech that stuttered out, the pretty song that faded on the air" suggests that the narrator almost found 'the bright face of an angel' in the past, but missed his opportunity. (Although this line could also refer to the narrator's tendency to remember career failures rather than successes).

Roy pointed out that verse 3 is a re-working of the setting of The Prince of Aquitaine. The scene is the same: the narrator is coming home in an aircraft. But whereas in the other lyric, the highway lights below were 'cut and set like gems', here the narrator sees the scene through the blackness of his depression as being laid out like a kit of dental or surgical instruments laid out on a table. Several of the panellists agreed on the bleakness of the final line "I know that nothing lives which doesn't hold its place more worthily than I'.

Mel explained the context of the Twelfth Night quote in verse 4 as underlining the narrator's isolation. His search for 'the bright face of an angel' generated a lot of debate, with Sylfest pointing out that such a search was an obvious loser from the start, and Ben feeling that the quest for this ideal love might have led to the narrator passing up a number of potential partners along the way, then feeling his loss at the end when the vision evaporates.

The panel agreed on the desolation of the final line "I see those angel faces flame their last and flicker out into the night", though there were different views of why this should be so. For Mel, it was the idea of a search through a succession of ideal loves, culminating in an image of destruction, albeit a beautiful one, similar to that in Beware of the Beautiful Stranger. Sylfest saw it as a flickering-out of the hopes with which the narrator had deluded himself in his hopeless quest for an angel up to this final point. Roy pointed out that part of the reason for the blackness of the final depression is that the narrator is aware that it is self-inflicted. The reference to 'the Heights of Arrogance' shows that he knows that he is destructive, and that what he is looking for is what he himself is most likely to drive away, to make 'flicker out'.

'Half-remembered ladies swathed in yearning' images of women in the lyrics

A comment from the audience supplied the session's second main topic that of the image of women in the lyrics. Are they all idealised fantasy figures, and why should they appear in this way? Furthermore, why does the narrator never manage to strike up a conversation, let alone manage a real relationship?

Setting the scene, the questioner explained his view. The women in the lyrics tend to be 'girls' or 'ladies', all of them beautiful and impossibly unattainable, creating a false emotional landscape in which the narrator adopts a posture of self-pitying inadequacy which renders real relationships an impossibility.

Another audience member pointed to the roots of this image in medieval love poetry, in which the further away the lady is and the more difficult to attain, the better for the poet's artistic purposes. Mel agreed that this attitude had been subsumed into the romantic tradition, and Sylfest added later that this view was still the stock-in-trade of many lyricists.

Andrew pointed out the need to be aware of the place and time in which the songs originated. Giving as an example one of the best-loved products of Cambridge in the late 60s/early 70s Monty Python and reminding the audience that the female characters were either Eric Idle or Terry Jones dressed up as comic women, or Carol Cleveland representing the dizzy blonde, he made the point that it was common to depict women in a stereotypical way, even in a work which was highly regarded at the time.

Sylfest agreed with the view that the songs suffer from the absence of fully-rounded central female characters. As an example, he gave a detailed reading of The Double Agent, in which the narrator's lady is so perfect that there must be a trick she must be a double agent for 'the dark side'. From praising her beauty, he slips into blaming her for the troubles of the world, according to Sylfest, or for blotting them out of his consciousness, according to Mel.

Roy sounded a note of caution: the need to remember that we are not hearing the author's voice, but the narrator of the particular story told in the song. At the same time, he pointed out that something of the passive persona created for many of the songs the chap unable to boldly encounter the girl on a train, when plenty of ordinary mortals could have come up with something seems to have been adopted by Clive for comic effect in his later television work.

Picking up on this point later, a member of the audience pointed out that Tongue-Tied couldn't possibly be autobiographical: Clive James does not come across as a man stuck for chat-up lines. So why invent the persona of a loser for so many of the songs? Mel had a suggestion: romantic success tends to spell the end of romantic poetry. Marriage and children generally put a stop to songs of unrequited love. Whereas if your imagination is fired by seeing a beautiful girl disappearing on the train, a range of new artistic possibilities crops up which may be the purpose of creating so many unhappy narrators.

Leslie made the point that maybe the women are idealised in order to make the songs universal, with the women lightly characterised so that the listener can put his own ideal woman into the frame. He also noted, though, that there are instances where the woman is not idealised but still unattainable notably in The Flowers and The Wine, in which the love is very much unrequited, but the realistic setting gives the lyric greater integrity.

Mel reluctantly agreed with the charge of impossible romanticism, but pointed out the instances where this is undercut. "Half-remembered ladies swathed in yearning" seems like a summary of the way in which women are described in the lyrics, but the phrase is actually used ironically by The Shadow and the Widower, a personification of Death who taunts the lover with the insignificance of what he feels in comparison with the inevitability of universal destruction. As for unromantic women, the seen-it-all ladies with pink rinses in Apparition in Las Vegas, undeceived but still desperate for another nostalgia fix, are especially poignant.


Finally, the panel considered the songs written by Pete and Clive for Julie Covington. Leslie observed that they had had to adopt a female persona in order to produce them, and that for him, they seemed less idealised or contrived that those on the contemporary 'male voice' album, Beware of the Beautiful Stranger. With the exception of If I Had My Time Again whose theme of wishing not to have been so hard to get sits interestingly with the idea of female unattainability in other songs, as Stephen Payne pointed out there was general agreement that the lyrics worked equally well for a male or female narrator. According to Mel: "They transcend gender and sum up the common experience of humanity."

Many other ideas and topics were visited on the way, and inevitably, the workshop raised more questions than it answered. Is The Double Agent blamed unfairly? How close is the authorial voice to the narrator's in the lyrics? Do women as one audience member suggested approach the lyrics in a different way in order to enjoy them? Mel and the panel hope that discussion on these topics will continue in Midnight Voices.


Report: M. Powell


A full transcript of the session is available here.

See also Leslie Moss's Review of Pete Atkin's evening set.

Pete Atkin icon

Back to the Pete Atkin home page