Simplicity in design … or is it?

The La’s song “There she goes” is a good example of simplicity in songwriting across the four dimensions of lyric, melody, harmony, and rhythm.  However, what seems simple at first hearing can be surprisingly subtle and, on closer inspection, harbour a few surprises for the astute listener.

This version comes in at 2:47, performed on this recording at about 120bpm.

Released first in 1988 then again in 1990, the story is a boy wants girl theme set in a repeating pattern that uses a single rhyme scheme that flows from the first line, “there she goes again”.  Subsequent lines end with rhyming words “brain”, “contain,” “remains”, etc.

The harmony is the widely used G/D/C progression, followed by an Am/G/C with the minor chord giving it a bit of moodiness.

The first line of the melody is two half notes and whole note: “there/she/goes” singing on the 5th, 3rd, and 5th of the harmony chords.  So, he’s singing D/F#/G. Giving it a nice open feel.  Actually, the melodic line in this phrase is similar to “When the Saints Go Marching In” which might resonate subconsciously with some listeners.  I don’t know … maybe.

The second line changes the rhythm with a quarter notes “there/she/goes” with again picking up the last downbeat beat in the bar and carrying over into the next measure. The third lyric phrase is similar

Then it moves to the Am/G/C progression with the line “And I just can’t contain/this feeling that remains”, repeating it, then turning around on the D to start the cycle all over.

Altough it’s a simple design overall, the song structure is unusual because it isn’t based on the usual 4/8/16 bar sections, opting instead for odd numbered sections:

12+1 bar intro
11 bar verse
11 bar verse
11 bar instrumental (same as verse)
12 bar bridge
11 bar verse
7 bar outro

The unusual structure stems from a five line verse followed by a one measure turnaround.  The line phrasing is a typical 2 measures but the verse itself is five lines:

G       D    C
There she goes- (2 measures)

G              D        C
There she goes again
(2 measures)

G         D               C
Racing through my brain
(2 measures)

       Am    G     C
And I just can’t contain
(2 measures)

        Am     G    C
This feeling that remains
(2 measures)

turnaround on D (1 measure)

In terms of production, the song may sound relatively simple but it uses a number of devices to develop an arc and keep it fresh:

  • the guitar intro is a motif that is repeated throughout and reappears in the instrumental section and again in the the bridge section;
  • the vocal part is solo in the first verse but additional backup parts are added in subsequent verses;
  • the shift in the vocal styling from falsetto to full voice in the second half of the verse adds character and “body language” to the delivery;
  • the bridge is a simple but effective variation on the verse, with a slight dip in the dynamic at the beginning to add some mood.

The Wikipedia entry for the song provides some additional background and context for the song, including an interesting note that seems to suggest that it took the magic touch of producer Steve Lillywhite to transform the original recording into a hit record.  The song was covered by Sixpence None the Richer in a 1999 release.  How do they compare?  Listen for yourself.

Two Nights in Toledo

One aspect of songwriting that I enjoy the most is the element of surprise. There is a thrill that comes from not quite knowing where an idea might go as it develops from a song seed into a finished result. It’s a bit like a write-your-own-adventure story without the ability to skip to the ending!

One of my approaches to writing lyrics is to simply to play guitar and let words come out of my mouth. I record multiple takes and listen. It’s a bit like stream of consciousness writing because during these sessions I’ll just sing stuff. Much of it is nonsense but every now and then an interesting expression comes out and becomes the basis for a lyric.

Yet, and more often than not, I’ll sing or mumble something that makes me think of something totally unrelated. I now realize that this is less like stream of consciousness and more like one of those inkblot tests where the blob lifts an idea or image from out of the realms of the subconscious.

Songwriting, as many have noted, is only 20% inspiration. The 80% perspiration part comes from thinking and listening, trying and testing ideas over and over until something clicks. “Two Nights in Toledo” is one of those songs. It began as a passing thought while I was packing for a business trip to that city a couple months ago.  It seemed like an interesting sounding word combination so I wrote it down.

Then one evening I started singing the phrase while playing a guitar riff similar to “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Some mumbled lyrics during this take that I recorded yielded interesting results later on:

“Two nights in Toledo/could change a lucky man” later became “Two nights in Toledo/could make you a different man”.

The other phrases I sang didn’t actually say very much but they prompted some ideas based on the way they sounded and turned into “A good day in Las Vegas” and “Three Days in the Dakotas” and “Two weeks in Missoula”.

But what about two nights in Toledo? How could that make you a different man?

I had one idea–that travelling to small towns can lead to big changes.  Not bad, but it needed more to it.

So here’s the perspiration part, I guess.  I did research on Toledo (Ohio, not Spain) looking on Wikipedia for something interesting I could tie it to.  Here’s what I found aside from it being Maxwell Klinger’s home town in the series MASH and the namesake of the exclamation “Holy Toledo!”:

  • John Denver denigrated the city with the song “Saturday Night in Toledo” performed in 1967 on the Tonight Show, leading to a large public outcry at the time;  Oops.
  • the prog rock band Yes mentions the city in “Our Song” from the 1983 album 90125;
  • the city has hosted a baseball team dating back to 1896 called the Toledo Mudhens;
  • the Maumee River runs through the city, connecting it to Lake Erie;
  • and the inspiration for the 1970s song “Lucille” (sang of course by Kenny Rogers) is associated with the city;

And that’s where it got interesting.  Out of curiousity, I looked up the source to that last bit of trivia and discovered it mentioned in a March 22, 2010 story from the Toledo Blade newspaper about the recent closure of Caesar’s Show Bar, a historic location with a notable reputation as “the stiletto-heeled stomping grounds of local drag queen legends.”

The story says that although “it wasn’t the first drag bar in Toledo nor the only place with female impersonators, it was the best known and had the longest run, strutting through three decades of diva acts.”

Moreover, the story goes on to report that prior to its run as a drag bar, the location had previously been called the Country Palace bar and was where songwriter Hal Byman stopped in for a drink in the summer of 1975:

Mr. Bynum wandered across the street from the current Greyhound station at Michigan Street and Jefferson Avenue. Thirsty for beer, he stepped into the Country Palace bar that was then in the building.

As he sat at a corner table, Mr. Bynum said, he heard a conversation between a man and his estranged wife. There was an angry exchange, and the man got up and told the woman, “All I can say is, you picked a fine time to leave me.”

A song idea hit him, and Mr. Bynum grabbed a napkin and started scribbling words. With later help from Roger Bowling, the idea evolved into the 1977 chart-topping Kenny Rogers country song “Lucille.”

“In a bar in Toledo/ across from the depot/ on a bar stool, she took off her ring,” the lyrics begin.

Although I personally have no substantial connection to drag queens or divas, or Kenny Rogers for that matter, the Blade story did suggest to me how two nights in Toledo could make you a different man.  From there I’ll leave the rest up to the listener.

The point is this: that bit of informal research took the song into a direction that I could never have anticipated.  The original inspiration from a passing thought combined with some mumbled words sung during a writing session, came to fruition with patience and persistence, and a bit of perspiration.  The reward was a journey into a theme and set of lyrics that I had no idea was coming.  And yet it did.  This is for all you Toledoans.

The image “Eye on the prize” is by darwin Bell courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Lyrics: show, then tell, then reflect

James Linderman, writing in the 2011/2012 issue of Songwriters Magazine, offers a helpful guideline for thinking about song structure:

  • verse lyrics show
  • chorus lyrics tell
  • bridge lyrics philosophize

It’s a helpful insight that can focus and hone the writing process.  The idea of showing something can involve all of the senses, so it need not be limited to visual images.  For example, evoking a sense of touch is powerful (“your breath in my ear”) and has an emotional draw that strictly visual elements might not convey as well.  Scent and sound of course are other important dimensions of our experience.  I’ve been working on a song that uses imagery from an amusement park to establish a context and mood for a story about two young lovers.  Some of that imagery was inspired by images I found on Flickr and posted previously.

The chorus is where the hook is typically found in a song, so summing up the key idea of the song is part of the “telling”.  The chorus can also be a place where word play is engaged and double-entendres can be employed to good effect.  In the amusement park song I stumbled on the phrase “carry on” as the hook for the chorus.  Because the song is about young lovers, the phrase works nicely in a dual sense.  It can mean rambunctious behaviour on the one hand and/or the idea of keeping it going on the other hand.  The lovers in the story are both having a blast at the amusement park (“carrying on”) and they both want their love to carry on forever.

Bridge lyrics can act as a pivot point and provide a moment of reflection in the song.  In “Carry On”, the bridge isn’t yet written but I want it to touch on the idea that the main character knows deep down that this moment of joy will pass and so he wants to take full advantage of it while he can.  With that, the bridge will also require a shift in mood that can be linked back to the chorus, returning to the celebration after the pause for reflection.

If the amusement park is imagined as part of a travelling carnival, then I might be able to draw on the idea of the empty lot that remains after the tents and rides are taken down and on their way to another city.

While we are in the midway and the swept up in the lights and sounds it seems like it can last forever.  But the next day we wake up to find an empty parking lot.  The spirit of the moment has moved on.

Now I just need to find the right words to express that sentiment.

Using Flickr for lyrical inspiration

I’ve started to use Flickr to browse images that are related to an phrase or theme that I’m working with in a song sketch.  It’s an interesting exercise that helps to generate fresh ideas that also have a visual dimension to them.

For example, I’ve been working on a song with the phrase “she’s like a merry-go-round”.  That line came out spontaneously while I was noodling but it seems like an interesting element to build a theme around, so I went to Flickr and browsed the images that came up when I searched that term.

Images like the one below got me thinking about lovers sitting together, moving up and down as the merry-go-round turns. Sometimes they move in unison and sometimes in counterpoint.  This suggested to me the up and down cycles of relationships.  There is also an energy in this photograph with the horses, their mouths open, that evokes a sense of raw passion that might be seen in two young lovers.  Lots of fodder for lyrics here.

Merry Go Round

Or this one here, which for some reason reminded me of a music box and that sense of childhood often associated with amusement parks.  I later wrote a wraparound line “I want this to last forever” to tie two verses together.  It might very well have been a subconscious response to seeing this image:

Merry Go Round

This one is a long shot of a pier with an amusement park, and brings thoughts of the seaside and a stroll in the evening air.  I might never have considered either of those thoughts had I not seen this picture.

merry go round

The various elements within the images provide a rich field of ideas that I might not otherwise have immediately associated with a “merry-go-round.”  But that richness, that unexpected diversity, leads to more intricately developed themes and more interesting possibilities for lyrics to take shape.

Another dimension to this approach is to see how other people choose to photograph a merry-go-round.  This helps me to understand the kinds of images that this phrase might evoke in listeners and provides some clues about what to emphasize or draw out in the lyrics.  For example, I saw many time-lapse images of merry-go-rounds, which suggests that it might be something that people will relate to in a song.  I’m not sure what that might look like in a lyric but the seed has been planted.


I don’t print the pictures, but I do set up links to the ones I find most interesting and refer to them while I’m working on the song.  I suppose one could print them and put them up in the studio for inspiration as well.

Whatever the case, Flickr and other photo sharing sites seem to me to be a great resource for opening up the imagination during the writing process.  Thank you Internet!