A young woman listening to the record player
Photo: Getty Images

Pop CultureNovember 29, 2020

When did songs stop having lyrics I knew by heart?

A young woman listening to the record player
Photo: Getty Images

Linda Burgess on the soundtrack to her life. 

We drove up to Auckland last month. Our darling Edward, who, if suddenly out of sight, could well be found waving from the roof, was turning four. Unlike the time before, we weren’t turned back at Havelock North, when our phones, and the phones of the friends we were staying with, had all begun to ping and buzz. We were in a science fiction novel, an apocalyptic nightmare, and the then prime minister, who is also thankfully the now prime minister, was saying turn back, turn back. Auckland is closed. Death awaits all who enter here. Watch TV One at 6 o’clock, the message said. Then. Turn. Back.

We ate an excellent meal, drank wine, played with the dogs, had a good night’s sleep, Al’s whitebait fritters for breakfast, then we pointed the car towards home.

This time the level stayed at one and we decided because we haven’t slept almost anywhere except our own bed this year, we’d stop off in Taupō, at a hotel where there are good sheets, decent showers and so forth and which, because it needs New Zealanders again, has quietly dropped its prices. Also, it was as good as any a place to turn back from should Auckland get poorly again. As we drove north, I wished I’d remembered to go to the library, if there’d still been one in Wellington, to get an audio book so we didn’t have to rely on each other for conversation. I fossicked in the glove compartment and found a CD, inside a cover that had absolutely nothing to do with what was inside. And I put it in the slot, and it made odd groany noises, so I took it out, huffed and puffed on it, wiped it with my sleeve, then a tissue, put it back in, and there it was. Burt Bacharach. A collection of his hits, as sung by other people. The greats. Sandi Shaw, Dione Warwick, the Carpenters, Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney. Gene Pitney was opining that true love never runs smooth. Gene PITNEY. Has he ever been equalled? I said to Robert, truly I said, Gene Pitney was actually a genius. Being more a B.B. King type, and not really having an opinion about Gene Pitney, he didn’t say anything. 

And then I said, after a dozen or so songs, have you noticed, I said, how these songs might be pretending to be about love? But they’re not? It’s even called The Look of Love. How ironical, I said. Hypocritical. I said, these are the most passive aggressive lyrics I’ve ever heard. Have you noticed? I said. Everybody, I said, EVERYBODY is pretending to sing about love, but they’re all whingeing on about being dropped? There’s always something there to remind them? Walking on by? I’ll never fall in love again? Blue on Blue? Wishin’ and Hopin’? This girl’s in love with you? They’re threatening, I said. They’re controlling, I said.

Our car allows us to organise things from the steering wheel. We were cruising along next to the lake by then; he pushed stop. The silence was what is loosely described companionable: from then on, the only person I was talking to was me, in my head, because when it comes to someone who agrees with me with utmost enthusiasm, you can’t beat me. I told myself that even worse than Burt Bacharach was that song by Sting, ‘Every Breath You Take’. It’s a stalker’s anthem. One day I took it upon myself to listen carefully to the lyrics of that song, and if anyone sent a letter containing those words to someone else, the police – not Sting’s Police, the real ones – would arrive at the door giving the letter writer the option of shutting up or getting locked up. Myself fervently agreed with me.

Ah, music. It used to be all about lyrics, and it was always about place. Someone took a photo of us on our neighbour’s lawn, all dressed up in our Sunday School clothes to go into New Plymouth to see The Tommy Steele Story with our mother. But Tommy Steele never quite hit the mark. The first I really knew of pop music was when a precocious redhead called Joan, who even at 11 was having an unsettling effect on male teachers, asked if I liked ‘Living Doll’. We were lining up outside the cooking room, preparing to bully the disconsolate cooking teacher by flicking scone dough at the ceiling. It seemed easier to say yes than “What?” I went home and found it on the Lever Hit Parade and there was something so innocent about Cliff Richard having got himself a walkin’ talkin’ livin’ doll. Unlike Bacharach, who must have written his lyrics while simmering resentfully away in one of those vast rumpus rooms that all Americans seemed to have – a grand piano, a vinyl-leather bar and a deer’s head on the wall – Cliff Richard took full responsibility for his own rovin’ eye and promised he was going to do his darndest to subvert his natural fickleness so he could keep his walkie talkie doll. 

I spent my fifth form year sitting on the floor jammed up next to my parents’ brand new stereogram. It bragged about the miracle that was stereo by coming with a free record of a train that came at you from one speaker, horn blasting, and raced past to exit the room from the other. It was briefly spell-binding; my parents continued to find it amazing, playing it for anyone who came to visit. I’d moved on from the train and sat by the speakers listening to my first LP: Please Please Me, given to me by my first boyfriend. If I should ever happen to hear, say, ‘Love Me Do’, it’s not that song that stays with me as an earworm, but the track that follows it, to which my mind obediently goes. ‘PS I Love You’, should you need to ask. 

I was still a happy Beatles fan, along with anything from Merseyside or the beaches of California, when one day in seventh form, a girl called Diane asked our twitchy English teacher a question that made him all hot and flustered. Diane was the most effortlessly cool girl in the class; she had a high ponytail, and a loose curl in front of each ear. She wore an abundance of forbidden mascara to school and she was very good at art. Most of us had barely heard of Bob Dylan. Diane had a question for Sir and it wasn’t about poetry, well it was, but not like Paradise Lost, which we were puzzling our way through at the time. It was from the lyrics of a song. “What did Sir think Dylan meant when he said ‘She makes love just like a woman but she breaks, just like… a little girl’? Sir?”

By university things were made less complicated by hanging out with boys who knew which music to like. The Beatles had suddenly become supercool again and we went round to John’s house and lay round on the floor on the day it was released, listening to Sergeant Pepper. The four boys in the room did an intellectual assessment of it post-play, and the two of us girls who were there, sort of didn’t say anything much. It was enough that we appreciated being there for a seminal moment. A year later, I was dropped by someone I didn’t like all that much anyway. As we sat in his car outside my flat and he was ending it, Paul McCartney rather pointedly sang ‘Hey Jude’ on the car’s radio.

When did songs stop having lyrics that I knew by heart? That I could link to time and to place? Was it music’s fault, when words suddenly seemed to be less important than instruments? Or was it just life taking over, deleting the random baffling phrases that made up ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ from my memory bank, and replacing them with Sally’s galoshes making splishes and sploshes, the wheels of the bus interminably going round and round, the Wombles of Wimbledon wombling free. I’m sitting on the playdough-stained carpet, surrounded by Duplo lego. Christopher Robin is saying his prayers, and Oscar the Grouch loves trash. 

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