Lyric writing is a tricky business. Finding words that convey exactly what the songwriter feels, while fitting into a certain melody and tempo, the sound of the words has to be pleasing to the ear too.
Lyrics can be the starting block of a song – the words coming first, suggesting a certain feel or mood, and inspiring a melody. This is the power of words. Great song lyrics have the power to move you – whether it’s a tear of happiness or sadness, this is the songwriter’s gift. Others are simply catchy – sing-a-long lyrics they stick in your head, even if they’re completely meaningless – naaa na na na-na-na-naaaaaa aren’t exactly the most inspiring lyrics ever, but thanks to The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ they’re among some of the most-sung in the world!
The best lyrics read like the finest poetry, and many would argue that the likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan are indeed poets as well as songwriters. To prove just how tricky and rare it is to craft exquisite lyrics like theirs, it pays to look at the other end of the scale:
“I don’t want to see a ghost/It’s the sight that I fear most/I’d rather have a piece of toast…”
There are plenty more bad lyrical attempts out there than good – and that’s why we cherish those great lyrics all the more. Here are some of the finest ever recorded, and a little explanation about each one. We’d love to hear your favourites too, and what they mean to you, and why.
The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up
“Columnated ruins domino…”
Quite simply one of the most beautiful lyrics ever written – and one of the strangest too. Full of layers of surreal symbolism, it’s the product of the truly unique imagination of the lyrical genius Van Dyke Parks (with the help of some very illegal substances).
Creating image upon image, the words flowing, perfectly fitting Brian Wilson’s incredible ode to the sea. The song’s lyrics were so unusual that they actually caused friction within the band, with Beach Boy Mike Love complaining that they were nonsensical, and would alienate their fans. The song was shelved for a few years as a result, but thankfully couldn’t be hidden away for too long!
Bob Dylan – Masters of War
“I think you will find/When your death takes its toll/All the money you made/Will never buy back your soul…”
The protest song to end all protest songs, Dylan voiced the concerns of a generation when he penned this anti-war lyric. With Vietnam raging, and conscription forcing young Americans to fight in a war they didn’t understand, the lyrics captured all of their rage, fear and disgust perfectly. Sung in the first person, from the point of view of a young man who doesn’t want to be forced to join the army, makes the song all the more personal. The melody here is so simple, and yet this song has been covered by more artists than you can count – it’s all thanks to those incredibly powerful lyrics.
The Beatles – Hey Jude
“Take a sad song, and make it better…”
While John Lennon initially believed that this song was written for him, at the start of his relationship with Yoko Ono, in fact Paul McCartney penned this Beatles classic for Lennon’s son Julian. Originally titled ‘Hey Jules’, the song was written to comfort a young Julian as his parents divorced – and its lyrics have since brought comfort to countless others.
Also written around the time of McCartney’s new relationship with Linda Eastman, it’s a song that offers encouragement, advice, and a strong belief in love – yet another famous lyric about love – it seems we can’t escape it! But Hey Jude is almost as well known for its ending – over four minutes of those famous ‘na na na’s stretch the song out to over seven minutes long, at the time making it the longest single ever to top the UK charts, giving the Beatles their biggest hit in America too.
Johnny Cash – I Still Miss Someone
“There’s someone for me somewhere/And I still miss someone…”
Another simple melody that’s transformed by its painfully heartfelt lyrics, this is one of Johnny Cash’s most famous songs, and one of his most-covered. There have surely been more lyrics written about love than anything else, and the ones that stay with us are often about lost love.
Here, the lyrics hit home because they are so honest and truthful – every one who’s ever lost someone can relate. One of Bob Dylan’s own favourites, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Gram Parson and Stevie Nicks are just some of the artists who have covered this country classic.
Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman – Suicide is Painless (Theme from M*A*S*H)
“The game of life is hard to play/I’m going to lose it anyway…”
One of the most famous TV and movie themes in history, the theme from M*A*S*H also has one very unexpected lyricist. When director Robert Altman was looking for a song for one of the movie’s characters to sing in one scene he told Songwriter Mandel that it had to be called “Suicide is Painless”, secondly, it had to be the “stupidest song ever written”.
Altman tried to write the lyrics himself, but found that it was too difficult for his 45-year-old brain to write “stupid enough”. Instead he gave the task to his 14-year-old-son, Michael, who quite to the contrary, produced some of the most profound lyrics ever to come out of a 14-year old! The famously morose song is written from the point of view of someone considering suicide. Reflecting the pointlessness of war, and the meaninglessness of life, this theme to the darkly comic story of soldiers facing the hardships of Vietnam is made all the more poignant by that fact that it was written by someone so young.
The Smiths – There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
“Take me out, tonight…“
It’s rare to find a band that are as critically acclaimed for their lyrics as much as their music – but thanks to Morrissey the magical wordsmith, The Smiths have managed just that. An avid reader, a big poetry fan, and a romantic at heart, Morrissey has written some of the most famous lyrics to emerge from the British music scene in the past 30 years. Their song titles alone contain more poetry than most lyric sheets – Shoplifters of the World Unite, Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, There Is a Light That Never Goes Out – they’ve even inspired countless tattoos.
There Is a Light is one of their most-covered songs, with lyrics that were apparently inspired by one of Morrissey’s heroes, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Appealing to teenagers everywhere, the lyrics talk about teenage alienation – a need to run away, experience the first excesses and excitements of life, when you no longer feel at home in the family home.
REM – It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
“That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes…”
REM have written some of the most successful songs of the past few decades, and it’s in no small part thanks to Michael Stipe’s (often misheard) lyrics. Stipe seems to pride himself on writing lyrics that are a little opaque – very symbolic, with meanings hidden. It’s the End of the World is no exception, and as one of their most upbeat and popular songs, it’s crammed with lyrics that test even the biggest REM fans.
Apparently a sort of tribute to Bob Dylan’s famously over-lyrical Subterranean Homesick Blues, you’ll soon get out of breath singing along to this! What does it all mean? As with many REM lyrics, no one really knows for sure. There are many little snippets of stories, some complaining about capitalism, others, and some words included simply because they sound so great when strung together in song: “The ladder starts to clatter with fear fight down height”.
Neil Young – Old Man
“Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you…”
Often ranked up there with Bob Dylan in terms of his profound lyric writing, Neil has a knack for tugging at those heartstrings. Never afraid to let his emotions show, that is what helps to make his words so powerful – that they are truthful, and from the heart.
Old Man was a song written for the old caretaker who looked after Neil’s Broken Arrow ranch, which he purchased in 1970 and still lives on today. It compares the life of an old man with that of a young man, and finds that they are more alike in their needs than they realize.
Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi
“They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot…”
One of Neil’s fellow Canadian musicians, and a good friend of his from the folk scene, Joni Mitchell has written her fair share of famous lyrics. Perhaps the best know are the ones she penned for Big Yellow Taxi. Written about her concerns with pollution and the environment, Joni explains: ““I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise.”
The lines “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone” apply to a whole range of circumstances besides the destruction of the earth – helping the song become a universal favourite.
The Muppets – Mah Nà Mah Nà
“Mah Nà Mah Nà…!”
The Muppets are here to prove that lyrics don’t have to about love, heartache, loss or be in any way profound to be popular. Mah Nà Mah Nà is one of The Muppets most famous ditties, beloved around the world, and it means…absolutely nothing.
Actually a song written by Piero Umiliani for an Italian movie, it contains nothing both nonsense words and scat singing. It just goes to show that sometimes successful lyrics simply need to sound good, becoming musical instruments in their own right, rather than holding any special meaning. It’s pretty impossible not to sing along!
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