The Funny Things that Songs do to Words

“Funny things happen to words when they’re in songs. They become more profound, or funnier…” said Simon Frith, Mercury Prize Chair of Judges, at the launch of Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust’s latest campaign, Let’s Get Lyrical.

I’ve been volunteering at the City of Lit these last few weeks, mailing out bundles of promotional materials and proofing some of the website content. But even if I weren’t working there, I would still tell you to check out the Let’s Get Lyrical website and to think about writing your own story about the song lyrics that mean the most to you. Lyrics are such a huge part of our lives, whether they’re in songs by our favourite bands that we play on repeat, in catchy tunes overheard on the radio or in music added to films for dramatic effect.

The opening event for Let’s Get Lyrical was an evening of music and words entitled Why Do Songs Have Lyrics? Sandwiched between performances by King Creosote and Ziggy Campbell, the audience heard from a panel of musicians, writers and academics about the lyrics that have inspired them and about some of those funny things that songs do to words:

On the lyrics that have inspired them

Kenny Anderson a.k.a. King Creosote: Morrissey is a song writing genius. He tackles subjects head on and his lyrics make sense. Morrissey lyrics on the page look like prose.

Ziggy Campbell: Until I heard Arab Strap, I just listened to music. Arab Strap lyrics were the first lyrics that grabbed me. I think Aidan [Moffat] is an absolute genius. The lyrics to The Shy Retirer in particular are funny and visceral. He nails it at the end.

Ian Rankin told the audience how he was inspired by The Mutton Birds’ The Falls. Read the full story here.

On mishearing lyrics

Kenny Anderson : I put lyrics in album covers so that people know they’re not as bad as they think. Sometimes I am aghast by the way lyrics are misheard.  I have a song called Spystick and you can imagine how that sounds in my accent.

Ian Rankin: “I love to see song lyrics written down because if there’s any way they can be misconstrued, I will misconstrue them.” He misheard the Sex Pistols lyric They made you a moron/a potential H-bomb as They made you a moron/ touching your wife’s bum.

Simon Frith: “Mishearing lyrics can be a big problem if you’re a critic. I once wrote a review of Stop the Task Force by the Clash and that got into print.”

Which lyrics most inspire you? Which lyrics have you misheard?



Things To Look Out For In April

The Edinburgh International Science Festival will be taking place from the 3rd-17th of April with a wide range of events including talks, exhibitions and workshops. Visitors interested in crime fiction might enjoy the Rebus Tours: A Hidden Edinburgh and The Body Politic, or Murder, Mystery and Microsopes, a look at the application of forensics in investigating crime with crime writer Stuart MacBride.

Following on from the very successful ScreenLab, Scottish Book Trust is teaming up with BBC Scotland to create CBeebies Lab.  The Lab is free for successful applicants and is designed for anyone interested in writing television for a pre-school audience. Deadline 14th of April.

 The next installment of Edinburgh City Reads on the 15th of April will see Santiago Roncagliolo visit Central Library. Booking essential.

Daffodils, Poetry and All That Jazz

Spring must finally be here. When I woke this morning the sun was punching its way through the blinds in my bedroom. I’m in the mood to buy daffodils now. They’re my favourite flower. One Valentine’s day a boy bought me daffodils and I thought it was so sweet that he remembered that I liked them. My friends joked that it was a bit of a low-budget Valentine’s gift. I’d still rather have a handful of daffodils than a dozen red roses.

The last few days of February saw the end of Carry a Poem month. I headed down to the Botanic Garden to hang a poem on the Poetree. My poem is not the one with the picture of the daffodil on it but, ironically, the one with the little pink rose stitched onto the corner.

I also caught two thirds of Kind of Larkin, a poetry and music event at Central Library with readings from Philip Larkin‘s jazz poetry and a live band. Don Paterson was on guitar and John Sessions was the Larkin stand-in. If I thought drinking wine in the reference library was naughty then drinking wine, listening to live jazz and and stamping your feet on the floor in time to the music must be absolutely wicked.

Kind of Larkin made two nights in a row that I saw John Sessions, but the first time was on screen at the Filmhouse where Reichenbach Falls was being shown. Based on a short story by Ian Rankin, the film is a surreal crime thriller with plenty of references thrown in to Edinburgh’s literary past and present. We stepped out of the cinema into pouring rain and got soaked as we dashed through the city. After a drizzly and depressing few days I’m glad the sunshine is here at last.

Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman – Edinburgh Book Festival 2009

Last week I went to see Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman in the Edinburgh Book Festival, where they discussed the differences between writing prose and graphic novels. The event coincided with the launch of Ian Rankin’s first graphic novel, Dark Entries. I’ve been considering taking a course in shorthand for a while now but what really convinced me to go for it was trying to make notes while Ian Rankin was talking. He speaks very, very quickly. I can’t promise that the notes below are exactly word for word, but they are a pretty close approximation of what was said during the session.

Q: What are the differences between writing prose and writing graphic novels?

IR: They are hugely different. I found the collaborating thing hard [when writing Dark Entries]. I’m used to playing god in my novels, working alone with my computer. After so many years of being a consumer, reading graphic novels and thinking, “Oh, that’s easy,” it turns out it’s not.

NG: Prose is a machine: I give people a code, they compile it into a program. In comics you are writing a script for an artist.

Q: What are the advantages of graphic novels?

IR: Freedom. Scenes can show weird things happening in people’s heads, you can see fantasy lives being acted out. Those are things that you can’t do in these supposed realistic Edinburgh novels.

NG: When you see something in a picture you believe it. I used to read American comics as a child and I believed that superheroes really existed in America. Fire hydrants, skyscrapers and superheroes were all on the same plane of reality for me.

IR: The thing that I find really interesting in writing graphic novels is moving to a different time, place and perspective with every couple of inches. You’re writing and directing a mini-movie with almost every scene.

NG: When I write prose the thing I miss the most is the silent panel. (A) it gives you a beat and a rhythm and (B) it forces the reader to think about what’s going on in the characters’ heads. In a graphic novel you can have a panel where a character says something, then in the following panel he thinks about it. You can’t do that in a novel. By the very act of writing “he thinks about it,” you have spoiled the silent moment.

Q: What are the advantages of prose?

NG: Prose has a totally different set of strengths and weaknesses. In Anansi Boys one of the things I took great pleasure in was challenging the race assumptions people make. Characters are default white unless you say otherwise. In Anansi Boys I only assigned race to white people. It made the readers stop and think. People have to reassess what they thought. You can’t do that in a comic book because you can see everybody.

IR: Yes, in prose you can pull the rug out from under someone. In a picture there’s no rug to be pulled away.

Q: What do you think of your cult status as writers of graphic novels?

NG: Fans care deeply about what we do. We like that. I honestly liked it when I was even more of a cult figure and had a smaller fan base because I really enjoyed when only a few people recognised me. Now people have heard of me even if they haven’t read me and they think they know what I do and they don’t. I preferred it when I was a little more of a secret.

Q: What do you think of the idea that genre writing is regarded as less mainstream and less valid?

NG: I’m always more comfortable in the gutter. I liked it better when comics were comics and they weren’t graphic novels. And I liked it better when adults didn’t go into bookshops to buy Diana Wynne Jones books, when you had to creep into the back of Waterstone’s to find fantasy novels and further back to find crime – where all the Western novels used to be. We [writers of graphic novels] have more influence now that we are in the strange magical world where we are in the mainstream. It’s actually more fun being under the radar.

IR: I’m slightly at odds with that because my teenage son has been introduced to literature through comic books. I bought him Manga Shakespeare and now he wants to see Shakespeare in the theatre. Graphic novels keep your fantasy life active through your teenage years when the whole world is trying to knock it out of you.

Q: What about graphic novels on the web?

NG: The most fascinating think about the web is that it has completely removed the gatekeeper. Before you would have to find a publisher or an editor – a gatekeeper – who would say, yes, this is fit to be published. The glory of the web is that there are no gatekeepers. You are playing on the same field as the Guardian or the New Yorker.  The downside is the half a billion other people out there with no gatekeepers. There are web comics that I find and wind up following. There are wonderful things out there.

Q: Have you ever considered doing your own art work for your graphic novels?

NG: I once tried drawing my own comic in 24 hours. I wound up with an amazing respect for artists. They have to figure out how alligator’s teeth work and stuff. It’s incredibly time consuming and there are people out there who are so much better at drawing than I am. One of the reasons I keep coming back to graphic novels is the artists, because they are completely different. I love that I have all these people that will bring things to what I’m doing and inspire me to up my game.