“If nobody’s listening, you can say whatever you want”

There was an interesting article in the Grauniad this weekend entitled: “Jarvis Cocker: the secrets of Pulp’s songs” and featuring an except from his new book “Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics”, which is out later this week.

Pulp were/are a Sheffield band and during their commercial height in the early to mid 90s had 5 Top 10 hits including Disco 2000 and Common People. The music was good – great, even – but the narrative style of the lyrics was superb and was what I think a lot of fans identified with. And that’s why it came as such a shock to read Cocker’s feelings on writing such gems as:

Well we were born within one hour of each other.
Our mothers said we could be sister and brother.
Your name is Deborah. Deborah. It never suited ya.


I took her to a supermarket
I don’t know why, but I had to start it somewhere, so it started… there.
I said pretend you’ve got no money, she just laughed and said oh you’re so funny.
I said yeah? Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here.

So what did he have to say?

Because it was my group and I was the singer, I ended up having to write the words. Hence I found myself in the position that a lot of songwriters start off in: you don’t particularly want to do the job but because a song isn’t really a song until it’s got some lyrics, it’s down to you to write them. And this kind of “Aw, mum, do I really have to do my homework?” attitude stays with you.
Many of my lyrics were hastily written the night before a recording session because I’d been putting off writing them until the very last minute. It’s strange that the most intelligible part of a song – the words – should be seen as the most boring and chore-like aspect of the songwriting process by musicians themselves.

And perhaps that’s an understandable attitude: after all, musicians, by definition, do music not words. Can you imagine a poet trying to put a tune to some of his work? Exactly.

Fortunately, there’s also an upside to this approach:

But once you’ve realised that the words are not so important, then the real fun of lyric-writing can begin. If nobody’s listening, you can say whatever you want.

And while Cocker seems to underestimate the power of his lyrics, all’s well that ends well. He writes the tunes and imagines no-one cares about what he has to say over the top of them and we get some amazing social commentary on the difficulties and awkwardness of growing up in Sheffield the 70s and 80s.

The rest of the article is definitely worth a read as he repeatedly proves and disproves his theory on the importance of lyrics in pop music and I think that the book will be an excellent buy.