Charles Dickens was paid by the word. Which is why he would often use 70 of them when just the one or two would do. In A Christmas Carol (picking a story at random), his first description of the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, uses no less than eight adjectives, in rapid sequence in the space of the same fruity sentence:
“But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”
He probably got sixpence for that little lot. In the opinion of this writer, if he dares to write it down, and he does: that was sixpence well earned. Sure, many of those words share the same definition or, at least, describe the same flaw in the character of wicked old Scrooge. One might argue therefore that most of them are redundant. But that’s kind of missing the point. Here Dickens has written an elongated but consequently elegant introduction to his antihero, where the words combine in a rhythm and a meter to hammer home a entirely specific impression in the mind of the reader. This is not over-writing. I wouldn’t even call it verbose (because I don’t fully understand what that words means). It is, if anything, lyrical, metaphorical and highly imaginative. Note how most of the adjectives describe a motion of the hands – squeezing, wrenching, grasping etc. – giving us a visual metaphor to fasten to our first impressions and gathering mistrust of the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Again, Dickens was earning his money when he wrote that sentence – which was handy, in retrospect, as he had a mistress who was bleeding him dry.
The business of song writing is an art of finding rhyme and reason for the inclusion of far too many words. It is the practice of describing the simplest of things in the most agonising detail, and it is justified when the simplest of things include emotions like love and hate. Sure, love is simple, and simply expressed: I love you. But the expression alone has no meaning, and little understanding. What do I mean when I tell you I love you? The answer to that question is incredibly complex and it changes almost every moment of every day. A song about my feelings for you requires a hell of a lot of words, adjectives, occasional expletives and, dare I say it? metaphors…
If you believe that the best James Bond was Sean Connery, you are wrong. No, no – this isn’t at metaphor, but I’ll be coming back to my point in a minute. For now, let me repeat: Sean Connery was not the best James Bond. The best James Bond was Roger Moore. (And in that sentence you will find everything you need to know about me and about all I’m willing to admit.) His best films were probably the two directed by Lewis Gilbert and written by Christopher Wood. Now, here was a man powerfully unafraid of the colourful metaphor. In Moonraker, the villainous Hugo Drax is at his wits’ end. He tells James: “You persist in defying my efforts to plan an amusing death for you.” In the last act of the film, when Bond appears wryly unscathed from yet another botched execution, this time on board an orbiting space station, Hugo Drax says (and here’s the brilliant metaphor, wait for it):
“James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.”
And, what is more, he says it in a French accent. I adore this line, and I appreciate the efforts writer Christopher Wood must have gone to when he conjured it up and wrote it down; not only did he decorate the sentiment with a coruscating metaphor, he managed to think up an entirely new one in order to avoid the dreaded pitfalls of cliché. After all, Hugo Drax might have instead accused Bond of resembling, I don’t know, “a bad penny” or “a cheap suit” or any one of those hackneyed phrases lazier writers employ to describe an article with an uncomfortable knack of turning up at the least propitious times… My God, “an article with an uncomfortable knack of turning up at the least propitious times”?! OK, that’s an unattractive sentence. It’s verbose (probably, whatever “verbose” means) but it’s also a good example of how hard it is to be interesting and original, and why the cliché is so often the first resort.
Lyricists (all of us really, but lyricists especially) have to try harder. Songwriters need words in vast quantities, original metaphors in attractive constructions and an ability to identify and avoid the cliché like a Hemsworth Brother avoids carbohydrates. They also need to think harder, to mine the most simple ideas for hidden depths and lost complexities. Not so long ago, Ben and I wrote a musical about a mother and her daughter and the mother sang a song called, You Don’t Need a Man:
AS LONG AS YOU’VE GOT YOUR WITS ABOUT YOU,
AS LONG AS YOU’VE GOT YOUR MOTHER TO CLOUT YOU,
AS LONG AS YOU’RE A WOMAN THERE CAN BE NO DOUBT THAT
YOU DON’T NEED A MAN!
AS LONG AS YOU’RE NOT A SLAVE TO PASSION
YOU’LL NEVER BE KNACKERED OR IRRATIONAL,
AS LONG AS YOU’VE INHERITED A TON OF CASH THEN
YOU DON’T NEED A MAN!
’CAUSE MEN ARE UNNECESSARY,
WHEN AT LAST YOU SEE THAT, MAYBE
THEN YOU WON’T BE LOOKING ANYMORE...
LOVE IS JUST A NASTY HABIT,
AND YOU CAN LIVE WITHOUT IT IF YOU’VE NEVER HAD IT,
AS LONG AS YOU’VE A BATT’RY FOR YOUR RAMPANT RABBIT,
YOU DON’T, YOU DON’T NEED A MAN!
She could have said, “All men are useless,” because that was the sentiment, but she didn’t because this is a musical, and the writers were working their butts off.
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