Songwriters: Don’t Be Stupid; Use the Right Words

Get someone who reads to look over your lyrics in case you’ve written something that can be taken the wrong way, or which doesn’t make sense.

It’s one thing if the lyric is a deliberate pun or inversion of a cliche phrase (like “Head over Feet” or “Hard Day’s Night).  It’s something else if it’s actually a dumb mistake that you don’t catch before you go into the studio and “cast it in concrete.”

I’m only writing this because something just reminded me of a big “Ooops” moment from 30-something years ago.  A musician friend’s guitar player had moved to another city and started a “serious” band, which was going to take their genre by storm.  This was back in the vinyl days, when indie bands had to spend the equivalent of six months’ to a years’ wages to get decent product made.  My friend played me the opening track of the album.  Nice art, nice production values. Nothing cheap about the project.  In other word, “real money” had been invested.

The song was well-arranged, listenable, and – for the most part – well written.  It was a sort of “Eve of Destruction” song about how the world was going fall apart very soon.

What cliche or phrase would you use for the hook?

  • Brink of the abyss?
  • Calm before the storm?
  • Garden of his turbulence? (Sorry, that’s a movie quote that just snuck in.)

The lyricist did choose to use “storm” as his metaphor for this impending global catastrophe, which is fine.

But the “hook” wound up “Standing in the WAKE of the storm.”

As any boater or fisherman (or frankly, any reader) knows, “wake” FOLLOWS some object or activity.  Now, if the lyricist was, say, observing New Orleans after Katrina, “wake” would have been exactly the right word. Although the word “storm” might have been a little weak.

But having three verses warning of an impending doom linked to a chorus that puts the same doom in the past doesn’t make sense.  Frankly, it was a shame to see the fellow pour all that time, energy, and money into an album whose first song guts the band’s credibility.

I told my musician friend that “wake” was the wrong word,

He said, “It’s okay; people don’t pay any attention to things like that.”

My friend’s friend’s band never had the breakthrough they wanted, and may well have “deserved” in spite of the screwy lyric in their opening number.  Of course, in those days, the odds against any band using a self-produced vinyl to leverage themselves into any sort of career were astronomical – and the financial strain put on members to produce that vinyl was often part of the problem. So I’m not saying that the screwy lyric doomed them to failure.  Only that it was avoidable, and if it contributed in any way to the DJs and reviewers going “huh?” when they heard it, that was inexcusable.

Anyone can choose the wrong word.  Better writers not only use an appropriate, or fitting word, but the BEST word.  Like considering “tempest” instead of “storm.”  But amateur lyricists are often so enamored of their own cleverness that they move forward with stupid mistakes that really should have been caught before they got out in public.

And to the band who recorded “Standing in the Wake of the Storm,” my apologies – the rest of the album was good and I always did wish you the best.  And the hook “Standing in the wake of the storm” was just as memorable as you hoped it would be.

Just not for the right reasons.

More later,
Paul Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to visit the Creek Don't Rise discussion forum. Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.

Paul

About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.

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