Writing To Reach You

Because sometimes the only way musicians can actually talk to each other is by writing songs

MUSICAL DIFFERENCES. Fallen out of love with the singer. Robbed the guitarist. Furiously hacked off with the bass player. Wanting to address thorny relationship “issues”. What better way to fire raw, heartfelt communiqués across stage and studio to fellow band members than in a song lyric? Here are ten of the best.

‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ by The Libertines (2004)

Written by Carl Barat after the exiled Pete Doherty had burgled his flat to feed his crack and heroin habit (as you do; he was jailed for two months), this self-mythologising, extra-warts-with-your-warts-and-all duet rakes over their fraught love-hate relationship. “You twist and tore our love apart/ Your light fingers threw the dart,” sings Barat, before Doherty counters: “No, you’ve got it the wrong way round/ Just shot me up and blamed it on the brown”. By the chorus the dirty linen is fluttering at the very top of the flagpole. “Have we enough to keep it together?” they ask, “Or do we just keep on pretending?” By the time the song was released Doherty had left the band (again) and the pair wouldn’t play together for six years.

‘Two Of Us’ by The Beatles (1970)

McCartney likes to say it’s about Linda, but it’s clearly about Lennon. The pared-down acoustic guitars and close-harmony vocals recall the pair’s shared early love of the Everly Brothers, as they dig back to the very roots of their friendship in an attempt to neutralize all the bad vibes of Beatle Life in 1969. Its lyrical recollections of simpler times — “You and me lighting matches, lifting latches, on our way back home” — momentarily helped paste over the cracks of their collapsing relationship during the recording of Let It Be, although the lines about “chasing paper” and “getting nowhere” hint at darker, more pressing issues.

‘How To Be Dumb ‘by Elvis Costello (1991)

The KO blow in a private argument conducted largely in public. Attractions bass-player Bruce Thomas wrote a rather dismissive book about his time in the band; Costello countered with this scathing open letter to “the funniest fucker in the world”. Producer Mitchell Froom recalls the session: “It was clearly cathartic. He came into the control room covered in sweat, and all I remember is being very relieved the song wasn’t about me!” Message received.

‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ by Simon & Garfunkel (1970)

It wasn’t always freeze-outs and bitchy public putdowns (though who can forget Simon handing Artie a Grammy in 1975 with the acid words: “I thought I told you to wait in the car”?). Back in 1969, Garfunkel was off to film Catch 22 in Mexico and Simon was left in the Big Apple missing his pal. Affectionately calling him by his teenage nom de stage(their teenage act was Tom & Jerry), Simon sends love, pride and good wishes to his partner. “Tom, get your plane right on time/ I know your part will go fine”, later advising him to “let your honesty shine like it shines on me”.

‘Wah-Wah’ by George Harrison (1970)

Let It Be also led to this pointed shot across the bows. Tensions with a school-marmish McCartney having reached a head, Harrison stomped off home to pour into song all the rage he felt at his fellow Fabs but which he couldn’t quite spell out to them personally. The title was a euphemism for the headache the Beatles gave him, while the lyrics contained a clear warning of their imminent split. “I don’t need no wah-wah / And I know how sweet life can be”. Although it was rehearsed with The Beatles, the song only surfaced on Harrison’s solo debut All Things Must Pass.

‘Dum Dum Boys’ by lggy Pop (1977)

A scuzzy, rather touching love letter to the uncomplicated tribalism and surly solidarity of The Stooges, sent to unlovely Detroit from the heart of Pop’s new automated, Bowie-centric musical home in Berlin. “What about James? He’s gone straight,” drawls Pop over lowering Euro-funk, meaning old Stooges guitarist James Williamson. “Things have been tough without the dum dum boys/ I can’t seem to speak the language…” It took him another 25 years to get them back.

‘A Dream’ by Lou Reed and John Cale (1990)

A self-referential Lower East Side clusterfuck in which Lou Reed inveigles himself into the mind of the dying Andy Warhol and gets John Cale to recite the results. A song-poem that should by rights come with its own blow-up therapist’s couch, the highlights include Cale-as-Warhol intoning: “Then I saw Lou. I’m so mad at him. Lou Reed got married and didn’t invite me. I mean, is it because he thought I’d bring too many people? I saw him at the MTV show and he was one row away and he didn’t even say hello. You know I hate Lou. I really do. He won’t even hire us for his videos.” Paging Dr Freud!

‘Go Your Own Way’ by Fleetwood Mac (1977)

The ne plus ultraof band-as-soap-opera, the Mac’s penchant for singing poison pen letters to each other reached a peak on Rumours, and on this song in particular. Written by Lindsey Buckingham and aimed directly at his ex Steve Nicks, it informs Nicks that “loving you isn’t the right thing to do”. She took particular exception to the line “packing up, shacking up is all you wanna do”, and asked Buckingham to remove it; he refused. “He knew it wasn’t true, it was just an angry thing that he said,” she said, confirming the impression that the song is a private argument set to music. “Every time those words would come onstage, I wanted to go over and kill him.” Nice tune, though.

‘Bring The Light’ by Beady Eye (2010)

Hot(ish) on the heels of the Great Oasis Rift of 2009, the first release by Liam Gallagher s fearless band of sonic pioneers wasted little time taking swipes at big bro. Liam dedicated ‘Bring The Light’to “the one and only Noel Gallagher” at a gig last year in Spain, and with the ensuing lyrical highlights — such as they are — including “I see no point in what you’re thinking/ I’m standing tall, well fucking tough”, and “It’s just your way, you hear me wrong”, there could be little doubt whose ears were burning. Expect a reply.

‘The Winner Takes It All’ by Abba (1979)

Björn Ulvaeus’ attempt to make some sense of the break-up of his marriage to Agnetha Fältskog, this show-stopping divorce anthem is fuelled by all the guilt, anger, resignation, love, pride and tenderness of a real-life midnight-to-dawn, end-of-the-road tête-à-tête. It’s dramatically intimate stuff, Fältskog singing the words written by her ex-husband as he documents his feelings about their split. Not to be outdone, the later ‘When All Is Said And Done’details the divorce between Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson.

‘Bobby Jean’ by Bruce Springsteen (1984)

A bittersweet farewell to Springsteen’s old buddy Stevie Van Zandt upon the occasion of his prickly departure from the E Street Band in 1984. As Boss biographer Dave Marsh notes, the lyrics “mingle love, grief and rancour” as they move from recalling defiant youthful bromance (“We liked the same music, we liked the same bands, we liked the same clothes”) to adult regret tinged with recrimination at their parting of the ways. “Now I wished you would have told me…” ‘No Surrender’ on the same album (Born In The USA)mines a similarly tough, fraternal seam. All pals again now, of course.

‘Something That I’m Not’ by Megadeth (2004)

Fired by Metallica in 1983 in less than amicable circs for his “alcoholism, drug abuse, overly aggressive behaviour and personality clashes” (that all?), founder member Dave Mustaine went off to form Megadeth. He clearly has a gift for grudges: 20 years later this testy toe-tapper emerged, aimed specifically at Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. Mustaine gets so overheated he rather lets his scansion slide but we get the point. Take this, drummer boy! “Unlike you, I’m no vision to myself, lest you forget/ You didn’t ever make metal, buddy, metal made you”. And this, losers! “We all laughed at the parodies that you’d become/ Now your pain slowly paid back has begun”. BIFF! BANG! POW!

© Graeme ThomsonThe Word, March 2012

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