We’ve been here before, with the first half of the thirty best opening lines to British pop songs from 1970-75. Now here’s the rest of the decade.
Did you ever see a woman
coming out of New York City
with a frog in her hand?
– T Rex, ‘New York City’ (1975)
‘Say what you see,’ Roy Walker used to urge on Catchphrase, and that’s exactly what Marc Bolan did, when he saw a woman roller-skating in New York, carrying a frog. Apparently, though, that was all he saw, since – with the sole, reaffirming addition of ‘I did, don’t you know? And don’t it show?’ – these were the entire lyrics to his big comeback single (he’d retired a few months earlier, as you will no doubt recall). It’s not quite a haiku, but it’s closer to the form than is Slapp Happy’s song ‘Haiku’ on the Casablanca Moon album.
My brother took the morning flight
A 747 whisked him outta sight.
– Peter Skellern, ‘Goodbye, America Keep You Well’ (1975)
Back in the 1970s, more people were leaving Britain than were moving here: 238,000 people left in 1975 – with the most popular destinations being Australia, Canada and South Africa – while only 197,000 arrived. ‘All the ambitious people leave,’ reflected tax exile Bill Wyman. One of Skellern’s best songs, this track from his Hard Times album is a rumination on the pain of separation and hope for the future.
The return of the Thin White Duke
throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.
– David Bowie, ‘Station to Station’ (1976)
I mean, there’s any number of options when it comes to Bowie, of course. I could have gone with ‘The tactful cactus by your window surveys the prairie of your room’, or ‘As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked, “Where’s the latest party?”’ or even ‘Ziggy played guitar’. But there’s something that’s just so wonderful about introducing your new character with the words: ‘The return of…’ Really? As though we’d seen anything before like this arthouse crooner, native of both Vegas and Weimar. Drug-fuelled magnificence.
This is the place the rats come to die;
This is the crossroads for you and I.
– Doctors of Madness, ‘Mainlines’ (1976)
The most Diamond Dogs song outside Diamond Dogs itself, the final 15-minute track on the Doctors’ debut album is one of the masterpieces of the decade. Like Bowie, lyricist Kid Strange had a taste for Burroughs (William, not Edgar Rice) and a penchant for histrionic decadence.
I am an anti-Christ
I am an anarchist.
– Sex Pistols, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ (1976)
I don’t count the cackling ‘Right now…’ as part of the lyrics. Which leaves this spectacularly mangled rhyme as the opening. Lovely.
Look around you, Mister Clown,
you’re drowning in your dreams.
– Anthony Newley, ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ (1977)
The clown nursing a broken heart is hardly a new concept, but no one’s better at creating self-dramatizing characters than Tony Newley. And I think this may be his finest moment. Unrepentantly theatrical. Incidentally, if you watch the clip linked to here (and you should, you know, you really should: it’s a phenomenal performance), you can afford to skip the first 40 seconds.
When I was a young boy,
My mama said to me,
‘There’s only one girl in the world for you
And she probably lives in Tahiti.’
– Wreckless Eric, ‘The Whole Wide World’ (1977)
It’s an old story, this business of maternal advice, familiar to us from songs such as ‘Que Sera Sera’ and ‘Shop Around’. But few mothers have ever been quite so discouraging as this before.
I clambered over mounds and mounds of polystyrene foam,
then fell into a swimming pool filled with Fairy Snow.
– X Ray Spex, ‘The Day the World Turned Day-Glo’ (1978)
Poly Styrene put herself in the opening line, which is pretty damn cool. As indeed she was.
Life’s short, don’t make a mess of it.
– Adverts, ‘No Time to Be 21’ (1978)
Obviously Johnny Rotten was the nation’s premier punk lyricist, but TV Smith was hot on his heels. His early peak was:
The great British mistake was looking for a way out,
was getting complacent, not noticing the pulse was racing.
The mistake was fighting the change, was staying the same.
But that falls foul of my no-title rule. So I’ve opted for this pithy piece of positive thinking instead.
I used to have the notion
I could swim the length of the ocean
If I knew you were waiting for me.
– Only Ones, ‘The Whole of the Law’ (1978)
No one in rock ’n’ roll did ruined romanticism quite like Peter Perrett. It’s hard though to separate the work from the performance: the rolling sway of the music is appropriate for the over-the-top declaration of love, and you could hear, say, Chris Isaak doing a straight version. But the cliché of the protestation is entirely undercut by the drawling vulnerable croak of Perrett’s voice. It’s lovely.
Crabwise, over the Andalusian extensions
of the life and loves of Noddy.
– Soft Boys, ‘Leppo and the Jooves’ (1979)
In my eyes, Robyn Hitchcock is Bowie’s only rival as a lyricist. Well, not rival as such, but runner-up at any rate. There are jokes and psychedelic juxtapositions and elegance all thrown together, and – however extravagant his imagery – you generally got the emotional thrust of his writing. There were times, though, when it got a bit obscure. Here, for example.
Why must you record all my phone calls?
Are you planning a bootleg LP?
– Specials, ‘Gangsters’ (1979)
Paranoia and wit – that’s a rare combination in pop music.
He’s got secular joy,
He’s a peculiar boy.
– Monochrome Set, ‘He’s Frank’ (1979)
There’s a parallel universe where this single – along with the records by Slapp Happy, Eno, Wreckless Eric and the Soft Boys – is a massive hit, dominating the oldies stations to this very day. Sadly, that’s not where we live, and this kind of skewed pop never made it as big in our fallen world as it deserved. Later in the song we learn of our titular hero: ‘He’s got precious youth, but forsaken, forsooth.’
This catacomb compels me,
corroding and inert.
– Siouxsie and the Banshees, ‘Premature Burial’ (1979)
Well, that’s the entirety of Goth sorted, then.
Shall I see you tonight, sister, bathed in magic greet?
Shall we meet on the hilltop where the two roads meet?
– Marianne Faithfull, ‘Witches’ Song’ (1979)
It’s one of the great rock ’n’ roll stories: how Faithfull, overshadowed for fifteen years by her association with the Rolling Stones, suddenly hit an undreamed-of creative peak with Broken English just as her old muckers were sliding into insignificance. She’s never written a great deal – she only has a couple of credits on this album – but when she does, the lyrics are frequently great. If you’re going to be influenced by Bob Dylan, this is the way to do it.