I’VE always been a fan of talking in songs. When it’s done well it really works. When it isn’t it is at least funny.
On a recent radio show a friend of mine described veteran songster Roger Whittaker as the “Jimi Hendrix of whistling”, a title I imagine the 85-year-old chirruper would be pretty chuffed with.
It got me thinking as to who would be the equivalent when it came to spoken words in songs.
I remember the actor Jimmy Nail having a really amusing chatty bit in one of his unlikely hits of the late ‘80s and there’s plenty of nonsense about love chucked in a good number of r’n’b hits by various wannabe Barry Whites.
To attempt some mid song in-depth spoken work is a big risk. You can end up sounding like the village idiot or succeeding in producing a tear-jerking alternative to a middle eight.
Dexy’s Midnight Runners always did it well, but then Kevin Rowland was never frightened of walking the tightrope between brilliance and absurdity, and Lou Reed had a certain way with a drawl. Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout is good too.
Perhaps it only works with certain accents. As Harrogate’s Shirley Lee, singer of Spearmint’s excellent Sweeping The Nation, bemoans the lot of bands who should have been successful but weren’t, he (for this Shirley is a he) resolves to keep up the fight and opines: “Well that’s my story and I’m sticking to that. I remember standing under Byker Bridge in Newcastle with Michael Bradshaw and Mickey turning to me and saying ‘Shirley — don’t worry, as long as you stick to what you believe in everything you want will come to you’.”
It’s not true of course, but Shirley delivers it with such commitment and sincerity that for the breathless four minutes of the song you really believe it.
The b-side to Story of the Blues, Pete Wylie’s massive 1982 hit, wins the battle for me though, as he talks the listener through the need to believe in yourself, your aims and how you are going to get there despite the sceptics in suits telling you that you are useless and on the scrapheap.
As an almost Northern Soul-esque backing track loops behind his strong Liverpudlian accent, Wylie also begins with (he was there before Shirley, to be fair) “well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to that,” and tells us: “When the smile, the condescending pat-on-the-back comes and says: ‘we’re sorry, but you’re nothing, you’ve got nothing for us and we’ve got nothing for you’, you say: ‘No’, and say it loud.”
Despite a crippling lack of self-confidence I took Pete’s advice on board — probably wrongly as I more than likely didn’t have much to offer those who told me as much — and, while I didn’t exactly shout “No”, I internally steeled myself against those who sought to bully and do me down, developing an inner strength that very rarely manifests itself visually.
For that alone — the fact that words in a song can influence your life and, maybe, collectively change the world — Pete is elevated to the status of the Jimi Hendrix of the in-song spoken word and, if you are ever to meet him, speaking in general.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to that.