Love love me do. You know I love you. So ple-e-e-ease, love me do. It’s 1962 and these are the words to The Beatles’ first single – “our greatest philosophical song” reckoned Paul McCartney. In five years, his band went from Love Me Dos and Please Please Mes to singing about walruses, glass onions, newspaper taxis, Rocky Racoon and a joo-joo eyeball. We know that culture and the sound of the music changed immeasurably in the 60s but so did the words, the lyrics, the message …
On meeting The Beatles in 1964, Bob Dylan confronted them over what he thought was a deliberate drugs reference in the song “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Legend has it he misheard the repeating line “I can’t hide, I can’t hide” as “I get high, I get high” but the truth was The Beatles hadn't thought that much about words at all up to that point, let alone deliberately dropped contentious drugs references into their songs. As far as they were concerned, words were a store-cupboard ingredient that had to be there to make a pop song but they were no more vital than a backbeat or a bassline. They were a vehicle for melody and gave you something to sing. “We would turn out a certain style of song for a single ... and I didn’t consider them, the lyrics or anything, to have any depth at all,” explained John Lennon. “Then I started being me about the songs, not writing them objectively, but subjectively. … I'd started thinking about my own emotions. … Instead of projecting myself into a situation, I would try to express what I felt about myself. … It was Dylan who helped me realise that.”
And Dylan knew a thing or two about writing lyrics; only last month he was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature after six decades of creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
Pre-Dylan – although he wasn’t the only one to initiate a change – songs were almost exclusively about love and relationships and the same tired hackneyed phrases tended to predominate. The idea that a song could convey a political message, be a call to action, or just be downright barmy was anathema. Perhaps this was because, on the occasions it wasn’t about love and relationships, music from the previous decades had been predominantly for dancing. And, as everyone knows, the last thing you want is a barrage of covert political messaging when you're desperately trying to perfect your Lindy Hop. What Dylan and others introduced was the idea you could write lyrics about anything and that the words could play a more important part of the action. Writing could be personal, sometimes deeply personal, and the act of songwriting could be something of a therapy for the songwriter. Whether this therapy is always something other people want to hear is a different issue, as anyone who’s been to a bad acoustic open mic night will attest, but I don’t hold Dylan personally responsible for all that overblown singer-songwriter bilge; he should still get his Literature prize.
In this playlist, in tribute to wordsmiths like Dylan – and in this year when Shakespeare Lives – we’re talking words and music; we asked colleagues from around the British Council to chip in with their favourite combinations.
– Stephen Bloomfield
Check out our words and music playlist below and find out who chose what and why further down the page.
Joel Mills (Music Team)
“It’s a rap race with a fast pace”
Tom Tom Club were a new wave band formed by Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from Talking Heads. This is such a fabulous early 80s disco and rap tune - playful, danceable and of course just great fun.
Love the typewriter opening, synth sounds and timbale breakdown …
Phil Catchpole (Music Team)
“I could be a lawyer with strategems and ruses / I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises / I could be a writer with a growing reputation / I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station”
Ian Dury has been my favourite lyricist for as long as I care to remember. His turn of phrase fluctuated between being beautiful, vulgar, heartfelt to hilarious, often without skipping a beat. For some he was the people's Poet Laureate; I just love that everything about Ian Dury makes me think about things a little differently.
I picked this song because it's an invitation to assess your own life, whilst also pointing out that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.
Cathy Graham (Music Team)
"My music, hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep"
My first choice is Dowland’s setting of the anonymous poem, “In darkness let me dwell”. It was first published in 1610 and I’ve chosen a recording by one of our finest young counter tenors, Iestyn Davies, with lutenist Thomas Dunford. John Dowland was an English composer and lutenist with a penchant for writing very melancholy songs. This is one of the most melancholy but it’s a beautiful marriage of words and music. Born in 1563, Dowland worked at the court of King Christian 4th of Denmark and later as one of James I’s lutenists. Musicians then as now worked freely across European borders …
For a contrasting version, try Sting’s take on the same song from his 2006 album Songs From the Labyrinth. Though not pleasing to some purists, I rather like his rendition. The lutenist is Bosnian Edin Karamazov. You can hear Sting’s version of In Darkness Let Me Dwell here.
"I live alone, in my heaven, in my love, in my song"
My other song is Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen” sung by German mezzo Christa Ludwig with our own Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Otto Klemperer. I listened to this countless times while living and working in Stockholm, usually at the end of a good dinner with a lot wine, with close friends. It is one of the most beautiful songs in the world, and basically says I’m lost to the world – "I live alone, in my heaven, in my love, in my song". I must have been a cheerful soul in those days, but I did eat, sleep and drink singers and songs. I’ll stop there, but I could continue with another hundred favourites …
Tony Hubbard (United Arab Emirates Team)
Two songs from two of my favourite postings in my British Council career ...
“Remember you always can get through it if you keep on singing this song”
Mad Heads XL are a Ukrainian Ska/Rockabilly folk group from the capital Kyiv. I was turned on to them when the customer services staff in the British Council Kyiv office bought me one of their CDs as a birthday present. They call their brand of Ukrainian folk rock combined with ska “UkrainSka”, which is a pun on their nationality. They still play regularly in one of my favourite live music venues in Kyiv, the Docker Bar. Nadiya Yeah is a really positive optimistic song; the title of the song is girl’s name, being short for Nadezhda, which also means “hope”. I first got together with my wife at a Mad Heads gig, so they will always have enormous significance to me.
“We had never met before that summer / Across the world we had traveled by land and sea / And by pure chance we got tickets / Adjacent seats, high in the gods”
A Russian band from St. Petersburg led by singer songwriter Aleksander Vasiliev. This song was a massive hit in the early years of the 21st century. Most of his songs are quite depressing, full of angst and despair, but this one is about how he met his wife and is really upbeat and cheerful. I must have seen Spleen perform a dozen times over the years and they nearly always play this song as the encore.
Kate Wyatt (Music Team)
“Take away everything that takes me from you”
To me the beauty of the words of this song is that the lyrics were started by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi and grown in 2015 by Hazel Gould because, as the lead singer Bea Hankey says “Rumi didn’t write enough verses!” The result is a beautiful, emotive lyric that talks about powerful all-consuming love. Here’s a really great version on Firefly Burning’s website.
Penny Feltham (Global Information Services Team)
“Sometimes I forget that we're supposed to be in love / Sometimes I forget my position”
Magazine were one of the finest bands to have ever come out of Manchester and Parade one of their best songs – musically brilliant and lyrically clever. I remember hearing it on Radio U (a New Zealand Indie Music Station) the same night I’d had a damn nasty argument with my then boyfriend and later husband.
“I don't know what I want anymore / First I want a kiss and then I want it all”
If there was a pick list of best first album releases ever in the world in my lifetime I would be sorely pressed between this and the Associates’ “Affectionate Punch” but hey, let’s go with the Bunnymen. This is the opening song on side two. Guitar music at its best! Pretentious lyrics just on the right side of pretention and a rhythm section to die for. One of the best riffs of all time … So many great times. So many great parties and one of the guitar lines I defended against all comers …
Tom Sweet (Music Team)
“Cats and dogs are not our friends, they just pretend”
It was one of my highlight performances during my time working at The Big Chill Festival – seeing a crowd of 2,000 people meowing and barking along together was a sight to behold!
Swithun Cooper (Literature Team)
“You’re not unlucky you’re just not very smart”
I think Emmy the Great is one of the great lyricists of the moment. “Paper Forest” is about writing notes, lyrics and journals as a way to preserve memories but also to exorcise them, and as a way to make what happens in our daily lives into a narrative – but at the same time it's about how we already have narratives pressed onto us from birth, in the form of expectations about religion, relationships, and what we're meant to do with our lives. It's from her album Virtue, which also has songs about Iris Murdoch, Sylvia Plath and Romeo and Juliet.
“Slaughtering the dissidents / Now the coroner is waiting, this is getting much too tense”
This song recasts the essays of anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman as Sam Spade-style private investigations, but the crimes here are structural, embedded in our society and its politics. Also it has three chords and a fun guitar solo, for balance. It also uses the word “gumshoe”, which is sorely missing from most modern pop.
“The things you were pursuing / were things no-one should be doing / the ambition started screwing with your head”
Phoebe Kreutz's songs take surprising subjects like Anna Karenina, Elizabeth I and Thomas Jefferson, and turn them into universal accounts of love and loss; her wordplay, rhymes and jokes are always fantastic, lightening the sadness without diminishing it. In ‘Frankenstin’ she adds a jaunty trumpet and somehow makes nuclear war sound sunny.
Stephen Bloomfield (Music Team)
“Stockport supporters club kindly supplied us a choir”
To make it easier to pick a song, I’ve gone British and this is a cut from one of my favourite albums by Elbow – you can check out Elbow's exclusive Selector live "from the archive" session here. A memorable review at the time was headlined "may contain language" such was the sheer amount of words and imagery packed into every Elbow song at the time. For me, in this one, Guy Garvey paints a wonderful fantasy of the most perfectly imperfect wedding via metaphors featuring the aisle of a bus and Stockport supporters club in their most romantic setting in song ever.
“And I burned the photographs that you had enclosed / God, they were ugly children!”
This fascinating collaboration between Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet yielded an album of wonderful music and intriguing lyrics – each song is based on a different imagined letter written to Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet, hence the LP’s title “The Juliet Letters”. It was recorded live and each of the five musicians contributed to the words.
- Listen to our journeys playlist here
- Listen to our film and music playlist here
- Listen to our hidden gems playlist here
- Listen to our cover versions playlist here
- Listen to our whistling playlist here