The Song Doesn't Remain the Same

by George Sandison

Stories have their root in song and rhythm. We judge the quality of writing by its flow, it’s cadence, and tone. We use rhyme, mnemonics, to help us remember information. In fact, our very use of language around style is closely tied to music. Things are lyrical, harmonious and melodic, or discordant and dissonant. How things sound matter to how we interpret them.

Today we are inundated with media, are surrounded by the printed word to the extent that the only rational solution is to filter what we consume. We still find illumination in the printed word but we have to make time for it, separate ourselves from the hubbub of reality to commit to the act of creation in reading. Music, on the other hand, thrives in this new world of technology. We have always been captivated by music, by rhythm, lyric and melody, and now we can take it anywhere.

It’s no revelation to say contemporary music includes short stories, that the lyrics cast everything from the emotion of a breakup to complete stories. But rarer are the ones that cast a complete narrative to song. We’re talking beginning, middle, end stuff.

Dylan is one of the most famous examples, with songs like Hurricane and Lily and Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, and countless others. Tom Waits breaks your heart with his Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, Bowie sent Major Tom off to space and brought back Ziggy Stardust, Neil Young tracks Cortez the Killer in South America and Johnny Cash sings tale after tale of criminals, loss and guilt. You may well be thinking of other examples right now.

Contemporary music also has a particular fascination with love, of course. Wonderful as the results can be, this misses part of the on-going evolution of stories – the speculative. We live in a golden age of an ever growing sophistication of genre literature: the conceptual ambition of science fiction, the moral philosophy of fantasy, the exploration of the unconscious and mythic spaces in horror and weird literature. And a few musicians have come with us.

So where else do you start? Prog rock, of course! Hawkwind rank with one of the more unlikely collaborations on Warrior on the Edge of Time, including lyrics by Michael Moorcock. Younger Warhammer fans may also be surprised to hear of Bolt Thrower, a surprisingly good death metal band from Coventry, who released albums such as Realm of Chaos. More recently there was Fall of Efrafa, a crust punk band formed to release a three album retelling of Watership Down (aiming at the darker end of the spectrum there).

Even more impressively, it’s not always prog or metal bands.

Because we have Janelle Monáe, who is something of a prodigy. This young lady, writing RnB and psychedelic soul music for the US pop market, decided what people really needed was a dystopian SF setting. Cue concept albums about Cindi Mayweather, ‘a messianic android sent back in time to free the citizens of Metropolis from The Great Divide, a secret society that uses time travel to suppress freedom and love.’ She constantly references Philip K Dick, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and more and this is clearly a labour of love for her.

Oh, and don’t forget Meatloaf.

But some in particular stand out, for their ability to be read as well as they are heard. Here are some of our favourite short stories in song, all genre, all weird, all fantastic:

Gothic music’s spidery king here sets his sights on nothing less than Homer’s Odyssey. Because what better way to highlight the links between the oral tradition and today? Cave’s drawl and the Bad Seeds’ low-key rock swing are perfectly suited to the slippery Odysseus. The telling is a delirious one, all psychotropic experiences and bizarre metamorphoses, and a notable mention of blinding the Cyclops with a pen. The star-studded video only adds to the mythic quality at work.

Jeff Lewis is so cult he writes songs about his own cult status. What he has here, though, is perhaps the most disarmingly simplistic writing style I’ve ever encountered. From the opening lines, it sticks to small observations, but over the course of 6 minutes the metaphor unfolds until it encompasses a paean to the beauty of creation and a heartfelt attack on capitalism. Lewis’s delicate voice, constantly wavering, threatening to break, heightens the delicacy of it all, makes it familiar to us. Not bad for a song about green slime.

This is a hearbreaker, no doubt about it. This piece of flash is about JED-E3, their homemade robot friend. But Jed doesn’t do so well when left alone and with elegant efficiency the song etches out his despair and self-destruction. It’s sung as Frankenstein’s regret in fuzzy indie rock; it’s a eulogy and confession for the dawn of robotics.

Pirates! Aesop Rock has an unashamedly literary style that he uses to tell a tale of the high seas, mermaids and betrayal. The siren’s song is a staple of the sea’s mystery but here it’s woven into man’s avarice and violence in pursuit of his goal. It’s absolutely a moral tail as well, so before you start chasing mermaids heed this: ‘Before your visions of grandeur go to swell those sails, Remember dead men tell no t-t-t-tales.’

One for Stephen King fans. Chances are, you haven’t heard of Flipron, who have a knack of composing excellent weird tales told as psychedelic pop songs. But what elevates Flipron, makes them well worth the time, is Jesse Bud’s delivery, laced with surreal humour and acidic gravitas. The Vicious Car is a possessed machine, which pursues the narrator through his life. He loved its ugly violence once, but the day he left it behind is the day he fell in love. And he imagines he’s escaped, that his love will save him, but we all know a curse isn’t so easily shaken off…

Only Tom Waits’ could pull of this tale of damnation. His gravel cadences give us the horror of poor Edward (based on one Edward Mordrake, who may have been real), who has a face on the back of his head whispering hellish evils to him. It’s our inner demons given form, our dark thoughts exposed for the world to see. And we never hear from Edward, he’s already gone. This is just the fable of his death reaching us from far away, carried by the song.

Got another we should have included? Tell us your favourites in the comments below.