Words are meaningless

In this week’s music slot we look at how words can get in the way of meaning, even in pop… 

We’ll be soaked and ruddy, comes for pearly dewdrops drops.. tis the lucky lucky penny penny penny buys the pearly dew drips soaks…

I think we’d all agree with that, wouldn’t we? There’s quite a lot of debate in odd corners of the internet about what the Cocteau Twins’ lyrics mean. But as their author Liz Fraser once said:

 See, I find that mine [lyrics] don’t have any meanings. They’re not proper. Although I’ve got a great dictionary of them. It’s like the Cockney rhyming slang or something.They don’t mean anything, though, that’s the thing. You know all the transcendent sounds. It’s all sound all the way through.

That doesn’t stop people arguing what pearly dewdrops drops are, but the answer is simple: they’re sounds. In music, words can get in the way of sense. Operatic arias are often diminished by translation, when understanding the words muddies comprehension of the meaning, which is usually, let’s face it, about sex and death.


The Great Gig in the Sky is unmistakeably about sex and death. Pink Floyd are divisive but Dark Side of the Moon is a great work. I’m too young to have been put off it by 1970s chinstroking rock-bores; I discovered it in my dad’s LP collection when I was 8 or 9 and I can tell you that it blew my tiny little mind. There were no photos of this mysterious band on the sleeve,  just a spectrum on black, and the music sounded like it came from deepest space. I was terrified by the lunatics in the hall and the paper that holds their folded faces to the floor. It’s amusing to search for this track on YouTube; like opera arias there are all sorts of interpretations, only by minor divas tagged on to Floyd tribute bands: there’s a raunchy version, a screechy version, a sobby version. This is a straight but well-sung one, Bianca Antoinette performing with the tribute band par excellence, The Australian Pink Floyd.

Radiohead are my generation’s Pink Floyd. I’ve seen them three times, the second time in a big blue circus tent in a field in Wales in about 2000. Supporting them were something called Sigur Ros, who moped onto the stage and, without explanation or introduction, sulkily unleashed a stream of beautiful unearthly nonsense using guitars and cello bows. Later it turned out that they were Icelandic so it all made sense. This is Svefn-G-Englar, which means “Sleepwalkers”, but that doesn’t really matter does it? Lovely video featuring the Perlan special needs theatre group…

Lastly, Cowgirl from Underworld. A sort of song ‘in the round’, like Row row row your boat or Happiness Runs by Donovan. I was reminded of it by Mahlerman’s Clapping Music from the other week. There was a period back in the 1990s when I thought this was the most brilliant piece of music ever made. Everything everything, i’m invisible, an eraser of love…What is it about? Sex and death, I expect.

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7 thoughts on “Words are meaningless

  1. Wormstir@gmail.com'
    August 21, 2011 at 08:16

    Some of my all time favourite music here brit! (cowgirl in a packed festival tent, oooh) To add to the word confusion of Sigur Ros it turns out that the singer sometimes sings his own made up language which he calls ‘hopelandic’

    • Brit
      August 21, 2011 at 22:44

      Yes I was going to talk about Hopelandic but lost the will… I reckon that of those really big dance/rock acts of the 1990s, Underworld are the only one that haven’t dated. Chemical Brothers have a bit and Fatboy Slim and Prodigy have terribly. Underworld were always the arty ones though.

      • Worm
        August 22, 2011 at 08:37

        Underworld even have a record from 1983 that still sounds ace – check out their previous incarnation as Freur, and the track Doot Doot, it’s very new wave

  2. info@shopcurious.com'
    August 21, 2011 at 15:50

    All of these are new to me, Brit. Quite like the sound Bianca Antoinette makes – using the voice as a musical instrument. And what about scat singing, which can be brilliantly done, though is something of an acquired taste. Bjork said she preferred singing in gibberish rather than using words. This sort of stuff drives me mad. Think the Cowgirl track would too, if I were exposed to it for more than a few seconds…

    • Brit
      August 21, 2011 at 22:42

      A session singer called Clare Torry did the original vocal for Great Gig in the Sky. It’s astonishing and I think they paid her sixty quid for it.

  3. dkldr@yahoo.com'
    August 21, 2011 at 21:44

    Somewhat less soothing are the shrieks and grunts made by ex-FNM singer Mike Patton in Fantomas. Realizing that he couldn’t decipher the lyrics to death metal, he formed an avant-garde metal band in which there were no lyrics, just bizarre vocal noises. Behold his rendition of the theme from The Godfather:


    • Brit
      August 21, 2011 at 22:40

      Blimey. Sounds a bit like the mad bits in the middle of some Pixies songs.

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