In teenage years, pop songs sung in French always seemed sophisticated, they possessed a certain je ne sais quoi which set them apart. It was only in later life, when my French vocabulary had developed beyond two words that I realized that Plastic Bertrand’s 1977 hit Ça plane pour moi was a banal tale of the exploits of a man when he was drunk. The words had a meaning which entirely robbed them of the air of sophistication which I had imagined that they had possessed.
There were other songs where the words had an obvious meaning, except, when they were put together, it was hard to know what the meaning was. One of the favourite plays on BBC Radio 1’s Old Record Club on Sunday lunchtimes was Procul Harum’s 1967 hit Whiter shade of pale. More than fifty years later, there is no absolute clarity of the meaning of the lyrics:
We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
The song was written against the background of the 1967, the year of the summer of love and psychedelic music, and Keith Reid, the lyricist suggested the function of the words was to evoke thoughts in the minds of the listeners:
I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with those images, I was trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene I’m describing. But I was too young to have experienced any decadence, then. I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote. It was influenced by books, not drugs.
Along with words that were banal when not expressed in another language, and words that were expressed in English, but were difficult to understand, there were words that had no meaning in any language.
Thin Lizzy’s 1973 rendition of the Irish traditional song Whiskey in the jar has a refrain that includes the lines:
Musha ring dumb a do dumb a da
Whack for my daddy-o
Whack for my daddy-o
Perhaps it is the sound of words that matters much more than meaning, perhaps it is rhythm and intonation that carry a meaning that cannot be articulated. I once heard a speaker who suggested that a good tune could carry bad words clean past the critical faculty. If sound matters more than meaning, perhaps it is not what we say that matters as much as how we say it.