To me, words are the lyrics of life, and that’s why they are so important in a song.
All of the Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix guitar riffs are meaningless if no lyrics back them up. And I fully realize that’s what separates me from being any sort of musician — well, that and not being able to play an instrument. But the bottom line for me has always been the lyrics to any song.
There have been two songs in my life that have separated themselves from the rest, simply because of the lyrics. Of course, the music was great, too, but it’s the words I always remember first and foremost.
One is “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay, which is less than 2 years old, and the other is “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart, a rock classic celebrating its 38th birthday this summer. Anyone who knows me or is a friend of one my blogs realizes my longstanding love affair with Rod Stewart songs, so that should not be a surprise.
“VIVA LA VIDA,” Coldplay
No song in decades hooked me as quickly — or as deeply — as “Viva La Vida.” From the first time I heard it to just minutes before writing this entry, it has managed to stir emotions and thoughts that normally are dormant.
The lyrics to the song are filled with both historical and religious references. One of its most endearing pulls is the strong percussion background, coupled with a repeating string section. For someone who says he deals primarily in the words of a song, I have to admit those drums and strings are mighty appealing.
Lead singer Chris Martin is marvelous on the song, and in its many accompanying videos. Will Champion, the drummer and backup vocalist, is overpowering (in a good way) at times.
The song was released in May 2008 and was immediately a worldwide phenomenon, and has remained so ever since. Check out the number of hits the umpteen “Viva La Lida” sites receive on YouTube. It is staggering.
The song’s Spanish title, “Viva la Vida,” is taken from a painting by 20th century Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. It translates into English as “long live life.”
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh, who would ever want to be king
I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman calvary choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world
Here’s how one reviewer/listener explained the incredible attraction to this song:
“Viva La Vida soars in with a grandiose instrumental arrangement and sweeping lyrics detailing the pain of being deposed from a lofty position. The big sound of the song constantly verges on becoming overblown, but Coldplay know how to walk the tightrope perfectly. Bells and chimes and orchestral swells are all there on the chorus, but Chris Martin’s voice still pierces through like a clarion call. Lyrically, the pain of the protagonist is clear, but the sweep of words about Jerusalem bells, Roman cavalry, and Saint Peter give Viva La Vida an air of intelligence rare in today’s most popular pop songs.” — Bill Lamb, About.com
An “air of intelligence.” That is perfect. For if nothing else, this song will keep you thinking, especially about the words.
“MAGGIE MAY,” Rod Stewart
To this day, the song defines a time of life and personal experience for many, which I think, has always been part of its enduring appeal. Even those who are not a fan of Rod Stewart to the degree I am will normally praise this effort.
The autobiographical lyrics depict his “coming of age” as a 17-year-old with an older woman, sort of a cross between the “Summer of ’42″ and an encounter with a lady of the night.
Stewart’s incredibly unique voice and the words he penned have combined to provide the song with a certain timelessness. If released today for the first time, I’m confident its popularity would be equal to what it was in 1971, probably more so.
The song runs 5 minutes, 15 seconds, which was exceptionally long for the period when it was released. The early 1970s were still at the height of the three-minute pop song that was the staple of AM radio, but “Maggie May” always had a certain magic about it. The song broke a lot of barriers, from playing time to subject matter.
In October 1971 Stewart became the first artist in history to hold all four No. 1 positions in the British and American singles and albums charts. While “Maggie May” topped the singles tally in both territories, the album it came from, “Every Picture Tells A Story,” achieved the same feat on the album charts. Five years ago Rolling Stone magazine listed both the single and album as among the best in rock history.
I suppose I could collect my books and get on back to school
Or steal my daddy’s cue and make a living out of playing pool
Or find myself a rock and roll band that needs a helping hand
Oh Maggie I wish I’d never seen your face
“I still can’t see how the single is such a big hit,” Stewart once said. “It has no melody. Plenty of character and nice chords, but no melody.”
It’s the words, Rod. The words.
Ironically, seven years after the release of “Maggie May,” Stewart references her by name in the song “Ain’t Love A Bitch,” noting:
Oh I didn’t realize she made a first class fool out of me
Oh Maggie if you’re still out there the rest is history
Yes, it is. It most certainly is.