For all the information about this episode, and to hear it, visit theallusionist.org/vocables
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, beseech language to put its left leg in, its left leg out, in out in out shake it all about.
The Allusionist is one of the thirteen shows that make up Radiotopia from PRX, and right now, Radiotopia needs you. Actually, I say right now, but really we need you long-term. It’s our fundraising season, and what we really crave is for you to become a recurring donor to the collective, so that we can carry on making shows for you for as long as possible. Until our vocal cords wither and snap, and your ears are shrivelled and filled with dust. Isn’t that a happy prospect.
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(Maybe just a couple.)
Oh, and one other thing: we’ve been challenged to get 5,000 donors by Monday 26th October by Slack.com. If enough of you step up and we succeed, they’ll give us an additional $25,000. So, don’t wait around. All we Radiotopians are huddled around our group messages on Slack, keeping track of the numbers of donors in frankly quite an unhealthy and neurotic way. But nonetheless, it’s nice for us all to hang out, because geographically, I’m an ocean away from the rest of the Radiotopes, and I work in a team of one, so I’m pretty happy to spend any kind of time with them. Which is another reason why, during the fundraiser, I’m doing this run of weekly episodes with other Radiotopians. So which one will be joining me today?
HH: You’re listening to Song Explusionist. I’m Hrishikesh Hirway.
HZ: He takes songs apart and scrabbles around, looking for meaning in the innards, it’s my Radiotopian sibling Hrishikesh Hirway from Song Exploder!
Hrishi of course knows a lot about songwriting, so I wanted to ask him about a particular category of words: vocables, that aren’t really words, actually, but rather lonesome phonemes or non-word noises that behave a little like words.
In normal speech, vocables perform various functions - for instance, 'um' and 'ah' buy us time to think, and paper over cracks in our phrases; and babies testing out their vocal cords tend to be pretty keen on the vocables. Not sure they have a wealth of alternatives at that stage, to be honest. So in speech, vocables aren’t meaningful, or consequential, or even intentional - but in song, they can be all these things. All those la la las and dum di dums and bom bom do be de doos are ubiquitous in songs - so what are they doing there?
HH: It’s different to scatting, which is an improvised thing in a song where someone might vamp - a singer might take a solo without words.
HZ: I thought maybe it was a form of scat singing, but are you saying it’s a very calculated replacement for words, rather than using your voice as a pure instrument?
HH: I think of scatting as an improvisational thing. In jazz, when Ella Fitzgerald takes a little scatting solo, she’s basically taking a solo the way a saxophonist would; she’s just using her voice. It’s not a part that’s written.
[CLIP: Ella Fitzgerald ‘One Note Samba’]
HH: But vocables are a written part, there are just no words. There might be la las or ba bas. That’s essentially what vocables are, regardless of what the syllable actually is.
[CLIP: Spice Girls ‘Spice Up Your Life’]
TH: Songs don’t have to all be words; you can just have a motif. In one song, I just sang ‘nananana’ because I wanted to repeat the melody of the chorus; I just didn’t want to repeat the lyric.
HZ: That’s songwriter and singer Tony Hazzard, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Cliff Richard, Hall & Oates, Manfred Mann, Andy Williams, Lulu...
TH: I’ve been in the music business for 50 years.
HZ: Wow! Do you get a telegram from the queen?
TH: No! Hahaha!
My very first publisher - we’re going back to the mid-1960s - he’d come and say, “What’s happening, what’s happening?” And the thing he drilled into me was, “Where’s the hook, where’s the hook?” And the hook is a motif, whether it’s lyrical or melodic, that will hook the listener’s attention. The classic phrase is the Old Grey Whistle Test.
[Theme of Old Grey Whistle Test ‘Stone Fox Chase’]
HZ: That phrase was popularized by the BBC TV music show of the same name that ran from 1971 to 1988, but it probably originated quite a bit earlier, during the 1930s in the Brill Building in New York, which was packed full of songwriters and publishers trying to churn out the hits. The Old Greys were the maintenance staff, who would overhear demos.
TH: If they could whistle the tune, you knew you’d hit home.
Really, wordless lyrics are hooks. “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom” - when you hear that, you know what’s coming. It sticks in your mind; it’s been in people’s minds for 50-odd years now.
[CLIP: Little Richard 'Tutti Frutti']
TH: everybody knows that phrase [“Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom”], which is theoretically meaningless. Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’, which originally was a gay song, meaning ‘Tutti frutti, nice booty’, meaning you’ve got a nice bottom. But the producers said, “You can’t sing that.” I don’t know who altered them, might have been a joint thing with Little Richard and a producer, and a woman - she rewrote them.
[CLIP: The Crystals ‘Da Do Ron Ron’]
TH: "Da do ron ron, da do ron ron" - the writer could have written a lyric.
HZ: Do you think they just couldn’t be bothered?
TH: No, I don’t think so! Everyone remembers it.
HZ: And 'Agadoo'. All the greats.
[CLIP: Black Lace ‘Agadoo’]
HZ: In the case of Agadoo - Black Lace’s translation of an equally charmless French pop song - the words are probably even worse than the non-words. But sometimes - alright, a lot of times - I feel that vocable-use represents a failure of imagination. For instance, in ‘She Makes Me Wanna’ by the recently dismantled British boyband JLS:
[clip: JLS 'She Makes Me Wanna' - lyric "She makes me wanna uh oh uh oh uh oh"]
HZ: Finish the sentence, JLS! Wanna what? Expand my vocabulary? Harness the power of words for self-expression?
HZ: Would it kill them to use words?
HH: If it feels like it’s a replacement for where there should be words, you’ll feel a little cheated. But if it’s a textural thing in a song, or a backing vocal, it’s great. Sometimes you don’t want words. Sometimes you want space for your mind to fill in the meaning.
HZ: And actually, a lot of us create that space even when the words are there - I know I have a tendency to overlook the meaning and the narrative in a song; for me, the lyrics form an impression, more than an expression. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.
TH: I was talking to a chap in my local pub, who said, “I never listen to the lyrics at all.” I said, “That’s a shame; I spent a long time crafting them.” He said, “I never thought of it; I just listen to the record.” And I know what he means. It depends on the type of song. There are some records I listen to, and I never ever get tired of them; they lift my spirits up. Who knows what they’re about? One of the great records I love is Betty Wright’s ‘Shoorah Shoorah’.
[CLIP: Betty Wright 'Shoorah Shoorah']
TH: I never get tired of it. ‘Shoorah shoorah, I can hear you calling,/Shoorah shoorah, but you can’t catch me’. It just fills it in.
HZ: Hrishi, any vocable favourites?
HH: There’s a song by Brokeback, with the late Mary Hanson from Stereolab. They make mostly instrumental music, but they have a song with her called ‘In the Reeds’ that I really love. It’s essentially an instrumental; there are no words in the whole song, but she sings in it. It’s beautiful. I love that song, and I think if there had been words there, it would be a completely different product, and not necessarily better. Could be worse.
[CLIP: Brokeback ‘In the Reeds’]
You can find out about Tony Hazzard’s half-century of music at tonyhazzard.com, and The Hallicombe Sessions, his new album, will be out shortly.
Hrishikesh Hirway makes the truly marvellous podcast Song Exploder - every episode is the aural equivalent of eye-opening. Ear-opening? Not the best term, but certainly an excellent show. Doesn’t matter whether you’re already familiar with the band or the piece of music; I’m usually not. One of my favourite episodes, if you’re looking for a place to start, is the one featuring Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs dissecting her song ‘Water Fountain’. It’s got everything - wit, unusual production, catchiness, and handclaps. You can find the show at songexploder.net. And if you want to help Hrishi and me and the other eleven Radiotopians keep on making our shows in perpetuity, visit radiotopia.fm to support Radiotopia from PRX.
There’s a little bit of business to attend to following last week’s episode about eponyms and ballpoint pens - the Bics and the Biros.
So let’s get this straight:
In the UK, we call any brand of ballpoint pens ‘biros’.
Whereas in the USA - you don’t call ballpoint pens Biros or Bics, but in the South, you might call any soft drink a Coke.
In France, you call all pens 'Bics'.
If we referred to a 'Bic' in the UK, we’d probably be talking about a disposable lighter, likewise in Australia.
But in some places, 'Bic' means a shave - sometimes, the head, sometimes the full body.
Comparative linguistics is HARD.
Jon also tweeted: "OK, we NEED a movie about the history of the ballpoint pen. Burning question: Coens or Wes Anderson?"
Hmmm. Is Brett Ratner busy?
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks to Hrishikesh Hirway, Tony Hazzard, and Martin Austwick, who provided the special vocables version of the Allusionist theme you can hear right now.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, which was made possible by the Knight Foundation, Mailchimp, and you generous and kindhearted listeners. Thank you so much. And to show my gratitude, throughout the Radiotopia fundraiser campaign, I’ll be dedicating the Randomly Selected Word From The Dictionary to a Randomly Selected Radiotopia Donor.
The Randomly Selected Radiotopia Donor today is… Gavin! Gavin’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
occiput, noun, anatomy: the back of the head.
Try using it in an email today, Gavin.
And if you want a piece of that dictionary dedicated to you, just forward your donation receipt to email@example.com. You can also find me on Facebook.com/allusionistshow and Twitter.com/allusionistshow, and at theallusionist.org, where I’ll be back next week with another episode with another Radiotopian.