My war lyrics
Having quoted so many awesome and legendary war lyrics and songs in my last post, it’s with a little trepidation that I seek to introduce some of my own war-influenced efforts. Before doing so though, one thing that I want to mention is that I think it’s important that songwriters don’t try to imitate their favourite songs. There are times when I have referenced well known songs when trying to get musicians to work on my lyrics but it’s generally as a frame of reference only. As lyric writers we need to develop our own voice and come up with our own (hopefully fresh) takes on topics.
From the trenches
A number of big war-related historical milestones have been marked over the last few years, particularly as we reach 100 year milestones for various events and battles from World War One. Reading about the horrors of what was also referred to as the ‘Great War’ is a very humbling and sombre thing to do. We are so lucky not to have experienced war of that scale in our life time and it’s also particularly pertinent given some of the deeply worrying fractures that we have recently started to see in our modern world’s political landscape.
Anyway, I’d like to share a lyric that I wrote that was influenced by the tragic loss of life that characterised both the First and Second World Wars.
Portraits of war
Portraits of War is a lyric that has an interesting backstory. In the late 1990s, I started writing comedy sketches for a monthly new writers event called The Monday Lizard that was staged at The Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. The idea was that each month a theme would be announced and writers would write a 3 to 5 minute sketch on their interpretation of that theme and then submit it for consideration. I happened to have gone to one of these shows to support a friend who had successfully submitted a sketch. I decided to have a go and wrote a sketch that was called ‘What did you want to do?’ It was set in the trenches during an unspecified war and the dialogue was based around the banter that a group of soldiers were having as they tried to distract themselves from the horrors that they were living through. I was delighted when it was accepted and it was a real thrill to see it performed.
What has that got to do with a song though? Well, fast forward to 2017 and I had an idea to try to take the idea, setting, and characters from that sketch and somehow create a song from it. I didn’t know whether I’d be able to but it felt like quite an interesting challenge to use characters and a story that already had context in my head to then weave a song from them.
Here are some of the lyrics from Portraits of War, plus links that will enable you to read the full lyrics and listen to the final song.
I sketch a calloused face
Those eyes still glint despite the pain,
Mud runs like mascara
Tear drop tracks made by the rain.
The bombs explode like fireworks
As we shoot the jolly breeze,
Young Johnston’s in the corner
Looking like he’s just asleep.
Portraits of war
Portraits of war
Life, the bloody canvass
Stained crimson to the core
Portraits of war.
Lyrics by Simon Wright, with additional contributions by Justin Serrano.
Final song – listen and buy it if you like it: https://www.soundblend.com/store/release/782872
Simon Wright: Lyrics
Justin Serrano: Vocals, Music, Production, Lyrics
James Fraser: Guitar, Production
Susan FidlerSongs: Backing Vocals
The final song is actually only very loosely based on my original sketch. In fact, the only character who links the two together is a soldier called Eddie. The sketch started with the following lines
“Eddie’s been hit!”
“He’s lost his arm. I’d say that’s pretty bad Stones!”
“Poor Eddie. That kid wanted to be a classical pianist you know”
Verse 2 of the song includes the lines ‘The guns chatter like old friends / As we wear holes in our knees, / I hear Eddie’s lost an arm / The fare home isn’t cheap.’
Still, it’s an example of how writers can use material from one writing genre and use it as an inspiration for something else. If you’re a prose writer, or have written prose in the past, why not try taking a favoured piece and try your hand at turning it into a song lyric?!
More modern conflicts
Since the conclusion of the Second World War, thankfully we in the west haven’t had to endure a war that is anywhere near as large scale and devastating in terms of loss of life.
However, sadly, wars haven’t stopped. They have been a pretty much continuous aspect of human nature since we learnt how to bash each other with sticks. In terms of smaller scale wars, we can look at wars such as the Gulf Wars or the Balkan War. There have also been plenty of conflicts that don’t see one formal army fighting another formal army. However, all instances where mankind takes up weapons against his fellow humans is deplorable and leaves trails of destruction, with so many sad tales of human loss. Maybe one day we will outgrow such stupidity. In the meantime, songwriters will continue to write songs that hopefully make listeners think about the need for more love and compassion. And that takes me onto the second of my lyrics that I’m going to include in this post.
The context to this lyric is that it’s about how we, human beings, put up barriers between ourselves. Those barriers can sometimes be metaphorical, such as where we stop being open to the prospect of new relationships or experiences because of emotional pain that we have previously experienced. Or they can be real structures. Walls between people are, of course, quite topical at the moment given all Trump’s bluster and rhetoric about building a wall between the United States and Mexico. Hopefully that stupidity will never come to fruition but walls between communities have been a reality in Belfast during the Northern Irish Troubles from the late 1960s through to the current day.
For anyone who doesn’t quite know what a peace wall is, it’s a physical structure put up with the aim of stopping individuals from one side from attacking the other side, and vice versa. However, whilst it might be nice to think that tribal conflict between peoples can be solved by hiring some brickies, the reality of course is very different. Walls reinforce division and allow prejudices, fears and insecurities to fester. Humanity needs to think about tearing down walls, not erecting them, if it wants to eradicate intolerance, discrimination, violence and all the other negative behaviours that humans suffer from.
The song that I wrote was from the perspective of two young adults growing up on different sides of a peace wall. I didn’t specify a location so that there is hopefully the ability for listeners from vastly different locations to ascribe their own significance. And I decided to have their connection be a love interest to maximise the drama and give it a bit of a Romeo and Juliet vibe.
Here are some of the lyrics:
Graffiti on a wall,
Barbed wire hearts
Ensnare us all.
Two kids separated just by chance,
Dirt engrained under fingerprints
In this embittered land.
Yeah, I think it would be nice
If I could knock down your peace wall,
It would be really nice (really nice)
If these barriers could fall.
The intro immediately introduces the context of physical separation and then the chorus brings in the crux of the song – the fact that it’s separated two people who otherwise could be friends or more.
You can check out the full lyric through the link that I’ve supplied but the last part that I want to highlight here is the bridge. The purpose of a bridge is generally to introduce some sort of change, whether that’s just a change in the music or in the direction that the lyrics are going. In this case I wanted to suddenly be a bit more hard hitting about the realities that exist where conflict causes bloodshed and loss of life.
Where the silence stretches,
Plots marked out
With wilting flowers round the edges.
Grieving mothers with faces running
Jesus on a cross
But God’s not coming
2 versions of the song
As soon as I posted this lyric on the Kompoz website, it was picked up to be worked on which was fantastic. And then another musician said that she would like to use it as well. I love the way that it ended up with two different treatments and interpretations. They’re both really nice and interesting. There’s also a lesson here for lyric writers – be prepared to let musicians take your words in different directions. I originally imagined Peace Wall as a Bruce Springsteen kind of song, probably a bit harder edged, a bit grittier. Of course, if The Boss were to call and say that he’d like to use it then he’d be welcome but I’m very happy with the ways that it has worked out. 🙂
Final song – Christine version: https://www.kompoz.com/music/collaboration/713636/file/715406
Simon Wright: Lyrics
Christine Linge: Vocals
Simon Tomkins – Guitar
William Playle: Strings and Percussion
Kurt Ploesch: Engineering
Final song – Angie version: http://www.soundblend.com/store/release/720114
Simon Wright: Lyrics
Angie – Vocals
Ian Middleton – Music, Production
Derek Barlas – Music
Tracy Hutchison – Backing Vocals
Delphine Andre – Backing Vocals
I’ve written quite a few war-related songs. I think featuring these two is enough for this post but I’m sure I will return to cover more in future posts!