Re-using characters in songs

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I came to writing lyrics having first of all spent several years writing comedy sketches. In the world of comedy sketch writing it’s considered normal, indeed extremely desirable, to re-use characters that you have created so that they become regular features of your comedy set-lists.

Perhaps it’s because of this background that I find that I sometimes go back and create a 2nd or occasionally a 3rd song lyric that is either directly about or at least references a character that I have created for a previous song.

I think this is a great technique for aspiring songwriters to use, especially in those moments when they may be struggling for inspiration for new song ideas. In this post I’ll talk about two specific examples where I used this approach

Famous examples of characters being used in rock music?

Rock characters
David Bowie cartoon

Can you think of many high profile examples where established music stars have created a protagonist for a song and then returned to reuse them on other songs?

I must admit that I’ve found it difficult to come up with too many examples.

Alice Cooper has created concept albums in the past that have been put together so that he can tell a story through his famously visual stage shows. For example, in his album ‘Welcome to my nightmare’, published in 1975, the songs are based around a fictitious serial killer called Steven. And this includes a song called ‘Steven’.

Another rock star who was famed for his creativity was David Bowie. Bowie created several alter egos during his career and one of them was the character of Ziggy Stardust, who has been described as ‘a fictional androgynous bisexual rock star who acts as a messenger for extraterrestrial beings’. Originally appearing on his 1972 album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’, it included a song called ‘Ziggy Stardust’ that tells the story of this crazily inspired character!

Another more minor example of famous characters being referenced on a later song comes from Bon Jovi. Their huge hit single ‘Livin on a prayer’ (from 1986) tells the story of young couple Tommy and Gina and their fight to get through despite the odds. 14 years later they had another hit with a song called ‘It’s my life’ Although Tommy and Gina only get the briefest of mentions (see below) I’m sure their legion of fans enjoyed and appreciated hearing the couple’s names again!

‘This is for the ones who stood their ground
It’s for Tommy and Gina who never backed down
Tomorrow’s getting harder, make no mistake
Luck ain’t enough
You’ve got to make your own breaks’

(It’s my life, by Bon Jovi)

Another high profile example is Pink Floyd’s concept album, The Wall, which focuses on a character called Pink who loses his father during the Second World War and then goes on to suffer abuse and mental health problems.

Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime and WASP’s Crimson Idol are other concept albums. The Crimson Idol follows the rise and fall of a fictitious rock star called Jonathan Steel and the album contains an array of characters including the excellently named Doctor Rockter and Chainsaw Charlie!

It’s telling though that most of these examples are concept albums where a rock band has focused on a character on one particular album rather than reviving them in subsequent albums.

I’m sure I’m probably missing lots of other examples. However, it does feel like an underused writing technique in the world of rock and pop music?!

Examples from my Lyrics of re-using characters

The Underdog trilogy

The Underdog
The Underdog

One of the very first lyrics that I had the pleasure of seeing turned into a song was for a piece called ‘The Underdog’. The story and world that I created in my head and referenced in that lyric then led to me writing a sequel song called ‘Survivors’ and another lyric called ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ that kind of sits parallel to ‘The Underdog’ in my fictitious story’s arc.

I should say that when I started writing The Underdog I had no intention of it being anything but a one-off. It tells the story of a prize fighter who is scrapping for a living by fighting on the undercard of more high profile fighters. He’s hard as nails and makes up for what he lacks in talent with sheer guts and determination. Unfortunately though, he also finds himself caught up in the employ of a pretty nasty gangster and he’s been asked to throw a fight as part of a betting scam. There’s also a woman caught up in all of this – she happens to be the love of his life but also currently the gangster’s wife or girlfriend.

Here’s a taster of some of the lyrics:

The Underdog

(Verse 1)

Wash the blood
Down the sink,
Tape the cuts
Suck it in.
No pain, no gain
Live another day,
Scrapping for a crust
It’s the only way.
Cos I’m a fighter
I will never quit,
You’ll break your hands
With the blows you hit.

(Verse 2)
Glide the blade
‘cross shaving foam,
Slick my hair
with my comb.
Into the gloom
Walk these crumbling streets,
Be the honest man
In a world of thieves.
You presumed too much

That your cash was all,

You sealed your fate

You deserved your fall.

(Chorus)

Where I’ll go
I don’t know
But I really don’t care.
It won’t be easy
But it never is
Cos life is seldom fair.
I’m the underdog
On the under card
The patsy who takes the fall,
But don’t underestimate my steel
I’ve been throwing punches since I could crawl.

My lyrics were probably overly long and ambitious and when the song was picked up, the musician George Schiessl did quite a lot of pruning to create what I think ended up being a really cool song.

Full Lyrics: https://www.kompoz.com/music/collaboration/688004

Final song: http://www.soundblend.com/store/release/697011

Credits

Simon Wright: Lyrics

George Schiessl: Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Piano, Drums, Production

James Fraser: Dobro guitar

I liked my (at this stage unnamed) protagonist and the story that I had created around the lyric. In my original full lyric the story had concluded with the prize fighter and his lady about to sail off on the gangster’s boat having done away with him. I got to thinking about where their story might go from there and from those musings sprang a second song, this time called ‘Survivors’.

Here’s how that lyric started:

Survivors

(Verse 1)
Where we’ve been is best unsaid
Changed our names, the past is dead,
Sail our boat to somewhere new
You and me, we don’t need a crew,
Leave our crimes so far behind
Break free of the ties that bind.

(Chorus)
We’re the survivors
Breaking free,
The eagle’s prey
That flew the tree,
We’re the survivors
Running free,
ain’t no-one gonna get to you and me.

(Verse 2)
We stopped in ports near and far
To put some notes in the jar,
I’m earning crusts in fighting dens
A living wage in fives and tens,
Whilst you turn heads flipping cards
It takes us forward, yard by yard.

I had great fun continuing their story and I had in mind that I wanted to include some reference points within the lyric that would help tie Survivors and The Underdog together. The 1st line of Verse 3 reads ‘I tape the cuts on our baby’s prow’ which links back to the part in Verse 1 of The Underdog where it says ‘Tape the cuts / Suck it in.’

I guess these kind of references may be too subtle for most casual listeners to pick up on but I enjoyed crafting them into the follow up lyric and I was delighted when George Scheissl also picked this lyric up and turned it into a song. Again, George made some cuts to the lyrics in order to make it fit with his vision for the music but that’s ok – the end song is great. (It’s also an important lesson for budding lyric writers that collaborations require a bit of give and take between lyric writers and musicians.)
Full lyrics: https://www.kompoz.com/music/collaboration/706562

Final song: http://www.soundblend.com/store/release/714703

Credits

Simon Wright: Lyrics

George Schiessl: Vocals, all music, Production

Having successfully created two songs from the original story idea I could easily have called it quits and been very happy. However, I felt there was more of the story that could be told. The Underdog had told a story from the prize fighter’s perspective and Survivors then continued the story to give a bit more information about what happened next, after he had killed and gangster and sailed away with the woman.

What I felt was missing was the story from the woman’s perspective and to provide more clarity around how the gangster met his end. So that led to a lyric called ‘Diamonds and Pearls’.

Here’s the first part of that lyric

Diamonds and Pearls

F/X: Sounds of clinking glasses, party noises

(Intro/Chorus)
Hey world
I’m dripping in diamonds and pearls,
Thousands of dollars glinting in my curls,
The envy of so many other girls,
But I feel so betrayed.

(Verse 1)
Slicked hair and a crocodile smile,
Smooth lines, fake Hollywood style,
Carlo’s a high flyer, do or die-er
Built a rags to riches empire,
But I now know the truth.
The drugs and the deals
The dirty fights that are thrown,
The muscle on hire
Protecting all that he owns.
I’ve been such a fool
For far too long,
But there’s a line in the sand
And this can’t go on.
(Chorus)
Hey world
I’m dripping in diamonds and pearls,

Blood pools at my feet in inelegant swirls

Invisible to you but I know it congeals

I see the dead faces squelch under my heels.

(Bridge)
These bruises are not for show

Artfully crafted two degrees below,

I stand here and smile to the world

Cos each of these aches helps me to know,

That it’s okay

What we’ve got planned,

Me and Vinnie

My sweet prize-fighting man.

Full Lyrics available here: https://www.kompoz.com/music/collaboration/737658/file/737659

So you can see from these lyrics that the gangster (Carlo) and the prize fighter (Vinnie) have acquired names! We also get the context of the unenviable position that the woman had found herself in. She was the glamorous trophy wife or girlfriend of a man who she now realises is a vicious gangster.

Although Vinnie commits murder by killing Carlo, with the woman complicit in that murder plan, I wanted to convey that they were as much victims caught up in unfolding circumstances as they were villains. They probably hadn’t intended to fall in love with each other but it had happened. She hadn’t realised Carlo’s true nature until it was too late, possibly blinded by the glamour and the wealth. They didn’t want to have to kill Carlo but what were their choices? Go to the police? Try to just run away together? Probably better choices but no choice was going to be great and they decided that the way out was to kill the gangster and then run.

I like Diamonds and Pearls but it was asking too much to expect George Schiessl’s talents to extend to female vocals! 🙂 So I’m still waiting for this lyric to be turned into a song. Hopefully that will happen some day. Whether it’s the end of this story I don’t know. I’m kind of tempted to write enough songs for it to be a potential musical!!

Die another day and Long way from home

Spaceship by alien moon
Die another day

The fact that I managed to end up with three lyrics from that one initial story idea for ‘The Underdog’ could have been a one-off but it’s not. And I’ll demonstrate that by talking a bit about a couple of heavy rock songs that I wrote and which have then been worked on by a couple of musicians.

Die another day is a fun heavy rock lyric that lends very heavily on my love of sci fi. The idea is that the song is set in the future and mankind has advanced its space exploration capabilities but has unfortunately found itself at war with an alien species. But whilst the context to the story is this huge global event of an inter-galactic war, the real story is about the struggle faced by a reluctant pilot. He’d much rather be back at home with his family but finds himself thrust into a war against an enemy who have superior technology. It’s a battle he can’t win so he’s fighting hard just to stay alive, expecting to be shot out of the air at any moment.

Here are some of the lyrics:

Die another day

Intro (optional)

(Spoken – male)

‘Red squadron advancing
We have targets in our sight
Request permission to fire’

F/X:sounds of explosions

(Spoken – female)

‘Red squadron, this is Battle Control, can you hear us?’

F/X: radio static

(Guitars + Axl Rose type elongated scream!)
(Verse 1)

I’m flying near the speed of light
Fireball carnage lights up my night,
Only signed up cos I had no choice
Got no power and got no voice.

They said this war’d be easy won
We got the bombs and we got the guns,
I guess the greaseheads’ got their guns too
We’ve been hammered but what can ya do,

Cept

(Chorus)
Die! (loud)

Die! (louder)

Die another day
Die another time,
On an alien landscape
death in the sky.
And it’s all about diamonds and uranium
So death is raining down,
So far from Planet Earth
And my home town.

Full lyrics can be found here: https://www.kompoz.com/music/collaboration/714089/file/714495

Final song: http://www.soundblend.com/store/release/748650

Credits

Simon Wright: Lyrics

Ian Cube: Vocals and Lyrics

Ronaldo Massa: Guitars, Bass, Drums, Engineering

It was really fun working with Ronaldo and Ian on this song and I love the way that the song came out – really energetic and playfully fun.

At one point whilst Ian, Ronaldo and I were exchanging messages back and forth, Ronaldo said that he really hoped that our protagonist survived and got taken to an alien planet where he is happy and meets alien girls who are hot but green! I decided to have a go at writing a sequel where the pilot has survived but rather than living happily ever after I decided it might be more interesting to have him go from the frying pan to the fire! That song is called ‘Long way from home’.

Long way from home is a different beast to Die another day. Instead of being an over the top heavy rock track, I wrote it instead as being a gentler song. Kind of alternates between being a ballad and a rocker. It tells how our protagonist, having been shot out of the sky, ends up crash landing on the alien planet where he gets taken prisoner and set to hard labour. So much for a happy ending!

Here are some of the lyrics

A long way from home

(Intro – acoustic)
I’m a long way from home
And the war is over,
We did not win
Got into trouble.
And the aliens now are my friends
Yeah, I must make amends,
Breaking rocks and breaking bread
On this moon.

(Switch to electric guitars)

(Verse 1)
(Agonised scream)
But I had a disturbing dream
I was lost in a scream,
The sky was red
My real friends were dead
And I could smell the gasoline.

(Verse 2)
Now I’m on a rock-breaking team
I smile my face agleam
My mind they’ve rigged
And so I dig, dig, dig
But now I smell the gasoline.

(Chorus)
Flying in a coffin
With a target on the side,
And I knew that it was only
A matter of time.
I fired my guns
One, two, three
And they fired their bombs
Back at me.
I bailed into the night
And landed tangled in a tree.

Full lyrics available here: https://www.kompoz.com/music/collaboration/723145/file/723147

Work in progress song (Drummer needed!): https://www.kompoz.com/music/collaboration/723145/file/817008

I enjoyed the challenge of seeing where I could take the story and also taking it in a slightly different direction style wise. One very nice bit of feedback that I got on the Kompoz website when I uploaded the lyric was where a musician commented ‘I like your creativity. And your voice- Leonard Cohen all the way- with an interstellar twist!’

Hopefully Ian, Ronaldo and I are quite close to putting this song to bed and then we can think about whether we collaborate on a new song. However, I think this is the end of this Die another day / Long way from home storyline!

Your turn now!

Open notebook
Open notebook

I hope that this post has maybe whetted your appetite to try taking a character from a previous song and then extending them (and their story) into another lyric. I consider it a really powerful tool that is at the disposal of songwriters and it’s great fun to do as well.

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