The Tao of O'Brien
O'Brien- or- "How to compose lyrics the O'Brien way"
Those of you
who have visited the "Q" section- or my section- of the site will
now that I have written a sizable number of song parodies. It's the easiest
form of songcraft, really- the metre and tune are already there for you, you
just have to sit down and modify the lyrics to what you want them to be- usually
with a humorous note to them.
But beyond the
realm of parody, I also have a selection of original material I've written
on my own- but you won't find those among the things I am willing to share
with the general populace. But as I have endeavored in that area, I find myself
bewildered and amazed by the talents of certain songwriters. And among those,
I consider Richard to be one of the most underrated and brilliant.
'Oh sure', I
can hear you say 'The songs from Rocky are alright but they're not
I wouldn't be
so sure about that.
If you simply
dismiss O'Brien as a simple pop-song crafter, you're missing out on a great
of the internal rhyme
structure is quite simple. You take a stanza- usually four lines- and rhyme
certain words to make them 'go'. Example:
Let's take a
simple example... 'She Loves You', by The Beatles.
think you've lost your love
B-Well I saw her
A-It's you she's
B-And she told me
what to say
you can see, the 1st and 3rd lines end in a rhyme, as do the 2nd and fourth.
It works well as a lyric, the song has remained as one of the most enduring
from an enduring band... and a great deal has to do with the simplicity of
the rhyme. Rhyme makes things easier on the brain, and easier to remember.
Now let's consider the same A/B/A/B structure, but
with an O'Brien lyric- this one from 'Disgracefully Yours':
inclined to spit and bite a bit and scratch you
B-But I find that most don't mind behind locked doors
A-So I suggest you get undressed and let me catch you
B-I'll be distastefully, disgracefully all yours
now have the same general pattern- the 1st and 3rd lines rhyme- (you, you)
as do the 2nd and 4th (doors, yours) but within the stanza we also find the
occurences of six other sets of rhymes. The result being a series of words
that not only rhymes, but creates a palatable rhythm in and of themselves.
Richard could have easily written something like this:
you might find that I'll spit and bite and claw you
B-But no one really
cares behind locked doors
A-So why don't you
get undressed and let me catch you
B-And I will be
disgracefully all yours
set of lyrics says the exact same thing, but the first rolls far easier off
the tongue, while the second- though lyrically 'correct', is not nearly as
intriguing and rhythmic as the first. The use of internal rhyme is an earmark
of O'Brien's lyrics- and something he admits to strive for when writing them.
It is one of the key elements that make his songs so easy to remember.
examine another popular stanza formation- this one being the A/A/B/B formation. As before, first we'll go non-O'Brien, with 'You Don't Know
How it Feels' by Tom Petty:
old man was born to rock
A-He's still trying to beat the clock
B-Think of me what you will
B-I've got a little space to fill
you can see, in this formation the 1st and 2nd lines rhyme (rock, clock) ,
as do the 3rd and fourth (will, fill). Again, a perfectly workable lyric.
Now let's consider one of O'Brien's- this one from '100 Dollars an Hour':
low autumn sun of the late afternoon
A-Brings sweet Heaven's fire,
and desire to the room
B-You hold me so gently, our hearts intertwine
B-And for 100 Dollars an hour, or part thereof, you're mine.
not nearly as pronounced as in 'Disgracefully Yours', the internal
rhyme here serves no less purpose. Coupled with the slow jazzy sway of the
tune, the additional rhymes of fire and desire and 'hearts' and 'part' adds
a flowing, almost falling quality to the stanza. Not to say that standard
formations are the only possible way to write a song, or that all of Richard's
do. Consider 'Bitchin' in the Kitchen' from the Shock Treatment soundtrack:
A-Won't you help a first offender
C-Don't you put the burn on me
D-Why are we always sooner or
E-Bitchin' in the Kitchen
F-Or Cryin' in the bedroom all night.
formation is not by any means among the most widely used. A large reason of
why is that it is difficult to create because where in the A/B/A/B and A/A/B/B formations we
rely on rhymes at the end of each line, the success of this form lies almost
entirely in the use of repetitive rhymes to tie it all together. From later
in the same song:
used to be okay
B-But I've been had and Brad
A-I'm glad to say is on his way
the lyric would have worked fine with the simple rhyme of "okay"
and "way", but is taken to another level with the rapid-fire repeats
of rhymes in the last two lines.
can find a similar tactic employed in 'Sword Of Damocles' from RHPS:
Sword of Damocles is hanging over my head
A-And I've got the feeling someone's gonna
be cutting the thread
B-Oh, woe is me, my life is a mystery,
and can't you see
C-That I'm at the start of a pretty big
metre of the song is set by the third line, so as in 'Bitchin in the Kitchen' the listener doesn't note that the last line of the stanza doesn't rhyme anything
at all. The last line becomes a 'hook', or repetitive phrase- and takes the
place of a more proper 'chorus' or 'refrain'. The repeated rhyme is done in
Verse 2: B-My
high is low, I'm dressed
up with no place to go.
And all I know
3: B-Oh, woe is me, my life
is a misery, and can't you see
use of internal rhyme can not only hide a line that doesn't rhyme whatsoever-
it can also be used to add metre and rhythm to a lyric that contains a forced,
or near rhyme. We see an example of this in 'The Best Has Yet to Come For
distant shores and humble doors I darken
B-And wait for love to capture me
A-But I'm not in the market for a bargain
B-Just wrap me in a Rhapsody
The A rhyme
of 'darken' and 'bargain' is somewhat forced when taken by itself. But when
mixed in with the eloquent rhymes of the 1st and 4th lines of the stanza,
this hardly becomes noticable in the least. It's further interesting to note
the rhyme of the last line of the stanza. Only the last syllable of 'Rhapsody'
is needed to rhyme with the second line, but we're given the entire word,
and the first syllable not only rhymes with 'wrap', it's serves now as a homophone
as well as a rhyme. Lyrically, this is pure brilliance.
theme with O'Brien's lyrics is the use of Mythological references. To those
who may have seen or heard a performance of Disgracefully Yours, you
will have been inundated by them. Richard references everything from Priapus
to the Bacchanalia.
If you were to
make even the slightest study of any subject in order to further understand
Richard's lyrics... I would suggest refreshing your knowledge of mythology.
It's nearly essential to truly get into what he's saying. This section could
be used for just that purpose, if you so wish.
Morpheus- The name itself literally means "he who forms". According to Greek
Mythology, Morpheus was the son of Hypnos, the God of sleep. Naturally, this
would make him have something to do within that realm and he was said to be
the creator of dreams... or the creator of the beings that appeared in one's
Morpheus is also
the base for words we use today. Morphine, for example, is a well-known sedative
(and highly addictive drug) of an opiate base... which is still used (in various
forms) within the realms of medicine. It's also interesting to note that the
God Morpheus was said to live in a dimly lit cave surrounded by poppies and
Opium, Morphine, Heroin and other opiate drugs are themselves derived from
All this aside,
Morpheus is an excellent reference when a lyric calls for an image of sleep,
or dreaming. He can be found in 'Over at the Frankenstein Place'
Down the river of night's dreaming
Flow Morphia slow
Let the sun and light come streaming
Into my life, into my life
And also in 'Incubus
If madam is feeling
Drift into the arms of Morpheus
was the son of Daedelus, a slave to the King Minos on the island of Crete.
When Poseidon cursed the Queen to fall in love with one of the bulls that
was kept in the land, Daedelus built a false cow to allow the Queen to satisfy
her um... urges without actually going for one of the bulls. However, she
soon gave birth to a half-man, half-bull called the Minotaur.
a huge maze... the labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, but soon found himself
and his son Icarus trapped within it. They managed to escape the labyrinth,
but fearing for both their lives, decided upon escape. To do this, Daedelus-
who was a pretty handy sort of guy- constructed two pairs of wings out of
feathers and wax. One for him, and one for his son.
off the island, he warned Icarus to avoid flying too high. However, as they
began to fly, Icarus became enthralled with the feeling of flight and went
higher, and higher- until the heat of the sun melted the wax that held his
wings together and he plummeted to the sea and drowned.
He should have
listened to his father... or as Richard put it in 'Ain't That to Die For':
But the quick
of us pick Icarus
To be stinker of a pilot
But anyone that near the sun
Ain't no shrinking violet
Damocles was a courtier to Dionysius I. He was... how can I put this...
A kiss-ass. He
constantly praised Dionysius in every possible way until one day he was invited
to dinner with the previous knowledge that a sword would be held over his
head during the meal by a single hair, Dionysius's not-so-subtle reminder
that his life was never certain.
Damocles is not
mythological by definition as he is rumored to have actually lived during
the time of Dionysius I, who was a known tyrant. (as if you couldn't have
guessed that... how many people invite you to dinner and let you know there'll
be a sword over your head?) However, the likelihood of Damocles actually having
a sword hung over his head by a single hair is probably about as likely as
Davy Crockett killing him a 'bar' when he was only three.
Hence, the phrase
"sword of Damocles" is used to indicate always present danger. And
in the song 'Sword of Damocles' (Bet you didn't see THAT one coming!)
Rocky is commenting on his situation by way of the phrase.
son of Zeus and Leto, Apollo was the God of light, healing, and archery. According
to myth, he spoke the moment he was born, saying "The lyre and the curved
bow shall ever be dear to me, and I will declare to men the unfailing will
of Zeus". If people died suddenly or unexplicably, it was often said
they had been stuck with one of Apollo's arrows.
Anyway, he makes
an appearance in 'Running With the Noisy Boys':
Each one has
their separate laugh
Some cheap, some late, some hollow
Some love to give their autograph
Some love the God Apollo
Imagery and wordplay
Richard's lyrics, we would be doing them an incredible disservice if we did
not mention the constant use of mental imagery and the playing of words within
This is something
of particular interest to me. Most songs I have come across in recent years
are lucky if they conjure the simplest images that the song is supposedly
trying to purvey. It seems that a love for words and the wont to use them
to your own advantage is a long-lost art in the realm of song. Pity.
Richard not only
uses words and imagery to convey an emotion or feeling, but also finds new meanings within common phrases. Most texts on songwriting will
tell you that you might as well drink poison if you use cliches' in your work.
However, Richard manages to get away with what would normally be considered
taboo by giving the words a bit of a new spin.
our first example, Merry Christmas Baby:
past and future be
A Christmas present just for me
In this phrase,
Richard has conjured up the oft-used images of Dickens' famous spectral trio-
the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future... but in the lyric they
are rearranged and represented in a new context. The Christmas past and future
now become a literal present to the singer.
the use of words is another tactic employed... take as an example a lyric
from Running With the Noisy Boys:
up late and master fate
With exec high-tech toys
I'd like to know
how many people who have heard this song actually realized what the lyrics
were, and did NOT hear "masturbate". The reference in the following
line to "toys" only makes the allusion seem more pronounced. It's
not what it sounds like, but it sure seems like it is.
Pseud's Corner is a literal cornucopia of references, plays, and trickery. Within it, we
find reference to "Bakewell Tart", a jibe at a then popular female
newscaster... a knock on Anthony Haden-Guest ("For I'm Anthony Haden's
Guest"). To the listener ... particularly those who were not around in
London in the 70's, the references may easily slip by... but this does not
deter from their brilliance.