Tales of epic romance were once the domain of the bard who sang of heroes, gods, war, love and adventure. Today’s minstrel is the rock singer and some of the best poetry can be found in the lyrics of rock music. Rock music, that is, as opposed to pop music which is the battery-farming equivalent of the music industry. Rock music is a very literary genre that has parallels with the subversive nature of fantasy.
Some rock bands show obvious literary influences and there is a good deal of intertextuality between the two arts. Both Steely Dan and Soft Machine took their names from William Burroughs; Marillion from Tolkein; whilst bands like Iron Maiden have been inspired by such luminaries as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Aldous Huxley. Heavy Metal is perhaps more akin to horror, owing something to Aleister Crowley, H. P. Lovecraft and Hammer Horror.
I particularly want to explore Progressive Rock, which continues to provide some of the most fantastical as well as intelligent ideas in music today. Progressive Rock is a particular sub-genre that explores moods, emotions, textures and themes with a more cultured and experimental style. Many Prog Rock bands, such as Hawkwind, Genesis and Yes released concept albums in the 1970s that explore fantasy and mythical realms to show the psychological or spiritual responses to heightened emotional experiences or altered states of consciousness. Hawkwind and Yes are still going strongly to this day.
Psychedelic band Hawkwind explore science fiction themes which appeal to their drug fuelled trips into ‘inner space’. Michael Moorcock has famously written for and performed with the space rock hippies, but Hawkwind’s other writer in residence was Robert Calvert, sf poet and novelist who also contributed to 60s underground magazine, ‘Frendz’. Calvert has developed something of a cult following and his writing is of an imaginative and literary quality with its unique blend of metaphor, wordplay and surrealism. Calvert’s lyrics for ‘Spirit of the Age’ (1977) demonstrate his irony and wit:
I would’ve liked you to have been deep frozen too
And waiting still as fresh in your flesh for my return to earth
But your father refused to sign the forms to freeze you…
Your android replica is playing up again, but it’s no joke
When she comes she moans another’s name.
In a different tone, ‘Damnation Alley’ (1977) is based on the Roger Zelazny post-nuclear holocaust novel of the same name and is written using extremely effective rhyme and rhythm that reflects the urgent mood of escape.
Ride the post-atomic radioactive trash
The sky’s on fire from that nuclear flash
Diving through the burning hoop of doom
In an eight wheeled anti-radiation tomb.
His use of metaphor is always vivid and original, for example, in ‘High Rise’ (1977), the skyscraper is described as ‘A flypaper stuck with human life’ and when someone is pushed from a window his body on the pavement becomes a ‘Starfish of human blood shape / Tentacles of human gore’.
Calvert’s most psychedelic lyrics are contained in the song ‘Steppenwolf’ (1976), inspired by Herman Hesse’s masterly novel about madness and altered states of mind and Calvert evokes a strange mood of melancholy and paranoia through his use of certain abstract images to reflect the changing emotions of the despairing voice of the narrator. Note also the subtle use of alliteration.
The moons are howling mouth of mercury
Quicksilver quivering in the sky
It echoes like a cave of chromium
They’ll vacuum up my soul when I die.
In the same song and typical of Calvert’s style, he chooses precise vocabulary to metaphorically describe the eyes of the man-wolf: ‘My eyes are convex lenses of ebony / Embedded in amber’.
Calvert was an artist using words to paint his portraits of urban and futuristic fantasy and his death in 1988 was tragic and untimely. He certainly was visionary but whether this was inspired by genius or acid is left purely to conjecture.
Not many rock bands work with known writers, but there are certainly lyricists within rock bands whose poetry is of a great literary quality. One of those is the erudite Peter Gabriel who fronted the classic line up of Genesis. Nursery Cryme (1971) utilises influences from nursery rhymes, Greek mythology and traditional English culture; the front cover of the album is a grotesque parody of Alice in Wonderland. The track ‘Musical Box’ is about the ghost of a decapitated boy who falls in love with his murderer leading to the discovery of sexuality. The lyrics move from ‘Old King Cole’ to ‘Brush back through your hair and let me get to know your flesh’. This sense of lost childhood innocence and the realisation that the adult world is a frightening place is most clearly shown in the lines:
And the nurse will tell you lies
Of a kingdom beyond the skies
But I am lost within this half-world…
The final track, ‘The Fountain of Salmacis’ is a retelling of the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus, which can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A water nymph, Salmacis, falls in love with Hermaphroditus, the love-child of Hermes and Aphrodite, who, unfortunately, rejects her advances. Not to be put off the nymph embraces him, refusing to let go and calls on the gods to unite them forever. According to the Genesis song:
Unearthly calm descended from the sky
And then their flesh and bones were strangely merged
Forever to be joined as one.
The song is worthy of the myth and it highlights themes of sexuality and gender.
‘The Battle of Epping Forest’ from Selling England by the Pound (1973) is a typical Peter Gabriel lyric with its puns and daft characters putting it in the tradition of nonsense poetry or absurd comedy. The song describes certain characters involved in a gang fight and includes lots of witty word-play and neologisms, including the ‘thumpire’, ‘robbing hood’, ‘a karmachanic with overall charms’
However, Gabriel’s magnum opus is, without a doubt, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974). This is a double concept album about the individual human psyche. The style is that of a postmodern, surreal urban fantasy that owes something to Mervyn Peake. It covers a psychological landscape with Freudian imagery of fears, dreams, castration and plenty of sexual symbolism such as caves, secret passages, cocoons and lakes. The narrative also contains a number of Jungian archetypes like Lilith, the demon woman who disturbs men at night, and the Lamia, serpent-like sirens who seduce people only to devour them.
The story is hard to follow, but it tells of Rael (an anagram of ‘real’), who, after a strange vision, wakes up in a womb-like cocoon in a cave leading to the majestic song ‘In the Cage’. This extended track begins with a lullaby, ‘And I can’t keep me from creeping sleep/ Sleep deep in the deep’ but is quickly disturbed by the sensation of ‘drowning in a liquid fear’. In the cave stalagmites and stalactites become the bars of a cage, leading to a further vision of people trapped in their lives left only with their memories. Mention of ‘strap’ and ‘strait-jacket’ makes you realise that Rael is perhaps a patient in a psychiatric ward:
When they got me by the neck and feet
Pressure’s building, can’t take more,
My headaches charge. My earaches roar.
The chorus changes to ‘Get me out of this pain’ and there is a conscious ambiguity between what is memory and hallucination. This is a classic fantasy technique.
This is just the beginning of Rael’s quest to find his brother who turns out to be his own doppelganger. In this way, the album is about discovering your identity through confronting your own fears, yourself and ultimately, death. Western materialist culture ultimately creates people on an endless conveyor belt and life is just a matter of ‘counting out time’. After being led by Lilith to meet Death, also known as ‘the supernatural anaesthetist’ he is seduced by the Lamia, and when he finally meets his brother, John, they realise how disfigured they have become. The only answer, apparently, is castration – to lose his sexual urges – but Rael’s dismembered penis is stolen by a Raven. Pursuing it, they are swept away by rapids before Rael discovers the surprising identity of his brother. It is here that the narrative comes to a mysterious end. Gabriel then leaves the ambiguity to us with the enigmatic ‘It’ in which it is left to us to decide what exactly ‘it’ is, and in case we have taken it too seriously then we are told ‘it’s only knock and knowall but I like it’. Maybe like life itself, it’s all just an absurd joke.
The lyrics to Yes songs are usually labelled pretentious, but like the band’s name they are always optimistic and uplifting. Sense becomes shrouded and ambivalent and words are chosen as much for their sound as their meaning thus creating a surreal soundscape where mood and tone is as important as the subject matter, like an abstract painting. Jon Anderson considers the voice and the musicality of words to be his solo instrument.
However esoteric Anderson’s poetry may be, there is certainly artistry and insight behind them. His vocabulary and lyrical style is certainly softer and more feminine than most rock lyricists, as he tends to capture moments of enlightenment and passion to express his spiritual vision of unity with nature.
The double concept album, Tales of Topographic Oceans (1973), inspired by ancient Hindu scriptures begins with a myth of epic proportions, ‘The Revealing Science of God’, which deals with the creation of the world, light, knowledge and most importantly the ‘Dawn of love’. The lyrics examine the meaning of mortality but the answer is ambiguous and inexpressible, however we are reminded that there is ‘freedom in life everlasting’. On the other hand, mankind has misused knowledge, as selfishly we ‘rape the forest’ and conduct ‘wars we do not mean’ leaving the question ‘What happened to this song we once knew so well?’ We were once, long ago, in tune with the music and dance of nature and need to listen to it once more to discover our true identity as part of creation. ‘The Remembering’ creates a gentle, inviting atmosphere, encouraging us to lie back and recall our own past – to ‘Stand on hills of long forgotten yesterdays’. This is our chance to escape our busy lives and to dream.
The third part, ‘The Ancient’ is the most avant-garde and trippy of the four passages. Here we are cast back beyond our own memories into pre-history where ancient civilizations like the Incas, Atlantis and Mayas worship creation symbolised by the sun – the giver of life. The final track, ‘Ritual,’ is a love song.
Lay upon me, hold me around lasting hours
We love when we play.
It is through genuine expressions of love that we return to innocence and joy: when we realise that we are a part of creation itself.
‘Awaken’ from Going For the One (1977) is Anderson’s favourite Yes track and it is a towering, passionate 18 minute symphony that soars to a crescendo in homage to the ‘Master of Light / Soul / Time’. ‘Awaken’ follows the transcendence of mortals:
Wish the sun to stand still
Reaching out to touch our own being…
But true redemption and fulfilment is realised in personal and intimate terms.
Like the time I ran away
And turned around
And you were standing close to me.
Either the creator has come to us, or meaning is to be found through loving relationships here and now in our ordinary lives.
The lyrics are difficult and arcane but this does not render them meaningless, rather, it adds potency in that their truths are hidden, demanding a more active and creative listener. The themes of Anderson’s lyrics are not fashionably rebellious, but they do contain some real truths worthy of investigation and perhaps our modern world is in great need of spiritual enlightenment. However pretentious Jon Anderson’s lyrics are, in the end his dominant theme is that of the life-affirming power of love; not just a sexual love but one that is fulfilling to body, mind and soul.
Other bands such as Pink Floyd, Rush, Marillion, Dream Theatre and Symphony X have also produced concept albums that have used fantasy elements and woven a further literary thread into the world of rock. In the song ‘Fugazi’ (1984), Fish from Marillion asks the poignant question, ‘Where are the prophets, where are the visionaries, where are the poets?’ and the answer is that today’s visionary poets are to be found in the world of rock music – one of the few arts today that truly inspires millions of people.