15. Unexpected swear words
Bjork conjures up the idea of ethereal vocals. You would not think of her as a punk star, and yet that is what she was in her native Iceland when she set up a band with her friend Magnusson in 1982, at the age of 17. Its title was Tappi Tikerrass. So far so good: sounds like a neat label. But when translated to English it reads as:
Definitely not in front of the children. This is her being more angelic and otherworldly:
However Bjork was raised in a commune and was probably pretty liberated from an early age. Still that band title has the effect of a sudden swearword in the frozen stillness of Iceland. It appeared on a number of her early records.
Her breakthrough came after her schoolteacher recorded her version of ‘I love to Love’ by Tina Charles and sent it to the one record label in Iceland. Rather more conventional.
The use of expletives is so general in music that it is not normally a matter for comment. No respectable rap singer would wish a song to appear without the ‘Explicit’ euphemism: which means swearing. Even highly intelligent rappers, Eminem to be precise, despite his wonderful songwriting, laces them with highly explicit biological details. I need only mention gerbils.
In that respect it is more by their absence that swear words make their mark in music. One case that I am fond of concerns Greg Brown. He is a highly skilled guitarist and excellent singer/songwriter. Most of his work is free of anything ‘explicit‘. It is modern folk music and very effective.
One of his songs is different: ‘Mose Allison played here’. Its about him visiting a run-down club to play there. There is a full version below. I will highlight one part, which follows his account of a band called the Bellyachers who had played the previous night and ‘everyone was sick’:
‘the band signed their poster
‘fuck you Miguel’ [presumably the club owner]
and thats all the good part/the bad part’s the smell
and what was your name again, oh- yeah- right – brown
your crowd just drinks water/surprised you’re still around’
The swear word comes as quite a surprise in the laconic lyric. Brown goes on to say that despite all this he is proud to play here, because Mose Allison, last November, played there.
The video I got from YouTube appears to have been taken by someone on a ship but Greg’s performance is splendidly relaxed. So relaxed indeed that he missed out a complete verse of his printed lyric. But so did he on the other video I saw of him performing it, but a different verse that time. He takes the broad view!
As you can see, he is amusingly self-deprecating. The club owner is suggests that with an audience who mainly drinks water it is very surprising that he’s managed to keep going. No help from the bar receipts there. But as you can see, he is very very good.
Before leaving the topic of swear words I should just like to add what I regard as the summit of elegant swearing, using only the F word: ‘The fuckin fucker’s fuckin fucked it’. This (due to my late friend Roy Kaulback) involves the use of the word as a noun, a verb, an adjective and an adverb. If I were good enough at grammarian there is probably something else as well.
I hope this makes you see that there is a true artistic place for blasphemy in music, but only provided that it is raare and unexpected. There’s no great dramatic point to swearing if you are Eminem: its totally expected and therefore undramatic. Like builders who use the ‘f’word as a means of speech!