The Richard O'Brien Crusade



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The Tao of O'Brien

The lyrical 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 Shakespeare'

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 deal.

The beauty of the internal rhyme

General song 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.

A-You think you've lost your love
B-Well I saw her yesterday
A-It's you she's thinking of
B-And she told me what to say

As 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':

A-I'm 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

We 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:

A-Well 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

Each 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.

Let's 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:

A-My 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

As 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':

A-The 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.

Though 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-Dear Blender
A-Won't you help a first offender
B-Oh toaster
C-Don't you put the burn on me
D-Why are we always sooner or later?
E-Bitchin' in the Kitchen
F-Or Cryin' in the bedroom all night.

This 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:

A-Everything used to be okay
B-But I've been had and Brad
A-I'm glad to say is on his way

Again, 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.

We can find a similar tactic employed in 'Sword Of Damocles' from RHPS:

A-The 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 downer

The 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 all verses:

Verse 2: B-My high is low, I'm dressed up with no place to go. And all I know

Verse 3: B-Oh, woe is me, my life is a misery, and can't you see

The 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 Me':

A-So 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.

Part Two: Mythology

Another repeating 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.

Naturally, I have examples.

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 dreams.

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 the poppy.

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'

The darkness must go
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 of Love'

If madam is feeling cautious,
Drift into the arms of Morpheus

Icarus- Icarus 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.

Daedelus constructed 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.

Before flying 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- 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.

Apollo- The 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

Part Three: Imagery and wordplay

In discussing 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 his songs.

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.

Consider, as our first example, Merry Christmas Baby:

May Christmas 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.

Trickery with the use of words is another tactic employed... take as an example a lyric from Running With the Noisy Boys:

Some stay 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.

The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996