The links between writing and music are getting easier to trace. It’s an interesting one: song lyrics are, after all, a form of poetry. As readers, along with the generally increasing urge to ‘know’ the person behind the pen, we like to know what music inspires the author. This has led to writers linking to their favourite listens on their websites – see the crime writer
Michael Connolly, for example, or the way Ian Rankin lists the music he listened to as he was writing a Rebus novel. It’s even led to the printing of characters’ playlists, such as in the bestseller of recent years, David Mitchell’s “One Day”.
But there is something that writers need to keep in check, and that’s the urge to quote existing song lyrics in their work. The temptation is sometimes overwhelming, as author Blake Morrison discovered when he quoted the odd line from tracks such as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Wonderwall”. For a handful of lines, the bill for permissions came to around £4,400 (you can read all about it here). Jackie Kay also revealed on Radio Four’s Open Book that she’d paid out hundreds of pounds to use lines from songs in her short story collection, “Reality, Reality” – but she was determined that she needed to keep the lines in the work and to lose them would adversely affect the piece of writing overall.
My experience is nothing on this scale, but I went through something similar lately as I was writing the short story “Grocer Jack and the Pirate”, placed second in this year’s Grace Dieu writing competition. As its inspiration this story has, not the coolest-of-the-cool stuff that’s usually the soundtrack to a crime novel, but a song that used to frighten me as a little child. It’s an entirely fictional story, apart from the song itself: the strange and mournful “Excerpt from a Teenage Opera (Grocer Jack)” which spent fifteen weeks in the charts in the summer of 1967. I really wanted to quote a couple of lines. And tempting as it was, I knew that I couldn’t just bung them in and hope no one would really notice.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I sent an e-mail to Mark Wirtz, who lives in the States and wrote and produced the track for Keith West. He sent me a lovely e-mail by return, thanking me for my interest in his work and generously saying he was happy for me to go ahead and use it. He added, however, that I also needed the permission of EMI Music Publishing and helpfully provided the phone number. I was concerned that they would not be quite so philanthropic.
It turned out, though, that even a huge organisation like EMI was nothing like as ruthless as I’d expected. I had a pleasant conversation and e-mail exchange with the lovely Leah and as a result, I’ve been granted a five-year permission to use the desired lines for a very small fee indeed – nothing like the kind of bills that I’ve heard other authors having to pay. And given that there’s a question of copyright and no writer would want others to be able to pinch their hard-wrought words wholesale and for nothing, that seems entirely reasonable to me. The whole business also presented me with a good excuse to tiddle about on the internet and avoid the actual writing, which we all need from time to time.
I was delighted to read the competition judge, Kat Lund’s comments on the story. It meant the effort of using the song lyrics definitely, for me, paid off. And if you’re young enough never to have heard the track in question, here’s a link to it, in all its weirdness. But be warned: when I was six, it gave me nightmares for weeks.
Have you had any experience in using song lyrics in your work?