Ron Mael’s Magical Mystery Tour: Daily, except for Sunday

Ron Mael of Sparks, our fourth Movember Man, wrote This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us in 1974. His brother Russell agreed to sing it. Very quickly, very precisely and with an intriguing falsetto.

Given that Russell enunciates as clearly as this or this, why is it so hard to catch his words? You’ll hear the title/chorus easily enough, and Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat is no problem. But which zoo animals does Russell name? Which Japanese city? How many cannibals need their protein? And why doesn’t it destroy your enjoyment of the song if you spend its 3 minutes lost in confusion?:

Because the confusion is all part of the delicious surreality of Ron Mael’s song. Part of the performance. You’re given just enough English to frame the song – the title, the chorus and a few teasing non sequiturs.

It’s impossible to predict or guess the words in Ron Mael’s song. They are too unexpected and they fly by too fast. The subject matter jumps from rhinos to bullets and then to a census. Your brain can’t keep up with it.

The repeated pulse of the staccato words is what’s important to the song. Their exact meaning can wait.

When you hear any song for the first time, your brain searches for clues to make sense of the stream of sound pouring into your ears. Remember this?

In This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, it’s clear from the very first moment that the lyrics won’t provide your brain with a standard storyline.  Zoo time is she and you time? Really?

Your brain quickly abandons the lyrics and starts searching for clues elsewhere. Any clues. And fast – the song lasts less than 3 minutes. If your brain can’t organise the sound information in some way, any way, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us becomes a lost stream of random noise, not a song.

Your brain identifies the language of the song as English and the singer as a native speaker- through Russell’s English intonation. Remember how the brain looks for and identifies ‘foreign’ details in song rightly here and wrongly here.

Your brain understands Ron’s Charlie Chaplin moustache and demeanour as a hint that the song is as much about performance as storytelling. The visual is as important as the aural.

The British Top of the Pops tv audience quickly identified Russell as American. How? American Westerns were on television most Saturdays in the UK and Russell sings the phrase This town ain’t big enough for both of us easily and naturally, without the exaggerated ‘cowboy voice’ a British speaker would have used (something like this one).

The Mael brothers arrived in the UK long before Laker Airways made America easily accessible. For the average British viewer, a flamboyant American was wonderfully exotic.

Once you’ve established that Sparks are avant-garde and theatrical, you can relax and enjoy the spectacle, picking up the easy words as they present themselves: mammal, heartbeat, flying, Sunday, shower. A random assortment, but it doesn’t matter. They’re just the icing on the cake. There’s too much visual entertainment on the screen for your brain to have the interest or energy to decode every single last word.

Russell Mael makes it clear that This town ain’t big enough for both of us is the Important Line. Watch his physical focus and clarity as he sings the line. You trust him because he’s such a compelling performer.

It’s not Russell’s fault that you can’t understand the lyrics. He is enunciating them perfectly clearly. Watch the official video here while you read the lyrics here, and you’ll find that each word is pronounced with an operatic crispness. Once you’ve read the lyrics, you’ll wonder why you couldn’t hear them easily before.

You couldn’t hear them easily before because so much of what we can ‘hear’ in any song is guesswork, based on context and expectation. Remember this and this? We have zero context in This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.  Ron Mael doesn’t set the scene for us at the beginning, give us any clues about the subject matter or the story, or lead us gently into the world he’s created (like this). He’s written a song that is impossible to predict. But we don’t care. We’re enjoying the ride too much. It’s a Magical Mystery Tour.

In this song, words function as instrumental sounds rather than bundles of meaning. As a singer, what can you learn from Sparks ? That each word deserves clear pronunciation, even when your song tells you that sound and mood are more important than semantics. Russell is almost scatting – and like Cab Calloway here he knows that clarity is crucial when meaning is not a clue. Russell sings like piano keys being struck.

If you’re interested in the creative background to the song, the brothers Mael explain their songwriting process, 20 years later, here.

Franz Ferdinand’s recent collaborations with Sparks feature here.

What can you learn from Ron and Russell if English isn’t your native language? That, even when you’re scatting or singing as Russell does, for the sound, not the meaning, you have to keep your intonation English. When the audience is sure that you’re singing in English, they will relax and enjoy the musical experience. They know they can catch up with the exact words later, if they choose.

If your intonation is wrong, your song won’t sound or ‘feel’ like English and the audience will waste energy trying to work out which language you’re singing in. You’ll lose their attention. That’s never good.

You can sing with a ‘foreign’ accent and your audience won’t mind. In fact, often, they’ll love it. Think of Gogol Bordello. Eugene Hutz is proud of his Russian heritage and sings with a strong Ukrainian accent, but his English has a perfectly English intonation. It’s exotic English, but it has a recognisably English rhythm. Listen to this.

If you’d like to see Sparks’ black and white silent film animation for the song it’s here. More background on Ron Mael’s inspiration and songwriting process here. If you’d like to hear Russell sounding a bit French, code-switching with Les Rita Mitsouko, try this.

So, how many cannibals?

© Sing Better English, 2014


7 thoughts on “Ron Mael’s Magical Mystery Tour: Daily, except for Sunday”

  1. Thanks for reminding me of this song! I remember not knowing that the guy was saying, but who cared?
    Anyway, reading your posts is providing me with some ideas for our pronunciation workshops. Thanks for that! I might even use your blog in class, if you don’t mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I remember it too. And I remember not minding the fact that I couldn’t understand most of it. But I think we knew that he was making sense in English, even if he was singing the words too fast for us to understand. It felt intriguing, not unsettling – which is how it often feels to hear somebody trying to sing in English, but getting it wrong – on Operación Triunfo or La Voz.

      So please do use my blog if it’s helpful to your students. Let them know where the information comes from so that they can refer to other posts themselves or direct friends who sing in English to the blog. You’ll be helping my original intention with the Sing Better English if you do 🙂 The mismatch between the letters on the page and the sounds of the words in English is a constant frustration for Spanish speakers, isn’t it?

      You’ll probably find earlier posts like this one and this one take you on a trip down memory lane too. This one is an antidote to those horrible lists of phrasal verbs that they use in Spain:

      By the way – I’ve put links to definitions for phrasal verbs or unusual words in each post. So your students don’t need to be put off by the level of English.


      1. Thanks for the recommendations and links!
        You might know Spanish speakers of English are quite reluctant when it comes to practicing pronunciation, so I ‘m thinking in the line of organising a kind of karaoke for younger students, 12/13 year-old.
        When I have some spare time, I’ll check out your posts and see what can be used in class or in the summer during summer school.
        In any case,I will recomend your blog to everyone interested!


      2. It’s sad that, isn’t it? Most of the Spanish students that I’ve taught had English wrongly modelled and reinforced for them at school by Spanish teachers, many of whom were struggling with the language themselves. The students rarely heard native speakers using English, so they got trapped in their shared classroom ‘dialect’.

        A good friend of mine, from Ireland, was married to a Spanish man and had bilingual children. She spoke English to them at home and he spoke Spanish. They lived in our village, Ojén. It would often happen that the children would come home from English class having been told that the way they pronounced English was wrong. It wasn’t. It was just different from the teacher’s odd pronunciation.

        The students get programmed, like computers, with the wrong code. They find it a terrible shock when they come over to the UK, as so many do in ‘la crisis’ and they find that English spoken in its native habitat bears no relation to the English they’ve been taught back at home.

        And you can hear the result on La Voz, where the singers who sing in English are doing everything their teachers told them was correct, but their version of English doesn’t fit the music or fit the emotional charge the language needs to carry. I always feel sorry for them, especially as more young Spanish people have lived and worked in the UK so they can hear when English isn’t right. And they comment about the contestants on La Voz very acerbically on social media.


  2. wow! never heard this song before, but you were ABSOLUTELY correct about how one’s brain frantically searched for connections, rhyme, patterns, meaning somehow. (haha, i didn’t listen to the end of it…. didn’t feel like challenging my brain that much!)


    1. You’ll start hearing it in clubs now that you’ve noticed it. That’s what seems to happen. I think Sparks are being reconsidered as important musicians nowadays. They’re certainly unashamedly uncompromising with their work.

      It’s funny, I can remember this song on Top of the Pops, way back in 1974. I would never have guessed, back then, that Russell was pronouncing each and every word as clearly as cut glass. I could tell the words meant ‘something’ and the Mael brothers looked cool enough for me to understand it all meant something interesting. But there were no logical pegs to hang the words on. And they flew by so fast. They were impossible to separate or to understand. Cool song though.


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