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).
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