Alex Turner forces you to guess. The first words of Standing Next to Me are too quick to hear clearly. You guess: “Want to have her” or “Want her, have her“? Either is possible, though the first is crass, the second wistful. Your age, gender and personality feed into your decision. If you find The Last Shadow Puppets cute, you give them the benefit of the doubt. You guess Want her, have her:
If you guessed that Miles Kane is singing, “Want her,” you probably waited until Miles followed “Want her” with “have her” to solidify your choice as certain. The repetition of her feels like a pattern of proof and you choose the words that you ‘heard’ accordingly.
But then, what about “Want to/have her”? It forms a complete sentence. That feels like proof too. Until you think for a moment and a sexually explicit layer of meaning pokes through. “Want to have her” sounds sadly desperate and rather unromantic. Its desperation jars with the bright strum of the guitar and the carefree demeanour of Alex and Miles. As Standing Next to Me gets into its stride, “Want to have her” slides out of sight, like an embarrassing memory.
“Want to/Have her” sounds more reasonable if having a woman is an expression you’d use yourself, as a pure statement of fact and intention, with no taint of trickery or possession. You’re likely to be a young, inexperienced man, in that case.
Words shift meaning, depending on the mouth and mind they inhabit.
Miles is singing “Want her/Have her.” As a listener, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll choose your own meaning for the song. You ‘hear’ the words that suit your own idea of Miles and Alex. Once the song enters your mind, it’s yours to do with as you will.
The ‘mind over ears’ problem:
Your problem comes when you let the wrong word in, for the wrong reasons. It’s one thing to choose “Want to/Have her” because it suits your macho view of women, it’s another to choose “Want to” because it’s the only construction you’ve heard in English class. I can’t imagine an English classroom that would teach “Want her” ready for exams. I’ve heard quite a few second-language English singers adding I at the beginning of the song too. After all, in an English exam, you need a subject for a sentence: “I want to have her” becomes the only ‘correct’ option and you stop listening to the actual sounds coming out of Miles’ mouth. That’s dangerous, if you ever want to sing Standing Next to Me in public.
As a listener, you can choose the words that you want to let into your own mind. You can invent words. As a cover singer, you don’t have that choice. You need to know what the songwriters intended. You can read about Alex Turner’s songwriting practice here. He takes the relationship between words and music seriously. So should you. Don’t guess his choices. Read his lyrics.
If you want to sing Standing Next to Me, the beginning is very, very important. The guitar is ear-catching, so the words must be smooth, interesting and uncomplicated. The intro is the doorway into the song. Keep it clear of vocal obstructions. Otherwise you’ll trip and stumble. While you’re floundering, the guitar intro passes by, diminished.
The sound Miles sings after “Want” is a schwa. It has to be an English schwa, a sound as simple as an exhalation. You disrupt the beginning to Standing Next to Me, if you sing anything but an effortless schwa on top of the intriguing strum of the intro.
To and her can both be sung as schwa sounds. They can rhyme. Miles could sing either. It wouldn’t really matter. The problem comes if you sing want to as if to rhymed with zoo. Sometimes it does, but here, it definitely, definitely doesn’t.
Want too/Have her is an uncomfortable, twisting mouthful of sound. It wrong-foots the breezy beginning of Standing Next to Me. To is too long, if you sing it to rhyme with zoo. It’s out of balance with the short, simple schwa of have her. And you’ve lost the rhyme pattern of repetition. The lines wither and die.
It sounds even worse if you double up the central t into a slow and clotted sound. If Miles had chosen to sing want to at the beginning of the song, he would have naturally thinned the double t sound to suit the music, the to would have been a schwa. He would have sung something like wantah. Light and easy.
And if, by chance, he’d begun the song with “Want to/Call you” and pronounced to to rhyme with you, he would have sung the two t sounds lightly and clearly, to provide a jumping off point for the oo of to. The guitar intro needs a light layer of words on top.
If English isn’t your first language:
Listen very, very carefully to the way Miles and Alex sing the word her. It serves their song and it’s special. It’s smooth, soft and easy. The beginning of Standing Next to Me needs to be clean and untroubling, to let the guitar intro shine. That first her is where most of the non-native singers of English that I’ve seen singing covers on YouTube are stumbling. Stumbling into a to that rhymes with zoo or stumbling into a thick, unnecessary sound around the t of want. It’s distracting and wastes the guitar sound.
If you’re going to sing a cover version of Standing Next to Me, you need to get your her into the right shape. Most second-language speakers of English learn her as a short, sharp, matter-of-fact word. Just another personal object pronoun. Some strangle the central vowel by strongly rolling the final r. Some pronounce her to rhyme with hair (with a version of this vowel/diphthong sound).
Sing her like that in this song and you’ll sound ‘off,’ in the pure sense of the word – as ‘away from’. Draw attention to her by sharpening its edges and you draw attention away from the sound of the song itself.
In the first verse, you have no time to sing her any way other than the Alex Turner/Miles Kane way: smoothly, swiftly and as softly as a breath. Remember, The Last Shadow Puppets are channelling Scott Walker.
Why did I ask the question?
Because I wasn’t sure what Miles was singing, the first time I heard Standing Next to Me. As a listener, those first words don’t carry much information; they carry sound. I’ve seen a lot of guitar tabs for Standing Next to Me and a lot of ‘how to play’ videos (this French one’s rather good – though Olivier stumbles over the “want to” that’s written in his notes. When he lets the music guide him, he sounds comfortable). Most of the videos have the mondegreen “Want to” as the first words, with the to pronounced as too. “Want to” clunks its way into the first line like a limping camel when it’s pronounced for English class, not for the song.
Want to can work, but only if you know what you’re doing with it. Want her’s much easier to work with.
In a total change of hairstyles, 8 years on, Miles and Alex are digging trenches on a beach. Any ideas on the first line of this song? It’s hard to guess, when nothing in the video narrows the field for you. I’m not sure that dictionary meaning matters, when sounds themselves paint such a clear picture:
For the record, the first lines are: Hot procession/Gloomy conga of glum-looking beauties.
Of course, what else?
© Sing Better English, 2016