‘Stranger’ is one of the most powerful words in English. We humans learned to survive by treating the unknown with caution. A tiny part of our ancient brain twitches still whenever we hear the word stranger. Our defences go up. We pay close, wary attention.
When stranger is paired with beautiful, we’re in the shape-shifting land of myth and fairy-tale; the pull and push of dangerous attraction. We’d like to beware, but the problem is how?
The Clive James/Pete Atkin song Beware of the Beautiful Stranger uses every shred of mythical meaning attached to the word stranger, then adds a touch of quantum physics. It’s a masterclass of story-songwriting, moving from a open, busy, bustling midsummer fairground, into the cave-dark of a gipsy caravan, then closer still, concentrating down, down into the gipsy’s crystal ball on the table, and out into eternity.
Reality is outside, in the crowded noise of the midsummer fairground, but truth is inside the gipsy’s crystal ball. Time bends.
Clive James has a poet’s way with words. He weighs them syllable by syllable. On the level of sound alone, he knows that the stretchy central ‘ay’ (/eɪ/) diphthong of stranger gains an extra depth of elasticity when he places it after the 3-syllable run-up of beautiful. It’s like hearing a running dive into deep water – the easy trit-trit-trot of beau–ti–ful followed by the swooping /eɪ/ of stranger.
If you’re writing a song in English: take a close look at Beware of the Beautiful Stranger. The mechanics of words are important in the mouth of a singer. Easy transitions make for easy listening. It’s the final syllable of beautiful that sets us up for the swoop into stranger. You end ful with your tongue clicked into position behind your teeth. Perfectly placed to leap straight into position for the str. Try saying, or singing a different 3-syllabled words first: dangerous stranger, for example. Can you feel the natural millisecond gap as you stop slightly, to separate the s of dangerous and the s of stranger? You lose the flow, as the words wrap themselves around your tongue like seaweed.
Beautiful shapes your mouth and positions your tongue ready to roll straight into stranger. Some of the work of a songwriter is logistical: arranging the building blocks of words where you need them to flow, to be easy to sing. Or arranging them so that the singer is forced to stop for a millisecond to rearrange their tongue. A pause or an uncomfortable movement from one sound to another all helps to build the emotional feeling of a song.
That swooping lunge of sound in stranger strikes us all the more forcefully because its central /eɪ/ diphthong is different. Clive has set up a whole series of neat, tidy, matter-of-fact /eɪ/ diphthongs to pitter patter around beautiful stranger. In the rhyming words: change her, arrange a, Lone Ranger, manger the central diphthong ‘ay’ (/eɪ/) is left small and unfolded. An everyday sound. Stranger is different. We register the similarity and we register the difference. We smile. Only the gipsy’s warning of danger comes close to the diphthong stretch of the beautiful stranger.
Diphthongs breathe in and out effortlessly, in the service of meaning. They are a gift for songwriters and singers. There’s nothing laboured or obvious about the way Pete Atkin expands and contracts the /eɪ/ diphthong. Clive James has set up the language of the song to help him. The elastic ‘ay’ sound in the middle of stranger envelops us. It’s subtle, but, like all subtle sounds in song, it affects us. We notice, though we’re not aware that we’re noticing. It’s a form of hypnotism.
Diphthong words are Cinderellas – hidden in household chores or dressing up for the spotlight. In Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, the /eɪ/ at the centre of change serves the song by shrinking back into standard, matter-of-fact, dictionary size. Change can expand into rich meaning too, when David Bowie wants it here:
If you’ve come to singing English as a learner: always, always check your diphthongs before you sing. Diphthongs need room to breathe, both in and out. If you compress the /eɪ/ diphthong in David Bowie’s Changes into a short, neat, dictionary version, you squash the life out of his song. If you lengthen the /eɪ/ in change her beyond the short and matter-of-fact, you wreck the play on words in Beware of the Beautiful Stranger.
Beware of the Beautiful Stranger begins with a pack of cards and stretches out into infinity. Leonard Cohen’s Stranger Song stays with the card game of life. Leonard sets us up to expect the word stranger by first offering us manger as ‘the word to rhyme with.’ We love that kind of ‘guess the word’ puzzle. He deepens his plunge into the /eɪ/ of stranger by offering a trotting 3-syllable run-up of I was a:
Leonard doesn’t repeat the central sound of stranger. The word itself holds the mystery of the song. Playing with the ange sound, as Clive James does, might dilute that mystery. So he repeats a mere skeleton of the word at the end of each verse, to keep you waiting and to keep stranger in your mind. Each verse ends in a different two-syllabled word, broken by a consonant, ending in a schwa er: shoulder, after, later, shelter. Each word is a shadow of stranger.
Leonard Cohen held Camus‘ work, including L’Étranger, dear. Leonard knows that the word stranger is enough to unsettle us. He lets it work its magic by leaving it in the shadows. He only brings the word stranger out into the light 5 times, but the dark mystery of the word is everpresent, like a monster under a child’s bed.
Clive James goes further – into comedy and into time itself. It’s the enjoyable story-telling of his song that relaxes us into accepting the Droste effect of the beautiful stranger inside the crystal ball:
“Hello there” she said with her hand to her brow
I’m the one you’ll meet after the one you know now
There’s no room inside here to show you us all
But behind me the queue stretches right down the hall
For the damned there is always a stranger
There is always a beautiful stranger”
If you’re singing an English song: do a bit of archaeology before you start. If there’s a diphthong in the title or the chorus, decide how to sing it, short or long, shallow or deep. Any rhyming diphthongs? How will you sing those? In contrast or in harmony?
If you’re writing a song in English: always check the word before the important word. Check its bounce. Beguiling, attractive, bewitching – they’re all available in the dictionary, instead of beautiful. But none of them provide a proper springboard for stranger in this song.
If you’re listening to an English song: the most powerful word-magic is invisible to the conscious mind. Enjoyable but invisible, like the best film music. Sit back and enjoy.
And if you’re interested in Clive James’ songwriting process, Pete Atkin interviews him here:
© Sing Better English, 2016