A look at the things singers sing that aren't words. Friday Review, The Guardian, July 29 2005
Between words and music lie the sounds we make when we’re singing but not using language. English doesn’t have a word for them, perhaps fittingly; an editor friend suggests rockolalia. Whatever they’re called, this has been a good year for them. Beck’s recent single E-Pro had a chorus that went “na-na na-na-na-na NA” (x4). It was banal, meaningless and intensely repetitive, but in context, with a dirty riff loitering behind like a teenager on a family outing, it made perfect sense.
Next month comes another classic of wordlessness in Goldfrapp’s new single, Ooh La La. This is not the Faces anthem of the same name, but a new song, wittily constructed out of bits of old disco, electronica, T Rex and Norman Greenbaum singles. Like E-Pro, it’s dead sexy.
Beck Hansen and Alison Goldfrapp, two thoughtful magpies, know what they are doing here. They are joining a tradition that winds back through rock history, via Eminem and Kylie, Pink Floyd and the Ramones, to the Beatles and Elvis, and further still, to jazz and blues.
Around the time rock was born, a whole genre arose out of wordless singing, called, with suitable onomatopeia, doowop. Much earlier, jazz singers had a word, scat, for the noises they made before they picked up a lyric sheet. Jelly Roll Morton used the term in 1906, so scat may be about to reach its centenary. But the business of singing without words surely springs from a deeper well. It’s as old as the hills, which are, of course, alive with the sound of music.
In the beginning was the hum, and the hum was la. It’s a gregarious creature, and highly elastic. It can be a mother softly singing her baby to sleep, or Iggy Pop, announcing “I am the passenger … la-la la-la la-lala-LA!” with a sinister charisma that has survived the indignity of being used to sell executive cars.
It can be innocent, as in “Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la-la la-la, la-la la-la”, or quite the opposite, as in the recent single La La by Ashlee Simpson, a junior American non-celebrity whose main claim to fame is that her sister (Jessica Simpson) turned her marriage into a TV show. “You make me wanna la-la,” screeches Ashlee, adding that she will “make la-la in the kitchen on the floor”. It’s the kind of thing that could give a non-word a bad name.
The best las are to innocence what bittersweet is to sugar. When Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis (once of Mud) wrote Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, they gave Kylie the best song of her career, and the best bit comes when she sings “la-la-la, la-la la-la-la”. Her controlled coquettishness forces the listener to read between the las.
On Kylie’s 2002 tour, the las even reached the merchandising stall, in a T-shirt design paying homage to the Velvet Underground LP sleeve featuring the iconic banana. Why, wasn’t clear, but the banana was replaced by a large yellow microphone, and coming out of it, in tiny letters, was a stream of la-la-las. It’s the kind of T-shirt you get very attached to.
For some songwriters, a la is too obvious. When Paul Simon was writing The Boxer, he added an i to make lai luh lai, a chorus that raises the roof every time he and Art Garfunkel bury their differences and go on tour. When the Beatles recorded Hey Jude, they ended with a great loop of na na-na na-na-na nas, forming a famously long fade-out. Both songs were reported, inaccurately, to be attacks on Bob Dylan. Lately, their fates have intersected again: both wowed a huge crowd, or allowed the crowd to wow themselves, in Hyde Park – The Boxer at Simon & Garfunkel’s show last summer, Hey Jude as the midnight finale to Live 8.
Las and nas are mostly harmonic. The more percussive noises tend to begin with d: dum, de and doo-be. Roy Orbison, like Sinatra, loved them. He began Only The Lonely with “dum dum dum dum-be doo-wah,” and we knew just what he meant. This tradition has found an improbable upholder in Eminem, who shares only his ability to fit a lyric to a backing track like a tailor. “I suppose it’s old, partner, but the beat goes on,” Eminem sang on Lose Yourself. “Da da dum da dum da da.” It made a change from four-syllable words beginning with mother.
Wordless singing skips over the frontiers between eras. At the dawn of rock’n’roll, there was Little Richard’s Awop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom (from Tutti-Frutti), which remains the single greatest piece of nonsense in rock – a clarion call so resonant that it ended up in dictionaries of quotations.
The Sixties were the first golden age of gibberish. Phil Spector wrote Da Doo Ron Ron for the Crystals (lead singer: Dolores La La Brooks), Manfred Mann did Do Wah Diddy, Diana Ross and the Supremes oohed and aahed to add sauce to their love songs, Tom Jones sprayed whoas all over It’s Not Unusual, and Helen Shapiro put a tremendous “whoomPAH, oh yeah!” into Walking Back To Happiness.
The Stones used oohs (Midnight Rambler) and heh-heh-heys (Satisfaction), while the Beatles, typically, tried everything, but perhaps never bettered the aahs in Twist And Shout, which sketch a journey from the dentist’s to the bedroom in four easy moves. David Bowie liked them so much, he used them as the intro to Let’s Dance (1983).
In 1968, the Beatles recorded Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, a song you either love or hate. Paul McCartney wrote it and the rest of the band vetoed it as a single, leaving the field clear for Marmalade to take a cover version to number one. Life goes on, bra!
Meanwhile, the Eurovision Song Contest was starting to reduce inspired nonsense to a mindless Esperanto. Cliff Richard’s Congratulations finished second to a song called La La La by Massiel, which posterity soon forgot. In the next few years, the winners included Boom Bang A Bang, Ding-A-Dong, A-Ba-Ni-Bi, and Diggi-Loo-Diggi-Ley. When the Brotherhood of Man won with Save Your Kisses For Me in 1976, it was probably on the strength of their intellectual ambition.
The early Seventies were the second golden age. “Ooh, ooh lala lala!” went Steve Harley on Make Me Smile, injecting some camp into the standard rocking nonchalance. “Unghh! Unghh!” went Mungo Jerry in In The Summertime, a song that would be banned now because it appears to advocate drunken driving.
The Bay City Rollers sang Shang A Lang, Alvin Stardust did “ooh, ooh, my coo-ca-choo”. Bryan Ferry recorded Let’s Stick Together with a fabulously lupine backing vocalist, mimed by Jerry Hall in the video, going “ow, ow, ow, OWW!” The Carpenters waxed nostalgic about “every sha-la-la-la, every whoah-whoa-oh”. Showaddywaddy and the Doobie Brothers even named themselves after scat vocals.
Pink Floyd, who largely disdained singles, weren’t above using oohs, aahs and la-la-las: The Great Gig In the Sky consists of little else. And when the revolution came, in the shape of punk, the silly noises escaped the guillotine. “Gabba gabba hey,” yelled the Ramones, and it became their calling card. Talking Heads sang “Fa fa fa fa fa” in Psycho Killer, and now it’s the title of a book about them. Later, they made an album called Stop Making Sense, confirming that even cerebral songwriters see the point of meaninglessness.
In 1980, The Police released a single that was a twist on this strand of pop. “De do do do, de da da da,” Sting sang, “is all I want to say to you.” But we didn’t believe him. The man had mentioned Nabokov in his previous hit; nonsense didn’t suit him. The song reached number five, a flop by The Police’s standards.
And so it goes on, from Modern Romance’s Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey to Outkast’s Hey Ya. These noises can be a signature (Elvis’s uh huh), a warm spot (the ch-ch-ch in Bowie’s Changes), a runway to the chorus (the oh-oh-ohs in Simple Minds’ Mandela Day), a celebration (the whoo-whoos in Blur’s Song 2) or a decoration (the boo-boo be-choo that closes Marilyn Monroe’s I Want to Be Loved By You). Engaging, childlike, sometimes silly but capable of bridging gaps and warming hearts, they are pop at its most characteristic.