No, not just ad libs this time. I’m talking non-lexical vocables today.
In February, I wrote of listening to Michael Jackson:
Still, when in the mood for it, I dutifully include every sniff, snort and sharp intake of breath when singing along to his tunes, as any good fan surely should, particularly when driving alone in the car where nobody else can hear. (Well, don’t you? Be honest.)
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one to admit to this.
Sometimes the artist gives you little choice but to join in with the sha-la-las and dooby-doos because he or she has included so many of them.
We all remember, I’m sure, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music, with its enduring ‘Do-Re-Mi’ which teaches the von Trapp children and countless millions of others by extension the seven notes of the major musical scale. For each note (well, with the exception of La, but be fair: can you think of an example for La that young children would recognise and then condense it into a line that rhymes with… whatever it would have rhymed with, presumably, if not for the note’s bloody awkwardness messing everything up?*) a familiar, similar-sounding English word is matched to it (Do becomes a female deer, Doe; Re becomes Ray, a drop of golden sun, etc.), and each note is sung to a special sound-cum-word at the pitch it names. (I don’t care to better understand or attempt to explain it with more clarity than I just did, either, but stick with me. Oh, and please don’t bother trying to explain it to me, I always hated music lessons even though I did have a fairly tuneful and constant la-la-la playing inside my head throughout each class. Reading about this music lark led me to glottal stops which are much more interesting anyway, so I’m not going back to sol-fa or solfège even if you paid me to do so. It would just be wasted on me. Thanks anyway.)
By now, if you didn’t already know and my guess is that many of you did, I expect you’ve gathered that non-lexical vocables are those delightful utterances – or vocables – that mean absolutely nothing, as in the refrain to the well-known Christmas carol ‘Deck the Halls’ (“with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la”). Let’s call them nonsense syllables because that sounds less pretentious. These emulate the sound of musical instruments and allow us the joys of vocal improvisation. Think of doo-wop, scat or beat boxing, where the voice is used as an instrument to produce sounds rather than words. They have become words without meaning, if you like; sometimes for poetic effect, sometimes to be funny (thinking Disney: ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ from Mary Poppins and ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from The Jungle Book), sometimes just to create the right mood.
The master of vocal improvisation is Bobby McFerrin, who has recorded without any instrumental accompaniment and, as did Roger Waters and Ron Geesin on 1970’s Music from the Body, instead favoured sounds created by slapping his body or popping his fingers. (Check out his version of the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ from his 1984 album, The Voice).
However, I’d like to honour John Paul Larkin, a jazz pianist better known for his brief success as Scatman John. His 1994 debut single ‘Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)’ was a worldwide smash hit and topped the charts across Europe and in Japan. He was in his fifties at the time and throughout his life had been plagued by insecurities arising from his stutter, eventually descending into alcoholism and self-doubt. His is an inspirational story, so if you’re in need of that warm inner glow today, do read about him.
He also wrote, and rapped, this great line:
“Why should we be pleasing all the politician heathens
Who would try to change the seasons if they could?”
Another example with a good story behind it is Paul McCartney’s tribute to Jamaican ska, ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ (which means ‘Life goes on’, apparently, in the language of the Yoruba people of West Africa; more here, if you’re interested). If you know of a story behind any of these songs or any of these nonsense syllables for that matter, please don’t keep it to yourself.
Take your pick of examples from the likes of Kate Bush, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and the doo-wop acts of the Fifties and Sixties. There are many to be gleaned from the back catalogues of that lovely lot.
Here are a few to start the ball rolling. Be sure to sing along.
– Manfred Mann, ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’
– Roy Orbison, ‘Only the Lonely’
– The Police, ‘De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da’
– Ringo Starr, ‘La De Da’
– Van Morrison, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’
The chatroom will be open tomorrow from 1pm (UK), should you have nothing better to do for a couple of hours.
*Alright, so Scousers sometimes use “la” at the end of a sentence as a substitute for “mate” or “buddy”, but surely that wouldn’t have worked on the von Trapps.