Peter Gabriel challenges lyric lovers with music's great white whale
This is the fourth in a series of stories celebrating the unforgettable songs (even if you thought you've forgotten them you haven't, trust us) from arguably the craziest music era of all time: The '80s. Whether this was the music of your youth or long before your time, a little bit of the '80s surely lives in you.
I’m a lyric guy. What can I say? Some people will tell you that they’re meaningless to whether or not a song is ultimately successful. I would respectfully disagree. (And by respectfully, I mean that I’ll refrain from calling you a blazing ignoramus.)
I’m not saying that the words to a song have to be poetry; very few even come close. They are an art form all their own. And what’s neat about is that you don’t have to be hyperliterate to be a great lyric-writer. Bob Dylan and ElvisCostello are great lyric-writers and have an astounding command of the language. But I could list you dozens of other great rock lyricists whose approach their songs in different ways and get the job done and then some.
With my love for lyrics established at an early age by being immersed in the Lennon/McCartney songbook, I quickly made it my mission to learn as many lyrics as humanly possible. I don’t know if I’m the best around, but I feel like I can hold my own in my lyrical knowledge, both in terms of accuracy and breadth of music.
Credit Song Hits magazine for helping me develop this pretty worthless skill. Without an Internet to fall back on every time a lyric was in question, I relied on Song Hits, essentially a grab-bag of lyrics from the hits of the day, to be my resource. I would scoop up the new issues each month from the local supermarket and immerse myself in the new batch of songs included.
Song Hits was the reason that I knew all the words to ridiculous hits like “Der Komissar,” allowing me to bewilder my Mom by busting out those goofy lyrics every time it came on in the car. Song Hits also delved into soul and country songs, giving me the ability to segue seamlessly from Juice Newton to Kool and The Gang in the bathtub.
But, alas, Song Hits failed me when it came to the great white whale of my lyric search, Peter Gabriel’s enigmatic, allegorical tale of kids playing war games, “Games Without Frontiers.” Yes, I knew all the exotic kids’ names and the parts about baboons in the jungle. I could even sorta half-whistle along with that memorable hook.
But just what in tarnaton was the line that female voice, which I later found out belonged to Kate Bush, singing throughout the song? “She’s so funky, yeah?” No? How about “She’s so popular?” Maybe? It sounded like that a little, even if it doesn’t work in the context.
I hadn’t discovered Song Hits at the time of the song’s release in 1980, so there was no help for my 8-year-old self. Again, no Internet with the lyrics of every song imaginable available at the click of a key. I had to do this the old-fashioned way. I set up a recordable tape in the 8-track, waited for the song to come on the radio, and magnetized that sucker.
Over and over, I listened to that damn song 'til I began hallucinating that baboons that sounded like Peter Gabriel were invading my bedroom. But still the whale eluded me. “She’s sells fondue yeah?” “She’s on front delay?” “I buried Paul?” For the love of sanity, WHAT WAS IT??? (Dramatic pause.)
The Lyrical Grail
Eventually, I gave up my quest. Too many other songs to learn, too little time. I would hear “Games Without Frontiers” time and again, but my furious puzzlement died down to a warm nostalgia for a time when the biggest crisis in the world was a missing song lyric.
It was in college, the bastion of bullshit know-it-alls everywhere, when the search ended unexpectedly. I was in a car with a buddy of mine, and the song came on. My pride long since shattered by my quest, I gave up and asked my pal, who was a music nut just like me. “What is she saying there?”
“It’s ‘Games Without Frontiers’ in French,” he nonchalantly replied.
To quote Charlie Brown, “AAAAARGH!!!” French? That’s not fair. The sad thing is that I took two years of French in high school, and got A’s without ever really learning to say my name in the language. I guess that’s karma for you. (Or, as they say in France, Le Karma. I think.)
“Jeux Sans Frontieres” is the lyric to be exact, apparently coming from some European game show that had inspired Gabriel. I never would have guessed it in a million years.
But, I must admit, now that I know the lyric, I sing it like it’s been rolling off my tongue for years. In fact, one time somebody asked me about it, and I acted all big shot and nonchalant myself, explaining what it was and the origin of it as if I knew it all along.
Hey, when you finally capture the great white whale, nobody really needs to know how you did it.