The world of popular music has a long and noble history of writing nonsense in song lyrics.
“Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard is one of my favourite songs, but I think most people would struggle to make any sense of its lyrics. I’m not even sure they made much sense to Little Richard as he wrote them.
For many years, a great place to find plenty of nonsense lyrics has been the annual Eurovision Song Contest, which is happening again this coming weekend.
In the old days it was Terry Wogan’s job to gently make fun of some of the strange acts and songs which make it to the Eurovision finals, now it’s the slightly sharper-tongued Graham Norton who takes on that role.
I’ve always thought it was odd that the British Broadcasting Corporation should turn to two Irishmen to poke fun at a pan-European singing competition…but then, that’s not the strangest thing that’s happened on our shores in the last few years…
When I was growing up it was very fashionable to sneer at the Eurovision Song Contest. But now that fixture of the annual music calendar is widely celebrated at house parties across the land as people tune in to see what’s going on this year.
Popular activities include dressing up in different national costumes, getting guests to each bring a dish which represents the national cuisine of a different participating country, and something similar but with alcoholic beverages. For extra points, and a very sore head on the following Sunday morning, you can do all of the above….
Now, if you’ve got exceptionally refined musical tastes, the Eurovision Song Contest is probably not the place to go to find music you’re going to like, but I enjoy it.
A bit like the UK charts most years, there are occasional good songs in amongst a lot of filler. But I don’t stop listening to the radio just because of the amount of filler on there, so why should I stop watching the Eurovision Song Contest?
In fact, one of my earliest articles on Medium was about another Eurovision Song Contest winner.
“L’oiseau Et L’enfant”, sung by Maria Myriam, won the Eurovision Song Contest for France in 1977, and was the basis of my second article on Medium, approximately 264 songs ago. It’s got an amazing lyrical structure, which you don’t even need to speak French to appreciate, and a great tune.
But although my French isn’t good enough to understand “L’oiseau et L’enfant”, that doesn’t fit my definition of “nonsense lyrics”. The lyrics to “L’oiseau Et L’enfant” are capable of being understood, if only I’d take a few French classes.
For a fine example of true nonsense, in the sense that the lyrics don’t mean anything even if you do speak the language they’re sung in, we need to go back a few years before Marie Myriam’s triumph.
To 1975, to be exact, when the Dutch entry… “Ding A Dong” by Teach-In (sometimes styled as “Dinge Dong” by Teach In)… won the Eurovision Song Contest.
There’s something very appealing to me about that song, even though I’ve no idea why I like it so much on a conscious level. I know I like it because I often find myself subconsciously humming the tune on a long motorway drive somewhere. So it’s definitely lodged deep in my brain somehow.
The lyrics, or at least part of them, are nonsense, however.
Not nonsense in the sense of those occasional Eurovision entrants who sing about old shoes, the joys of potato harvesting or the significance of petroleum products…at least I’m fairly sure these were real Eurovision lyric topics…but lyrics where the words do not make sense in any known language.
It’s easy to poke fun at non-English speaking lyric writers whose grasp of the English language is not much more than knowing how to use Google Translate. Native English-speaking lyricists have written plenty of nonsense lyrics too.
If you doubt that, just listen to Little Richard sing “Tutti Frutti” and see if you can tell me what he’s singing about…
The lyrics for “Ding A Dong” were by two Dutchmen…Will Luikinga and Eddy Ouwens…and music came courtesy of a third, Dick Bakker.
“Ding A Dong” was also the first song ever to win the Eurovision Song Contest despite being the first act to perform.
Eurovision folklore has it that songs performed later in the running order stand a better chance of winning. I can’t absolutely vouch for that statistical analysis, but either way what is beyond dispute is that the first act to perform in 1975, Teach-In, walked off with the trophy for “Ding A Dong”.
The song also pulls off a very neat musical trick, which is to have sad lyrics which somehow make people feel they’re listening to a positive and upbeat song.
“Ding A Dong” also came along at a time when the music world was about to change dramatically. Although written in the mid-1970s, “Ding A Dong” could easily have been written at just about any point in the preceding 20 years.
In the mid-1970s, hippiedom still hadn’t quite died, people still performed very successfully with big bands and the most shocking thing that had happened in the music industry for years was when Marc Bolan from T. Rex started wearing eyeliner on Top of the Pops.
Soon after “Ding A Dong” had its brief moment in the spotlight, punk rock would launch a musical revolution that’s still reverberating through the music industry 40 years later.
Punk rock stood for destroying the established order of things even though, ironically, the punk bands all worked through the major labels to a greater or lesser extent, as pretty much the the only way you could get your work into the record shops was via a distribution deal with one of the majors — EMI, Virgin Records, Warner Brothers and so on.
In many ways, the real punk music revolution was about another 35 years into the future. By the early 2010s, musicians could cut record labels out the equation altogether and release their own work on YouTube and Spotify with the realistic prospect of having a hit record all through their own efforts.
Record labels used to have a stranglehold on distribution. Now the internet does.
But I digress…
In 1975, Teach-In’s recording of “Ding A Dong” was doing very well within the paradigm which had ruled the music industry for several decades by this point.
If it had been a little less musically dynamic, “Ding A Dong” could easily have been something The 5th Dimension might have recorded in the late 1960s.
A good part of the upbeat feel of today’s song comes from the vocal by Getty Kaspers…who was actually Austrian, rather than Dutch, but such are the wonders of pan-European artistic cooperation…her voice has a lovely light tone to it throughout.
But when you look beyond the superficially positive and upbeat feel of today’s song, the lyrics tell a slightly different story…
When you think it’s all over
They let me down
Dry your tears and forget all your sorrow
Try to smile when you say goodbye
Another trick to “Ding A Dong” coming across as more positive than it might do otherwise is its really catchy tune, which you’ll be humming along with in no time.
But where are the nonsense lyrics you say? Well they come sprinkled throughout the song, including in the title and chorus.
“Ding A Dong” doesn’t really mean anything. At no point does the lyric reference bells, gongs or anything remotely related to them. It’s an entirely made up expression dropped into the lyrics of a song…
When you’re feeling all right, everything is up-tight
Listen to a song that goes ding-ding-a-dong
And the world looks sunny, everyone is funny
When they sing a song that goes ding-dang-dong
What’s that? No, those lyrics still don’t mean anything to me either…
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing…after all, my subconscious likes this song so much it regularly hums the melody to itself…
And “Ding A Dong” probably had the same effect on the Eurovision judging panel, given that they awarded the Eurovision winner’s trophy to Teach-In on the back of one hearing of the song.
“Ding A Dong” was a hit all over Europe in the aftermath of its Eurovision victory but sadly Teach-In were not destined to replicate the worldwide success of their immediate predecessors as Eurovision winners, Abba.
That doesn’t stop today’s song being a delightful way to spend a few minutes, though. I hope you find the tune popping into your head too when you’ve got a spare moment in the next few days…whilst doing the housework, driving along a motorway somewhere or waiting to pick the kids up.
Despite a Eurovision pedigree that some would sneer at, and some slightly odd lyrics that don’t always make sense, when all’s said and done “Ding A Dong” is a great song which has cheered me up every time I’ve heard it in the last 40 years or so…
Why not try this for size yourself…it’s Teach-In with “Ding A Dong”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for your time and attention. I know you could have spent your time doing something else, so I’m very grateful that you’ve spent it in the company of one of my favourite songs.
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/3ML1JVicjXbdsyYrPdfr5E