We’re normally all about the lyrics around here. The more the merrier.
But the other day I found myself wondering — how few words can a song have and still be regarded as a song rather than an instrumental, which obviously has no words at all?
The mathematical answer might be one, I suppose, as a single word would mean there was something other than music on the track. Although I can’t think of a hit record in which the lyrics are just a single word off-hand, even one sung over and over again.
Then I had a bit of a rush of blood to my head and thought I’d remembered a song with just two words…and for extra bonus points, it was a song in a foreign language as well…
“Je T’aime” was a very “hot under the collar” 1969 UK Number One for Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. (Here if you need a reminder…be careful where you listen to this song, though, in case you get carried away… https://youtu.be/k3Fa4lOQfbA )
Then I realised my memory was a little faulty, which I attribute to the BBC banning “Je T’aime” for many years, meaning I never heard the song in full growing up. Turns out “Je T’aime” actually has many more words in it than the two words in the title.
Even the song’s proper title has more than two words in it. Although usually referred to as “Je T’aime” on the radio, the song’s correct title is “Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus” (rough translation — “I love you…hmm, me neither”…those French songwriters are both arty and mysterious…)
My memory was probably faulty because the only part of the song I heard growing up was the chorus…if you can call it that…which consists of Jane Birkin singing “Je T’aime” over and over, interspersed with a considerable amount of heavy breathing.
In retrospect, maybe the BBC banning the song wasn’t such a bad thing…
Speaking from personal experience, believe me, if there’s any sound you want to keep well away from teenage boys, it’s the sound of Jane Birkin singing “Je T’aime” over and over with the sultry-meter turned up to 11, interspersed with a considerable amount of heavy breathing…it took me weeks to recover from hearing the record in full for the first time…
Then I had another thought — what about Van McCoy’s 1975 hit “The Hustle”?
That’s a two word title and I remembered the refrain was “do the hustle”, so that might work.
But my memories of 1975 turned out to be a little off the mark. Although “do the hustle” is indeed the refrain which repeats throughout the song, it actually starts with the exhortation “do it!”. Which brings us up to four words — do, the, hustle and it.
To muddy the waters further, “The Hustle” won the Best Instrumental Grammy in 1976 which probably means it’s really an instrumental rather than a song, at least in the opinion of Recording Academy who run the Grammy Awards.
So I decided I couldn’t count that one. Which brought me up to three words.
Now, there are lots of pop songs with three word titles. But, at least as far as my research for this article has taken me, none of them appear to use only three words in total during the course of the record itself.
For example, the Beatles had a big hit with “She Loves You”…a three word title…but there are a lot more words in the lyrics than those three (and I don’t just mean all the “yeah, yeah, yeahs”).
I can’t definitively say a song which uses just three words in total during the entire course of its lyrics hasn’t been written, but after several hours of research I’m pretty sure that no song with just three words in its lyrics has been a major hit record.
On reflection, that’s probably not too surprising.
In a song you have so few words to convey the thoughts, the emotions and the story anyway. You’ve already got pretty restricted musical real estate to work with and usually you have to get really creative to tell a complete story in under three minutes using only a couple of verses and a chorus.
Most lyric writers need every inch of that scarce real estate to tell their story. Even then, carving out a complete story in under three minutes while writing something that scans and works with the accompanying music requires a considerable amount of dexterity and creativity.
However, if I’ve got three words to work with…and I’m allowed a little cheat, which I’ll explain in a moment…then I think I’ve found a song which uses only three words during the entire course of the record.
Those three words are also the title of the record and represent the totality of the lead vocal throughout the song, yet somehow also capture the spirit, the energy and the story of a particular time and place.
That song is “One Step Beyond”… a 1979 UK Top 10 hit for British band Madness.
Full disclosure…I did say there was a little cheat involved in counting “One Step Beyond” as an entire song performed using only three words.
The little cheat is that there’s a spoken introduction to the song before the music starts, but once “One Step Beyond” gets under way, the only words in the lead vocal are the three words from the title.
There is a bit of mumbling and muttering going on in the background which at least one online source says is the repetition of the phrase “here we go”. I’ve got a good ear and can usually pick these things up, but I must say it just sounds like barely audible random muttering to me. So I’m discounting whatever that is as a meaningful contribution to the lyrics on the basis nobody can make them out.
The Madness version of “One Step Beyond” is itself a bit of a mash-up.
The bulk of the song is a cover of a B-side of the same title by the iconic Jamaican artist Prince Buster. The spoken introduction was inspired by different Prince Buster song…Madness were big Prince Buster fans… (original Prince Buster version of “One Step Beyond” here… https://youtu.be/D3DAHAPLaVI )
Madness were at the forefront of the British ska revival in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
On “One Step Beyond”, Madness captured the spirit of the time, the energy of the moment and a sense of anarchic, frenetic joy like few records before or since. And they only needed three words to do it…
I love the slightly ragged sax on this track as it gave something of a grungy feel to the song, at a time when artists were trying to sound more authentic and “real” in reaction to the slick, overproduced songs being released by the big mainstream record labels at the time.
Madness recorded for the iconic British record label, Stiff Records, who were were champions of this new “down and dirty” approach to making music They signed punk, reggae and ska acts aplenty, including The Damned, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury.
With the passage of time, some of Stiff’s artists, like Ian Dury, are no longer with us. Other artists remain only as footnotes in popular music history.
But Madness still pack out stadiums with their “Madstock” concerts and remain hugely popular.
Maybe they so perfectly captured the spirit of the late 1970s and early 1980s that they managed to fuse themselves directly into the subconscious of anyone who lived through those times.
I know whenever I hear a Madness record, I’m instantly transported back to the early 1980s when I used to watch their somewhat chaotic performances on “Top Of The Pops”.
Unlike most Madness records, “One Step Beyond” doesn’t have a lead vocal by Suggs…he’s the one mumbling in the background this time around.
Chas Smash does the honours instead, delivering the (admittedly sparse) lyrics.
“One Step Beyond” is one of a small number of records that never fails to get people on their feet…usually to join a conga line with a couple of hundred complete strangers as they attempt to copy the dance routine from the Madness video.
It’s infectious, full of energy and joyful…at the same time, it’s also anarchic, chaotic and visceral.
“One Step Beyond” is a great song for late at night at a party shortly after most people have had just a little more to drink than was probably advisable. It’s become a staple at birthday parties, weddings and graduation celebrations across the land.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to one of those which didn’t, at some point in the proceedings, have a 200-person conga line weaving its way around the dance floor to “One Step Beyond” (although that might just reflect the sort of company I keep…).
Prince Buster might have written the music for “One Step Beyond”, but Madness somehow 10x’d the energy in their version and created one of the most enduring sounds of the ska revival era. A song which, to this day, is often used to get Madness concerts under way, and the audience on their feet, energised and dancing around.
So before you press play on the link below, nip outside and find another 199 people. You’re going to need them for that conga line you’ll be desperate to form a few bars into this Madness classic.
All I need to ask you now is…are you ready for the heavy, heavy monster sound…?
Here’s Madness with “One Step Beyond”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/4xOZ63CWgSgOj9ETpwaG6D