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Keith Reid interview about song-writing

The Argotist Online • 2008

In March 2008 it was a pleasure for 'Beyond the Pale' to be able to put Jeffrey Side, the editor of The Argotist Online, in touch with Keith Reid. The interview, part of an extended feature in which songwriters answer a set of questions about the relationship between poetry and song, went online in June, and we Jeff's permission to reproduce it at BtP from 2 July 2008.

The Argotist Online
is the successor to The Argotist arts magazine, which came into being in 1996 and ran for four year
s. Setting out to be a bridge between what was perceived as 'high-brow' and 'low-brow' in the arts, it was funded by Liverpool University's Centre for Academic Practice and Arts Council England, and had national distribution through Blackwell's bookshops. The Argotist Online differs from The Argotist magazine in that it is devoted to poetry and poetics and features poetry, essays and interviews. The other writers in the feature include Nancy Ames, Perla Batalla, Jake Berry,  Neil Campbell, Julie Christensen, Phillip Henry Christopher, Kyla Clay-Fox, Carol Decker, Van Eaton, Kate Fagan, Julie Felix,  Adam Fieled, Jack Foley, Kate Garner, Andy Gricevich, Heather Haley, Steve Harley, Hayley Hutchinson, Jennifer John, Ralph McTell, Brendan Quinn, Ragz, Grace Read, Eddi Reader, Michael Rothenberg, Bariane Louise Rowlands, Kate Rusby, Max Russell, Gerald Schwartz, Helen Seymour, Beck SiÓn, Chris Stroffolino, Alison Sudol, Linda Thompson, Richard Thompson, Martha Tilston, Stuart Todd, Eric Unger, Pietra Wexstun, and Rachael Wright, as well as the excellent Chris Difford, on whose behalf we also acted as brokers-between.

Keith Reid is a British-born lyricist who divides his working life between London and New York. He first came to prominence as a founder member and lyricist for the band Procol Harum. Their first single A Whiter Shade of Pale was a worldwide chart topper and has subsequently been recorded by more than 200 artists. This song has featured in countless films, TV programmes, commercials etc and was most recently voted by radio listeners as one of their favourite songs of the twentieth century.

In addition to writing AWSoP Keith wrote the lyrics for all Procol Harum's subsequent hit singles and albums. The band enjoyed an extremely successful international career for more than ten years.


In the mid-seventies Keith moved into other aspects of the music business, forming a personal management, publishing, and production company, and also a record label. His artists enjoyed a great deal of worldwide success including the bands: Gonzales (I haven't stopped dancing yet), Sutherland Brothers and Quiver (Arms of Mary, Sailing), Frankie Miller (Darling), Mickey Jupp (Don't Talk to Me), Robin Trower (Across [sic] the Bridge of Sighs) etc.


In the early eighties Keith returned to his first love song writing and moved to New York to restart his career. He immediately had huge success with an unknown Australian artist, John Farnham, whose recording of Keith's You're the Voice became and remains the biggest-selling record in Australia of all time. It was a worldwide hit and has been recorded by a great many other artists and has been used in many TV shows and commercials.


Keith continues to concentrate on his songwriting and has had songs recorded by such best-selling artists as: Annie Lennox, Willie Nelson, Sarah Brightman, Jeff Healey, Heart, Robin Trower, Mavis Staples, Felix Cavaliere, John Waite, Chris Thompson, John Farnham, Alan Parsons Project and Gary Brooker.


The Argotist Online
Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?


Keith Reid
I don't think of my lyrics as poetry, but I do try to make them read as poetically as possible.


Do you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?


I don't think it's IMPORTANT that songs rhyme, but I do think it's preferable. It's more pleasing to the ear if songs rhyme. Also if you're collaborating on a song – i.e. one person lyrics, another person music – you're aiming for a seamless marriage of words and music, lyrics and melody. If the words don't rhyme that is very difficult to achieve. Plus it makes you work harder, and anything that makes you work harder is good.


Do you think song lyrics must conform to recognised song structures such as clear rhyming schemes, choruses, refrains, hooks and bridges or that songs can also be like free verse?


First of all and most important THERE ARE NO RULES! Secondly, it is extremely important to understand there is a huge difference between a great record and a great song. For example Fire Starter by The Prodigy is a great record, but my definition of a great song would be something that can be put across with very limited instrumentation or even sung a capella without any musical accompaniment at all. And this is where the conventions of songwriting structure become important.


Don't forget songs were handed down through the ages in the oral tradition, passed from person to person: so they had to be memorable and it's all the devices of rhyming schemes, hooks, choruses etc. that contribute to making a song memorable. It also means you have to work harder. If you've just got a guitar and a voice your song has to be special in order to survive.


When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognise any connection to the music you enjoyed?


I never read any poetry at school.


Was there anything about poetry in books that influenced your songwriting?


I never really read any poetry until sometime in the nineties; a musician I was writing songs with told me that my lyrics quite reminded him of WH Auden. Intrigued by this I went into a bookshop in New York and leafed through a compilation of Auden's and thought Crikey! In particular there was a poem called Refugee Blues which I thought so similar to my style that I actually wrote a lyric called An Old English Dream which I based on that poem. However that is the only time I've ever really been influenced by poetry in a book. In general it's usually newspaper articles, radio snippets, world events, or films that influence my writing.


Why do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?


Well I suppose historically songs were more popular because not so many people could read and songs travelled more easily than poetry. I think really what songs have over poetry is the melody and the rhythm of the music which seduces the ear, then of course the brain kicks in and analyses the meaning and appreciates the beauty of the words. So if you've written a lyric which has significance (whatever the subject) it is more easily assimilated in song form than going to the trouble of reading something of significance in a book of poetry. 




The Keith Reid Project

Keith's page at BtP


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