27 July 2009

Punch up the bracket

(There's A Man) In Iran, That I Can't Resist, Much Revered (Kinda Weird) Got This Chick In A (Twist). A fine Not The Nine O'Clock News song it was too, written about Ayatollah Khomeini and sung by Pamela Stephenson. Obviously it was a satirical love song aimed at Iran's leader in 1979, but the crazed bracketing when the title was written down on the sleeve of the tie-in cassette added a further, less crucial but nevertheless worthwhile dig.

Bracketing in song titles has always baffled me. Why bother? The Beatles never did it once with a single during their lifetime. Ultimately, few people are going to notice or care greatly about why you felt the need to separate and then enclose half of the title sentence and there seems to be little more than artist whim that justifies it.

Let's examine what songwriters do put in their brackets, and see if a purpose is properly served...

Reason 1: Alternative title

The song has a name that everyone is happy with, but due to something contractual or a tie-in project, an alternative title, almost certainly pitching the song's reason for existence, is offered in brackets. Diana Ross released Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To) in 1976, a record which showed that the song's place on a soundtrack was deemed more important than the title garnered from the lyrics, as also befell the pair of artists who have released what was officially titled Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless). These two examples offer extra punctuation issues - the adoption of brackets in the Diana Ross song was sorted out so urgently that they forgot the secondary title needed a question mark; while the use of * in a title must only ever have been used for censorship reasons before and since in titling songs.

Reason 2: Clarifying which song it is

A songwriter writes a classic (attic is optional) but insists on using a title which won't lend itself brilliantly to the song's familiarity as the title either appears fleetingly and less memorably in the lyrics, or not at all. Some artists - New Order spring to mind - gave no stuffs at all about this (Blue Monday, Thieves Like Us, True Faith) but others compromise, by putting a familiar word or line in brackets after the more 'personal' title. Try U2 with Pride (In The Name Of Love), Skunk Anansie with Brazen (Weak), Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand's sublime disco duet No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) or the Proclaimers with I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles), all of which should have been titled just using the bracketed bit. There are loads more.

Reason 3: It's a new version, honest!
This allows for remixes and second releases and so on to be duly credited as such, either with the basic word - (Remix), (Medley) (Re-Issue) - or something far more pretentious, such as I Believe (A Soulful Re-Recording), which was released with typical pomposity by Tears For Fears, even though the song bore no difference to the unbracketed version on the album.

Reason 4: That bastard beat me to it!

Makes it clear that an artist's song is different to one with an identical title released just weeks or months earlier. Donna Summer's song On The Radio usurped the Roxy Music song of the same moniker by six months, so theirs became Oh Yeah (On The Radio). Probably wouldn't have stopped Bryan trying to give Donna one in the Top Of The Pops dressing rooms, mind.

Reason 5: The title should be long, but not this long...

There's probably a way of discovering this for real, but my hunch is that the Lighthouse Family single (I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be) Free/One is the song with the biggest majority of bracketed letters compared to those unbracketed, especially if you discount the /One bit of it, which I'm inclined to do. Brackets lengthen a title in looks, making the title more memorable, while at the same time letting the shortened version enjoy a form of precedence should it be so wished. These musicians really do have too much time on their hands.

Reason 6: To be deliberately pointless

My favourite ever use of brackets is on the otherwise totally unremarkable Hot Chocolate single What Kinda Boy You Looking For (Girl) . It is deliciously pointless, almost matched by the Bacharach and David song (There's) Always Something There To Remind Me. Given that neither of these would have felt detriment from either ditching the bracketed word, or keeping the word and just not bothering with the brackets, it is genuinely bamboozling. There are a lot of these - try (Do) The Hucklebuck by Coast To Coast, Fiction Factory's (Feels Like) Heaven or Gilbert O'Sullivan's maudlin Alone Again (Naturally) for starters.

Reason 7: It's how people will refer to it anyway!

Do you know Rupert Holmes for Escape or for The Pina Colada Song? If Billy Ordinary were to ring a radio station and ask for it (an irregular action, granted), then he'd tell the DJ he wanted to hear "that pina colada song, you know the one". He wouldn't ask for Escape. See also Stevie B's dripply forgettable Because I Love You (The Postman Song). There will be better songs with a (The _____ Song) in their title, but these are the two we can think of right now.

Reason 8: Oooh, controversial...
Do you think calling the last UK hit of Marvin Gaye's life (Sexual) Healing made the title any less dubious than if it had been Sexual Healing?

Reason 9: To set a precedent
I know of at least two people who will probably call me wrong here, but I suspect Heaven 17 are the only act to have released a single where the entire title is in brackets. Shame, really, that (And That's No Lie) didn't trouble the Top 40. Meanwhile, Iris Williams released a lyrical version of Cavatina which featured two separate pairs of brackets in the title, one after another. Beat that...


JM said...

Honourable mention must surely go to the Stranglers who kicked off their chart career with the parenthetically titled Get A Grip (On Yourself) in 1977.

12 years later when a remixed version was released, the title had mutated to such an extent that the single was credited as:

Grip '89 (Get A) Grip (On Yourself)

Smash Hits at the time satirised it in suitable fashion by billing the single as (Get) (A) (Grip) (On) (Yourself).

simon h b said...

Number seven, in reverse, in spades:

The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss)