Chris de Burgh has never really received proper credit for his lyrics. While his reputation as a musician was cemented early on by such classic tracks as ‘Spanish Train’, ‘Crusader’ and ‘The Traveller’, his equally poignant use of the English language deserves attention.
Let us, however, not speak of ‘Lady in Red’.
If we pretend, for a moment, that each of Chris de Burgh’s albums is instead a collection of poems, the results are startling. Far from being merely a competent guitarist and composer with a talent for soaring and majestic melodies, Chris de Burgh is also a poet.
However, Far Beyond These Castle Walls . . . (1974), Chris de Burgh’s first collection of poetry, showcases a poet who, alas, does not yet know it.
Beyond the ellipsis: Chris de Burgh and his early lyrics
In fact, Far Beyond These Castle Walls . . . deserves a moment’s silence. That silence is suggested by the ellipsis (. . .) at the end of the book’s title.
Released in 1974, the collection was published in an LP-sized package complete with a haunting black cover featuring some kind of gothic ‘castle’. This ground-breaking volume represents the beginning of what has turned out to be an astounding career.
Sure, you can’t really compare these early works to later sequences (see Man On the Line), however their sheer technical genius and intricate use of language work to set Chris de Burgh’s lyrics apart from the lyrics of other literary wannabees including Rod McKuen, Kevin Johnson and the rest.
Hold on . . .
Take, for example, ‘Hold On’ with its hauntingly simplistic opening:
Somewhere,—Chris De Burgh, ‘Hold On’
A lonely girl lies weeping.
A lonely man tries sleeping,
But he’s getting nowhere.
This is deceptive stuff, lulling the reader into a false sense of security until, by the poem’s devastating end, we are left wondering just what the hell has happened:
Somehow,—Chris De Burgh, ‘Hold On’
While ‘The Key’ is a disappointing cliche, third poem ‘Windy Night’ releases CdeB’s bats, with its jarring alternation between rhyme and clang in the first two stanzas.
Just when the tension becomes almost unbearable, however, Chris throws the switch and in floods emotion. Sing this with me:
Na na na na oh Lord on this windy night—Chris De Burgh, ‘Windy Night’
Na na na na oh Lord on this windy night.
Moving on . . .
‘Sin City’, surely a reference to South Africa’s ‘Sun City’, is a bold and political poem, with a directness lacking in the collection up until this point:
Good morning, Blue Rider, and how was your night?—Chris De Burgh, ‘Sin City’
Did you get the best deal from your body, did she make you feel alright?
Well she did ‘cos she’s my friend …
That de Burgh manages to riff on Kandinsky and the Rolling Stones at the same time is both incredible and a hint of things to come.
Note also the link between this poem and the previous poem, through the repeated use of the word ‘night’.
Puzzling though the meaning of this and other pieces (see, for example, ‘New Moon’, ‘Lonesome Cowboy’) may be, there’s something uplifting, something moving here, a kind of seething anger at the unfairness and injustice of everything.
Still, this is not to say the Chris has totally abandoned his rock and roll roots, as shown clearly by the bizarrely debauched ‘Watching the World’:
Oh Ram bam bi doo ah… Ram bam bi doo ay…—Chris De Burgh, ‘Watching the World’
Roll one for me brother, eighteen inches long,
And we can lay down here by the riverside
Smoking and singing this song… oh yea
Oh yea, indeed.
While ‘Satin Green Shutters’, with its melancholy air and gently maudlin delivery was (in my opinion, deservedly) the only poem here that made it onto Best Moves, I’d like to conclude this all-too-brief appreciation of Chris de Burgh’s ealiest lyrics with a nod to the final poem, ‘Goodnight’, the only sonnet in this collection and not a bad one at that.
Sure, it’s a little hastily cobbled together and yes, the first and second parts do end with the same words and, clearly, most of the line breaks are arbitrary but hey, no one ever said CdeB was John Donne.
Lacking a central conceit, the poem does nevertheless manage to evoke some feelings within the reader, mainly relief at the book’s impending conclusion but also a sense of eerie deja vu, perhaps due to the fact that the final lines echo lines from other poems in the collection:
I will lead you to the river, here’s the door,—Chris De Burgh, ‘Goodnight’
And the key is turning round
Close the shutters, do not cry, there’s a new moon in the sky;
Oh hold on to your love, until your time has come to say … goodnight.
And on that note, I too must say goodnight but I will return, very soon, with another poetic appreciation—this time, of Chris’ first real ‘storytelling’ ‘masterpiece’: Spanish Train and Other Stories (1975).
Until then, as Chris would say, ‘guard these moments well’.
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While I disagree with one or two of your comments I have to say its really refreshing to read something reasonably objective about “CdeB” (unless its an extremely subtle piss-take?)
I grew up listening to his pre-1986 stuff after hearing ‘Best Moves’ and there’s no doubt in my mind that 1975-85 is far and away the best period of his career (with the exception of Far Beyond These Castle Walls.) 1986-96 had more lows than highs although there were a handful of really good songs, and 1997-2007 is a case of “the less said the better” with the exception of his latest, ‘The Storyman’, which is something of a return to form.
‘Far Beyond These Castle Walls’ is an odd album which I haven’t listened to in a long time as there are only 2 songs on it that I particularly like (‘Satin Green Shutters’ and ‘Flying’). Quite how he followed that up just 8 or 9 months later with an album like ‘Spanish Train’ is pretty impressive. I don’t know if you’re unwavering in your determination not to hear his early albums but they’re well worth a listen…
Thanks for your comment – of course, there’s an element of humour in my appreciation of CdeB but I am, also, quite serious and I agree absolutely with your division of his career into three parts – the first great, the second okay and the third lousy. I haven’t heard anything off The Storyman yet, but personally, I’ve always liked Man On the Line the most – just because it’s such a great bombastic 80s record. I also agree that it’s quite a feat to bring out two albums in such a short space of time – I look forward to writing about Spanish Train … very soon! Thanks once again for stopping by.
While your analysis of Chris de Burgh’s work is well written and passionately argued, I’m afraid it lacks any credibility because you were so quick to diss ‘The Lady in Red’ – and I like that song.
Perhaps next time you will reconsider your opinion of a song that not only I like but was Princess Diana’s favourite song too (I found that out when I watched Chris de Burgh sing it to her at a Royal Command Performance years ago).
I am sure we can resolve this matter if you are willing to retract your comments about ‘The Lady in Red’.
Thanks for your comment, and I respect your right to like “The Lady In Red”. Although I can’t quite bring myself to go back on my original opinion (and, indeed, I have received a backchannel broadside from another keen CdeB fan to the effect that “Don’t Pay the Ferryman” is likewise a great song, an argument with which I am even more likely to agree, even though I don’t), I will admit that I do like at least two parts of “The Lady In Red”, namely the beginning and the end.
Why only these two parts? Let me explain.
I love the fact that in the mid-1980s CdeB dispensed with live musicians altogether and instead seemingly replaced his entire backing band with synthesisers. The results can be heard on his most consistent album, Man On the Line and also on this song – the faux bongo/percussive introduction, and then the synth wash, right up to the point where Chris starts singing – I can handle all of this.
Unfortunately, I just can’t listen to the song itself. In fact, I can only just bear to listen to the final seconds of the song, where the bongo drum beat comes back in again, and we hear Chris’ ethereal voice whisper “I love you …”, a sad and fitting finale to a song that (despite my inability to listen to it) really should have been re-released before Elton’s piece of toejam.
To sum up: the memory of this song is perhaps just that bit too painful for me to relive. I hope you can understand.
But more importantly, I hope you can answer this question: were you actually there, at the Royal Command performance? If so, I would be most curious to hear your version of events, as I understand it was an extremely moving occasion.
Well, I’m glad that at least we both like the beginning and end of “The Lady in Red”. It’s a pity I can’t get you to like the middle too but I can see that you are never going to agree with me and Princess Diana on this point. (What about the part where the bass comes in, just after the percussive intro? That’s a good part too, isn’t it? I do like the bassline for this song. Actually, I just read on songfacts.com that the fretless bass played on this song “was performed by the legendary Pino Palladino, who’s played fretless bass on songs by Paul Young, Elton John and recently toured with The Who as the stand-in bassist for the late John Entwistle.” Do you really think that “the legendary Pino Palladino” would lend his bass-playing skills to a below par song?)
Unfortunately, I wasn’t at the Royal Command Performance – I saw it on TV. I realise now that my comment made it seem like I might have been there in person. In a way, that reflects the power of television – it almost makes you feel like you’re there, doesn’t it? (Actually, that’s not true – on that occasion, it just made me want to be there.)
well, it seems that my fascination for CdeB’s back catalogue has had a kind of knock-on effect, in that between us (and not forgetting of course the original comments by jdg), we’ve managed to write more words here than were contained in the original post (indeed, perhaps more words than were on the album itself), which gives me a strange kind of thrill, despite the fact that most of those words have been about a song that doesn’t even appear on the album in question.
While I’d prefer to be debating the merits of “The Lady In Red” in the proper context of a discussion of Into the Light, the pathetic album from which “The Lady …” was actually taken (like a hostage in a soon-to-be-disastrous bank heist or, dare I say it, like a princess transported by way of motorcade from a hotel to instant death by tunnel pylon), I’m also aware that what we may well be doing here is opening up a rent in the time space continuum that allows us to discuss CdeB’s ouevre freely, without shame and in deadly earnest.
I admit that I stand corrected, having intimated in my previous comment that Chris had resorted to the use of machines on “Lady …” when, in fact, as you have pointed out, it was of course ìthe legendary Pino Palladinoî who provided fretless bass, surely the most effete of 1980s instruments, on said song. Now, I don’t pretend to know who ìthe legendary Pino Palladinoî actually is, but I am willing to take your word for his collaboration with other great artists from the 1980s, including of course Sir Elton.
Speaking of Sir Elton, do you have any opinions on his best works? I know I may well be opening a huge can of worms by inviting your comments on this issue, and this does indeed place our discussion well outside the bounds of CdeB’s early career, but I am curious, having recently rediscovered his wonderful A Single Man album, containing as it does the haunting “Song For Guy”. I have loved that song my whole life, and wondered often as to whether it migth be possible for Elton to re-release it upon the death of Chris de Burgh (yes, it must happen, some day), perhaps with the amended title, “Song For Chris”. Or else, perhaps Chris could perform a cover version, entitled “Song for Guy (for Elton)”.
I am not sure whether Chris and Elton are even good friends (a question, perhaps, for Chris’ ‘Man On the Line’ forum) but I do wonder whether they may have fallen out after Elton’s “Candle In the Wind” got top billing upon the death of our Diana, when Chris’ “The Lady In Red” had ALWAYS been about Diana, not just after she had died. Do you know what I mean? I kind of find myself seethign at the thougth of Elton laughing at Chris from beneath his Amadeus wig, knowing all along that “Candle In the Wind” will make millions, while Chris’ back catalogue languishes in the bargain bin.
Perhaps, however, there is a song that Chris is waiting to re-release upon the occasion of Elton’s departure from this mortal coil. While I cannot hope to know the workings of CdeB’s brain, I suspect “Don’t Pay the Ferryman” would be a fitting piece of advice to be played while Elton’s body is lowered into the ground, and it will probably do very well in the charts the second time around too, as long as Moby, the Black Eyed Peas, Iva Davies and Kasey Chambers can be convinced to contribute remixes. And considering Chris’ substantial pulling power, that’s only half as silly as it sounds.
I’m a little late to the party, but I wanted to chime in on the LiR debate. I agree that CdB’s best music came in the first decade of his career. His last two albums, Moonfleet and Hands of Man, are something of a return to form, but still lack the edge of some of his earlier gems, such as Spanish Train, The Painter (yes, I love that song) and The Traveller.
LiR though… no offence to Tom, or to the late Princess Di – I had a lot of respect for her, but the fact that she loved the song means nothing to me – it is elevator music at its worst. In my mind, its only redeeming quality is that it’s not quite as romantic as everyone thinks. Consider the lyrics: they are the words of a man who has spent much time taking his wife for granted. Indeed, it takes a pretty red dress and, more importantly, the attentions of other men, to make him truly see, and feel something for, his wife again.
Yes, that’s rather a snide way of looking at it, but as a long-time fan, I had to grasp something, anything, to justify that song’s existence.
He’s coming to town later this month; I had tickets but had to sell them because of a family wedding out of town that same weekend. I missed the Moonfleet tour, which I heard from reviews was solid. I have seen him twice before though (the Flying Colours and the Power of Ten tours) and he puts on a great show. My solace in missing him this time around is that I won’t have to listen to LiR
My apologies for my very belated reply to your comment—I suspect there were some gremlins in the machine running this website, which rendered it invisible until now.
I hope you have since had a chance to see CdeB live in concert. Having not had the privilege, I’d be very keen to hear from you, or from anyone else for that matter, who has seen Chris weave his spell in person.
Totally agree re LiR, and hope we never have to discuss it again.
We all have our own scars from LiR, don’t we? What a sweet little album track, boop-diddy-boop, yeah, nice… wait… he’s releasing it as a single? Have A&M gone completely mad? Oh… okayyy… no, wait… NO! NO PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!!!
Dear Jimmy, thanks a lot for your comment. I agree, LiR is a bit like “Moonlight and Vodka” on ‘Man On the Line’. Great track, not too long, fits in well with the album as a whole, but I would feel uncomfortable if I heard it blaring from a supermarket loudspeaker. I guess the A&R men didn’t have a problem choosing a single on that album, though: ‘Ecstasy of Flight’ is such a massive statement of intent. Alas, unlike LiR, it has not entered the popular consciousness. Take care!