Warning – there is a fair bit of swearing in this post – for reasons that will become obvious. I’m no stranger to a bit of rudeness but there’s more than usual in this one, so look away now if you don’t want your life to be ruined by my mindless profanity.
I’ve been on a bit of a break from this blog thing for the last couple of months as this this has been a truly awful year for me so far. An ‘anus horribilis’ as the Queen once described 1992 – though there may have been more ‘n’s in her anus. Probably some clever Greek phrase or something. As a commoner I obviously don’t understand. I’ll write about why 2020 deserves to be Room 101‘d at some point but today this a much needed diversion as I’ve had occasion today to ponder the use of swearing in books, music and elsewhere due to a bit of editing I was doing earlier – and also something funny my son said when he came in from school.
So – swearing. Is it big? Is it clever? Discuss. Hmm. I can’t remember the first time I saw a sweary word in print but I suspect it may have been in a James Herbert book – most likely The Fog or The Rats, which I think were the first books of his I read in my early years. Was I impressed? Can’t remember, so it probably didn’t make much of an impression. I do remember a guy getting his whanger cut off with a pair of garden shears in The Fog though. That made an impression. Sorry if that was a spoiler.
I remember the first sweary word I heard in a song though, it was by Patti Smith on the live version of her song 25th Floor, the ‘B’ side to “Set Me Free” that I’d bought on vinyl. For goodness sake, the word ‘shit’ could clearly be heard in the very second line. That to my 13 yr old ears way back in the late 70s was pretty radical. I remember telling my mates at school about it and, rather than giving it, ‘Huh? So what? Grow up dude…” they all came round to hear it too. That was pretty crazy stuff back then in the days of only three tv channels, no VCRs and many years pre-internet. We’d all heard swearing before of course (as you do, living in a small town in Scotland) and could enunciate with the best of them – but hearing a (presumably) sensible and accomplished grown up doing it was quite a thing, especially on vinyl. Jeez, what if her mum heard her? She must have been pure dead mental. We liked her…
So after realising how novel and exciting all this bad language thing could all be, we then slowly became aware of other songs with naughty words in – for example, Pink Floyd said ‘bullshit’ on ‘Money’ from ‘Dark side of the Moon’ – I’m pretty sure Genesis had a wee ‘shit’ of sorts somewhere on their ‘Pigeons’ ep and The Who almost said ‘fuck off’ in My Generation – but sounded as if they bottled it and said ‘fade away’ instead. Still made it worth a listen though.
Then fast forward if you will, twenty odd years or so to Limp Bizkit’s ‘Chocolate Starfish (ahem) and the (ahem) Hotdog Flavour Water’ album where, after a pretty amusing ‘F’ littered tirade about everything from fake boobies to global warming, Fred Durst raps ‘If I say fuck just two more times that’s twenty six fucks in this fucked up rhyme!’ That did make me snigger a bit, even as a grown up.
Meanwhile, back in the late 70s and shortly after our wee sweary epiphany, it became a thing (among my friends at least) to be on the lookout for other songs with swearing in them – everyone wanted to be the first to discover the first hearable ‘fuck’ on vinyl. There were loads of ‘Hell’s, ‘damn’s and ‘bitch’s’ but nothing like the 70s equivalent of Eminem catching his boy bits in a zipper and telling us about it in method.
Then – one day everything changed. Like a great, shining, sweary light in the dark, one of my mates, Alistair Tait (who I’ll credit, as I remember him telling me about it first)(but he may have been put on to it by another guy, Keith Mitchell) somehow discovered the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore album ‘Derek and Clive Live.’ It’s fair to say this was probably a major turning point in my lifelong journey of harsh language. Not only was it profane, immature, uncensored and outrageous, but it was also fkn hilarious (well, to us adolescent boys anyway). I still remember a bunch of us sitting in a mate’s bedroom listening to selected highlights (quietly of course, in case parents heard) and the tears of laughter all around. Cassette copies were hurriedly made of course and pretty much overnight we progressed from recycling old Monty Python sketches to reciting ‘The Worst Job I ever ‘ad’, ‘The Horn’, the ‘House on Fire’ song and Dudley Moore’s hilariously profane story about, ‘This bloke came up to me and said…” And if the stories are true, Pete and Dud apparently went into a studio one day with a bunch of whiskey and cigarettes and completely ad-libbed the whole thing. Maybe surprisingly in this day and age, the albums are all on iTunes – go have a listen if you’re feeling juvenile enough – they’re way funnier than you might think. No, seriously. Oh, suit yourself then…
But back to the serious analytical issue here – was my young, impressionable mind affected by all this awful language? Oh, fuck aye. To be honest we all knew at the time it was all just puerile, schoolboy silliness – with some of it also prejudiced and intolerant the way a lot of comedy was back then – but at the same time it was hilarious to us kids who didn’t know any better and, consequently, it all became part of growing up for a certain bunch of kids in 70s Musselburgh. Why was it so funny though? Well, the secret of course was in the genius delivery and comic timing – we knew we weren’t especially funny if we swore but these guys were masters, as was Billy Connolly a few years after them and maybe Quentin Tarantino a few more years after him.
So if there’s a writery point to all this, it is (I think) that swearing can be funny and/or effective, but the delivery, timing and context are everything. Even back then it didn’t take us long to realise that. And as far as I know, none of us were corrupted, we were just hugely entertained and thrilled to be doing something we knew would piss our parents off. From what I remember, once the D&C novelty wore off, everyone swore just as much as we did before – but thanks to Pete and Dud, I’d like to think the bombs were deployed just a bit more effectively.
Movies and film scripts are very different beasts I think. I don’t remember the first time I heard swearing in a movie either but I do remember the first time I heard my Dad swear because of a movie. One very late night in the early 80s I arrived home in the wee small hours after a cinema trip to Edinburgh with my girlfriend at the time (I think I was maybe about 17ish). I remember dropping her off at her place feeling quite chuffed with myself (early days in the relationship obviously), then walking home to find my Dad still up watching tv sitting in the livingroom. I looked in and gave him a cheery ‘Hi Dad,’ – to which I received a resounding, “WHERE THE FUCK HAVE YOU BEEN?!” in return – as he slammed his fists down on the chair arm for added effect. I was pretty taken aback, mostly because I hadn’t heard my Dad say ‘fuck’ before – but also slightly puzzled as I was often out late back then playing in bands and such – and out all day working full time – and to be honest, I didn’t get on that great with my parents so I can’t imagine he was missing me..? Cue a slightly stammered explanation and a reminder that I’d told them both where I was going and that I’d be late back. Well, okay, maybe not that late… Oh well, he might have just been having a bad day. But at least I learned one important thing that night – my Dad could say ‘fuck’ too.
I have to admit, I never actually heard my Mum swear – ever. She often used to call me a ‘besom’ (pronounced bizzom) which I knew wasn’t a term of endearment, but I didn’t really rate that as swearing, not when she could have just called me a wee bastard. Having just looked it up though, it seems ‘besom’ is apparently a Scottish word of contempt often used to describe a young girl of ill repute. Who knew? And my Mum a Sunday School teacher too…
Swearing in movies though, back on track. I have to say I’m not a huge fan unless the swearing is, as discussed above, funny and/or effective and /or natural sounding. I watched an 80s horror movie the other night and it was truly dreadful. No amount of ‘clever sounding science’, F-bombs or amateur dramatic intensity could make me believe this particular bunch of boffins had the green soul of Satan’s Son sitting in a fish tank in a church basement. There seems to be a lot of swearing in 80s horror and thriller movies – I’m not a film student so I don’t know if there’s some sort of sociology type reason for that, but it looks to me as if it was all to artificially ramp up the intensity and make up for poor plots and iffy acting. There are a few action movies which could be exceptions due to excessive cheese content (which may have been deliberate, even at the time) – but I think you have to be very skilled to deploy f bombs in movie scripts and make it sound effective.
Kind of recently, when my son became of age where, after a childhood of loving monsters and wanting to see all the horror movies, I began gradually introducing him to the classics. We did a few of the old Universal jobs and a couple of the more modern and less terrifying efforts – then I decided to push things a bit one day and we watched American Werewolf in London. Still a great movie by the way. He loved it of course, but as it got to the end scene in Piccadilly Circus, I (fatally) laughed aloud when I saw and remembered John Landis’s ‘in joke’ where the movie in the cinema is billed outside as, ‘See You next Wednesday’. I was of course asked to explain this – which I did – in my fatherly way, and of course he thought this was hilarious too. So much so that he enthusiastically quotes it whenever he’s telling us a manly story from school where the actual word is deployed. Much like earlier today when he came in and told me about a playground fight where, in his words, “Two idiots were fighting each other ‘cos one called the other a ‘fat bar-steward’ and the other said ‘Hey, well I’m going to kick you in the ‘See You Next Tuesday’!” Kids these days… I blame the parents.
Strangely, my son is now the same age I was when I discovered Derek and Clive – although, he has iTunes, so he probably knows more bad language than I do. He tells me rappers are now the best guys to listen to if you want to hear up to 300 swears a track. Which obviously he hasn’t done because he’s sensible and not at all immature. Aye, right. Makes you kind of yearn for the days when all you needed was to hear one ‘shit’; and then everyone was piling round to your place to listen out for it…
Okay, I’m slavering now. So is anyone going to find any sophisticated writerly advice here? Well – yes. Maybe. Sort of. A grammar thing. It’s pretty tenuous, but as I was doing a last pass through Club Medusa this afternoon, I saw one of the characters say, ‘For fucks sake!”- and I realised it didn’t look right. I reckoned that, according to the english theory I learned back in Derek and Clive’s day, there should have been an apostrophe after the fuck, but before the ‘s’.
So, self doubting as always, I hit the internet – and, as it happens, I was right – the ‘thing’ that is happening is for the ‘sake of the fuck’, so there should be an apostrophe in there. If it was for Pete’s sake it would be for the sake of Pete – for fuck’s sake, the sake of fuck – apostrophe ‘s’. Simple. Though sometimes ffs will do. I did see further arguments about whether the fucks could be plural or not – or even if the fucks were good fucks or bad fucks and how much more worthy of apostrophe ownership that made them – but at the end of the day, simple 70s grammar won the day. Wow, that really was tenuous. Well, sometimes there’s more fun in the journey than reaching the destination isn’t there?
And so, as Fred Durst would say if he was here in the car with me, -“If I say fuck seventeen more times – thats twenty six fucks in this fucked up blog post! Wes Borland, yo, take it to the bridge…” Doesn’t quite rhyme though.