Every Christmas I sit down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, normally accompanied by two sleeping cats and usually while my family is off doing something else. I’ve tried to encourage them to watch it with me, but Freya just insists that it’s “boring” and Seren says she’ll happily watch it but makes that teenage face that basically says “I’d rather be doing anything”.
For the first hour or so I find myself offering an alternative soundtrack to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score with the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds track ‘Wonderful Life’ that opens 2002’s Nocturama. You can probably see why. As far as I can tell, Cave’s song takes no inspiration whatsoever from Frank Capra’s classic movie, instead being a rumination on some sort of love affair taking place in secret and its uncertain chorus suggesting that life isn’t necessarily wonderful unless you’ve found a way to locate its meaning. But that doesn’t stop me humming that song to myself on repeat while the film’s George Bailey, like Job in the Old Testament, seems to be continually deviated away from his intended path through life while his brother Harry gets all the breaks.
This year, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I found myself paying more attention to the script than I have in previous years. In the scene where Harry arrived back in Bedford Falls from college, bringing with him his wife Ruth, I caught a snatch of dialogue that seemed vaguely familiar.
RUTH: Harry’s a genius at research. My father fell in love with him.
– It’s A Wonderful Life by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra & Jo Swerling, 1946
It took me a while to figure out where I’d heard the last two lines before. After a bit of maddening rewinding, replaying and memory bank scouring, I finally twigged the similarity to a pairing from Wire’s ‘A Serious Of Snakes’, whose seemingly nonsensical lyrics I once asked Colin Newman about only to be told with a shrug, “I dunno – ask Graham Lewis.”
He’s a genius in research / I simply fell in love.
– A Serious Of Snakes by Wire from Snakedrill (1986). Lyrics by Graham Lewis.
Surely this was no coincidence?
Taking Colin’s advice from over twenty years ago, I asked Graham if the key to unlocking the secrets held in that song’s lyrics required you to scour through black and white films, and at first that seemed to be the case – he told me that the line about losing a ship at the very end of the song was derived from the Jack Hawkins film The Cruel Sea (1953) – but elsewhere in the song you hear a raft of insults offered by barman Tony ‘Skibb O’D’Oak’ from Lewis’ local boozer, The Royal Oak, in Vauxhall with the lines “you tulip, you pea-brained earwig, you punk, you silver tongued snake”. “It’s a classic Gysin-esque cut-up collage,” offered Lewis, matter-of-factly.
Just as it seemed the song’s meaning – if there indeed was one – was going to elude me further, Graham unexpectedly brought it back round to the time of year with which It’s A Wonderful Life is synonymous. “‘A Serious Of Snakes’ was my stab at a Christmas lyric,” he volunteers, suddenly making the lines “baby returns, baby kills Mary and Joseph” make a whole lot more sense.
Look closely and you can see references to Joseph’s carpentry, the Christmas Eve tradition of midnight mass, various other familiar (though obfuscated) subjects from the New Testament, along with other tangential topics like the creation of Israel. The Snakedrill EP was released in November 1986, right on cue for the clamour to grab the coveted number one chart slot, only to be thwarted that year by a re-release of Jackie Wikson’s ‘Reet Petite’ – which isn’t even remotely festive.
And so there you have it – ‘A Serious Of Snakes’, the unlikeliest of Christmas songs, buried deep within an artsy, obliquely crafted series of seemingly inconsequential non sequiturs and riddle-like lyrics. It really is a wonderful life.
The full lyrics from ‘A Serious Of Snakes’ are available at pinkflag.com
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence