Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Lost Art of Songwriting

Because I write poetry as well as music, people often assume that I write songs from the words first. It happens this way very occasionally, though not as often as when I find myself with a few sung lines, and nowhere near as often as my usual way of songwriting, which is to create some music and then add the lyrics afterwards. Last week I recorded this way, a little three minute piece with three slightly distinct sections. Usually I might "scat" sing over the top to get some lyrical ideas, but the song's structure means that this one needs to be somehow about something. I'm still working on that...

The classic songwriting partnership would be a melodicist and a lyricist. I was reading an interview on the reissue of Elton John's hit-filled masterpiece "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Retreating to the ("honky") chateau in France where he recorded many of his albums, after an unsuccessful session in Jamaica, Bernie Taupin would come up with the lyrics and Elton would write the music. They wrote and recorded the album in a matter of days - this, remember, is a record featuring "Candle in the Wind", "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting", "Bennie and the Jets", "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", "Harmony" and "Love Lies Bleeding." Retrospectively "Saturday Night..." would be described as being about remembered nights out in the Midlands, whilst "Candle in the Wind" wasn't written by a Marilyn Monroe, rather, her story fitted it the better. Given the lyrics of the Sci-fi band "Bennie and the Jets", Elton felt a funky track would work best, and it became number one on black radio in the US before topping the pop charts.

Similarly, during their imperial period Morrissey would sit in one room of the studio and Johnny Marr in the other, and they would miraculously come together with songs like "This Charming Man" and "How Soon is Now." If Bernie Taupin would trawl his childhood loves of westerns and adventure stories for songs, Morrissey's were a mix of his childhood in Manchester, and a fading British culture (sometimes explicitly so: "This night has opened my eyes" being a straight lift from Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey.") Pre-Google a writer could keep ahead of his audience by just having read and watched wider than them. How many Joy Division fans in 1979 were aware of Ballard ("The Atrocity Exhibition") or Burroughs ("Interzone".) Good writers create their own mythology however...the yellow brick road is now as much a John/Taupin invention as a Frank Oz one, and the latter is anyhow filtered through the wonderful film version.

A song can be about anything, yet sometimes it seems that the temptation is to make all songs generic. Yet for every contemporary R&B song that is a bland love lyric, the hits tend to have something that makes them standout - either quirkiness like "Umbrella", or contemporary awareness like "Poker Face" or "Hotline Bling."

As a songwriter its right never to waste a good title. The one bit of advice that Adam Ant took from Malcolm Mclaren was to put his art school sloganeering into the songs. "Adam and the Ants" became "ant music for sex people" in explicit manifesto song "Antmusic." If McLaren's version, Bow Wow Wow, became less famous, its perhaps because the art house obscurity - "Louis Quartorze", "Chihauhau" - ignored McLaren's own advice. Their biggest hit was the sloganeering "Go Wild in the Country."

How songs come into being is always fascinating. The "scat" singing I use is very common. Famously, "Yesterday" was originally "Scrambled eggs" until Paul McCartney found the right words for his soon to be immortal tune. Nirvana's songs were partly so successful because Cobain had problems remembering words - hence the repeated refrains, and layering of different chorus hooks in a song like "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Coming up with words can be difficult - even for the best writers. Dylan, whose archive has just been sold to an American University, was a magpie for words, but however much lifting there might be, there's a Dylanesque vision there. Yet Dylan collaborated on lyrics for "Desire" for instance. And there's nothing necessarily wrong with a repurposing - such as the Pete Seeger's  "Turn! Turn! Turn!" finding inspiration in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Poetry and songwriting are odd bedfellows, though many have tried. There are few lyricists who really deserve to be read on the page like poetry, but then again there are few poems as weirdly effective as Oasis' "Live Forever" or "Wonderwall." Critiques of "bad lyrics" from non-bookish writers like Noel Gallagher sometimes miss the point I think - this stuff is hard!

Though there are a million creative writing courses there are far fewer songwriting classes, and I guess that's because not all writers are good musicians and not all musicians are able songwriters. One without the other doesn't really work. the Elton/Bernie approach is quite rare - and its notable that when singers sing other peoples' lyrics, like Elton, like in the Manic Street Preachers, the songs are often difficult ones for other people to cover. Elton or James Dean Bradfield takes the words and makes them fit the structures of the song, sometimes hilariously, but mostly so you wouldn't notice.

Songwriting in the 21st century is not as hit and miss as in the past - bands want a "hit" on their album as much as Heart did when they recorded "Alone" or Simple Minds did with "Dont you (forget about me)" - bands who usually wrote their own material getting the biggest hit of their career with someone else's song. Call in a Max Martin or one of the other celebrity writer/producers that record so much of contemporary pop. Martin is third only to Lennon and McCartney in American number one credits. Think of that....ahead of Elton John, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Bacharach and David - Max bloody Martin, writer of "...Baby One More Time" and "I Kissed a Girl." But, wait, aren't those classic songs now in their own right, that launched careers for Britney Spears and Katy Perry. But the Co-write is the lifeblood of contemporary music - there's one co-write on the new Rihanna album that features eleven names. Some of this is sample culture, where a sample means a song is a hybrid hydra with many heads. Sometimes its because the star came up with the concept, someone else wrote it down. But, this goes back forever. Didn't Elvis get a co-write on "Heartbreak Hotel" because he saw the newspaper article with that heading and knew what a hit looked like?

When I started writing songs again in 2007 after a bit of a hiatus, one of the best early songs was called "Sad Lovers of Twilight" which was a phrase I'd written down one night on a scrap of paper. Or I thought I had. When I came across the piece of paper a few years later, it said something slightly different. I can't recall now where the change came - probably in the recording process.

If songwriting is a lost art its perhaps because of a couple of things. The post-Beatles consensus was that bands had to write their own material. Amazingly, them, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks et al proved themselves the equals of the task. The professional songwriter still existed - e.g. the aforementioned Carole King - but by the early seventies even they were going solo - King's "Tapestry" was a songwriters' greatest hits done her own way, which was for a brief period one of the top ten selling albums of all time. It seems that the fecund nature of pop music in the sixties, seventies, eighties, even nineties meant that this model continued untouched. The great thing is that these "amateur" songwriters were able to take the culture in different ways. Yet since the millennium the idea of the "band" is one that has lost some of its currency, especially at the top of the charts. Indeed you have to slightly admire the otherwise ever-more bland Coldplay for their determination to still have hit singles - but they too, bring in hired help, with "all songs arranged by Coldplay and Stargate" on their newest album. We're in the age of the "featured artist". I noticed on the Brit awards how interchangeable the acts seemed - almost as if they were now soundtracking the stage shows they were putting on. It allows and enables a teen star like Justin Beiber to "grow up" by bringing in some top songwriters. The second contemporary trend is related more directly to technology. The "song" as something that can be played on a piano or an acoustic guitar is still there of course - just listen to the buskers on Market Street next time you are passing - but the "song" as it comes to fruition is a now a ProTooled, cut and paste melange. Producers like Calvin Harris and Mark Ronson are even more magpie-like than Dylan or Noel Gallagher, picking the shiny bits and putting them together. We're in a post-sampling world, where if you want a bit of Chic on your record, why not get Nile Rodgers in to provide it for you?

For the unknown young songwriter, its the same as ever I guess - from Frank Turner to Ed Sheeran there's a way forward that doesn't now require transit vans and having conversations with your drummer - a loop sampler is all you need. Yet where music goes beyond the few lines re-warbled on the X-Factor it requires something more I think - the glory of pop music has been its reinvention over the year, and though a new song might always have earlier echoes (where there's a hit there's a writ) the unique circumstance of young bands with rudimentary material, but a personalised vision of the world, has been the lifeblood of the artform since "A Hard Day's Night." The best songwriters have a mythos, a self mythology about their work - Dylan, Ian Curtis, Joni Mitchell, Kurt Cobain - that somehow connects beyond a brill building hit.

As I sit there humming tunelessly over my new musical backing, I'm looking for something more than just a melody line, but something that converts words into meaning, that creates a soaring sense of something with just a few words, or a clever turn of phrase that nobody's used in quite this way before.

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