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Songwriting

Jimmy Webb's excellent book Tunesmith (Inside the Art of Songwriting), published by Hyperion has acted as a catalyst for an article on the structures of the songs that I admire.

The book has made me think about my favourite singer-songwriters and what makes them special to me. It has also led to the posing of the following questions.

 

Which is the more important - lyrics or melody?
What (for me) makes a classic song
What makes some songs have tremendous emotion whilst others have no affect at all?

I would like to try in this article to answer some of the above questions. This article is mainly about my own gut reactions to songs and is therefore personal to me. If you want to read about the pure mechanics of songwriting just read Jimmy Webb's book which also gives us a private glimpse into his world.

So what credentials do I have for making the following comments. The answer is very few. I studied music as a child and can play the piano well enough to "amuse myself", if nobody else.

For 10 years I wrote a music column in the local newspaper and was also a music critic for a number of years.

I will , however, probably never write a song. I leave that to Mr Webb and my other heroes. I do have two factors which I feel qualify me to write about music and these are:

I love music and
I buy it

These facts make me a consumer and I feel that gives me the right to comment. It also qualifies just about anybody to make comments. Artists who refuse to listen to their fans or the public will not last long, after all we are the very people who make their songs famous.

So all the following are my own personal views and should be read as such. The artists and songwriters and songs I mention are simply my particular favourites. Others will make claims for other songwriters and those claims will be equally valid. It's all a matter of choice.

Which is the more important - Lyrics or Melody?

Well here it is. The $64,000 question right at the start. Can a lyric stand up without a decent tune? Are lyrics poetry? Can a good melody stand up without decent lyrics?
I suggest that there are two facets to a great song.

It must be impactive both lyrically and musically
The singer must have a vocal range and voice which you find acceptable.

It must always be remembered that however good a song, it can be destroyed for you if you cannot stand the singer's voice. All too often I have not listened to the lyrical content of a song because of the voice of the artist (Bryan Adams and Michael Bolton are prime examples of artists I cannot listen to).

Of course this voice thing is highly subjective. I cannot tell you why I do not like Bryan Adams and Michael Bolton anymore than I can say why I enjoy Tom Waits, Rod Stewart, and Leonard Cohen.

So a singer who you like will instantly make all the difference to a song. If the singer is also the songwriter all the better, although I admit to having difficulty with Bob Dylan's voice. It has always been a blind spot for me and stopped me from truly enjoying his songs. When Dylan's material is covered by the likes of the Byrds, well that's a different matter.

It wasn't until I read Dylan's lyrics as poetry that I re-assessed his output. Later I will list the singer-songwriters and songwriters who I believe write pure poetry. So the voice is important, but is subjective as I have already stated.

I also believe that most artists (whether they be groups, solo singers and whether they are working in the fields of rock, pop, jazz, folk or any other medium) have a limited number of great songs within them just as they have a limited number of albums (Here I think of how Oasis have deteriorated after a couple of fine albums and how Jackson Browne's once fine output seems to have dwindled to an irrelevant trickle).

Maybe fortune and fame (not to mention cash) dulls the song-writing senses. It's difficult to come up with classics about poverty and life's problems if you are sitting in a mansion at a grand piano!!

Songwriters must have a limited amount of inspiration before the perspiration takes over. Songs may initially flow freely from their pens before semi writer's block sets in and record deals and/or the sheer boredom of writing takes over. Occasionally this scheme is broken by an unexpected return to form, but this seems to be a rarity.

Dylan, David Bowie and any number of groups (both American and British) are perfect examples of this. How many more classic albums would Nirvana have been able to produce before they became "establishment mundane?" So many have produced classic songs and classic albums but eventually have given way to what I refer to as "contractual obligation music."

I believe that songwriting is 80% inspiration and 20% perspiration. So let's return to that question of what makes a great song - the music or the lyrics. A truly great song will have both. So there's no problem there. As they said in the song "Love and Marriage," "You Can't Have One Without the Other." The problem comes with songs where either the words or the music outweigh the other.

I have thought about the question of which is most important long and hard. There are no real answers to this and once again I state that the following are my own thoughts.

On the hi-fi at the moment is a song (any song) with a wonderful melody, a stunning chorus which turns your knees to jelly. Well it can just about get by as a good song even if the lyrics are along the lines of "She's off to school to learn the golden rule" ( and how many times have you heard that contrived lyric in songs?) or "I'd like to spoon under the moon in June."

Without the lyrics to go with it that wonderful melody can never be a classical song. Please remember here that we are talking about songwriting and not classical or instrumental pieces which of course can be classics without any words. So a song can get by with a strong melody, but it can never be a classic.

Take now a stunning piece of writing - a poetical symphony. Now that could lose out because of a lack of melody. Many music listeners are not bothered about the lyrics. It's a tune they can hum or dance to that they require.

I would claim that truly great songs have to have both great lyrics and great melodies. To be good a song can get by with the melody being stronger than the lyrics.

In no way are those comments meant to devalue lyrics, but I believe that however strong the words there must be a melody to accompany them.

That rule is broken immediately, however, if you look at the list of my top 100 tracks of all time. It is broken by my number one song "Mockingbird" by Barclay James Harvest. Now for those unaware, Barclay James Harvest (or BJH) are a British band from Lancashire.

They began life in the late 1960s and met with some popularity (particularly in Europe) in the 1970s. Their early music was classically based with strong guitar and keyboards.

Mockingbird comes from my favourite album of all time "Once Again." To me the melody is sublime, building and swirling in an atmospheric melee of music. It is a stunning piece of early 1970s almost Gothic rock. Lyrically, however, it is very simple and if I was listing my top 100 songs from a lyrical point of view it wouldn't figure at all.

The lyrics are pleasant, but it is the music and the melody which makes this a classic for me. This song is way ahead of anything else in my top 100. It evokes memories and feelings of a very happy period in my life and has more meaning than any other piece of music ever written (although Jimmy Webb's MacArthur Park and Nilsson's version of Without You) approach it.

So I have broken my own rule immediately - but this is the exception to the rule. You will see that all the other songs in my top 10 are strong both musically and lyrically.

In trying to answer my first question I have inadvertently answered the second. What to me makes a great song.

It is simply a fusion of great music and great lyrics. I would add another factor at this point - age. You will see from my top 100 that everything listed seems to be well over 10 years old. Songs are like good wine - they grow and mature.

Over the past few years (particularly leading up to the new millennium) there has been poll after poll about the most important songs and the most important artists of our age. Many of the entries come from the past few years. I claim that many of the people who voted would come from the younger age groups who voted on a very limited knowledge of music taken from the last few years.

My eldest son listed his top 100 tracks a few years ago and placed them on the Internet. They are taken from about six or seven of his favourite artists. That list was made before he discovered "old-timers" like the Beatles, the Kinks, Bowie etc etc. He still has a long way to go, but he is realising that great rock music goes back generations.

To get into my top 100, any song from the past few years would have to be outstanding because its youth means that it hasn't gone through my quality control. A great song will never diminish in its power with age (or with awful new versions: look at the way Madonna has turned American Pie into a chirpy little singalong song).

What a true musical journey these youngsters could have if they opened their minds to the music of the past.

Above all a classic song has to have the "oomph factor" - that subtle something which makes your heart melt. It will conjure up thoughts of the past. It will remind you of the good (and even bad) times, of broken love affairs, it will strike a special chord in your own life. It is likely that a truly great song will have a similar effect on thousands upon thousands of others. It will not be a five minute wonder but will give lasting pleasure for ever and ever.

It is interesting to note that even in these polls the greatest song of all time is usually either Bohemian Rhapsody or Imagine - both songs from many years ago and both with great melodies and lyrics (although the former comes into a special group which I will subsequently discuss).

In talking about classic songs, the style is not important. They could be rock songs, pop songs, folk or country songs, even jazz. They are just songs with that indefinible quality.

Individual songwriters seem to have their own trademarks and their songs are often instantly recognisable due to tell tale phrasing or lyrics. It is usually easy to tell a Jim Steinman song and as you develop a liking for a particular artists it is often easy to tell when they release a new song even before you know it is by them (I will develop this theme at a later date).

The emotional content of a song is very much a personal matter. The importance of a song is what it says and means to you and how it seems to speak personally to you or even mirror your experiences.

You only have to look at my top 10 of all time to realise this. Each has a specific message and a specific meaning to me. Many are extremely well known songs and I am sure others have interpreted them in other ways.

As I have already said Barclay James Harvest's Mockingbird can reduce me to tears if I am feeling emotionally charged. It reminds me of a particularly happy time in the early 70s (co-incidentally I would list the years from 1967 through to 1973 as the greatest era for songwriting). I hope to develop this in a separate article about the early 70s.

Number two on my all time list is the brilliant MacArthur Park. Here is a song which has been recorded literally by tens of singers, but it remains synonymous with the pen of Jimmy Webb. Arguing about which version is best (and I would vote for the Richard Harris one) is irrelevant as the song stands up on its own. It reminds me of my teen years and I would refer to this as an epic (a definition of which I will inlcude later).

Number 3 is the equally brilliant Without You. This time it has to be the Nilsson version. Here is a perfect example of a song written by a less than well know writing team (two members of the instantly forgettable British group Badfinger). Somewhere along the line the duo managed to come up with a timeless classic. Nilsson's voice is perfect for this soaring ballad and it is probably the most emotionally charged song in my first 10.

In fourth place comes Matthew's Southern Comfort's version of the Joni Mitchell classic Woodstock. I much prefer this version to Mitchell's own or that of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Ian Matthew's puts a country feel to it. Again the lyrics are marvellously evocative of a particular time.

Number five is interesting. Summer the First Time was written by Bobby Goldsboro - a man not looked upon as coming from the top drawer of songwriters. But once again here is a timeless classic - an evocation of an era long gone. It is a powerful reminder of the film Summer of 42. Goldsboro never again scaled the heights of this perfect fusion of pop and classical.

Number six is a little known piece by my own particular hero and the man responsible for making me listen to lyrics. To me Harry Chapin was a genius. It's almost as if his songs speak to me personally. Harry somehow had the ability to sum up my feelings better than I ever could. The fact that I nver met the guy makes his songwriting ability even stronger. My favourite is There Only Was one Choice which is an epic 12 minute plus song which forges together numerous different strands of melody, but with lyrics which move from the poetical to the harsh and biting. This is an extremely complex piece with so many different mood swings that it leaves you gasping at the end.

Number seven is a jaunty melodic number from British band Lindisfarne. I have never really been able to define the brilliance behind Meet Me On the Corner, but it has an indefinible beauty and grace, underpinned by wonderful Geordie harmonies.

Number eight is American Pie which includes some of the greatest rock lyrics of all time. Don McLean wrote a number of marvellous songs, but this is his greatest. The words are pure poetry and the melody is deceptively simple. You just know that underneath is a highly perceptive view of the pop world.

Number nine comes from the pen of another of my favourite artists Phil Ochs. Whether it be his own version or the beautiful Joan Baez rendition, "There But for Fortune" is a wonderfully effective but simple song with stunning lyrics that almost leave you speechless.

And finally another surprise (well certainly to those living in the UK). Dan Fogelberg is well known in America but virtually unheard of in England. I was introduced to him by a neighbour who worked and travelled extensively in the States. The song "Leader of the Band" comes from the brilliant Innocent Age album which is full of style and poetry. Much of the content of this song is pure poetry as Fogelberg sings about his father.

So looking at my favourite 10 (or even more if you have the time) you will see a mix of strong emotional melodies, stunning lyrics and songs which stretch the imagination as good shongs should. If you ant to see more of my top tracks follow this link.

In the end it's all up to you as an individual. One person's classic can be another person's dross and vice-versa.

If you have the chance listen to the above songs and let me know what you think of my assessments.

Poets or Hacks


So is a lyric writer a true poet or just a hack? There is no doubt in my mind that the great songwriters are all poets. Anthologies of poetry always ignore the contributions to the art made by rock writers. I use the term rock to include every form of modern song writing.

From Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to Lennon and McCartney, Paul Simon to Bob Dylan, the poetry of rock musicians has "moved" generations.

Songwriters are poets of the highest calibre. Often written poets leave you flat, wondering at what message they are trying to portray as they wrap it up in acres of meaningless verbage. The songwriter is different. They are attempting to wrap their message into a strictly limited time span, trying to tell a story in often little over three minutes... and how wonderfully they have achieved this since the early days of the 20th century. The balladeers have given us a wealth of poetry that is satisfying beyond belief.

The songwriter is a true troubadour and a poet of the highest calibre. They truly deserve to be called poets of our time. Many are world famous, but others have been overlooked - their songs being the main testimony to their art with their names virtually unknown.

I would defy anybody to listen to some of the following and claim they are not really poets. Here are just a few of my favourite songwriters (deliberately in no particular order).

Paul Simon

Simon could be the "high priest" of rock/pop writers. There is a pure poetic quality to songs such as "Sound of Silence", "Homeward Bound," "I Am A Rock" and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters". Each has lines of utter brilliance and superb imagery.

"Hello Darkness My Old Friend.
I've Come to Talk with You Again" - The Sound of Silence.

What imagery. Sound of Silence is arguably my favourite lyric in the history of modern song. There isn't a false word. The same goes for Homeward Bound

"All my songs come back to me
In shades of mediocrity" - Homeward Bound.

Just those lines alone shout out the difficulty of being a songwriter - always unhappy with the written word (just as I feel dissatisfied with what I am attempting to say at the moment). Amongst songwriters, Paul Simon is one of the most subtle.

Jimmy Webb

I will leave it to Jimmy's book to speak of the art of songwriting. Again his imagery is beautiful. His writing has power, passion and raw emotion. Just try "By the Time I get to Phoenix," "Didn't We," "Wichita Lineman" for size and then there is the Gothic intensity of "MacArthur Park." But there are many other lesser known songs such as "Adios", "The Yard Went on Forever" and many many more. A true songwriting genius.

Harry Chapin

As already documented, Harry is my favourite. I have a separate web site on the meaning of Harry's songs to me. They travel with me wherever I go.

"Sometimes I get this crazy dream, that I just take off in my car
But you can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are."
- WOLD

 

David Bowie

I will come clean and admit that most of my favourite songwriters are American. I can't explain why but good UK songwriters seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Americans seem comfortable writing about their country and its places (I Left My Heart in San Francisco etc etc etc). In the UK songs including place names are few and far between and seem to have little credibililty (Streets of London is one of the few exceptions). There are few songs that could extol the virtues of Bognor or Cleethorpes. There is an in-built romanticism about the USA that does not exist in the United Kingdom. Bowie, however, was and is a songwriter of tremendous power. His earlier material, when he spent much time re-inventng his own persona, has a tremendously idiosyncratic British (Cockney) feel about it.

Phil Ochs

Ochs wrote biting and cutting political satire but still managed some beautiful lyrics and melodies. Just listen to the words of "Crucifixion" if you need any proof.

Neil Young

Like all great songwriters, Young has transcended fashion and the years and still has a biting power.

Paul Williams

Another of my favourites and extremely underrated as a songwriter. Along with Roger Nicholls he wrote many of the outstanding songs recorded by the Carpenters.

Dan Fogelberg

Another American singer-songwriter of the highest class.

Those are just some of my favourites. The list is endless and also includes: Jim Steinman, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Paul Ryan, Al Stewart, Rod Stewart, Joan Baez, Nick Drake, Judy Collins, Brian Wilson, Jeff Buckley, Neil Hannon, Peter Green, Jim Morrison, Ian McNabb, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jackson Browne, John Lees and so the list goes on and on and on and ..........

Epic Songs

Songs take many forms (again see Jimmy Webb's book), but there is a group of monumental classics which I find hard to define. I would call them epics, or Gothic pieces. They follow few rules and at times seem to be two, three, four or even more songs welded together. They could also be classed as hotch-potch songs, but somehow the various parts mingle to make perfect examples of a special genre.

They certainly do not follow set plans. Just consider some of the following:

		MacArthur Park (written by Jimmy Webb)
		Band on the Run (written by Paul McCartney)
		Eloise (written by Paul Ryan)
		Bohemian Rhapsody (written by Freddy Mercury)
		Surfs Up (written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks)
		American Pie (written by Don McLean)
		There Only Was One Choice (written by Harry Chapin)
		Objects in the Rear View Mirror ...(written by Jim Steinman)

Just listen to some of these and you will get my point. They are all mini operas and there are many more. Do let me know of others.

Arguably the best known is Bohemian Rhapsody which regularly tops polls to establish the "greatest single of all time."

It wanders all over the place, changes melody, changes direction, seems to be lurching headlong towards disaster but ends up as a triumphant epic. And the others are very similar - melodies of haunting beauty come in and depart never to return.

I love this style of song because it is so demanding for the listener, but so rewarding and worthwhile if you stick with it.

Well anyway this has been Part One of my look at songwriting. Part Two will follow in the not too distant future. Let me know if you agree or disagree with anything I have written (I don't want to be writing in a vacuum).

©Peter Steward - February 2000