Last week-end our very good friends L & S came to stay and I had a quick browse through L’s paper of choice the Mail on Sunday. I came across an interesting feature in the Event section about how some of Britain’s biggest music stars wrote their signature hits. In other words what was their method of composing and their inspiration? Later the same evening I watched a programme on BBC 4 about the most valuable songs of all time which asked a similar question. One illuminating fact shone out for me.
But let me tell you some of what our songbirds said first. Paul Weller talked about his song Going Underground (with The Jam) and his album Stanley Road. He admitted that he had no idea how he writes; it just comes to him, though he did admit to plundering the Beatles shamelessly. He’s still looking to craft a song as beautifully as Good Vibrations. Annie Lennox agonised as she always does about her art. She yabbered on about the ‘alchemy of the process’, ‘a deep and powerful means of self-expression’ and being ‘in the moment of attention and connection’. Oh gawd love. It seems that she did the words and Dave Stewart edited them and did the music and all the production. If you ask me their best song ‘Sweet Dreams’ is all about 6 words and a stonking driving riff. So that’s 95% Dave Stewart’s then? Sting talked about his great song ‘Every Breath You Take’ which he said started off as a love song but became darker as he developed the words. He then went into some twaddle about ‘songwriters being conduits to songs from the ether’ and that ‘we don’t really write songs; they pre-exist and we find them like archaeologists’. I think he means they nick bits from others – at least Paul Weller was less mysterious about it. Many would say that the strength of the song lies not in the clever words but in the mesmeric guitar riff from Andy Summers, who was denied co-authorship status by the Geordie minstrel. Perhaps that’s what Sting was getting at by ‘finding’ a great song . Bryan Ferry talked modestly about luck playing a great part in writing a good melody. His song ‘Jealous Guy’ was an example of one where he was moved writing it and shed a tear as he did. That’s when you know it works, he offered. Jarvis Cocker sort of supported this by admitting that he knows after 20 seconds whether a song is any good or not. The song he knew was OK half a minute in? Common People from 1995.
The last person I was intrigued by was Paul MCartney who talked about 1965’s ‘Yesterday’ of course. Or ‘Scrambled Eggs’ as its working title was for quite some time as Paul and the other mop tops bashed it around in rehearsals. Paul’s technique it seems was to wake up with the song in his head, having created something special during his sleep. Cocker made reference to this technique too but admitted that anything he records in the middle of the night having woken from his creative dream, always sounds totally incoherent when listened to in the morning.
Well I don’t know what this all means in terms of technique. I reckon that Ferry may be the most realistic. A hook or distinctive melody springs into the mind and layers and words are crafted around it. What does strike me however is that great songwriting creativity tends to be linked with youthfulness and maybe early passion/love and almost certainly before the money starts to pile in (or maybe the drink/drugs take hold). All of the great songs were written early on in their careers it seems to me. Have any of the above artists written anything truly great after turning 45 or in the last 10 years? Come on there’s not much you can point to. And if you need further evidence I’ll quote you Ray Davies one time leader of the Kinks who, looking back on his career, said that ‘he will always aspire to write the great 3 -minute song because he’s not written it yet’. And what topic would you write about? Getting your bus pass? Your ill-fitting incontinence pants? Do me a favour Ray. If you lived to be 135 I’m as certain as night following day that you’ll never write anything again as close to the greatness of those songs written nearly 50 years ago – Sunny Afternoon, You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night, Lola or Waterloo Sunset – let alone surpass them.
And I’d have given that hairstyle the elbow after the punk era son. It’s bloody tragic.