Before I kick off this entry, a quick plug: if you’re going to Brighton’s Great Escape 2012 as a delegate, I’m pleased to say I’ll be a panellist again this year; contributing to the Focus On DIY panel. It’s on Thurs 10 May at 11.15am. Come down and say hello.
Two contrasting descriptions of songwriting / recording processes are doing the rounds this week (in very different musical circles), so I thought I’d post them both:
First, the New Yorker has John Seabrook’s fascinating profile of top-line hit songwriter Ester Dean, as she works with production duo Stargate to put together smash hits for pop superstars. Dean wrote Rude Girl and S&M for Rihanna and Turn Me On for David Guetta, so you can get a feel of her style; filth. Funnily enough, I’ve long thought of my friend Tim Victor (who wrote Ass To Ass and Juicing Down for Skins) as an undiscovered UK Ester Dean. Anyway, the piece really prises open the top-line process (adding melody and lyric to a beats track in the studio, sorting the arrangement at the same time), if you aren’t already aware of it. For example there’s a great story about how both Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson got the same basic track written by Ryan Tedder and each one added top line melodies/lyrics, resulting in Halo and Already Gone. Clarkson realised the error when she heard Beyonce’s Halo and tried to pull her own single, thinking people would accuse her of copying. Luckily fans didn’t notice, or didn’t care – well worth a back-to-back of those two tracks:
(clearly, one’s ‘just’ a hit, the other’s a smash…)
Some comments found the New Yorker piece disheartening, because it shows vividly how ‘box ticking’ (and carefully constructed) this kind of songwriting is, prioritising craft and arrangement over art. But I found it reassuring: you still can’t write a smash ‘to order’. You know instantly, as a feeling rather than a thought process, when you have one. And I especially liked how fragile these guys’ world is; that they end the piece nervous about Adele’s global success, fearful that it may usher in a whole new style to replace their multi-hooked R&B sex pop.
And funnily enough, on the latest episode of US musical series Smash (*spoiler alert!*), the Broadway director (Jack Davenport) proposes adding some of this Rihanna-ish songwriting style into the show’s Marilyn musical. It’s a disaster. Coincidentally Ryan Tedder plays himself in this episode (and I bet he wrote the song they use).
Secondly, Ron Aniello, producer of Springsteen’s new LP Wrecking Ball, did a US radio interview that unpicks the fresh production and cunning new sonic ideas that he brought to the project:
One gem from this interview is that Aniello added Clarence Clemons’ (final) sax solo to Land Of Hope And Dreams without actually telling Bruce, by transposing and subtly editing the solo from a previous recorded version. They reached the mixdown before Springsteen heard it. Must’ve been an intense moment.
He also addresses the key torture of being a Springsteen producer: working hard on a record, being very proud of it, then having to witness the E Street Band knock the songs into a different dimension live.
Today I’m sifting through piles of old songwriting notebooks, piecing together best bits of lyrics, looking for new songs and ways to complete nearly-done songs. The main job is juggling all these incomplete bits til they become ‘finished’ (whatever that means). For me it’s the toughest part of songwriting: in my opinion it’s not (mostly) ‘art’ because the art already happened when we had the ideas in the first place, so it’s more ‘craft’ – the bit that takes effort and experience. And it’s boring. And you come out with far less than you go in with.
Not moaning though, it’s not like an actual job or anything.
Anyway, I just uncovered the original first verse of ‘Elephant In The Room’ from Love Is Not Rescue and I like it as an example of how far a lyric might need to travel. So, shared with a red face, I swear my first written version was this:
I forgot how to ride a bike
I forgot how to swim
Put me in the Guinness Book of Records for being the most forgetful
Oh, I forgot, y’already put me in.
50 protest songs from the history of pop. Of course it’s not a definitive list, there are some ‘classics’ in there but some curveballs too: for me the idea is that each song/track can open the door to a story, adding a key element to the history of protest rock’n’roll. If I wrote a lecture series about protest song, this is the soundtrack. It’s inspired by Rick Rogers, who runs a popular music course down in Falmouth (and in fact used to manage one of the acts who made the list) – he sent me a fascinating questionnaire about protest songwriting and my own political songs.
A protest song is a song that’s so specific you can’t mistake it for bullshit.
Here’s the complete tracklisting, with individual Spotify track links, if you just want to listen to one track.
01 Pete Seeger – What Did You Learn In School Today?
02 Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit
03 Josh White – Trouble
04 Paul Robeson – Joe Hill
05 Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your Land
06 Eddie Cochran – Summertime Blues
07 The Plastic Ono Band – Give Peace A Chance
08 Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
09 Bob Marley & The Wailers – Redemption Song
10 Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
11 Scott Walker – Next
12 Country Joe McDonald – I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag [Live]
13 Stevie Wonder – You Haven’t Done Nothin’
14 Bob Dylan – Hurricane
15 Sex Pistols – God Save The Queen
16 Tom Robinson Band – Glad To Be Gay
17 The Specials – Ghost Town
18 Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – The Message
19 Ian Dury – Spasticus Autisticus
20 Randy Newman – Short People
21 Merle Haggard – Okie From Muskogee
22 U2 – Sunday Bloody Sunday
23 Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding – Remastered in 1998
24 Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Born In The U.S.A.
25 Paul Hardcastle – 19
26 Sting – They Dance Alone
27 Dick Gaughan – The World Turned Upside Down
28 The Proclaimers – Cap In Hand
29 Billy Bragg – Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards
30 Midnight Oil – Beds Are Burning
31 Boogie Down Productions – Stop The Violence
32 Public Enemy – Fight The Power
33 The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy – Television The Drug Of The Nation
34 Sonic Youth – Swimsuit Issue
35 June Tabor – All Our Trades Are Gone
36 Rage Against The Machine – Bullet In The Head
37 Ani Difranco – Lost Woman Song
38 Sinead O’Connor – Famine
39 Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine – Bloodsport For All
40 Pulp – Common People – Full Length Version / Album Version
41 Radiohead – Electioneering
42 Black Eyed Peas – Where Is The Love?
43 Steve Earle – John Walker’s Blues
44 Toby Keith – Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)
45 Morrissey – Irish Blood, English Heart
46 Bright Eyes – When The President Talks To God
47 Bruce Springsteen & The Sessions Band – How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live
48 Dixie Chicks – Not Ready To Make Nice
49 M.I.A. – Paper Planes
50 John Trudell – Look At Us/Peltier Aim Song
The list isn’t completely chronological, though it does start with early 20th century American folk-protest and then moves forward in bursts. There are two separate traditions going on, which makes things a bit complicated: there is a musical tradition of folk-protest. Then there is the simple lyrical act of commenting on current affairs – which has nothing to do with any instrumental, melodic or arrangement tradition. There’s no way Radiohead‘s ‘Electioneering’ owes any musical debt to the folk-protest movement, yet the words are potent and could be re-worked into that tradition with no problem.
There are a few ‘non-left’ songs included, although it’s tricky to find decent right-wing protest songs that don’t just bolster the powers-that-be (which by definition means they’re not protest). I’ve droppped in Merle Haggard‘s anti-hippie, anti-progressive classic ‘Okie…’ and personally I think Morrissey‘s ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ is a right-of-centre, rather than true outsider, rant.
Steve Earle‘s ‘John Walker’s Blues’, which empathises with American Taliban John Walker, is placed beside arguably the best-known fiercely right-wing protest song of recent years, Toby Keith‘s furious pro-Bush response to 9/11.
What’s missing? There are some things unavailable on Spotify that could’ve been useful; The Beatles‘ right-wing ‘Taxman’, some early 60s Dylan for example. I’ve left out Neil Young for now because his idiosyncratic journey through various issues and shifting positions is worth a playlist to itself, which I’ll do later. If I really did a lecture series on protest song, I’d probably do a whole lecture on Neil Young Making Up His Mind.
I also missed out a few for space that are still worth checking separately: Against Me!‘s sardonic ‘White People For Peace’ for example. I wish Ian Hunter‘s 90s album Rant was on Spotify – it’s as political a British right-winger has got I think. Underground leftist heroes (David Rovics, Evan Greer, Utah Phillips, Anne Feeney) write great songs, deeply embedded in the counter-culture. My friend Frank Turner has written easily the finest libertarian (anti-state, so I do think of it as ‘right-wing’) anthem of recent years; ‘Sons Of Liberty’ and its anthemic Levellers / NMA style fools many UK lefties, who think he’s one of theirs, partly because of his earlier tune ‘Thatcher Fucked The Kids’.
We deliberately end ‘out of period’ with John Trudell‘s extraordinary poem of American Indian despair because it is uniquely powerful – a voice from an earlier time and yet an unresolved horror. It is an emotional impact, rather than an intellectual end.
My (poet and drummer) friend Ben makes an interesting inclusion to the ‘protest’ genre, which I decided not to include here but is worth mentioning: that is music where the content is not political but the artist’s behaviour – or the context in which the music was performed – makes it political. His example is Benny Goodman‘s multi-racial band, performing jazz to an audience for whom this was completely shocking.
Beyonce has apparently had a pile of trouble with her new ballad ‘1+1’, which is possibly being shelved after an exceptionally poor reaction on American Idol or some such. It also got a mauling on Nihal’s Radio 1 review show; unexpected since she’s usually impregnable and over again, the critics were left with the painful “I love Beyonce but…” gambit.
But just one simple lyric change would rescue the whole song. Seriously, if you know anyone who works with Ms Knowles, tell her this, urgently: they need to alter the chorus line of “Make love to me”, repeated over and over, for something non-sexual and oriented back towards the longing of the verse lyrics.
My pick would immediately be “Make time for me” sung to the same melody, with the same passion, which, although it seems pretty cheesy / mainstream on first listen, is actually very unusual – and I can’t remember ever being used in that way for a slow hit ballad.
Thing is, it’s a song about assuaging loneliness, so when the “make love to me” chorus kicks in, it undermines the sentiment and makes the listener put the song into a different box – while at the same time we have no choice but to feel a bit taken aback by the shift from supportive need to sexual need. I reckon this – and only this – is why the song is struggling.
Nothing else needs to change. The arrangement, verses and production are great; unconventional and brilliant. People keep saying ‘Prince-like’. But it needs the clean, powerful uplift of a non-sex chorus. Then it becomes like Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’, a piece for universal emotional steadying, instead of bonking your way out of trouble.
I’m right – and if they listen to me they’ll smash it.
After looking at such a tiny detail of the Ultrasound song in the last entry, I need to mention stand-up comedian Stewart Lee‘s ferociously brilliant new book How I Escaped My Certain Fate as a great resource if you’re into developing any kind of self-absorbed analysis of your own work-in-performance.
(I did have a powerful personal reaction to the book as well, but prefer to blog it here, not on Blognostic, to focus on its value as a resource. But I did LOVE it; it punched me in the face with recognition over and over again, on different levels.)
It is partly a memoir of Lee’s abandoning of live performance after near stardom in the 1990s, his confidence shattered, then his unexpected success with Jerry Springer: The Opera, leading to a tentative, more thoughtful return to stand-up in 2004. The book features three full transcriptions of key live shows since that return, which have been annotated in intricate, lengthy detail. The shows are transcribed from specific live performances (the sets used for DVDs I think, since they were taped) rather than using some kind of generic ‘perfect’/’idealised’ script.
Lee makes a jawdropping success of writing down his insightful analysis of his own creative performance process, of breaking down each stand-up show and relating clearly how the prepared material blends with the live unfolding moment, how the set might digress or not, what he says and what he’s trying to say. It’s not just fascinating but truly useful: obviously (the task of) stand-up is a magnified, concertina’d version of (the task of) music performance: the audience feedback that happens every 3-4 minutes for a songwriter, at tacitly agreed points (between each song) happens near constantly, second-by-second for a comedian. They need to be far greater masters of crowd control than we are, especially if they’re trying to do more than tell jokes, if they have an underlying point. Thus it would be less relevant if Lee were a populist gag man but his stuff is multi-layered, a complex, ambitious beast unfolding with plot and rhythm.
Beyond the analysis, I also found How I Escaped… brutally honest, yet oddly reassuring about the continuing potential for a career in minority interest, uncompromising performance arts today. Lee’s comedic rebirth and his refusal to bow to the shit he’d bended to in the past, exactly mirrors the ‘new DIY’ approach so many of us musicians are facing/embracing. He’s not trying for an over-arching message but I took from it a determined: ‘the quality will out’.
Read it if you can.