Monday, August 17, 2009

The song remains the same?

Where does songwriting go to when you lose the muse? The rhyming couplet, the clever play on words or just simply the unforgettable line that will trigger memories; sometimes they just dry up. Like an Australian drought, what was once a raging river is now a dry riverbed with tumbleweed blowing in the wind.

I spent a decade and a half of my life writing songs. They poured out of me like water from a rock struck by Moses (I think it was Moses), on occasion I have banged out two or three songs in a day. They were good as well. OK, so you’ll have to take my word for that, but they were. The only problem was, in my case, I never quite got my head around the fact that people who want other people to write songs for them don’t want great tunes that deal with child abuse and the threat of war. They want anodyne la-la-la stuff. Now I’m not saying that my songs were all about heavy topics, when I wrote love songs usually Smokey Robinson was sitting on my shoulder – I hasten to add that I’m not comparing myself to Smokey, merely explaining the process.

This point is the crux of my dilemma. How do you define songwriters? There are obviously two main kinds of writers, and not just good or bad. There are the writers like Holland Dozier Holland or Linda Perry, they can construct great melodies, strong structures and catchy tunes; the music they make is memorable. Then there are the writers in bands or the singer-songwriters, those whose expression is defined by the entity in which they exist as an artist. You could call these the poet writers. People like Neil Young, Pete Townsend, Lily Allen or Tom Waits.

The poet writers move through the times they live in, they supply snapshots of reality seen through the prism of their perception. They reinterpret the truth but they never lie. The music they make exists in the construct of their own making but often, such is their skill, the songs they write have such universal application that others can sing them and though the cover might not carry the same weight and power that the writer imbues in their version it still has resonance. Then there are those album tracks that you can’t imagine anyone else ever singing. The Pixies’ Monkey Gone To Heaven, Small Change by Tom Waits or Baba O’Reilly by The Who for example; and anything by Bob Dylan in his early years.

That’s not to say that the poet writer always gets it right. Neil Young, possibly one of the strongest and most forthright of performers, has varied wildly over the years, but the road he treads tends to be the right one. His latest effort, Fork In The Road, is a great example of monomania tending to overshadow a good idea. A whole album about a car? Without the thrill of a Rocket 88 or a paean to a Cadillac wrapped up in snappy lines and twisting couplets it becomes a tad samey! But a man who wrote Ohio and Living With War has to be given some leeway.

I bring Neil Young into this because at his recent appearance at Glastonbury he bestrode the stage like a colossus. He has the look of some weird, wild mountain man who has seen too much and lived to tell the tale but he can invest early songs like Down By The River or Hurricane with as much authority and meaning as they had when he wrote them. Like a shark he continuously moves forward, believing in the maxim that for an artist to develop they must change, continuously. That’s why some bands or performers fall by the wayside. In the time they sprung to the fore they invested the world with meaning but times change and if writers don’t notice that change, or reflect it, then they fall away and become irrelevant (cf. prog rock vs punk).

The tragedy is that, in Young’s words, no modern artist stepped up to denounce Blair and Bush’s Iraq campaign, there was a lot of blogging and furrowing of brows but the voices of the musicians were silent. Modern artists seemed petrified at the idea of rocking the boat and damaging their careers; they seem ill-equipped to comment and the public appears to have little desire to hear anything outside of their comfort zone. It is as if music has ceased to be any force for change and just become the soundtrack to dinner parties and train journeys.

In the past the professional writers, like Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, have felt able to comment on the world around them. Maybe because the demand from the street was such that the creators of pop music couldn’t avoid the subject songs like Cloud 9 and Ball of Confusion came to be written. Maybe. It’s far more likely that Norman and Barrett were aware of the society they lived in, as was Berry Gordy.

Motown eventually lost the plot when Gordy moved to the West Coast, becoming home to saccharine soul.

But even as the great writers of Motown reflected on the world around them the biggest section of writers by far were asked to deliver songs that basically helped you through the day. In effect gave us aural wallpaper for the soul. Kylie singing Cathy Dennis’ Can’t Get You Out of My Head might not bring down governments but it does raise the happiness quotient around us for three minutes or so. But songs like that seldom come along; songs that determine the moment.

If you are older, like I am, often you’ll think of songs that shaped moments of your youth. For me songs like Shame Shame Shame by Shirley & Company defined a particular drink and drug fuelled rampage through strange Liverpool club culture in the 70s. A time, for me, of such unbridled fun and excess that I find it hard to understand that this song isn’t stamped on everyone’s consciousness who were late teens or early twenties in 1975. It got to number 6 and she never had another hit. That was one of mine; most of us have one.

The fact is most songs that are written for artists who can’t write their own material tends to have little value. It gets churned out, shovelled onto the field of dreams like slurry and decreases the perceived value of music. There’s so much demand for mediocre music to drive forward X Factor, major record labels and commercial radio stations that any concept of quality control has gone. Like the short, intense rush of sugary sweets or crack cocaine record label executives demand songs that flash and burn in an instant, the hook of the moment that comes and goes like a bad lover leaving nothing but regret and the slight sense of squalidness.

There are still moments of brilliance but given the quantity of material needed it should come as no surprise that so much is meaningless and only serves to denigrate music’s value.

So go out there and watch the small bands that have something to say, cheer for the singers who choose difficult material and stop rolling you eyes when some young front person steps up to the mic to announce a song about how crap society is. We need those idealists and dreamers.

Either that or hand the keys of the world to Tony Blair and Simon Cowell.