by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
Every morning, millions of humans belt out songs in their showers. There’s no art more popular than song. A great melody is a whoosh of sublime emotion plugged straight into the human heart in the snappiest concentrate imaginable that, once stuck, stays stuck forever.
Great paintings can go unseen by many; great novels can go unread by most humans; but a great song is heard by all.
I’ve been thinking about the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and the greatest songs ever written, and naturally, the Beatles sprang to mind. But then I started making some comparisons, and came to a number of bizarre conclusions.
BTW, when I say greatest songs, I mean those with the greatest melodies, which more or less restricts us to ballads, and also excuses some terrible lyrics (the words of Irving Berlin’s classic White Christmas are absurdly banal; the lyrics of Puccini’s soaring One Fine Day are awkward, to say the least; and the Rolling Stones’ most moving ballad, Wild Horses, has the stupidest lyrics extant).
Here are my conclusions, briefly, before I get to a putative canon of actual songwriters and their songs: something that’s never been attempted before, which is why I’m doing it now.
Conclusion one: there are only eight truly greatest songwriters of all time, and they leave all the others in belly-crawling dust, for an obvious reason that will be revealed shortly.
Conclusion two: there are no great songwriters working today, and those who are still alive, have their best work long behind them. Today we get unbelievably excellent pop confections and sonic surprises on the pop charts — Umbrella, Kanye West’s amazing Runaway — but no great songs. Tell me one. Just one. 2010’s Need You Now by Lady Antebellum is excellent, but not great, like Unchained Melody and Hey Jude are great. We haven’t had one of those in 20 years. It’s been a goddam bare, empty, denuded desert out there for almost a quarter of a century. The creative spasm of the sixties lasted until the 90s, and then songwriting oomph hit the skids. It’s been riding its banana skin downhill ever since. Why? After providing the canon, I’ll give you four reasons why.
1. SONGWRITING IS THANKLESS: WE KNOW THE SINGER, NOT THE CREATOR
Conclusion three: songwriting is the only art form for which people know the song and the singer, but hardly ever know the creator — the person who actually wrote the damn song. A Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley or Johnny Matthis song was never written by Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley or Johnny Matthis. And Barry Manilow didn’t write I Write The Songs, although he did write a jingle for Bowlene Toilet Cleaner. A guy called Bruce Johnston wrote I Write The Songs. This credit-the-singer-not-the-writer practice pisses me off so much, I could swallow a porcupine ass-end first. In fact, I wrote this piece to redress this travesty of ignorant bliss under which we all labor. Maybe you’ll find out who’s really responsible for the songs you sing in your bath.
Conclusion four: when you look at the greatest songwriters — one of whom wrote 1500 songs — their most incredible songs never number more than ten per individual. It’s as if there are no more than ten truly great tunes in any one human person.
Conclusion five: even weirder, you can easily pick the three best songs of any songwriter from their top ten. Maybe it’s because three is a magic number in and of itself. Fact is, when I was making my picks, the three top songs of any writer jumped at me like puppies. You’ll find the same instant rapport, though your choice of puppies may not agree with mine.
2. THE GREAT EIGHT OF SONGWRITERS
Anyway, let’s get to the Great Eight of songwriters, each one towering many staves above all the rest.
1. Paul McCartney, born 1942. Because of his wide range — intimate and big ballads, soft and hard rockers, English Music hall, novelty ditties — and his melodic fluency, Paul is probably the greatest of the great, with Richard Rodgers a close second (or the other way around, depending on the day of the week).
McCartney’s top three songs: Yesterday, Hey Jude and Let It Be.
Second-tier cream of the crop: Eleanor Rigby, The Long And Winding Road, Here There And Everywhere, And I Love Her, Michelle.
Then there are all the other songs you know, including such exotica as the utterly bizarre Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (Hands Across The Water). People always think John Lennon was the more way-out experimental Beatle, but Paul was actually the one who was driving around London going to John Cage performances and soaking up the avant-garde. Only when they were older did John marry into the avant-garde and McCartney settle down on a big estate as gentry with his blue-blood American wife.
2. Richard Rodgers, 1902–1979, Jewish. He wrote more than 900 songs and, until Paul McCartney came along, was the richest songwriter who ever lived. His 43 musicals (29 with Lorenz Hart, 12 greats with Oscar Hammerstein II) are the backbone of American theater. With Oklahoma, he and Hammerstein invented the classic book musical.
His top three songs: You’ll Never Walk Alone, Some Enchanted Evening, If I Love You.
Second-tier cream of the crop: People Will Say We’re In Love, Falling In Love With Love, Hello Young Lovers, Edelweiss, Climb Every Mountain, The Sound of Music, The Surrey with the Fringe On Top, Bewitched Bothered And Bewildered, Blue Moon, Getting To Know You, The Lady Is A Tramp, My Funny Valentine, Oh What A Beautiful Morning, Oklahoma, Do Re Mi, I Whistle A Happy Tune, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, With A Song In My Heart, There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame.
OK, that’s more than ten, but it’s Richard Rodgers we have here.
3. John Lennon, 1940–1980. My personal favorite, even though my head tells me Paul was a slightly better songwriter. I like John because he was much more confessional, a Robert Lowell of song; more than any other songwriter, he exposed himself brutally. Songs like Help were actually about him needing help.
Top three: Imagine, In My Life, Across the Universe.
Second-tier cream of the crop: Strawberry Fields Forever, Woman, Jealous Guy, If I Fell, Norwegian Wood, Instant Karma, Come Together, All You Need Is Love. And the many others you know.
The interesting thing about Lennon is that he produced his best work in and out of the Beatles, while McCartney’s quality — despite some great songs on Ram — sank notably once the Beatles broke up and Paul started working without the goading spirit of John. Arguably the best Beatles album ever, and certainly the most artistically coherent, is Lennon’s first post-Beatles album, the stripped-down piano-demo solo effort Plastic Ono Band — his primal scream of pain with such devastating tracks as Mother, God, Remember, Love and Working Class Hero. McCartney never produced anything like that after the Beatles, and his latest stuff is either forgettable fluff or total dreck. Of course, when they wrote together, they gave us the incredible She Loves You and A Day In The Life — the best early Beatles and the best later Beatles.
4. Jerome Kern, 1885–1945, Jewish. He wrote more than 700 songs and at least 10 fine musicals. Although many of his shows were big hits, only Showboat from 1927 is ever revived. It dealt with themes like racism and alcoholism when musical comedy was all there was; at the time, it totally stunned audiences. Kern wrote with everyone from P.G. Wodehouse to Dorothy Fields to Guy Bolton to Johnny Mercer to his greatest collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II. He wrote music for silent movies, and for Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance films. He hated jazz arrangements of his songs, but that didn’t stop jazz players from doing them.
Top three songs: Ol Man River, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, All The Things You Are.
Second-tier cream of the crop: The Way You Look Tonight, The Song Is You, A Fine Romance, Long Ago And Far Away, Yesterdays, I Won’t Dance, The Last Time I Saw Paris, Pick Yourself Up, Why Was I Born? Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, Who? Look For The Silver Lining, She Didn’t Say Yes, Make Believe, The Night Was Made for Love, Let’s Begin, I’ve Told Every Little Star, I’m Old Fashioned, In Love in Vain.
5. Bob Dylan, born 1941, Jewish. One of the most venerated cultural figures ever, and in the 60s, the reluctant spokesman for an entire generation. You had to live back then to realize what a god-like presence he was.
Top three songs: I Shall Be Released, Just Like a Woman, Lay Lady Lay.
Second-tier cream of the crop: Like a Rolling Stone, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Ballad of a Thin Man, The Man In Me, One More Cup Of Coffee, Hurricane, All Along The Watchtower, Mr Tambourine Man (his own version of this song doesn’t hold a candle to the sublime redo by the Byrds).
Then there are all the other songs you know. And yes, I realize, most of you think Like A Rolling Stone is one of his three best songs, and Rolling Stone magazine thinks it’s the best rock song ever. I happen to think its melody is not quite as strong as my top three picks.
Bob Dylan is a bit of a special case. He’s unquestionably the greatest lyricist of all time — most of his stuff is actual poetry, says his Oxford Professor fan Christopher Ricks, who puts Dylan in the company of Milton, Keats and Tennyson (well, I don’t buy Keats, but maybe Tennyson). Plus, Dylan has not only written the best songs of social consciousness (Masters of War, Blowing in the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing, Chimes of Freedom, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall) and the toughest, most sardonic breakup songs ever (It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, Most Likely You Go Your Way, If You Gotta Go Go Now, It Ain’t Me Babe, You’re A Big Girl Now), but also the best endlessly going-on-forever songs (Visions of Johanna, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Positively 4th Street, Desolation Row). He even wrote two great singalongs: Quinn The Eskimo (Mighty Quinn) and Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (Everybody Must Get Stoned).
6. George Gershwin, 1898–1937, Jewish. He left school at 15 to become a song plugger. At 17, he sold his first song for $5. Gershwin bestrode the worlds of pop, jazz and classical music, and was influenced by French classical composers like Ravel and Debussy. His piano concerto Rhapsody in Blue, an enduring classic written when he was 25, contains one of his finest melodies. His Porgy and Bess is the greatest American opera of the 20th century. He died before he was forty, the wealthiest classical composer ever. His elder brother Ira wrote most of the lyrics for his songs.
Top three songs: Summertime, Embraceable You, Our Love Is Here To Stay.
Second-tier cream of the crop: Someone To Watch Over Me, Swanee, Oh Lady Be Good, Fascinating Rhythm, All The Live Long Day, Bess You is My Woman, But Not For Me, A Foggy Day, For You For Me For Evermore, I Can’t Be Bothered Now, I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’, It Ain’t Necessarily So, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, Love Walked In, My Man’s Gone Now, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Shall We Dance? They Can’t Take That Away From Me, A Woman Is A Sometime Thing, The Man I Love, Somebody Loves Me, I Got Rhythm, Isn’t It A Pity, They All Laughed, I’ve Got A Crush On You.
7. Cole Porter, 1891–1964. Cole Porter was gay and rich; his saucy lyrics reflected his urban sophistication; call him the American Noel Coward. Porter lived large and decadently, in Paris and Manhattan, with plenty of sex, drugs and parties. He had a marriage of convenience with a wife whom he adored. There’s an excellent movie of his life, Night and Day, starring Cary Grant, but it makes him out to be straight. Ha, ha.
Top three songs: Night And Day, I Get A Kick Out Of You, Begin The Beguine.
Second-tier cream of the crop: All Of You, Anything Goes, At Long Last Love, C’est Magnifique, I Love Paris, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, In The Still Of The Night, Let’s Do It Let’s Fall In Love, Wunderbar, You Do Something To Me, You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, You’re The Top, Hey Good Lookin’, Just One Of Those Things, Let’s Misbehave, Love For Sale, Well Did You Evah?, What Is This Thing Called Love? Miss Otis Regrets, What Am I To Do, My Heart Belongs To Daddy.
8. Irving Berlin, 1888–1989, Jewish. He grew up dirt poor. He lived to be over a hundred. He started as a singing waiter. In 1911, one of his first songs, Alexander’s Rag Time Band, became a worldwide hit, as far away as Russia, and made him an overnight sensation. He wrote 18 musicals and the scores of 19 Hollywood movies. He wrote 1500 songs. He could play piano in only one key and had a piano built with a lever that transposed keys for him.
George Gershwin called Irving Berlin “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived” and Jerome Kern said that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.” Berlin himself said: “My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country. The highbrow is likely to be superficial, overtrained, supersensitive. The lowbrow is warped, subnormal. My public is the real people.” (Funny how elitist he sounds in stating his case for the average.)
Top three songs: Always, Cheek To Cheek, White Christmas.
Second-tier cream of the crop: Alexander’s Rag Time Band, A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody, Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better, Be Careful It’s My Heart, Blue Skies, Doin’ What Comes Naturally, Easter Parade, Follow The Crowd, The Girl That I Marry, God Bless America, How Deep Is The Ocean? I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm, Lady Of The Evening, Let’s Face The Music And Dance, Marie, Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning, Play A Simple Melody, Puttin’ On The Ritz, Remember, Say It Isn’t So, Say It With Music, The Song Is Ended But The Melody Lingers On, Soft Light And Sweet Music, There’s No Business Like Show Business, What’ll I Do? When I Lost You, You Keep Coming Back Like A Song, You’re Just In Love.
So those are the Great Eight — the greatest songwriters ever. Bar none.
The bar none is because of their volume of output. All eight of these folks wrote at least thirty good songs each, if not a hundred; no one else comes even close to this number. In fact, between them the Great Eight have written more good songs than everyone else combined. That teeny number of eight accounts for at least half of all the good songs ever written. The only other real-world analogy I can think of that is equally bizarre and out-of-whack is the fact that America spends as much on defense as the rest of the world combined.
Another bizarre fact: five of the Great Eight are Jewish, which proves once again they’re the most inescapable nation on earth, having given us Jesus, Einstein, Marx, Freud and Hollywood.
3. THERE ARE ONLY TWO HUNDRED OTHER GOOD SONGWRITERS
By my count there are around two hundred other good songwriters in total, if you use an arbitrary rule of thumb that I’ve sucked out of my very own thumb, namely: to call yourself a good songwriter, you need at least three great songs to your credit.
Only three. An admittedly low bar. Yet as low as it is, it gives us only two hundred good songwriters who ever lived.
And none of them come near the Great Eight. Lack of volume keeps the Other Two Hundred out of the top rank — even when their three best songs rank up there with the three best of the Great Eight. In fact, the second-rank Other Two Hundred are so severely lacking in output, you’d be hard put to find even six great songs by even the most prolific of them.
Take the excellent songwriter Jimmy Webb. Count his great songs: McArthur Park, By The Time I Get to Phoenix, Wichita Linesman. Second tier: Galveston, Up Up and Away, P.F. Sloan. That’s all he’s got. It’s a solid and varied group, and they will live forever. But that’s all, folks. Compare that brilliant but meagre output with the prolific riches of Lennon or Kern or Rodgers, and you’ve got the difference between good and great, even though McArthur Park is as great as anything by Lennon or Kern or Rodgers.
Take Jim Steinman, who wrote those monsters for Meat Loaf. What’s he got? Total Eclipse of the Heart, Making Love Out of Nothing At All, I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).
Take Hoagy Carmichael: Stardust, Georgia On My Mind, The Nearness Of You, Heart And Soul, Up A Lazy River, In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, Skylark, Am I Blue. That’s it.
Take LA’s prolific shlock hit writer Diane Warren: Unbreak My Heart (Toni Braxton), I Don’t Want to Miss A Thing (Aerosmith), How Do I Live (Trisha Yearwood), Because You Loved Me (Celine Dion). She’s written 80 Top Ten hits, but these songs are her only really good ones.
Take Andrew Lloyd Webber, another of our richest composers, creator of the shlockiest megamusicals ever. What’s he got? I Don’t Know How To Love Him, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, Memory, Music of the Night. That’s it.
Take Puccini, the most melodic opera songwriter by far. One Fine Day from Madame Butterfly, O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schichi, Visi D’Arte from Tosca, Che Gelida Manina from La Boheme, and Nessun Dorma from Turandot. Utterly transportive stuff, but that’s it.
And finally, take George Harrison. His three best songs — Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes The Sun — stack up very respectably against Paul and John’s best, but how many other good songs did he write? Beware Of Darkness, Isn’t It A Pity, If I Needed Someone, Taxman, Think For Yourself, Don’t Bother Me, I Me Mine … that’s it.
You go through all the second-rank writers, and lack of volume is what keeps the Other Two Hundred way out of the orbit of the Great Eight.
BTW, I’m not thinking of rock bands at all, which as a rule produce interesting sonics, but not many great songs. Even the mightiest groups like U2, The Police, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Band, Queen, The Eagles, AC/DC, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Radiohead, Green Day and REM have at best no more than five excellent songs each, if that. The Police, for example: Every Breath You Take, Roxanne, Message In A Bottle and … nothing else. U2: One, Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With Or Without You. That’s it. From the highly regarded Radiohead there’s only one song early in their career, Creep, that you’d ever feel like humming. The rest they’ve done is great music, but nary a great song.
However, among bands there are four special cases, which I will get to after I’ve listed the second rank of songwriters who aren’t top-ranked because none of them wrote enough good songs to be among the Great Eight.
4. THE OTHER TWO HUNDRED GOOD SONGWRITERS
Here’s my list of the Other Two Hundred — folks who’ve written at least three great songs — broken down into rough categories (I’ve tried to be inclusive, but please spank me for any omissions).
Serious classical composers wrote some great tunes. Here are the ones who wrote at least three or more:
Puccini, by far the best melody writer among opera composers. Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky wrote great melodies, too — and sometimes dumb words have been applied to them. Johann Strauss wrote very catchy waltzes. I guess one should add Wagner and Verdi. Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) and Kurt Weill (Mack The Knife, September Song, Alabama Song) are both amazing songwriters (with amazing lyricists: Bernstein had Stephen Sondheim while Weill had Bertolt Brecht). Leroy Anderson, popularized by the Boston Pops, wrote great melodies. At least three of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, Sweeney Todd, Passion and Sunday In The Park With George, lift him out of Broadway into the classical category, too. The musically complex and adventurous Frank Zappa belongs in the classical category as well. His songs include the very tuneful Sharleena, Broken Hearts Are For Assholes, Muffin Man, Easy Meat, Chunga’s Revenge, Transylvania Boogie and many others. I don’t count Schubert and his many Lieder. Can you whistle or hum even one of them?
2. American Songbook and Broadway Musicals:
There are five distinct American musics: American Songbook, jazz, blues, rock ‘n roll, and rap. One of these is white and Jewish. The others are all black. Here is a list of our white and predominantly Jewish writers of the American Songbook:
The March King John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohan (Give My Regards To Broadway, Yankee Doodle Dandy, You’re A Grand Old Flag), Harold Arlen (Somewhere Over The Rainbow and other songs from The Wizard Of Oz), Nacio Herb Brown (Singin’ In The Rain, All I Do Is Dream Of You), Hoagy Carmichael (Stardust), Walter Donaldson (Makin’ Whoopee, Yes Sir That’s My Baby, My Blue Heaven), Duke Ellington (Sophisticated Lady, Satin Doll, It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, Mood Indigo), Jimmy McHugh (I Can’t Give You Anything But Love Baby, On The Sunny Side Of The Street), Jimmy Van Heusen (Come Fly With Me, High Hopes, All The Way, Call Me Irresponsible), Harry Warren (You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby, You’ll Never Know, The More I See You, I Only Have Eyes For You, The Lullaby Of Broadway).
Then there are the guys whose great Songbook melodies can be found in their great musicals:
Sigmund Romberg (the operettas The Student Prince, The Desert Song, The New Moon), Fritz Loewe of Lerner-Loewe (the perfect musical: My Fair Lady), Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), Arthur Schwartz (The Band Wagon), Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!), Harvey Schmidt (the long-running The Fantasticks), Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Golden Boy, Applause, Annie, the opera Nightingale), Galt MacDermot (Hair), Jerry Bock (Fiddler On The Roof), Marvin Hamlisch (Chorus Line), Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked), Claude-Michel Schonberg (Miss Saigon, Les Mis), John Kander (Cabaret, Chicago), Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl), Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Evita, The Phantom Of The Opera), Alan Menken (Little Shop Of Horrors and the Disney movie musicals The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas).
Here you would have to add the Brits Albert Sullivan from Gilbert and Sullivan, Noel Coward, Willy Russell (the long-running Blood Brothers), Anthony Newley (Stop The World, I Want To Get Off) and Lionel Bart (Oliver!).
3. The Early Rock Progenitors:
Rock ‘n roll was a black thing, but really broke out when a southern white guy, Elvis, put it on the map. Its early writers were both black and white.
Willie Dixon (Little Red Rooster, Hoochie Coochie Man, Evil, Spoonful, Back Door Man, I Just Want To Make Love To You, I Ain’t Superstitious, My Babe, Wang Dang Doodle, Bring It On Home), Hank Ballard (The Twist, Finger Poppin’ Time, Work With Me Annie), Johnny Otis (Willie And The Hand Jive, Every Beat Of My Heart, Roll With Me Henry), Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Mike Stoller of Leiber-Stoller (There Goes My Baby with Ben E. King, Hound Dog, Kansas City, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Yakety Yak, Poison Ivy, Charlie Brown, Ruby Baby, Stand By Me with Ben E. King, Jailhouse Rock, Love Potion No. 9, Searchin’, Young Blood with Doc Pomus, Is That All There Is?, I’m A Woman, Lucky Lips, On Broadway with Barry Mann, Spanish Harlem with Phil Spector), Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran (Summertime Blues, Come On Everybody, Something’ Else, Three Steps to Heaven), Carl Perkins (Blue Suede Shoes), Roy Orbison, Jackie DeShannon (When You Walk In The Room, Put A Little Love In Your Heart, Bette Davis Eyes; she’s co-written with Randy Newman and Jimmy Page), Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman (A Teenager In Love, Save The Last Dance For Me, Sweets For My Sweet, Can’t Get Used To Losing You, Little Sister, and Something Beautiful Dying by Pomus alone), Paul Anka, Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons, Dion, and Sonny Bono of Sonny & Cher.
4. Tin Pan Alley and its heirs:
In the Brill Building in New York, kids wrote hits for the new music of rock ‘n roll and modern pop which, departing from the American songbook tradition, was aimed strictly at teenagers. Here they are:
Ellie Greenwich (Be My Baby, Then He Kissed Me, Da Doo Ron Ron, Hanky Panky, Do Wah Diddy), Phil Spector (who wrote with Greenwich and her husband Jeff Barry, or perhaps simply insisted on a credit), Carole King (Goffin-King), Neil Sedaka (Oh Carol, Stairway To Heaven, Calender Girl, Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Solitaire), Paul Simon, and Barry Mann (You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Blame It On The Bossa Nova, Never Gonna Let You Go, On Broadway, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, You’re My Soul & Inspiration). Latterday heroes of this tradition are Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, and Jimmy Webb.
Country music is basically southern white people’s blues — white music with plenty of plaintive soul. Here are the great country songwriters:
Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (they wrote hits for the Everley Brothers), Hank Williams, Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Wayne Carson Thompson (Always On My Mind, The Letter, Neon Rainbow, Soul Deep), John D. Loudermilk (Ebony Eyes, The Language Of Love, Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye, This Little Bird), Willie Nelson (Crazy, On The Road Again, You Ought To Hear Me Cry), Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Mac Davis (In The Ghetto, I Believe In Music, Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me), John Prine, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks, Brad Paisley.
6. Motown, soul, rhythm and blues:
Rock ‘n roll was a black thing taken over by white kids. But blacks kept going with their own version of it, and successfully sold this to whites, via Motown. But they stayed corralled in their own camp until Michael Jackson broke open white MTV for black performers, and until white kids all over the world took to rap. Here’s a list of the great black songwriters:
Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cook, Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding, Bobby Womack, Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Al Green, Bill Withers (Lean On Me, Ain’t No Sunshine, Use Me, Just The Two Of Us), Philadelphia Soul’s Gamble and Huff, Sly Stone, Rick James (Super Freak), Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic (Le Freak), R. Kelly, and Prince. And OK, let’s sneak in Big Boi and Andre 3000 of Outkast, too.
7. British Invasion:
In the 60s, English kids listened to American rock ‘n roll and then created their own brand, becoming as important as American rock. Then they invaded America with it.
Ray Davies of the Kinks, Jagger-Richard of the Stones, Pete Townsend of The Who, George Harrison of the Beatles, Paul Samwell-Smith of the Yardbirds (the band that gave us guitar masters Clapton, Beck and Page), Rod Argent of The Zombies (She’s Not There, Tell Her No, Time of The Season), Jimi Hendrix (the American who went to England to make it), Rod Stewart of The Faces, Eric Clapton of the Yardbirds/Cream/Derek and the Dominoes, Jack Bruce of Cream, and Steve Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group/Traffic/Blind Faith (the lesser ones like Dave Clark Five, The Searchers, Herman’s Hermits didn’t write their own songs).
Then there’s songwriter Tony Hatch, who wrote Downtown, Don’t Sleep In The Subway and other hits for Petula Clark, as well as Look For A Star, Forget Him, Sugar and Spice, You’re The One, Call Me, Where Are You Now?, Joanna, and a host of British TV themes. There’s also Les Reed, who wrote It’s Not Unusual and Delilah (Tom Jones), The Last Waltz (Engelbert Humperdinck), and with Geoff Stephens, There’s A Kind Of Hush (Herman’s Hermits). Geoff Stephens wrote The Crying Game, Winchester Cathedral, Sorry Suzanne, Silver Lady, You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me, It’s Like We Never Said Goodbye. Graham Gouldman wrote For Your Love, Heart Full Of Soul, Bus Stop, Look Through Any Window, and then started 10cc with songwriting partner Eric Stewart, and Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. 10cc did Donna, I’m Not In Love, Rubber Bullets, and Une Nuite A Paris (the inspiration for Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody). Dusty Springfield’s brother Tom Springfield wrote hits for The Seekers: I’ll Never Find Another You, A World Of Our Own, The Carnival Is Over, Georgy Girl. Two other Brits, Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, wrote a string of British hits for Suzie Quatro and The Sweet; Chapman eventually came to the US, where he wrote Kiss You All Over and Love Is A Battlefield. Jim Lea of Slade (Cum On Feel The Noize, Cuz I Luv You, Merry Xmas Everybody) dominated the UK charts with six number ones between 1971–74.
8. British Art-Rock:
Those pretentious Brits thought there could be more to rock ‘n roll than populist thumpawump, and they proved it with more complex sit-down-and-listen music.
Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel out of Genesis, Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Jeff Lynne from ELO, David Bowie, Kate Bush, Morrissey of the Smiths, Mark E. Smith of The Fall, Paul Weller of The Jam/The Style Council, and Sting of The Police. (Their later Britpop spawn — Blur, Suede, Oasis, Pulp — were one-shot wonders or spotty crap merchants. A tad more interesting were the New Wave power pop lads — Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Nick Lowe, as well as the ska bands — Madness, The Specials, English Beat — and the post-punk avant-gardish cerebral bands like Gang of Four, Joy Division, The Cure, Siouxie and the Banshees, and Johnny Rotten’s Public Image Limited. And of course, the Clash. Their American counterparts, what one might call the CBGB bands — Television, Blondie, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth — were pretty interesting, too.) From the 80s, Roy Hay of Culture Club needs mention (Boy George sang, wrote lyrics and looked bizarre, but the musical genius was Roy Hay). Also, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode (Personal Jesus, Enjoy The Silence, I Feel You). The dance-duo Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys (22 top ten UK hits, four #1s) should be saluted too.
9. The West Coast mellow folk-rock types:
On the West Coast of America, what with the sun and all, a more relaxed rock ‘n roll happened. Also, a more drug-infused rock ‘n roll. The best songwriters:
Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, John Sebastian of The Lovin Spoonful, John Philips of The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Don Henley and Glenn Frey of The Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks.
10. The Heartland Rockers:
If rock ‘n roll is a populist thing, it was never more populist than with the heartland rockers: music to be played and heard in bars. They are:
John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellenkamp, Bob Seger, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Sheryl Crow. Curt Cobain of Nirvana probably belongs here, too.
11. The Singer-Songwriters:
Hey, music is personal, one person speaking to you. Hence, the great singer-songwriters:
Roy Orbison, Captain Beefheart, Malvina Reynolds (Little Boxes, What Have They Done To The Rain, It Isn’t Nice, Turn Around), Neil Young, Donovan, Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam, Arlo Guthrie, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Lou Reed (all his good songs are on the Bowie-produced album Transformer: Walk On The Wild Side, Perfect Day, Satellite Of Love, Vicious), Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro, Don McLean, Richard Thompson, Chris de Burgh (Lady in Red, High On Emotion, Spanish Train, The Head And The Heart), Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Rickie Lee Jones, John Denver, Randy Newman, Paul Westerberg, Alanis Morissette, Suzanne Vega, Beck, Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith, and Bruce Springsteen (he may be a heartland rocker with a great band, but he’s also a classic singer-songwriter, which is why he takes time out to do albums like Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust).
12. The unjustly-despised MOR radio staples:
What’s the difference between David Bowie and Billy Joel? Simple: David Bowie is intellectually respectable, Billy Joel is not. But this is an intellectual construct of image and posture and accent. As songwriters, they’re the same: both wrote great tunes; in fact, Billy Joel probably wrote more and better tunes than Bowie. The MOR radio staples, our popsongmeisters, are the heirs of Irving Berlin; their ambition is “to reach the hearts of the average American,” and they do. More power to them; they shouldn’t be sneered at.
Richard Carpenter of the Carpenters, Elton John (amazingly prolific, but I think he penned only eight true greats: Candle In The Wind, Daniel, Tiny Dancer, Your Song, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Rocket Man, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Bennie and the Jets), Billy Joel (Just the Way You Are is a classic American Songbook-type standard), Neil Diamond, Journey, Barry Manilow, Paul Williams (An Old-Fashioned Love Song, You And Me Against The World, Rainy Days And Mondays, Evergreen), David Gates of Bread (Make It With You, It Don’t Matter To Me, If, Baby I’m-a Want You, Everything I Own), Diane Warren, Desmond Child (Poison, I Was Made For Loving You, Angel, Dude Looks Like A Lady, Living On A Prayer, You Give Love A Bad Name, How Can We Be Lovers, Livin’ La Vida Loca), Peter Cetera of Chicago (If You Leave Me Now, Baby What A Big Surprise, Hard To Say I’m Sorry, You’re The Inspiration), Hall and Oates, Christopher Cross, Lionel Ritchie, George Michael, Jim Steinman and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
13. European writers:
The pop song in Europe is a bouncy, flouncy affair, the four-on-floor of Europop — witness Abba. But there’s also the French chanson (Edith Piaf sang ’em great), often very literary and different from their ye-ye pop music; as well as the Italian ballad, and the Spanish tradition of flamenco. Under Franco, Spanish pop music didn’t exist. The cultural flowering of La Movida Madrilena changed art, film and music in Spain, and today, like the rest of Europe, Spain has everything from heavy-metal to rap. A major songwriter like Manuel Alejandro wrote for the big star Raphael, who also recorded songs written by Joe Luis Pelares and Roberto Livi. Influenced by Bob Dylan, Spanish singer-songwriters like Juan Manuel Serrat wrote “cancio protesta” (protest songs), and Joaquin Sabina introduced rock ‘n roll into his political songs. An extremely popular writer and singer was Camilo Sesto.
The biggest thing in European songwriting is the Eurovision Song Contest, as big there as American Idol is here. Abba got its start when it won in 1974 with its first hit Waterloo.
To tell the truth, I don’t know much about European songwriting, and would appreciate anyone telling me more. I do know that gazillions of records have been sold by France’s Johnny Halliday, Germany’s Boney M and the Modern Talking duo, Italy’s Andrea Bocelli, Sweden’s Ace of Base and Roxette, Norway’s A-ha, and Turkey’s Orhan Gencebay. Here are the writers I know about:
The French writer-performers Gilbert Becaud (Let It Be Me, What Now My Love, The Importance Of Your Love, A Little Love And Understanding, It Must Be Him, and co-written with Neil Diamond, Love On The Rocks and September Morn), Jacques Brel (Ne Me Quitte Pas, If We Only Have Love, Amsterdam), Serge Gainsbourg and Charles Aznavour (he wrote a 1,000 songs); the Italians Carlo Donida (Al Di La, I Who Have Nothing, Help Yourself), Fabrizio De Andre and Pino Donaggio (whose Lo Che Non Vivo in its English incarnation, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, was a monster hit for Dusty Springfield); the Swedish Abba; the Greeks Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis (Never On Sunday, All Alone Am I sung by Brenda Lee); the Dutch Boudewijn de Groot (Avond); and the Russian Vitas, he of the impossibly high range.
14. The Latin-Americans:
They fall in two categories. There are the serious ones whom I wish I knew more about, like Jorge Drexler; the bosa nova writer-performer Antonio Carlos Jobim; and the Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara, who ended his life in a football stadium with his fingers chopped off while his torturers urged him to play his guitar for them. (If you know of the others, or can direct me to somewhere I can learn more, I’d really appreciate it.) There’s also the salsa tradition, in which Ruben Blades thrives.
Better known are the Latin pop performers like Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Julio Eglesias, Luis Miguel, Roberto Carlos, and Enrique Iglesias, of whom Shakira is the best songwriter. A bunch of folks churn out hits for Latin pop performers, and these writers include Juanes, Estefano, Kike Santander, Juan Luis Guerra, Mario Domm and Robi Draco Rosa.
Reggae has its own beat, its own drug — Jamaica-grown marijuana — and its own religion — rasta. It has produced two remarkable singer-songwriters: Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, who starred in the brilliant movie The Harder They Come (BTW, Jimmy Cliff’s version of No Woman No Cry is the best one; worth tracking down on his album Follow My Mind).
16. Bollywood, Mid-Easterners, Japan, etc:
We English-language humans know nothing about our planet’s Vast Other, but believe me, they’re sure to have their own canons — how deep and rich I have no idea. Perhaps there are 3QD commenters who can tell us about them. Like who’s the best Bollywood songwriter, who’s the best in Japan, Africa (besides Fela), Korea (besides Rain), Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, China?
17. As a coda, here’s a personal short list of extremely talented new-comers in America who may yet stumble upon a great tune or two, one hopes, mayhaps: Regina Spector, Joanna Newsom and Andrew Bird. Lady Gaga has potential, too; she reminds me a lot of Abba.
5. FOUR SPECIAL SONGWRITING CASES
In bands, there are very few good songwriters, but there are four special cases: Jagger-Richards of The Rolling Stones, Queen, the BeeGees and Abba.
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones are a special case because, besides having penned at least eight great ballads (top three: Ruby Tuesday, Angie, Wild Horses; second tier: Streets Of Love, Far Away Eyes, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Moonlight Mile, As Tears Go By, Shine A Light) they have, along with Chuck Berry, come up with the greatest number of the greatest rock songs of all time, driven by the riffs of the greatest rock riff writer of all time, Keith Richards (Satisfaction, Gimme Shelter, Honky Tonk Women, Jumpin Jack Flash, Street Fighting Man, Paint it Black, Tumbling Dice, Brown Sugar, Start Me Up, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking). They almost belong among the Great Eight, but I don’t think they wrote enough good songs — i.e more than thirty — to qualify, although they’re certainly in a rank of their own between the first and the second ranks, having written way more good songs than anyone else in the second rank of the Other Hundred.
The second special case is Queen, because of three reasons. One, they came up with two monster rock standards that even five-year-olds know: We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions. Two, along with the Beatles they were the most versatile rock band ever, going from Another One Bites the Dust and Crazy Little Thing Called Love to the ballads Play The Game, Save Me, Somebody To Love and You’re My Best Friend, and to the amazing Bohemian Rhapsody, one of only four long-form rock monsters along with Stairway to Heaven, Free Bird and Deep Purple’s Child In Time. Three, they are 7th in overall world-wide sales, the sales rankings being The Beatles first, then Elvis Presley, followed by Michael Jackson, Abba, Madonna (the only non-tune-writer among the top sellers), Led Zeppelin, and Queen, all claiming to have sold more than 300 million records each, after which you get all the rest. Incidentally, all four Queen members wrote big hits, even if Freddie Mercury wrote the most.
Then there’s the special case of the brothers Barry and Robin Gibbs of the BeeGees, who besides having written at least thirteen great ballads — yes, more than ten (Massachusetts, How Deep Is Your Love, To Love Somebody, I Can’t See Nobody, Got To Get A Message to You, I Started A Joke, Words, More Than A Woman, 1941 New York Mining Disaster, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, Tragedy, If I Can’t Have You, Too Much Heaven), also came up with the best club-dance music ever: Staying Alive, Night Fever, and You Should Be Dancing.
Then there’s Abba, who dominated the charts everywhere, except in America. Between 1974 and 1981, a mere seven years, their two songwriters, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, churned out the hits sausage-factory style for what must be the ultimate girl group ever. Their greats: The Winner Takes It All, Knowing Me Knowing You, Dancing Queen, Fernando, The Name of the Game, One Of Us. And then there’s the Bjorn-Benny forte: oodles of the best bubble gum ever written, a bonanza of inimitable camp catchiness. Their compilation album, Abba Gold: Greatest Hits, contains 19 hits, all of them number ones all over the world outside America, which together with their 1984-penned One Night in Bangkok, make 20 number ones. To put their hold on worldwide charts in perspective, compare the only other writers who’ve had more number ones than Abba: the Beatles, with 27 number ones (five written by John and Paul together, thirteen by Paul solo, eight by John solo, and one by George Harrison: Something), and Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland, with 25 number ones, which include ten number ones for the Supremes.
The greatest hit machine of all time is Paul McCartney, whose Beatles and post-Beatles output add up to 32 Billboard number ones, which include his World Without You for Peter and Gordon, and 24 number ones in the UK. Trailing way behind Abba, the Beatles and Holland-Dozier-Holland is … Michael Jackson with 10 number ones written or co-written by him. (Incidentally, on the US country charts, George Strait has had 54 number ones, beating Conway Twitty’s long-held record of 50.)
Another special case is Roy Orbison. He didn’t write much, but what he did write was so off-the-wall weird and rule-breaking, and so gorgeously operatically over-the-top grandiose, and so cunningly story-telling, that he deserves a category of his own. Plus, he’s got more than ten of them. I count fourteen: Only The Lonely, Pretty Woman, Crying, Running Scared, It’s Over, Blue Angel, In Dreams, Blue Bayou, Dream Baby, Not Alone Anymore, She Wears My Ring, Mean Woman Blues, All I Can Do Is Dream You, Uptown. Orbison is the most original sui generis outlier of all songwriters. And damn, what a voice: the man was the Pavarotti of rock ‘n roll.
6. THE THIRTY SPECIAL MENTIONS
In fact, thinking of these special cases, one might create a third category of songwriters: the Thirty Special Mentions, who because of output — number of songs more than the three stipulated to be in the Other Two Hundred — deserve not to be buried in the Other Two Hundred.
They are: Leiber-Stoller, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Jagger-Richards, Roy Orbison, Barry and Robin Gibbs of the BeeGees, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, Pete Townsend of the Who, Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Fritz Loewe of Lerner-Loewe, Burt Bacharach, Elton John, Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, David Bowie, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and … Chris de Burgh, who is another special case. He is the greatest songwriter known by the fewest people, especially unknown in America (Lady in Red, Borderline, Carry Me Like A Fire In Your Heart, A Child Is Born, The Crusader, Diamond In The Dark, Don’t Pay The Ferryman, Five Past Dreams, Flying, Forevermore, The Head And The Heart, Here For You, High On Emotion, Hold On, I’m Not Crying Over You, It’s Me And I’m Ready To Go, Just Another Poor Boy, The Last Time I Cried, Lebanese Night, Lonely Sky, The Mirror Of The Soul, Missing You, My Father’s Eyes, Patricia The Stripper, The Road To Freedom, Rose of England, Sailor, She Means Everything To Me, Shine On, A Spaceman Came Travelling, Spanish Train, Spirit, So Beautiful, Tender Hands, When I Think Of You, When Winter Comes (instrumental), Where Peaceful Waters Flow, A Woman’s Heart, The Words I Love You). His songs are all on YouTube: google them.
De Burgh has written so many good songs, he’s closer to the Great Eight than Jagger-Richards. He is certainly the best power ballad writer ever. Maybe I should just add him to the Great Eight and rename them the Divine Nine (or add Holland-Dozier-Holland as well, for the Titanic Ten). If I have one wish for this article, it’s to turn more Americans on to the tunesmithery of Chris de Burgh. BTW, his daughter was Miss World 2003.
(Before I forget, I hope to maybe count myself somewhere one day: check out this song I’ve written for my band The Dingbots as tentative proof of my hubris.)
Who Am I
7. GLORIOUS ONE-OFFS
We can’t abandon the topic of songwriters without mention of a final category: the glorious one-offs. A songwriter may write mediocre malarkey by the mile and still come up with one deathless jewel of a miraculous hair-raising melody. Here’s a very short selection of these lightning-struck-but-once goodies.
Without You written by Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans; the definitive version sung by Harry Nilsson.
All By Myself by Eric Carmen.
Everything I Do (I Do It For You) by Bryan Adams.
Unchained Melody by Alex North; the definitive version sung by Bobby Hatfield of The Righteous Brothers.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? by Lou Handman, done to perfection by Elvis Presley.
Nights In White Satin by Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues.
Go Now by Larry Banks; best version by The Moody Blues.
Wild Thing and Angel Of The Morning written by Chip Taylor, two one-offs (Chip Taylor is Angelina Jolie’s uncle and Jon Voight’s brother).
Where Do You Go To My Lovely? by Peter Sarstedt. (He wrote some other nice ones, too, like I Am A Cathedral and Blagged. Check out his The Best of Peter Sarstedt.)
Ode To Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry.
I Want To Know What Love Is by Foreigner.
Louie Louie written by Richard Berry in 1955. This song has been covered hundreds of times. Berry sold the copyright cheap in 1959, and didn’t make a dime off the song till 1986 and 1993, when he got paid some guilty money.
I’m All Out Of Love by Graham Russell of Air Supply — with lyrics by, of all people, the music mogul Clive Davis.
When A Man Loves A Woman by Percy Sledge.
The Flame by Cheap Trick.
Close My Eyes Forever by Lita Ford and Ozzy Ozbourne — yep, old Oz hisself. (Lita Ford was in the teen-girl band The Runaways with Joan Jett.)
Give To Live by Sammy Hagar.
Born To Be Wild by Mars Bonfire (real name Dennis Edmonton) performed by Steppenwolf.
Sugar Sugar, the ultimate bubblegum song, written by Andy Kim and Ronald Frangipane (Andy Kim also wrote Rock Me Gently).
Only You by Buck Ram and Andre Rand, done superbly by the Platters.
Runaway by Del Shannon and Max Crook, who played that astonishing instrumental break — the best ever — on his self-invented clavioline-based electronic keyboard called a Musitron.
No Woman No Cry by Vincent Ford (though some say Bob Marley credited the song to Ford to keep Ford’s business going).
96 Tears by Rudy Martinez, the question mark of ? and the Mysterians.
Be Bop A Lula by Gene Vincent.
Israelites by Desmond Dekker.
Stagger Lee, based on a 1895 fatal shooting over a hat. Nobody knows who wrote it. We don’t know who wrote House Of The Rising Sun either (brilliant 1964 version by the Animals); it may have been written as early as the 1600s.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh) written in the 1920s by the South African singer Solomon Linda and recorded by him in 1939, when he got a small fee. In the 1950s it was popularized in the US by Pete Seeger. In 1961 a perfect version by The Tokens thundered on to the charts. Linda never got a dime for his song’s worldwide success, which earned over $15m from being licensed to Disney’s The Lion King alone. After journalist Rian Malan exposed this travesty in 2000 in Rolling Stone magazine, there was a lawsuit, and Linda’s dirt-poor descendants started getting royalties.
Feel free to suggest your own favorite one-off. Bizarrely, there are quite a number of glorious one-off power ballads by terrible rock bands, written so chicks will consent to come to the headbanging concerts that their headbanging boyfriends like to attend. There are even some pearls by the ghastly corporate-rock LA hair-metal cretins like Poison, Cinderella, and Whitesnake et al, among whose dire bottom-feeding putrid stinker ranks I like to place Guns ‘n Roses, Van Halen and Bon Jovi, just to annoy their fans.
8. SO WHY AREN’T THERE ANY GOOD SONGWRITERS TODAY?
OK. Final big question: why aren’t there any great songwriters today, even if amazing music is still being made?
There are at least four reasons for this.
Number one, there is not much need for great songwriters anymore, being that the music business is dominated by rappers, to whom great producers are more important than great songwriters. Call it the revolt of the lyricists, and the rule of the beat. Music so basic, it doesn’t need melody. Just a voice and a beat. Rhythmic spoken word. And when rap does give a nod to melody, it’s something real basic, like a simple chant.
Rap is a kind of anti-music. Hence, a real music revolution — the biggest since rock and roll. Rock ‘n roll was a revolution because it made the beat as important as the melody. Rap was a revolution because it made the beat oust the melody altogether.
There’s something odd about the rap revolution, though, odder than the fact that it made America’s black urban youth angst a worldwide cultural commodity, which is mighty odd all by itself.
Here’s the absolute oddity about rap. Rap is novelty music writ large. Yep, to me, rap is Purple People Eaters and Yellow Polka Dot Bikini and Hello Mudda Hello Fadda here I am at Camp Granada — all in a gritty urban context. Here I am in the hood. Rappers are the natural heirs of Alan Sherman and the satiric spoof bandleader Spike Jones. The playfulness, the outrageousness, the absurdity, the sonic surprises — rap is pure novelty music. It is this, I believe, that makes it popular all over the world — not just the fact that the youth of the world can empathize with its rude posture of defiance. Jay-Z, Fifty Cent, 2Pac, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris and Biggie Smalls are at their core supreme novelty acts. If nothing else, their silly names tell you that.
Reason number two why there are no great songwriters today: indie rock, aka college radio rock. Here intelligent thoughtfulness and English Major pretensions prevail. Nothing as vulgar as a good melody needed. Just make your music sound smart and hipsterish and not too obvious. Consider Arcade Fire. Amazing music, but where are the tunes? Where is something you find yourself spontaneously belting out in the shower?
Number three, the creative rock ‘n roll explosion of the 60s happened so long ago, it no longer inspires. After the 60s created the genres of rock — hard rock, metal, folk, art rock — its influence kind of petered out around 1990.
The 60s were inspiring for all artists, not just in music. A great youth ferment broke down social conventions, upended bourgeois sentiments, and smashed barriers of class and race and gender. There was the Nouvelle Vague in movies, there were the Beats in literature, there were hippies and drugs and free love and flower power, and rude working class youth taking over the music business. Look at George Martin, an upper-class mandarin record producer, mentoring the working-class Beatles and then becoming their handmaiden.
The 60s was a Furious Flowering of Art and Culture from the bottom up, and now it’s all over and done with, and in another ten or twenty years most of its then-teenagers will be stone dead. More’s the pity. Let’s face it, there has not been any flowering of its like since. In music, the punk and grunge movements are like itsy-bitsy blips in comparison.
9. GOOD SONGWRITERS ARE RARER THAN GOOD PAINTERS OR GOOD NOVELISTS OR GOOD FILMMAKERS
Reason number four why there haven’t been any great songwriters for some time is kind of obvious: a great songwriter is a rare thing. Jeez, we’ve had only eight so far in more than a century of recorded popular song.
And how many times could you have a miracle like the Beatles? What makes the phenomenon of the Beatles so unrepeatable is that two of the greatest songwriters who ever lived grew up in the same shitty English town, where they were bound to connect. This has got to be the most miraculously fortuitous coincidence in all of artistic history. John and Paul would probably not have been as great as they were, had they not met young and been able to rub their talents against each other and spark the best they could be in each other. The fact that Paul McCartney came up with very few good songs after their breakup shows that he needed Lennon to light a fire under his ass and keep him up to par.
Great songwriting is a gift that’s rarer than the gift of painting or writing prose. Only eight songwriters have managed to produce a great number of great songs: that’s how rare the gift is. Compare that to the hundreds of paintings and novels produced by hundreds of great painters and novelists.
And if you want to expand your canon of songwriters beyond a meager eight, you have to lower the bar down to needing as few as three great songs to be counted as a good songwriter — like we’ve found here. And when you do that, you don’t get more than two hundred good songwriters. Amazing that this art form produces so few greats. It proves one thing for sure: songwriting is the most demanding art form ever. Another art form, movie-making, is pretty demanding too, since it entails writing and directing and editing and whatnot to make one movie. But there have been at least fifty great movie-makers and hundreds of pretty good ones (aha, idea for another article), while songwriting — a four-minute abab-or-aaba-stripling compared to a 120-minute years-in-the-making movie — has delivered no more than eight great and two hundred good creators.
What a pity that nobody as good as those two hundred songwriters is writing now.
Let’s hope the new ones are a-coming. But don’t hold your breath. We’re lucky two of the Great Eight are still alive. Unfortunately, one of them seems incapable of writing anything close to what he did as a Beatle or even in Wings, while the other one, Bob Dylan, who is still touring like crazy, makes good music but hasn’t written a memorable tune since …. well, since Not Dark Yet, released in 1997.
I for one am getting desperately hungry for a tasty platter of great new songs. Twenty years is a long time to wait for even a good songwriter to come along, let alone a great one. People who are in their twenties now have little idea what a great song is, since none of them have been written in their lifetime.
So where the heck are the great songwriters of today? Where are our contemporary Lennons and Gershwins? Is he or she already here now? Who can it be? Can you think of a likely candidate? If you can, please let me know, because all I see is a blank void in an empty desert of sheer nothingness buried up the ass end of a black hole in a galaxy far, far away.
Which is a bit of an annoying and sad let-down, given the incomparable ecstasies wrought by the Other Two Hundred, the Thirty Special Mentions, and those amazing masters — the Great Eight.