It is a truth universally acknowledged that some songs are better than others. And it ought to be pretty widely acknowledged that there are some people who can take a perfectly good song and perform it in a way that makes you wish you were temporarily deaf.
The second thought came to me this morning. Our neighbour on one side is a perfectly nice old Aussie bloke who likes music from a certain period and/or genre. The genius of the Shadows frequently features on his playlist. Top hits of the late 60s and early 70s can often be heard, especially since he’s a little deaf and likes to turn it up a bit. But this is all fine… or was, until he played Richard Clayderman whilst we were eating breakfast.
To be fair, it may not have been Mr Clayderman. I’m sure there are other instrumentalists who make their livings by reducing good songs to feeble elevator muzak… in any event it got me thinking about what makes a good song. Or rather, a good “track”, and by that I mean a performance of a song, rather that just the song itself.
Here’s my theory: in order to be listenable, a track has to have at least one of:
(a) an interesting melody that’s balanced between predictability and surprise
(b) interesting lyrics that mean something to the listener
(c) a genuine and moving performance
Time for some examples. Let’s take (c) first, because I’m feeling perverse. The Sex Pistols ‘God Save The Queen’ has no real melody and the lyrics aren’t all that hot (“potential H-bomb”? What?). But it works (for me) because it’s played with a sneering, raucous enthusiasm that makes a very simple song work. The same’s true of, say, Iggy Pop’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’: four chords, not very many words and yet it can grab some people by the scruff of their brain. Or (c) can be achieved by just a voice; personally, I could listen to Cerys Matthews reciting the digits of pi for hours just to hear her voice.
Moving away from tracks to songs: it’s easy to find examples for (b). And it’s this that Mr Clayderman’s performance was making me ponder this morning. Since there were no words, all you could hear was the melody and when he performed Foreigner’s ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’, it showed up just how boring the melody of that song is. Not that it’s a song I particularly like anyway, but if it works at all, it only works with the words. As a piece of music, it’s tedious.
Or we could go back a generation or two: the first verse of Cole Porter’s ‘Night And Day’ is all sung on one note. The words are what’s important. Or take almost anything by AC/DC: there’s more melody in one bar of any of Angus’s solos than in any verse, but (especially when Bon Scott was writing them) the lyrics carry the song. Or for an example that’s a whole subculture: rap. No melody, all words.
So finally, we come to (a): songs with melodies that can lift even simple lyrics. This is what (for me) separates real musicians from wannabees. Example one: Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. Now, I quite like Ms B’s music, but I wouldn’t argue that the words make the song. Or even that the words make sense half the time… but you could play the melody of that song without any words and it stands up as a damn good piece of music.
Example two (and this is going to date me): any one of a whole bunch of tracks by Yes. Let’s take ‘Close To The Edge’: the lyrics are incomprehensible stoned-hippy trash, and yet (assuming you’re ok with progressive rock) they’re carried by interesting music.
And then there are the exceptions that prove the rule: tracks with none of the above. Well, you could turn on the radio and wait ten minutes and you’re bound to hear an example or two. Anything by Good Charlotte would do: worthless, lazy songwriting. Churning out ‘product’ with as much attention as the average burger-flipper pays to the hundredth Big Mac of the day.
But then again… there are the tracks with two or even three of the Key Attributes. In the 70s you could have heard Carole King produce a whole album of them (Tapestry). In the last few years, Elbow have done the same. The art of songwriting is far from dead, and one great song can remind me that music is worth persevering with.
Of course, these are my examples. Yours will be different. But I reckon that in every track you really love, there will be at least one of (a), (b) or (c).
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