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Thursday, 1 January 2015

Making an album, part 5: In search of the perfect pop song



One fine morning a few weeks ago, I emerged from sleep with a tune in my head. The tune was ‘Late for the train’, the final track on ‘Love Bites’, the second album by the English post-punk band Buzzcocks. The imprint of that tune, deeply encoded on some neglected neural pathway, provoked an early-morning flashback so vivid and poignant that -for a brief instant- I was once again a spotty teenager in love with that band and their music. The tantalising, sleep-charged echo of ‘Late for the train’ fooled the adult me into believing that he was the teenaged me, a kid buffeted by the turbulence of hopes, fears and passions that he hoped would somehow propel him through an exciting world of possibilities. Alas, the tangibility of the moment was all-too-brief and I was soon back in the present, wide awake to the fact that I’m an adult comfortably tethered to my responsibilities.   
The flashback, however, had reminded me once more of how potent pop music can be. Like the powerful scent of cheap perfume, even the tawdriest manufactured pop ditty has the potential to evoke powerful memories. It can make you smile, laugh or cry; it can make you remember people, places and things. I like pop music more than I like any other art form. At its best, I believe the popular song to be one of humankind’s great achievements, because something wonderful and transcendent happens within certain intoxicating combinations of rhythm, melody, notes, voices and words. Pop music, in that sense, is capable of achieving artistic perfection, although it would be difficult for any two people to agree on a definition of perfect pop; some might even argue that there is no such thing.  

But let’s assume for the moment that ‘perfection’ is possible; what would the ingredients of a perfect pop song be? At the risk of stating the obvious, it has to be popular; it can’t be too alternative, too under-the-radar. It shouldn’t overstay its welcome and should probably be able to accommodate mainstream tastes. It can be breezy (like 'I get around' by The Beach Boys) or menacing (like 'Every breath you take' by The Police), but definitely not dreary. It can be populist and perhaps even a bit lightweight; it should be catchy, but not annoyingly so. 'Itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini' is catchy, but it’s catchy in the same way that scabies is catchy.
A great pop song can be very much of its time, but should also have that elusive element of timelessness. You shouldn’t have to say: ‘you had to be there’ or ‘you had to be on such-and-such a drug’ to appreciate a truly perfect pop song. Some songs are so closely identified with the era from which they emerged that they are eulogised mainly by the folk who lived through their glorious flowering; others rise above their milieu to achieve greatness. 'Smoke gets in your eyes' by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach is a wonderful song that was written for a musical in the 1930s, but you don’t need to have seen the show or to have lived through that decade in order to appreciate it. 'Penny Lane' by the Beatles evokes a very particular time and place, but you don’t have to have lived in Liverpool in the 1960s to know that it is a great pop tune. In many cases, you don’t even need to understand the lyrics to appreciate a great song. 'Sir Duke' by Stevie Wonder waxes lyrical about the contribution that black artists have made to American popular culture, but you don’t need to ‘get’ the words to be moved by the joy and genius in the music.  

If pushed to come up with a definition, I’d suggest that perfect pop happens when there is a magical alchemy between words, rhythm, melody, voice and structure. A perfect pop song is probably something to which nothing could be added or taken away to improve it.

So what has any of this got to do with me? 

At this time last year, I wrote about my intention to record an album. Although I have not yet managed to complete this task, I’m probably about 65% of the way there. The project has taken some unexpected twists and turns and I’ve already changed my mind several times about songs, themes and the album title. I’ve narrowed the contenders down to sixteen songs and each of these is partly recorded, with some of them just about finished and others requiring a bit more work. Once that work is done, I’ll pick the twelve songs that sound to me like they will make most sense as a collection. Within this body of work, it would be ridiculous for me to claim that I have the remotest chance of creating a ‘perfect’ pop song. With respect to the criteria listed above, it’s clear that I can’t qualify in many of the categories. None of my songs are going to be ‘popular’, because very few people are going to get to hear them; none of my songs are going to remind anyone of an important time in their life; none of my songs will provide the soundtrack to anyone’s dream. There is not a single spotty teenager on the planet who will think that anything I write will encapsulate the equivalent feelings of lust, rebellion, restlessness, excitement and wonder that I felt when listening to that Buzzcocks tune.   

So why bother? I’ve asked myself this question many times and, if I had to boil the answer down to a single notion, it would be this: Let’s suppose I found a piece of driftwood on the beach and decided to take it home and sculpt something interesting out of it. Suppose I then decided to make an objet d’art for my garden. This artefact would be required to serve no other purpose than to sit somewhere and be pleasing on the eye. I might spend ages on this project – filing, carving, whittling, scraping, gouging and maybe some other associated words that you’ll find under ‘sculpt’ in a thesaurus. The process of creating that artefact would be rewarding in and of itself. The number of folk who’d get to see or appreciate my garden sculpture would be more or less irrelevant. If only a few friends and relatives ever got to see it, that would be fine with me.  

Accordingly, my satisfaction with making music resides in the peace that comes with the imagining act, the execution of creative impulses, the feeling of having brought a new thing into the world. It matters little if I am the only one who can hear beauty in any of these songs. When I listen, I can also hear the process and the goal; I hear echoes of everything else I have ever listened to; I hear inchoate ideas rescued from formlessness by the building blocks of melody and rhythm, random promiscuous scatterings of notes and chords arranged into order and harmony. From the chaos of noise and purposelessness, I hear the shaping of disparate elements into a brief illusion of meaning, into three and a half minutes in which the universe appears to make sense.                 

There are a couple of songs I’m working on for my album which –in my head at least- have the makings of ‘perfect’ pop songs, as long as we extend a generous definition of the word perfect to include ‘well-constructed songs that don’t actually make you feel physically sick’.   

I started work on this song -If she gets on my train- with the intention of writing something upbeat and life-affirming. It tried its best for a while, but has somehow ended up with a sting in the tail. The lyric tries to get inside the head of a guy who nurses a crush on a girl he sees every day when he commutes to work. At one point I imagined that there would be a happy ending, with him asking the girl out and them both living happily ever after, but I never got around to completing that draft; by the time I returned to the lyric, it seemed more appropriate to insert a twist. The protagonist is trying to imagine a situation in which he will have the courage to make an approach to the girl of his dreams, but with every situation he imagines (she gets on his train, she walks down his street) there is also the recognition that all he will ever do is continue to do what he has always done. He knows that he will never pluck up the courage to ask the girl out, so settles instead for running little fantasy scenarios in his head.
When I let a friend hear a version of this a few months ago, he suggested that I hadn’t quite nailed the ending. This led me to return to the recording with the idea of emphasizing the character’s haplessness in the fadeout. Rather than let him fantasize about the life he might lead with this mystery girl, the extent of his detachment from reality would be delineated by his repetition of the line ‘if she gets on my train, we could have a conversation’. By this point in the song, we know that he is not going to be having any conversation with that girl. In that sense, the fadeout is a little nod to the chilling climax of Terry Gilliam’s dystopian nightmare ‘Brazil’, in which the audience is led to believe that the hero (played by Jonathan Pryce) has escaped the rapacious clutches of the Big Brother state and is living in bliss with his sweetheart. The big reveal comes when we discover that he is, in fact, tied to a chair and under brutal interrogation; so complete is his abandonment of his awful reality that he has retreated to a safe place inside his head where he can run his fantasies even as the state thugs are pulling his nails out with pliers.          

As is often the case, the failure seemed more interesting than the success.

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