When I was a lad, it was quite the thing for people to sing at family gatherings. I had relatives who would regularly ‘do a turn’ and entertain the company with a song or two. At the time, I was too young and self-conscious or, later, too cool for school to appreciate any of this. I didn’t really know much at the time and had a slightly patronising view of folk who could (and would) get up and do a song at parties; it all seemed a bit passé to me. Now that I can usually tell the difference between my arse and a hole in the ground, I know that singing is a fun thing to do and that it is also good for you. I’m sure there have been studies carried out which can prove this scientifically (or at least pseudo-scientifically) but all I can present is anecdotal evidence, carried out by a sample of one, i.e. me. I feel better when I’m singing. I believe that when I’m singing, it’s not just my vocal chords that are being exercised; I believe that I’m taking my soul for a walk.
I wish I had known all this back then; I wish I could have been relaxed and confident enough to join in with all that singing. I get the impression that not as many folk sing at parties these days, although it’s possibly just the case that I don’t get invited to the parties at which people sing (although, come to think of it, I don’t get invited to parties, full stop).
The generation that sang at social gatherings was, in at least one respect, richer than their children and grand-children. They didn’t have the gadgets, the disposable income, the satellite TV or the foreign holidays, but they were familiar with songs that could be sung from start to finish without embarrassment or, indeed, embellishment. And that lack of any need for embellishment was a testament to the quality of the words and melodies of songs that were written to be sung. The wonder of the popular song resides, as Clive James put it, in “the way a colloquial phrase can be multiplied in its energy by how it sits on a row of musical notes.” Some may think these examples a bit cheesy, but old songs like ‘And I love you so’, ‘Spanish Eyes’ or ‘The way we were’ can be sung from start to finish by anyone. The melodies are simple and memorable, the lyrics evocative and universal; these are songs which do not rely on elaborate musical backdrops to sound convincing. Their energy and pathos are, indeed, generated by the skilful placement of colloquial phrases on rows of musical notes. We might not know exactly how this magic works, but when we listen to a piece of recorded music we make an unconscious assessment of at least one (and probably more) of these components: melody, chords, words, rhythm, sound and context. Our unique responses to these stimuli lead us to subjective conclusions about the ‘quality’ of the song.
If it is true that there is not as much unembellished singing going on today, then perhaps it’s the case that there are simply fewer contemporary songs that are fit to be sung (beyond the realms of karaoke). I’d suggest that advances in recording technology have altered the balance between form and content within the popular song, to the extent that the sound of the recording has usurped melody as the defining characteristic. Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’ is a really dynamic piece of music, but it’s not exactly rich in melody. And try singing along with these number one hits without karaoke accompaniment: ‘Professional Widow’ by Tori Amos, ‘Firestarter’ by The Prodigy or ‘Two Tribes’ by Frankie goes to Hollywood.
If the sound of recorded music has improved (and not everyone would agree that it has), has that improvement been matched by improvements in song-writing? I generally don’t listen to chart radio, so I’m not aware of how much rubbish and how much good stuff is around just now, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s more or less the same amount of rubbish and good stuff as has always been in the charts; every era has its share of great songs, good songs, mediocre songs and bad songs. But how can we tell what is rubbish and what is good? Without some objective measurement of quality, all we can really offer is opinion. We know that if a song is popular it must be liked by large numbers of people, but we could all name examples of terrible songs that were big hits and great songs that never made the charts.
Longevity, I’d suggest, is a reasonable indicator of quality.
To take one example, Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’ was a top ten hit in the UK in August 1969, yet that song is still sung (and is still familiar) in a way that other successful tunes from that era are not. These songs were all in the top ten at the same time: ‘Baby make it soon’ by Marmalade, ‘Early in the morning’ by Vanity Fare, 'Goodnight Midnight' by Clodah Rodgers, 'Wet Dream' by Maz Romeo, ‘Make me an island’ by Joe Dolan and ‘Conversations’ by Cilla Black. These songs all performed well in the charts, they probably got played many times on the radio and were bought by lots of people, but how many of them would be recognised or sung by anyone today?
(Mind you, looking at that same chart, I’d imagine that lots of folk could probably sing along with ‘Give peace a chance’ by the Plastic Ono Band, despite it being a dreadful song).
Although that chart from 1969 was probably typical with regard to quality, I’d be willing to come off the relativistic fence for a moment to suggest that, if we took an average pop chart from the mid-to-late sixties and compared it to an average pop chart from the 21st century, we’d observe that the popular song is now painted from a somewhat diminished palette. By that, I mean that it has lost some of its rhythmic variation (the 4/4 rhythm now seems more or less ubiquitous), it has fewer chords (and fewer interesting chords; yes, that’s a judgement), the structures have simplified and the subject matter (indeed, the vocabulary of pop) has narrowed. Songs used to be written to be sung, but -with less of a focus on melody and words- it seems that many of them are now made to be listened to. This is partly about who is making music, partly about why they are making it and partly about the tools they use, but it’s also a socio-cultural development and one that someone else should write up for their PhD.
In suggesting that the songs of forty to fifty years ago might have been generally ‘better’ because they had more emphasis on melody, I’m perfectly aware that I’m:
a) Stating an entirely subjective viewpoint
b) Ignoring Paul Simon’s wise words about every generation throwing ‘a hero up the pop charts’
and c) Sounding like an old fart.
But when an old fart claims that such-and-such is a great song because people are still singing it fifty years after it was recorded, he has a point. The fact that people are singing it means something. Lots of modern songs may turn out to be great and timeless pieces, but we don’t yet know if people will be singing them fifty years hence.
All of which leads me to reflect on my own efforts.
As well as being limited by ability and imagination, my song-writing efforts are generally filtered through subjective judgement criteria for melody, chords, words, rhythm and sound which were set many years ago, when I listened to music on the radio or on the family record player. In other words, I like my stuff to sound like other stuff that I believe to be good. One of the reasons I’ve been talking about old songs is because the piece I’m linking to below is something of an homage to a certain type of old song, one that I have fond memories of.
I’ve stated in previous instalments of this ‘recording-an-album’ saga that I often find musical inspiration easier to access than lyrical inspiration. I’m more equipped to emulate than innovate, so will often have a particular feel in mind whenever I start composing; this ‘feel’ will sometimes be based on something I’ve heard and admired before. The trick is then to disguise the source material as the piece develops, but in this case I was inclined to be faithful to the germ of the idea. The song started out as a doodle on the piano and I knew, as soon as I stumbled upon the descending chord sequence of the verse, that I was about to write something which would owe a debt of gratitude to The Kinks, (by way of The Beatles and ELO).
Although I could quickly imagine how the recording would sound, I had nothing in the way of lyrical content. As the structure developed, however, it occurred to me that the ambience I wanted to create would best be served by a direct lyric, a ‘story’ as opposed to an impressionistic poem. Once I came up with the title, the story fell into place. The end result -‘Mr McIntosh has left the building’- is about a man experiencing his last day in employment. Having spent all of his working life in the same office job, he reflects upon the speed with which the whole thing seems to have passed him by. I love the sly humour of Ray Davies and the way he creates believable characters to inhabit his evocative urban vignettes. But there is also an undercurrent of melancholy in his work (in ‘Autumn Almanac’, for example) and I wanted my song to have a touch of that.
‘Forty years have come and gone; he’s been there man and boy and now he’ll leave without a fuss to catch that evening omnibus’.
Having decided upon the direction of travel, the deliberate use of the archaic ‘omnibus’ was designed to place the piece in a sixties context, as was the deployment of brass (splendidly played by Dave Webster). In the chorus, the bass sits in E under the first four chords, a device I’m much more likely to use when writing on the piano. It creates a bit of tension, which -in this case- aids the purpose of lyrical exposition.
The character reflects that it ‘seems like two blinks of an eye’ since he started the job; he realises, with a sense of numb bewilderment, that decades of graft have amounted to not very much at all.
‘All the stories he could tell: they could fill a book, but there’s one thing that is guaranteed: no-one else would want to read it’.
I don’t like songs that sneer at the ordinary lives of ordinary folk and I hope that the lyric doesn’t sound like I’ve tried to do that here. The aim was merely to say something about the fleetingness of a life spent in gainful employment and to capture the feelings of a man about to leave work for the last time.
I was talking about the process of song-writing to a friend recently (now you know why I don’t get invited to parties) and he related a lovely quote from Leonard Cohen concerning the elusive and frustrating nature of inspiration. The old boy said: “If I knew where the songs came from, I'd go there more often.”
How that simple observation resonates! I would happily slice off and eat my left arm to be able to write a truly popular song; by that, I mean one that lots of people would like, buy and want to sing along with.
But, if nobody wants to sing along with this song, I’ve cunningly included a bit of whistling on the final chorus. To paraphrase Robert Duvall's Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in 'Apocalypse Now':
“I love the sound of whistling on a record. There’s nothing like it. It sounds like … victory.”