Wednesday, 23 January 2008

How to Write a Song

Did anyone watch Paul Morley’s ‘Pop – what is it good for?’ on TV? As someone of a similar age it struck quite a few chords with me and it is always interesting to hear what others pick as their own half-dozen ‘touchstone’ life-changing singles. In his case it is these (in no particular order):

Ride a White Swan – T Rex
This Charming Man – The Smiths
Freak Like Me – Sugababes
What Do You Want? – Adam Faith
Lola – The Kinks
Can’t Get You Out of my Head – Kylie Minogue

Actually, I have no issue with any of them, in principle, as they also feature prominently in my life (it’s a generational thing) but no doubt would have chosen a selection that was more personal to me if I’d been in charge. Perhaps this might form the material of a subsequent post!

The bit that really interested me was hearing Rob Davis explain how he and Cathy Dennis had written ‘Can’t Get You Out of my Head’, Kylie’s mega-hit of 2001. It just confirmed what I have always believed about a good pop song and that is that it has an internal conflict at its heart.

Rob showed how he had chosen a basic dance groove, that is, something upbeat and feelgood and then set against it a series of quite melancholy minor chords. This is the conflict. It is something that Abba writing team of Benny and Bjorn knew all about and exploited in spades. All the best Abba hits either marry an uplifting tune to a lyrical tragedy or a minor key melody to an upbeat dance rhythm or any combination of all of them. ‘The Winner Takes it All’ is the greatest example but there is ‘SOS’, ‘Name of the Game’ and many others.

It seems that by combining opposites it is possible to cover all bases in the emotional scale and yet avoid the cheesiness of overwrought ballads on one hand and the relentless smugness of happy-clappy songs on the other. All of us like a good tune that we can hum on the way to the shops, but we also like a bit of tragedy to remind us that, as REM once put it, ‘Everybody Hurts’. It’s the identify-with-your-audience syndrome that comes into play with a ‘conflict’ song as it catches both those looking for comfort in the midst of their own life crisis and those looking for a damn good tune to whistle in their happy oblivion.

Easy really, isn’t it?


TR1-Guy said...

Many folks like to laugh or cringe at the name ABBA, but they were very good at the game of music. Not only did they craft excellent pop music (regardless of one's opinions, at the time pop music was THE money maker in the industry) but they were crafty business folks as well. A good friend of mine lives in Sweden and knows one of the ABBAs gentlemen and told me they were paid in commodities, not cash (like stocks, bonds, etc.) Ingenious! Values will only go up with time. Nice touch.

I love ABBA, and I am a die hard rocker to the end, but I respect their craftmanship!

musicobsessive said...

Me too. This is where I admit that I have all their singles (on those gorgeous yellow then orange Epic labels). Craftmanship is what they were all about. All their songs are beautifully constructed and then fully realised in the studio. Looks like they carried their acumen into the business world as well.