Friday, 16 September 2011
News, Views and Music Issue 112 (Top Five): Postmodern songs 'about' songwriting
Hmm, ‘I’m just a songwriter’ – wonder where songwriter Justin Hayward got his inspiration for that track from?! Actually, songs about songwriters in action aren’t as rare as you might think – hence this week’s rather trendy postmodernist top five: songs all about the art of songwriting! (What are we going to have when we move on from postmodernism by the way? Post-postmodernism perhaps? Anyway, I digress...)
1) Paul McCartney “Sitting At The Piano” (originally unreleased track from 1974, seen in the ‘One hand Clapping’ film included in the deluxe edition of ‘Band On The Run’): Not the most obvious choice to start off our chronological list – in fact you have to be a real Beatles anorak to know about it’s existence at all. But of course most of you reading this site will be Beatles anoraks anyway! Paul never technically finished this song, heard in the Wings/Band On The Run documentary ‘One Hand Clapping’ (with this unseen making of still the highlight of the first two batches of McCartney deluxes re-issues) in a medley with ‘All Of You’ and ‘Give Me A Ring’. ‘Well here I am’, sings Paul, ‘sitting at my piano – and I want to tell you all about it...’ and that’s about all. Still, the chance to hear the cogs working in a Beatle’s brain is a good incentive and the tune is a good one, even by Macca’s standards, one that like it’s words seems to pause for thought before deciding which chords to follow. I’d love to hear the finished version one day!
2) Stephen Stills “My Favourite Changes” (a track from the ‘Stills’ album, 1975): For those who don’t know, ‘changes’ are the chord sequences musicians choose to run through when trying to make up a tune. Stills’ response in this overlooked song is to tell us what memories his favourite sequence of chords evokes for him, 'already good for a number of songs’ with fan-friendly references to past loves and inspirations and a second verse asking Stills’ pre-fame friends if they remember him, a ‘kid with a big white guitar’. Interestingly, despite being a very Stillsy kind of a song (bluesy, harmony-drenched and family orientated) the chord changes don’t actually sound that familiar, with only distant DNA to link them to past successes like ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and ‘Helplessly Hoping’. Stills used the same trick again in another overlooked track, ‘Got To Keep (Open)’ from the 1990 CSN album ‘Live It Up’, where Stills is in the present looking towards the future with a new partner, sitting by the river and you’re sitting and I’m writing out these words’.
3) Neil Young “Borrowed Tune” (a track from the ‘Tonight’s The Night’ album, 1975):Neil is so worn down by the death of his friends Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry on this loose concept album about death and failure that he can’t even sum up the strength to add imagination to the chords running through his head. ‘I’m hoping it matters, I’m having my doubts’ he sings at one point, with this understated song about what it really mean to live when others around you die before their time one of the most moving on Neil’s most bare-bones emotional record of all. In the rest of the song, Neil peers out the window, watching ice-skaters ‘fly by on the lake’, amazed at how humans can run their lives as normal when the ‘ice’ below their feet is so thin and mortality is so short. The tune really is ‘borrowed’ by the way – Neil himself admits in the last verse that this is a slightly slower version of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Lady Jane’ with Neil too emotional and ‘wasted’ to write his own.
4) The Who “Guitar And Pen” (a track from the ‘Who Are You’ album, 1978): The most OTT track about songwriting must be this late-period effort from Pete Townshend, caught at the crossroads of prog rock and punk and desperately trying to remember what made him want to write songs in the first place. Telling us that he felt he had ‘something important to say’, Pete (using Roger Daltrey’s voice) tries to remember what it was, coming up with a song that somehow manages to straddle the intellectual Who sound of the 70s with the punkish thrash of their early days. Alas Keith Moon in particular is too far past his best to do the song’s tricky time signature justice but this is still a fine song, with Pete telling all potential songwriters listening to this track not to ‘spend your guitar or your pen’ because in a cold harsh society they’re the only means of communication with the outside world we have. There’s also a great verse about the younger teenage Pete getting frustrated with trying to work out what he wants to say (he did write ‘I Can’t Explain’ at the age of 20 after all!), taking it out on the guitar he smashes at the end of his bed – only to return to the fascination of trying to write, sticking his guitar back together himself with glue!
5) Paul Simon “Song About The Moon” (a track from the ‘Hearts and Bones’ album, 1983): When Paul Simon got writer’s block in the wake of the poor response unfairly dished out to the excellent ‘One Trick Pony’ film/record his therapist told him to go back to thinking about the things that used to inspire him to write. His mind invigorated, Paul got to thinking what made other poets and musicians across the ages write – and decided it was a the romance of subjects like ‘the ‘moon’. Rather than just writing ‘a song about the moon’, however, this is Paul writing about writing, informing his audience just as his therapist informed him that inspiration is everywhere if you’re prepared to look for it. The song’s lyrics really inspired, too, full of every jokey rhyme with ‘moon’ that’s ever been used in song, but the breezy tune leaves a lot to be desired, sounding less than inspirational compared to Paul’s best work. Of course, this wasn’t the first time Paul used this songwriting trick – he first used it nearly 20 years before on a pair of songs from the ‘Sounds Of Silence’ album: ‘The Leaves That Are Green’ (‘I was 21 years when I wrote this song – I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long’) and ‘Homeward Bound’ (‘I’m sitting in the railway station...my suitcase and guitar in hand’).
And that’s that for another issue! See you soon for issue 113 (hopefully!) when Lulu will be dancing, Pink Floyd will be prancing (thanks to a BBC4 theme night on Friday) and David Cameron will be glancing (over his shoulder – as his coalition cabinet stab in the back, again!)