Proving and Improving Good Songs

No group, be it Beatles, Dylan or Stones have ever improved on “Whole Lot of Shaking” for my money. Or maybe I’m like our parents: that’s my period and I dig it and I’ll never leave it.  –John Lennon

I read this quote from a 1971 John Lennon interview a while back and I think about it all the time.  John Lennon always claimed to like 50’s rock and roll best of all music.  When Lennon was 16 Little Richard, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly were taking over the charts in England and the U.S.  John, like his parents in their day, loved the golden hits of his youth and never liked anything else quite so much.  To his ear, no pop music after those records was even as good as the hit songs of his youth.

It seems like a natural process to me.  There are certain songs that get played everywhere when you are young and full of imagination and desire.  You choose your favorites among those songs.  That selection of music remains “your” music for the rest of your life.  You may like other stuff throughout your life, but never in the same way you like “your music”.  This formula for why and how we like the music we like best should always work with the big pop hits from every time period but I’m not sure it does for me.  When I was 16 the biggest records on the charts were by Bobby Brown, Poison, Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson.  I didn’t like those records very much then so it’s pretty hard to get nostalgic for them now.  I did have favorite records from that period: U2, Prince, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, the Police, Bruce Springsteen.  I know many of those records by heart.  I still like all that stuff and it does take me back but I can’t say it speaks to me more or even as much as Dylan, The Beatles, Jimmy Cliff and many other records that were made long before I was born.

So why then doesn’t the music of “my period” sound best to me?  First of all, I think hit radio has had a different-sized presence in different people’s lives at different times since its invention.  When John Lennon was a kid in Liverpool, the radio was everything.  When I was a kid, radio was a semi-big deal that I checked into and out of.  And though Dylan and the Beatles and old reggae weren’t in the top 40 anymore, they were getting heavy, heavy spin on my record player at home.  They were massive hits to me.  Also, songs by artists like Dylan and the Beatles had been sewn so deeply into the popular culture all around me that it functioned similarly to the way religious music had functioned for people in centuries past.  It was a part of my every day lore.   Lennon himself had caused great controversy back in 1966 when he said that the Beatles meant more to many kids than Jesus did.  Years later, he was definitely right in my case.  I never attended religious services of any kind growing up but I did sing Beatles songs in the classroom a couple of times a week in 1st grade and I thought about the Beatles’ music all the time.

So I just had more exposure to old records and therefore I liked them better than the hit radio of my time?  I think that’s partly true but I still believe some songs are just better than others and some recordings are just better than others too.  I’ve developed an esthetic of my own, built around some 20 or 30 years of trial and error as a listener.  Sometimes a big hit song really speaks to me.  Other times it really doesn’t.  When Lennon was growing up, the big hits really spoke to him.  When he was 30, those same songs still really spoke to him.  When I was growing up the Beatles and Dylan and old reggae really spoke to me and they still do today.

So what is it really speaks to me in a song?  A couple of weeks ago I spent a bunch of time thinking and writing about my favorite pop, rock and jazz albums of all time.  It really got me thinking about specifically what I liked in a song.    Mostly, I like very simple songs.  I like a good tune that I want to hear again and again and maybe sing along to.  I like honest, soulful singers with interesting and/or pretty voices.  I like to feel a heart singing when a singer sings.  I like groovy rhythm pockets, most often simple repetitive rhythms.  I like meaningful, well crafted but not obscure lyrics.  I like stories and pictures and transcendent thought.  A song can appeal to me on any one of those levels or on multiple levels at the same time (in the best case scenario).  Most of all, my favorite songs just feel right and I just want to hear them again and again.  I’ve heard many of the kind of song I like best in elaborate recorded productions.  Many times I’ve heard an equally great song played by just a singer alone with a single instrument.

I’m certain that the essence of a good song has very little to do with production or arrangement. This idea brings me to another quote.  It’s from an interview with a playwright that I read close to 20 years ago but I’ve never forgotten it.

A bad play could be improved by production.  A first rate play can only be proved, not improved, by production. –Edward Albee

Albee was talking about plays but I think we could easily apply the same idea to songs and it would still be perfectly true.  A great song is a great song to you as soon as you hear the melody and you hear the sound of the words, you feel their rhythm and you take in their meaning.  The arrangement/production that may or may not be applied to a great song could only prove it, not improve it.  Listen sometime to Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky.  The more famous version is the full orchestration by Maurice Ravel.  It’s certainly beautiful, but Mussorgsky wrote the piece for solo piano.  Listen to a recording of the solo piano version.  I don’t think there’s anything missing.  Ravel’s orchestration is great because it doesn’t ruin what’s already great.  The same is true of a pop song.  When I learned the Beatles song “Yellow Submarine” in my 1st grade class, my teacher would play the guitar and the whole class would gather around.  We shared booklets with typewritten lyrics and we all sang together as he played.  My teacher played a few other Beatles songs, a bunch of old folk songs and a few other popular songs.  I remember “Sunshine on my Shoulders” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver in particular.  When I learned those songs in class, I hadn’t heard the records but I really loved the songs.  Later on, when I did hear the records, it took me a little while to get used to the sound of the recorded versions, but I did eventually like them because I already liked the songs.  The records were good records because they didn’t hinder my enjoyment of good songs, they just proved how good they already were.

If you have a chance, listen to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music released by Smithsonian Folkways in 1952.  It’s a collection made up of old 78 recordings from the 1920’s and 30’s.  Most of the songs on the record are “primitive” recordings.  They have one singer’s voice, with accompaniment from one or two instruments.  To me, those recordings, made so long before I was born, endure better than most of the hits from “my period” as John Lennon would say.  Their melodies and lyrics and fragments of both have been re-visited and re-worked over the years by countless artists all over the place.  Still,  like John, I don’t think anyone has “improved” upon those songs either.

Production will continue to change over the years.  Instrumental styles and singing styles will come and go too, but there will never be a substitute for a good song being sung and played with feeling.  I think anyone who hopes to arrange or produce or perform a song well should always keep that in mind. This doesn’t mean that any solo singer, singing alone with a banjo, is inherently good.  It just means that a good song is only as good as its tune and its lyrics and a great singer would sound great singing a cappella in a supermarket aisle.  What John Lennon liked about “Whole Lotta Shaking” was not that it was made at Sun Studios in 1957.  What he liked was the feeling that the song and the singer gave him.  If Sam Phillips and the musicians at Sun records did something right, it was to capture that feeling and not get in its way.

Happy listening!

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