Category Archives: Performance

Do Lyrics Matter In A Song?: Chuck Berry Vs B.B. King

The First Great Rock Lyricist: Dont Chuck Berry.

“The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you’ll be sorry someday”

The Thrill Is Gone – B.B. King

Reading B.B. King’s lyrics without accompaniment is a bit like peeing in a fridge: cold, unsatisfying, and not really what it’s meant for. Slapping his lyrics up on here does the great man a real disservice, but let’s take them as they are for a moment. They’re fairly pedestrian, without much depth or particular interest.

“Way down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
He never ever learned to read and write so well
But he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell

Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry

Compare his with Mr Berry’s. Chuck’s lyrics absolutely leap off the page. They’re so rich: full of character, energy, imagery, and humour. Mr Berry’s lyrics were so good they defined a whole genre. Not only that, but they lasted: I’ve heard that Johnny B. Goode has been appeared on more albums than any other song in history.

Before the King-ites come howling out of their Blues Dens, I’m not saying that Chuck beats B.B. I’m saying they’re equally good: Blues lyrics are more a vehicle for the music. They highlight the emotions in broad strokes, which is fine, but they struggle with detail.

What Chuck does differently is specificity. He narrows his focus, bringing in literary elements such as character, plot, and setting. He can tackle any subject – from political to romantic – and take it any way he wants – from humorous to sentimental.

The contrast between the two is huge: It’s the difference between seeing the world out of focus and seeing it in 20:20. Being able to accurately portray the world is the greatest and most important facility of the artist, and sometimes broad strokes is not enough.

So yes, lyrics do matter in a song. Unless, of course, you’re King of the Blues.

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Should You Trust Your Critics?

How to see through the smokescreen of ego. (Image: DeviantArt)

I’ve heard it said before that every songwriter writes from insecurity, but that’s not quite right. Every songwriter writes from ego.

No doubt about it. There’s something innately gratifying about completing a song that props you up for the rest of the week. When you pluck some delicious chorus melody out of the air and scribble it down, there’s a significant part of you that wants to light up a cigar, lean back in your chair, and utter that immortal adage of satisfaction: ‘Boom’.

So it naturally hurts when someone pokes their finger through your cigar-hazed fantasy. Your first fully completed song hangs framed above the mantle; you sit bleary-eyed with love, reminiscing about how each perfectly constructed line came into being. But suddenly, a snickity little gremlin appears from your periphery, shouting words of abuse so vile as to curse down the sun, and you fold into a little sweaty ball of misery. Sound familiar?

Your first encounter with criticism is make-or-break time. It’s where your artistic ideas, which get cosy in the comfort of your own head, are thrust into the real, cold world. And it’s serious: some people never recover from the first go-around. But let me give you a little phrase to remember next time you come up against the gremlin:

‘Your critics are always right, and your critics are never right.’

Let me explain. Remember your heavy metal phase? Remember buying that brand new amp, turning it up to 11, and rocking out that first solo? Remember your little sister slamming through the door, stuffing her pigtails in her ears, yelling ‘SHUT UP, YOU SUCK!’ She was, in many ways, just as eloquent as much of the modern music press, and she was a valuable critic.

Another example. I was busking in my local town centre, and playing one of my own songs. A bedraggled, ineffably cool man carrying a guitar was stood watching me from the opposite street corner. As I finished, he walked up to me and dropped ten pounds in the box, and said: ‘Play that song again’.

The musician and the sister are two critics: one hated me, one loved me. One didn’t know a thing about music, one probably knew a fair bit. But here’s what I mean to say: Both opinions were equally right.

Everybody, critic or not, belongs to a demographic: both of the above opinions reflected the demographics that the critics belonged to, and so were equally right. But both were equally wrong, because they failed to represent any demographic other than their own.

Your Warhammer-obsessed male flatmate who tells you your song sucks is only speaking from the Warhammer-obsessed demographic. Your bleary-eyed elderly teacher who loves your singing voice is speaking only from that perspective. Your little sister utterly reflects her age group when she says that heavy metal sucks, but if you were playing Disney songs she’d be loving it.

But where does this leave our central question? Musicians, just like any salesman in the marketplace, must aim their products at certain demographics. You should therefore only trust the critics who are representative of the demographic you’re aiming it. But, like a sensible entrepreneur, take note of everything you hear: if you suddenly notice a groundswell of critical reception from the over-65’s, maybe you should take aim there. Always offer what they’re calling for.

So don’t get downbeat when the gremlin curses your work. You can keep the cigar, but make sure you can see through the smoke.

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When To Show Your Songs To People

Pennywise the Clown from IT (1990).

On my computer hard-drive, tucked away in a hidden folder, is a file called ‘Spontaneous Lyrics’. It contains the entire oeuvre of my songwriting from year 1 to around year 5, from my very first scribblings, through my ‘Political’ phase (*weeps in shame*), right up to the start of my ‘Girls-are-really-quite-attractive’ phase, which I’ve never truly left behind.

I’m now in around my 7th-8th year of songwriting, and this file is painful. Painful. Absolutely no-one in the world has ever freely looked through it. This was, for a long time, how I felt about my songwriting. My songs were my Pennywise, lurking in the gutter of my mind. No way in hell was anyone going to see those songs.

I know I’m not alone in this, either. So crippling is the fear of rejection in some songwriters that they never get off the ground. Some will noodle away in silence for decades without ever breathing a melody.

Well, let me tell you, that approach ain’t too great. For one thing, keeping a song cooped up in your own head means you can’t ever say ‘This is finished’. I’m living testament.

I finished my first song six years after I began songwriting. It was called ‘You Ain’t Alone’ (It’s my mum’s favourite, incidentally). Here’s the kicker: I only knew it was finished when my great friend, who I’d started playing all my songs to, told me it was.

I then proceeded to play it individually to every single one of my flatmates (of which there were 12) and anyone who would listen to check if he was giving me a bum steer. And he wasn’t. At least my mum doesn’t think so, anyway.

This process of ‘Finishing’ a song is not, as is commonly thought, a question of editing. Songwriters are perfectionists, and they’ll edit the song to death before they realised they were actually just as happy with the first draft.

Finishing a song is just about dragging Pennywise out of the gutter. Once it’s out, the song is no longer a secret diary entry, it’s a piece of work which exists independently of you, and it won’t feel so scary any more. I promise you: the change is remarkable.

Don’t get me wrong, it takes a lot of guts for a first-year songwriter to do it, far more than I’ve ever possessed. But here’s my advice: Do you have a best friend? Are they smarter than you? Show the song to them. They’ll give you better advice than you’d ever manage on your own.

It’s worth it. Once Pennywise is up on the pavement you see him for what he is: just a feckin’ clown.

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Developing A Voice: The Curse of AutoTune

Macy Gray: more attitude than the sum total of Lower Manhattan.

“My baby works down at the boulevard cafe
Just a fine young man with big dreams
Trying to make his own way
The owner is this mean old bitch
Who degrades him everyday
Then she fires him for no reason
Don’t wanna give him his last pay”

I’ve Committed Murder – Macy Gray

Macy Gray has the strangest voice in the music business. She sounds like a Disney villain being crushed under a boulder. The last chorus of I Try even trumps Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky for downright scatty weirdness.

But it’s bloomin’ compelling. You listen to I’ve Committed Murder, and though it’s not the best song in the world, you utterly believe the nastiness and cruelty that comes spilling out of her mouth. It’s riveting.

Frankly, I’m amazed that a talent like Macy was able to prosper in the 90’s female R&B market, which was full of real technical wizards (Whitney, Mariah, Jill Scott etc). Macy’s full of soul, but she’s can’t work the top notes like those girls can.

If she’d have struggled then, she’d be underwater now. AutoTune is used more and more in professional recording studios, especially for female performers. What with the rise of X Factor (American Idol for you Yanks) and the sudden demand for Whitneys it’s brought with it, AutoTune was legitimized simply by necessity: the Top 40 has turned into a vocal arms race.

It starts innocent enough: Can’t quite hit that top note like Mariah? Well, give it your best shot and we’ll bulk it out with a bit of gear. That was a great take, but you just got a bit flat on that middle section. We’ll just lift the whole song to reinforce your vocal. Then you get what happened on Ricky Martin’s Livin’ The Vida Loca, where the producer Desmond Child digitally moved Ricky’s syllables around in the mix for the best effect.

Now we’ve got an environment where TV talent shows, which dictate the public’s view of a good singer, are using AutoTune to bump up the quality of their entrants. If Macy were to walk on to the X Factor stage she’d either come out of post-production sounding like Aretha Franklin – or she’d be laughed off. I shudder to think of what Cowell would have made of a fresh-faced 1960’s Bob Dylan shambling onto the stage.

What with all this public movement towards the AutoTune factory, it’s really quite tempting for us songwriters to go that way. Why don’t I start producing urban hits with just my voice and a bit of kit? I’d probably make a bit of money if the songs were alright.

Because if you’re serious about this singer/songwriter lark, you’ll notice that those with the most devoted fanbases are those who are authentic. Mark Oliver Everett: gritty as gravel but undeniably him. Sufjan Stevens: airy-fairy but full of human weakness. Soul trumps software any day of the week.

Macy, just in case an intern at your lawyer’s office misinterprets the first paragraph of this blog, I’d take you over Whitney any day.

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The Lonesome Death of Sincerity

Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, NY.

“In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence”

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll – Bob Dylan

Talk about striking at the heart of the times.

1964. America is changed forever by the Civil Rights Act. Segregation is ended and the voting booths are opened to black men and women.

But civil rights workers are still being killed in the South. The problem is not over. The justice system in the south is still mostly comprised of white, conservative lawmen. Well-connected old families like the Zantzingers still seem untouchable.

Enter Dylan. In this, the song’s last stanza, he buffets us along on the faint hope of justice; Finally, will a change come to the south? An almost operatic drive builds up, the judge is framed behind his cloak, the courtroom draws breath.

Then that last line crashes in, and you feel anger. Actual anger. You want to write a letter by the Tardis Royal Mail to the court of Maryland to get Zantzinger retrialed.

In ‘No Direction Home’ by Martin Scorsese, a biopic of Dylan’s career, you see footage of Mr Bob sitting on the back of a wagon, singing this song to the local farm workers. He rides those words like he’s steering a horse into battle. Not only does he tailor the lyrics to directly affect his audience, but he slams it home by dragging out the chords. He repeats that same, hypnotic melody, driving it louder and louder… until he drops it down with last line. The audience are in raptures.

The power of the song all comes from the incredible sincerity with which Dylan delivers those words. It’s unabashed, unfaltering, and unequivocal. And almost never matched. As homework, name me one record in the past three decades that speaks with such sincerity on a political subject matter. You won’t find one. Not since Punk has popular music been able to express a clear point of view without self-effacement or ironic detachment.

William Zantzinger died only a couple of years ago. Perhaps the spirit of rebellion that made him infamous died with him.

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