Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

What Makes A Great Chorus?

The Ting Tings: Jules De Martino and Katie White.

“Clap your hands if you’re working too hard”

The Ting Tings – Hands

If the Ting Tings hadn’t strapped this lyric onto an interminable sub-Kraftwerk wind tunnel and had it voiced by a supermarket counter, it would have been the best chorus ever written.

I can’t resist it. It voices a universal truth of our work-stricken modern life. It speaks to the backbreaking labour of the working class and the high-voltage deskwork of the bankers. It makes you proud to work and proud to rebel. In 9 syllables, ladies and gentlemen.

A good chorus can make or break a song. It’s the song’s gravestone: the verses can have faff around a bit, but the chorus is what they’ll remember. It can pump a song to new levels of commercial appeal: there’s a reason that one-hit wonders plague our charts. They’re all built on strong choruses. Example: £100 to anyone who can remember the lyrics to the second verse of “Who Let The Dogs Out”?

When trying to describe a perfect chorus, people will often grope for the boardroom bonehead’s best buzzword: ‘It’s really catchy.” “Wow, that’s so catchy.” I want to tell you here and now to think of “Catchy” as a myth.

There can be no doubting that some songs are ‘Catchier’ than others, though I feel unclean using that word. Melody contributes, chords contribute, and structure certainly contributes, but I honestly don’t really care too much about a ‘Catchy’ formula: it makes it seem as though you should base your songwriting around whether it’s Catchy or not. Let me tell you: if you bash on the front gate of the Catchy mansion, you won’t get anywhere close.

So let’s try the back way in. I love Hands because it epitomises what I think a good chorus should do. Let’s split this down into two stages.

First: Validation. The first thing a great chorus should do is validate an identity, either of a group or a community. Consider Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA. You’re trying to get the ‘That’s Me!’ moment on the other end of the wireless. I’ve heard it said that art should articulate and make clear what people feel, and the chorus is your moment to shine.

There are two routes: either you reach out to as many people as possible on a general level, or you speak to a small group incredibly personally. What makes Hands so incredible is that it speaks to a universal audience on a deeply personal level, but that’s a once-in-a-career moment. I’d advise taking one of the two routes above and hoping that you strike gold.

Second: Catharsis. This is where you can deliver a chorus that can change someone’s life. Once you’ve achieved the ‘That’s Me!’ moment, you’ve got them in the palm of your hand. Now it’s time to smack them out of the park.

This is where it takes a bit of personal tailoring to your audience. More often than not it’s simply enough to give people a voice. Consider Pulp’s Common People, or Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing: the very act of giving voice to those who cannot speak gives the song strength. But you can do so much more: once you engage people on a personal level you can breathe new life into their lives.

Every music listener has songs that light a fire in their hearts, that seems to speak directly to you. Validating an identity, then allowing that identity Catharsis. That’s the big secret.

You have 9 syllables to change someone’s life. Choose carefully.

3 Comments

Filed under Lyrics, Melody, Structure

A Bit Of Self-Indulgence: Black Coffee at the RDC

Hey all,

This is my little folly: Black Coffee. I’m the sweaty pillock at the piano. This cover was entirely improvised, as you can probably tell. Hope you enjoy it, and please share it with all your friends.

1 Comment

Filed under Misc

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Performance

Tangled Up In Metaphor: How to Structure a Theme into Songwriting

Dylan circa 1975, sporting a Leo Sayer barnet.

“She was married when we first met, soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess, but I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night, both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me as I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder, ‘We’ll meet again someday on the avenue’
Tangled up in blue”

Tangled Up In Blue – Bob Dylan

Yes, oh yes, we’re on Bob Dylan again. Broken record, anyone? Yes, I know.

But what a writer. In his epic love story Tangled Up In Blue, which he said took ‘2 years to write and 10 years to live’, the main character travels all across America with the memory of a girl he once knew holed up in his heart. You could write a dissertation on Dylan’s use of pronouns, on the song’s intentionally ambiguous imagery, on Blood On The Tracks’ complete and utter awesomeness; but I want to focus on Dylan’s use of emblem, and why it is useful in songwriting.

At the end of each verse, Dylan refers back to his central image: “Tangled Up In Blue”. On first listening, it’s not quite apparent what he means (Who is this “Blue”? How can one be “Tangled Up” in her?), but as each verse unfolds, the phrase magically acquires new meaning through repetition.

The initially ambiguous phrase “Tangled Up In Blue” now embodies the main character’s longing for his estranged lover. It becomes the emblem of the song, both as a summary of the song’s feeling and as a handy way to refer back to the title.

This idea of emblem is particularly interesting when we consider how Dylan might have written the song. What came first, the emblem or the verses? My (utterly unworthy) guess is that Dylan heard the phrase ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and thought (imagine the voice) ‘Yeah, man, uh… I could use that, man…’ and began to create a song around this central metaphor.

This becomes a highly effective way to structure new songs. Not only is it useful in folk songwriting, but it is absolutely central to pop songwriting. If you can combine a hooky melody with a poetic emblem, then you are half-way towards a hit. Consider Lady Gaga’s (incredible, by the way) singles catalogue. Alejandro, Bad Romance, Just Dance, Telephone: all built around this combination.

Songs built around emblems are far more tightly focused and simply better. The scattergun approach works sometimes: Dylan’s (yes, him again) Subterranean Homesick Blues, for instance. But for those who need a tighter focus in their songwriting, this’ll work wonders for you.

But don’t take my word for it! Have a go! Next time a little phrase comes into your head that gives you a creative jolt, jot it down and build a song around it, and post the lyrics on the comments section. It’ll be fun. 🙂

3 Comments

Filed under Lyrics, Structure

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lyrics, Performance