Secret of the Pop Song part 2 – The Breakthrough Single
Secret of the Pop Song – part 2
The Breakthrough Single
Mark Ronson – super producer. Music’s Man of the Moment. The Prince of Cool. The Phil Spector of his generation. Amy Winehouse, Adele.
Secret to a pop single
Lamont Dozier – its what you feel
A diary of contemporary culture – Neil Tennant – Its rooted in its time
Boy George – airplay! Explains some of the dreadful records that have got to number 1. Success doesn’t nec mean it’s a good song
60 Mill albums sold between them. 23 year old Tawiah – singer and lyricist. About to work with Ceelo Green on his next single.
Start with the rhythm – the feel , flavour of the song. Coming up with some sounds that work with different rhythms. Use a sample as an inspiration and then replace it (so that you don’t pay royalties). Ultimately the new song evolves so you don’t recognise the original influence.
Manufactured music in the past has been very successful. The Motown hit factory with 192 number 1s worldwide). Inspired by the production line mentality of the car manufacturers in Detroit, the song writers and producers churning out songs to very specific rules. They looked for infectious structures and melodies. Chords and drum beats that brought out sensitivity. The marriage between lyrics and melody had to be right on par. The songs take you on a journey (Lamont Dozier). The songs were short (2.5 mins) and the aim was to “get” the listener within the first 8 bars which had to be highly infectious.
Motown’s teams would be working at up to a song an hour. They had to mine all their life experiences for subject material and then critique each others’ work.
Key elements each song needs. The hook is the most important – as illustrated in Abba’s work. They felt each song needed at least 5 hooks. A riff, the chorus, a repetitive lyric – anything from the song that sticks in the brain.
Cheesy songs – Rock DJ and Karma Chameleon. Not “cool” but highly commercially successful.
They jam around the chord sequence and rhythm . Tawiah starts to improvise words, sounds and melody over the sequence. Mark and Guy want to try something else moving from a minor to a major feel. Highlife is a style of dance music made famous in Ghana. They begin to incorporate its feel into the song. Initially it sounds quite Paul Simon influenced.
They now have a structure, a melody and a potential chorus.
Back in the equivalent of the 1950s. Far fewer opportunities to get on TV then ever before – no Saturday morning TV, Top of the Pops and similar. Radio rules. Radio pluggers are therefore crucial to success. Every station will have a playlist meeting where they will listen to the tracks they feel ought to go onto rotation. They are influenced by fans, live success and history as well as by the music itself.
Its quite common for pop music to be written by a team of people each with different skills. Even up to a dozen people may collaborate. Rhythm and structure generally come first. Next the top line – the melody and lyrics.
The live drums are laid down and the lyrics start to be refined. “Colour” is added with layers of different instruments. Trumpet and sax give sparkle. A final vocal is recorded in a single take.
Brian Higgins – Xenomania. 35 top 10 hits. Throwing 5 different ideas together. Hits for Girls Aloud, Sugarbabes. The team each work on different sections of the song which is built up like a jigsaw.
Until the 60s artists didn’t really create their own material. Artists were matched with song writers. Dec 1962 Beatles recorded Please Please Me which they had written themselves. This opened the way for all sorts of musicians to write their own material.
A writing credit on an international hit will add millions to the bank balance. Artists are therefore very keen to have song writing credits. The saying is “Add a word. Take a third”.
Elvis realised there was money to be made. In the 50s he realised that with is star power he could make an average song a monster hit.
Rich Harrison Writer of Beyonce’s Grammy winning Crazy in Love (called the Song of the 90s) “grunts” over the melody. The “Uh Oh” sound of that song comes from that process where Beyonce chose to retain the grunts rather than replace it with words.
Jessie J. Justin Timberlake and Myley Cyrus. Price tag is her take on the difficulties of making it in pop. Since she achieved fame as a singer 80% of her time is now spent NOT writing and performing.
Sting feels that the older he gets, the more critical he becomes in the creation process which effectively stifles creativity.
Here is my write-up of episode 2 of BBC2’s brilliant series “Secret of the Pop Song”. You can read Part 1 here. I’m hoping that by reflecting on these stories and ideas about writing pop songs you might be inspired within the worship arena.
This week song writer Guy Chambers works with super producer Mark Ronson to create what they hope to be a breakthrough single for 23 year old singer and lyricist Tawiah. Mark is described in the programme as Music’s Man of the Moment, The Prince of Cool and The Phil Spector of his generation. Recent credits include Adele – one of the current most successful singers on the planet, and, rather poignantly, Amy Winehouse.
So, what is the secret to the perfect pop single?
Motown writer Lamont Dozier says its what happens when the song communicates what you feel
Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys) says its a diary of contemporary culture and very much rooted in its time
The hook (a riff, the chorus, a repetitive lyric – anything from the song that sticks in the brain) is the most important – as illustrated in Abba’s work. Abba felt that each song needed at least 5 hooks.
Boy George interestingly says its all down to airplay referencing some truly dreadful records that have got to number 1. This concept is further outworked later in the programme where it is explained that the halcyon days of TV coverage (Saturday morning kids TV, MTV, Top of the Pops etc) are gone. We are now back in the equivalent of the 1950s where radio airplay rules. And of course, in the US at least, radio airplay is fundamental to the success of Christian music too. Radio pluggers are therefore crucial to commercial success. Every station will have a playlist meeting where decision makers will listen to the tracks they feel ought to go onto rotation. They are influenced by fans, live success and the artist’s history as well as by the music itself
Successful songs can often be quite “cheesy songs”. Robbie Williams really didn’t like his huge hit Rock DJ and Culture Club very nearly failed to release Karma Chameleon. These songs did not make the singers look “cool” but were highly commercially successful.
The programme interviews a number of song writers trying to figure out the secret to their success. Brian Higgins of the hit making team Xenomania have enjoyed 35 top 10 hits with artists such as Kylie Minogue, Girls Aloud, The Sugababes and Cher . He says that they will often through multiple ideas together into one song. The team each work on different elements of the song which is built up like a jigsaw. Whilst a song may be written incredibly rapidly, its often built on years of experimentation and experience.
Xenomania have been likened to the hit factory that was Motown which enjoyed 192 number 1s worldwide. Inspired by the production line mentality of the car manufacturers in Detroit, the song writers and producers churned out songs to very specific rules. They looked for infectious structures and melodies; chords and drum beats that brought out sensitivity. The marriage between lyrics and melody was crucial and the songs typically took the listener on a journey. At two and a half minutes the songs were short and the aim was to “get” the listener within the highly infectious first 8 bars. Motown’s teams would be working at producing up to a song an hour. They had to mine all their life experiences for subject material and then critique each others’ work.
I wonder what would happen if we approached worship song writing in that manner. Would we consider it less inspired (anointed?). Certainly its refreshing to see a lot more worship song writing collaborations than ever before. If you’ve read Nick Page’s book “Let’s Move Into A Time of Nonsense” you will know that he catalogues some of the less than deep lyrics of contemporary worship songs. He advocates for musicians working in partnership with wordsmiths and theologians. Its quite common for pop music to be written by a team of people each with different skills. Up to a dozen people may collaborate. Rhythm and structure generally come first followed by the “top line” namely the melody and lyrics.
Of course until the 1960s artists didn’t really create their own material. Artists were matched with song writers who churned out the material for them to record. That all changed in December 1962 when The Beatles recorded Please Please Me – a song they had written themselves. This opened the way for all sorts of musicians to write their own material. And not only did this mean more creative experssion for the artists, it opened up a huge income stream for them. A writing credit on an international hit will add millions to the bank balance. Even in the worship market, the financial impact of writing a CCLI top 100 song can be immense. Even if you don’t sell that many albums, the fact that churches are singing your song, reporting that use to CCLI and paying their share of royalties, can neatly help to resource your song writing ministry.
Ironically, the more successful a song writer becomes as an artist, the less they may find themselves writing. When Jessie J’s fledgling career as a singer looked to be backfiring (The song Price Tag is her take on the difficulties of making it in pop) she established herself as a writer of pop songs for artists such as Justin Timberlake and Myley Cyrus. Since she has more recently achieved huge success as a singer, she says that 80% of her time is now spent NOT writing and performing. This must be a huge pressure for successful worship artists too with touring, conference and festival commitments which, whilst giving increased profile to their repertoire, will significantly steal time from the creative process.
Today pop artists are very keen to have song writing credits. Not only does it add to their credibility as an artist – that they were involved in the writing process – but they stand to reap a good financial reward. Even as far back as the 1950s Elvis realised there was money to be made in song writing. He was notoriously demanding of song writers as he recognised with his star power he could make an average song a monster hit.
Now some might be cynical and suggest that these co-writing credits are all about the cash, and the artist effectively “Adds a word and takes a third”. I’m sure that happens, however Rich Harrison Writer of Beyonce’s Grammy winning Crazy in Love (called the Song of the 90s) explained how Beyonce herself had great insight into what would improve the song he had written. His style is to “grunt” over the melody that emerges from his creativity. He was grunting this melody (which was to become Crazy in Love) to Beyonce and she opted to retain the grunts creating the hooky “Uh Oh Uh Oh” refrain.
Back to the story behind the BBC2 programme and Guy Chambers, Mark Ronson and Tawiah relatively painlessly pull a song together. They jam around an initial the chord sequence and rhythm. Tawiah starts to improvise words, sounds and melody over the sequence. They decide to incorporate a style of dance music from Ghana called Highlife. The result is something that sounds quite Paul Simon influenced.
Mark Ronson explains how they will often begin with a sample from another record, jamming over it so it becomes unrecognisable. This is certainly the way a number of Christian worship recordings begin. In our Worship Drums DVD, Delirious drummer and session player Paul Evans is asked to describe the recording process and he cites the use of reference tracks. I’m sure if you think about a number of well known worship songs you will have some idea of their musical influences from the secular arena.
The Chambers, Ronson and Tawiah song evolves. The live drums are laid down and the lyrics start to be refined. “Colour” is added with layers of different instruments. Trumpet and sax give sparkle. A final vocal is recorded in a single take with a return visit to the studio a few weeks later to try a different set of lyrics for the chorus.
The result is catchy enough. Its well received by a live audience. The radio pluggers quite like it but don’t feel its really the breakthrough single BBC2 was hoping for. You can judge for yourself in the clip from the show below.