NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com
Believe it or not, I just found all the “Classic Albums” series on Netflix. Some of them I have seen before, but many are new to me. I laugh out loud watching these things. It’s all too familiar territory. There is something I have noticed across the board with these shows. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about Metallica, Def Leppard, The Band, or Tom Petty. The mantra of every single producer of every single one of these albums is the same: “The band had amazing songs and I just needed to enhance that.” Jimmy Iovine said of Tom Petty: “If you come to me with songs as good as his, you are instantly my friend.” Jimmy knows how rare great songs are.
The Eagles used to have a sign hanging in the studio that said “Song Power”. They knew the deal. If you ain’t got great songs, everything else is pointless. Pro Tools won’t save you. 300 virtuosos in your band won’t save you. 80,000 overdubs and the best studio money can buy won’t cover it up.
It may sound simplistic, but if I could wave a wand and make all my musician friends do one thing, I would make them all mercilessly worship at the altar of the almighty song. It is and will always be the alpha and omega of popular music.
If you are just a music fan and not a player, this sounds almost nonsensical. Of course songs are important. You like a band because you like their songs. Everybody has their favorite songs. It sounds like overstating the obvious. But when you get inside the business of music making, the lines get blurry fast. If worshipping the song above all else was an easy task, a lot of shitty records would never get made.
Let me explain this from a different angle. There is a difference between a scientist and a healer. Scientists may invent the drug that the healer uses to do his magic, but they do not do the healing themselves. To heal a patient, the healer may use a million dollar machine or a plant on the side of the road. It doesn’t matter. Whatever does the job best is what he will choose.
The healer has a completely different headspace and intuition than a scientist.
Similarly, there is a difference between a great musician and a great songwriter. The virtuoso musician takes on the role of the scientist while the songwriter heals. The musician should always serve the song. Not the other way around.
There are guys who are both scientists and healers. Billy Joel is one. He plays his ass off AND writes like no other. There are several examples I could name. But never do you see Billy’s technical abilities overshadow his songwriting. He intuitively knows not to do that.
When I ask someone about a movie they just saw and they start talking about how beautifully it was filmed and how good a particular actor’s performance was I usually assume that the movie blows. If the story was great that wouldn’t be their first comment. Likewise, when I play someone a song I am working on and they immediately start talking about the snare sound or the guitar tone in the second verse, I realize that the tune sucks. ““Great tune, play it again” is the response I am after.
One of the biggest problems bands have is that most musicians think they can write when they can’t. A great song is often times very easy to play. A lot of great players have an almost elitist attitude about simple songs. It’s a weird aura to have in the studio. I hate it. But I can tell you (cover band musicians take heed), it is a helluva lot harder to write John Fogarty’s “Down On The Corner” than it is to play it. Rest assured.
One of my favorite albums of all time is Van Morrison’s “Moondance”. I think like 3 of the albums’ hit singles all have basically the same chord progression. A child could play along. But I never noticed. It’s a magical record. It has something.
I believe if you are in a band with a guy who can write great tunes, every effort should be made to help him take his vision as far as he can. That sounds pretentious, but it’s true. The problem is no one likes being 2nd in command. And everyone thinks their individual ideas and songs are awesome. So this begins the process of compromising to keep everyone happy. Everyone’s viewpoint is considered not for its merit, but for who’s idea it is….. and for fairness sake. In the end, you have a lot of lowest common denominator decisions. You end up with garbage. A work of art created by a committee instead of an artist. You’ve diluted the original idea so much it no longer connects.
So if you are in a band you must determine whether you are a player or a writer. Or maybe a bit of each. But if you have no talent for songwriting, I believe you would be better served putting you energies into something else musically rather than trying to learn to be just ok. The world has enough “ok”. In many ways, I think songwriters are born not taught. You can get better of course, but no amount of practice will get you that frame of mind. Some dudes just have it.
Bands could save themselves so much suffering if they would just admit that they need better songs than they can write. Maybe they need a new member. Or they need to focus on the work of one guy in the group instead of pushing for a lukewarm democratic process. This is true in many areas of life, of course.
I think it was Henry David Thoreau said “All institutions are a walking embodiment of one man.” Same concept.
To repeat myself, the world has enough “ok.” Coming to terms with where your music stands and where it needs to go can be an incredibly painful process. In watching these stories about all these classic records, it was said over and over how no one would settle for second best. Lars Ulrich said he wouldn’t speak to his producer Bob Rock for over a year after finishing The Black Album. It’s a painful process getting over your own shit. But if you want “great” you have to do it. Lars would soon enough have several million reasons not to hate Bob Rock anymore.
Great songs are a mystery. Whether it be Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or The Ramones “I Want To Be Sedated”. The more you study them, the harder it is to crack the code. But the greatest things in life are intangible. No matter where they come from, people respond to them when they show up. Music is the language of the heart, but your head will make you insane with its 1000 wrong translations. Too many musicians stop with half of the answer. The rest gets too hard to face. But if you have the courage to see your music through to the bitter end, you are instantly a friend of mine.
Bret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees. His “Real Gig” blog runs each Friday.
The Real Gig: A Musician’s Guide to the Universe by Bret Alexander. May 17, 2013.