I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell
Monday, February 20, 2017
Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop By Marc Myers
On Friday, September 23, 2011, Myers was emailed by the Wall Street Journal's music editor with an idea for a series of stories to be done on songs, "An Anatomy of a Song", looking at classic songs that "resonate today and have backstories behind them, anecdotes surrounding them, huge histories of what happened to them after they came out. They're like people and we could profile them." He decided to pepper the article with quotes from the songwriters and the artists who sung them and anyone else involved in making the song. For years this process was quite fruitful. In this book, he has collected forty-five of the songs which represent a collection representing the range of music from rock to R&B to pop.
The Kinks came along in the Sixties as part of the British Invasion and their sound was one of rawness. When it came time to record "You Got Me" they wanted it to be dirty like they do it live, not clean. The record company cleaned it up and put an echo on it. They demanded to be allowed to recut it and the record company lets them if they paid for it, so they borrowed the money from their manager. When Ray Davies wrote the song he was inspired by an ash colored hair beauty with a bee hive at a gig who he saw from the stage but couldn't find later on. She really got him. To get the distorted sound with an echo effect he punched holes in bass player Pete Quaife's bass with knitting needles. Guitarist Dave Davies had bought an Elpico amp and used a razor to slash the amp's speaker cone to get a raucous sound for when they played in the clubs. Dave Davies used "bar chords--holding down three strings and strumming hard and then shifting my fingers to a different place on the neck...hitting the bottom three notes...I could do that and not worry about fifths and sixths and things I didn't know yet." Shel Talmy the producer put twelve mikes instead of the usual four on the drums and three mikes on Dave to pick up all the different sounds. They didn't have a drummer so session drummer Bobby Graham sat in. The secret to the song was the key shift from G to A. "The more natural and melodic place for the song to go was from G to C or D. But I wanted it to go to A, which was quite revolutionary then. There's something about that full step up that feels like acceleration and raises the excitement level. The progression actually made me shudder when I originally came up with it." He never did see that girl again but he likes to think that she knows the song is about her.
While Steppenwolf wasn't the first to use distortion and feedback on an album they were the first to take it to a new level when they opened "Magic Carpet Ride" with the twenty-second passage of it. When they went into the studio to record their second album they didn't have enough stuff. Then one day, Mars, drummer Jeffy Edmonton's brother came in to show them a song he had written while bassist Rushton Moreve was goofing around with this bouncy beat he'd been playing with. Mars heard it and started playing chords on his guitar. When organist Goldy McJohn heard it he started playing organ chords. Then Jerry jumped in too. The guys in the booth stepped out and said "Hey, keep doing that. That's really good." Mars suggested they add a musical interlude for which John Kay later wrote the lyrics "Close your eyes, girl/Look inside girl/Let the sound take you away." Michael Monarch the lead guitarist loved distorted guitar sounds. Kay told Monarch that "whenever I hear something approaching a note I'll contrast that with a high-pitched single note on my guitar. They will be these slow-moving pinging sounds that are the opposite of what you'll be doing." Now they had a riff and a breakdown but no opening. Monarch fixed that by going in and holding his guitar up to his amp for twenty seconds and bending the strings and hitting the strings hard. The second time he did it he hit the string rapidly against the pickup. They mixed the two and that's the sound you hear. Now for the lyrics. Kay was just getting royalty money from the first album so he and his girlfriend had just bought this incredible stereo that took up most of the living room. When Kay took home the tape to listen to it at home and write the lyrics the first ones to come to his head were "I like to dream/ Yes-yes, right between my sound machine/On a cloud of sound I drift in the night/Any place it goes is right/Goes far, flies near, to the stars away from here." The rumors that he was on acid are false. He might have smoked a little grass, but Kay has achromatopsia. Which means he is completely color blind. Any acid trip he took would be in complete black and white--a pretty boring trip, which wouldn't have helped him or the song much.
On August 8, 1970, Janis Joplin didn't want to be performing in Port Chester, New York. She didn't think the audience would get her music. Her friend Bob Neuwirth was with her and to give her a pleasant surprise he invited Rip Torn and his wife Geraldine Page whom she really liked. While they were sitting in a bar drinking and talking waiting for Janis to go on, Janis exclaims "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz." It was part of a lyric she half remembered by Michael McClure and it stuck with her. Pretty soon she is coming up with lyrics to go with it and Bob is writing them down on cocktail napkins and inserting words himself, including the part about buying me a night on the town and another round. He thought they were just showing off for Rip and Geraldine. When Janis went on she sang two songs then decided to sing her new song, which was a surprise to her band The Full Tilt Boogie who tried to keep up with her considering there was no key to the song. In this version and in the Harvard Stadium concert later she doesn't use the "Dialing for Dollars" line. That was added at a later date. She called McClure to let him know that she was performing his song and he said that it was okay. On October 1, 1970, she went into the studio to record Pearl when something happened to the tape recorder. Everything stopped. As the producer, Paul Rothchild tried to fix it the band was getting bored. Janis was still in the vocal booth and to kill time began singing "Mercedes Benz". She beat off the time with her foot. When the song ended she said "That's it" followed by a cackle. The problem was with a two-inch tape recorder the needed to readjusted. Paul, however, always had a safety reel going as a backup in case something happened in between takes when the main recorder was off. This safety recorder caught "Mercedes Benz". It was the last song she recorded. Three days later she died of a heroin overdose. The rest of the band worked on the songs to fill in the vocals for the rest of the songs but they left "Mercedes Benz" the way it was. Neuwirth still has those cocktail napkins in his house somewhere.
When Cyndi Lauper was putting together her She's So Unusual album she needed one more song for the album so she and keyboardist Rob Hyman into the studio to write one. Lauper was flipping through a TV Guide and saw the title of a sci-fi film called Time After Time and decided to use that as a placeholder title for the song to give her some inspiration. Hyman began playing a repetitive melodic piece of four chords that had a bouncy reggae beat and they sang "time after time". This would become the chorus. He started off playing it fast. Lauper began dancing around the studio which helps her figure out a song. "I started thinking about up and down, lost and found: "If you fall I will catch you, I will be waiting/Time after time" and "If you're lost you can look and you will find me/Time after time." The words sounded odd at first, but when I sang them, I realized that what I was talking about were pieces of my personal life. Hyman could see this was becoming a darker song and slowed it down but kept the clipped calypso-type melody. Both of them had been going through relationship troubles and it came out in the song. The part about the "clock tick/and I think of you" came from a favorite clock Lauper had that her boyfriend and manager, Dave Wolff had knocked over and broken. He brought over a clock from his mother's house that was annoying and so loud that even when she put it in the bathtub you could still hear it ticking. The part about "the second hand unwinds" came from the producer Rick Chertoff. His watch somehow became demagnetized and the second hand started going backward and he said: "Look, look, my second hand is unwinding." Hyman plugged his Roland Juno-60 synthesizer to the board and added a drum machine and real drums were added later. Eric Brazilan was the one who was in charge of the drum programming and he also added some guitar later. One thing you may not notice is that there is no bass until the chorus and it is added there to give the song some lift. Lauper's repeating of "time after time" as a fading whisper was just happenstance. "I had fallen into a trance and came out of it like that singing softly. I wanted it to sound hushed, like my voice was trailing off into the distance." The biggest compliment to her was when the next year, Miles Davis recorded a version of this song because his then wife Cicely Tyson had insisted he listen to the song as she had fallen in love with the album and then, he too had fallen in love with the song.
These are just a sampling of the many stories in this book. Inside you can also find out about how John Densmore was inspired by "The Girl From Ipanema" and based his rhythm drumming on "Light My Fire" on it and Jim Morrison played Frank Sinatra's album Strangers In the Night for inspiration. Or how John Fogerty based the opening of "Proud Mary" on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Or how "Midnight Train to Georgia" came about when the songwriter heard that Farrah Fawcett was taking a midnight flight to Houston. The original name of the song was "Midnight Plane to Houston." The second person to record it changed it because "my [Cissy Houston] people are originally from Georgia, and they didn't take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains." Gladys Knight would be the third person to record the song and would make her own changes to the song. This book is a treasure trove of these rare gems. It's fascinating to read the real account of what happened from those who were really there and involved. This book is important in that it gets these stories down before they are lost forever. One example of this is Mere Haggard who is in this book but passed away last year. The story of his song Big City is down here and gotten before he died. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Song-History-Iconic-Changed-ebook/dp/B01HLNGBME/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1487606162&sr=8-1&keywords=anatomy+of+a+song+the+oral+history+of+45+iconic+hits