By Hans Ebert
I once had a girl or should I say, she once had me. Wait: I once lived with a woman not that long ago who was on Repeat that “no one listens to lyrics anymore”. There have been songwriting partners over the recent years who’ve said the same thing, then change lyrics you’ve written into something to fit the melody line without letting you know and nonchalantly mention that it doesn’t matter if the line makes sense, that no one cares and how well it fits the chords. Yeah, but that’s not what musical partnerships are about and certainly not how the songwriting teams from Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, below, went about writing songs. It was a partnership on a creative and business level.
Having said this, times have changed, maybe they’re right and probably why the most popular songs around today aren’t written by tunesmiths like Jimmy Webb and aren’t exactly musical love poems with a story attached, but more like nursery rhymes. Don’t get me wrong: Justin Bieber is currently making the best music of his career, but is it actually music that will live on for more than a month?
Same with Selena Gomez. She’s back with a new sound, but it owes a huge nod to the sound the new team behind Justin Bieber has created- and the Bieb, an artist just out of his teens was close to being a has-been. Their musical formula is to take one line, keep it simple and flog it to death over synths. It’s stripped down pop with studio gadgetry and works for what it is- harmless, homogenised, asexual pop music.
At the other end of the spectrum, the team behind Rihanna have her distinct voice work around their beats. Again, it works, works, works, it sells, and especially sells and is sold as click bait for upcoming tours and product endorsements.
If David Beckham were to ever record a duet with the missus or his Beckham Brood or Kendall Jenner were to record with Gigi Hadid, and have it produced by the most important person in music today- producer Max Martin and any of his hit making teams- it would be massive. So, yes, if wanting a huge pop hit to resonate with the masses, words, storylines, plots etc are unnecessary. Keep It Simple, Stupid. The big problem with this is that it might become simple and stupid and give rise to a generation of musical cretins- if it already hasn’t.
Imagine if the Beatles only continued wanting to hold some girl’s hand, kept screaming, “Yeah Yeah Yeah” because some “bird” loved them, and foolishly believed that money can’t buy one love and a wife thrown in at a bargain price. Well, us and them wouldn’t have got very far, would we? They- mainly the team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney plus Producer and Fifth Beatle George Martin- wouldn’t have led us to Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields and introduced us to characters like the Paperback Writer, Eleanor Rigby, Billy Shears, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Sexy Sadie, Sergeant Peppers etc.
We were chatting the other day about the difficulties in finding songwriters, arrangers and producers- that team- who share the same ideas and travel along the same line of thinking when it came to the business side of things. The general consensus was that finding the perfect music partners is an impossibility- that the initial burst of enthusiasm, creativity and bon hommie would eventually erode into acrimony and how all the parts would fall apart because egos would become involved along with the individual teams of enablers egging on the warring sides. Nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong and good songwriting teams seldom last like love and marriage. Wait: Marriages don’t last either.
There was a reference to Lennon and McCartney and what a great team they were before we were reminded about their constant sniping, Paul’s domination in the studio which was well documented in the telling documentary “Let It Be”, the final breakup when individual lawyers were brought in to wind up their company Apple and how few songs they actually wrote together- these being songs mainly written during the very early years of the group. It was probably during the Rubber Soul period that they started to drift apart and write for each other with George coming into his own.
Let’s also not forget that soon after the murder of John Lennon, McCartney wanted the songwriting credits changed from the original agreement of Lennon-McCartney to McCartney-Lennon on the songs he had written on his own- Yesterday, Michelle, Blackbird, For No One etc. This was the only time I thought that one of my favourite musicians was a bit of a prat and why the other three Beatles each had their personal run-ins with him and frequently left the group before they quit once and for all.
Yes, finding that right musical partner or partners is no easy task and which makes the tenuous marriage between The Glimmer Twins- Mick and Keith- all the more remarkable. Despite their personal ups and downs and very different lifestyles, they’re still there writing together and, while in their Seventies, up there performing together. As Keith recently said, “I’m not ageing, I’m evolving”.
This is probably the only way the Stones have out-stoned the Beatles, something fans of The Greatest Rock Band In The World would argue with when one thinks of their body of work. But for almost two decades and with a powerful management machinery behind them plus Mick, Keith and Charlie having learned the business side of the entertainment world, they have done a tremendous job of looking after their brand. What about Ronnie Wood? He’s part of the team but as a salaried member of the band with no shares in the brand. And he’s happy with that.
Rock history will prove the Rolling Stones to be the most financially successful Rock and musical act in the world. It’s only Rock and Roll, but it’s made them very rich people who still seem to enjoy getting together to write, record and tour and reap the benefits of merchandising- the area of business handled by Charlie- with Mick and Keith owning their publishing, the masters to their recordings, and being in total charge of their destinies. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need has been rewritten to say, You can get and own everything you want if smart enough and play as a team.
Often, in our indecent haste to get things done, in the panic and desperation to “make it” bigger than whoever is making it, at least superficially, we forget that before acts became great and big, they were unknowns. They were struggling. They probably thought of giving up. But they didn’t because they believed in what they were doing. Let’s not forget that Decca turned down the Beatles and thousands of other acts had doors shut in their faces. Whether it was timing, their God-given talent or a mentor or someone thinking they could manage one of these acts, everything suddenly clicked and that first click led to a long and exciting journey.
What becomes more and more evident as time goes by is that even if a solo artist, teamwork has to come into play. Singer-songwriters need a new and different pair of ears to guide them away from blinkered thinking. Bands need the human glue to keep them together and inspire them. We all lead someone to lean on- not as a crutch, not to become anyone’s muppet, but in order to be inspired and grow.
The click and trick is to be able to acknowledge that right team when it comes together and build and make that dream a reality with complete trust. Without trust, there’s only mistrust, and like any relationship, it leads nowhere.