I have recently been reading ‘Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties’ by Ian Macdonald, which is really an amazing piece of music criticism and social commentary. Its made me think a lot about songwriting, which is something I think about a lot anyway I guess, and I thought that maybe writing about songwriting is something I’m almost qualified to do. So here goes…
According to this book, John Lennon conceived of writing songs as ‘doing little bits which you then join up’. Unfortunately for me, this couldn’t be further away from how I write songs, which is probably why I’m not as famous as The Beatles. But its interesting to me to think about all the great songwriters I admire and how differently they create their songs.
When I write a song it mostly happens by accident. When I’m strumming a guitar or walking a long some words and a tune coincide and come out of my mouth together and I usually pretty quickly write the whole song from that. Then the song will turn out to be ‘about’ something because that something is the thing I’m thinking about at the time. Less often I write songs about something in particular because I think it would be a good subject for a song. Even less often I think of a kind of song i want to write i.e. not a four chord folk song/ a disco classic/ a punk song and then i try to write one. This is by far and away my least successful method of songwriting.
But in Revolution in the Head I’ve discovered that this is how Lennon and McCartney wrote so many of their early songs – trying to emulate the style of various influences. I’m not saying I don’t emulate the style of my influences – i definitely do. But its been really interesting reading about how openly and consciously they took not just influences but actual baselines and lyrics and whole pieces of songs and then made their own songs out of them. This seems, to me, like a completely brilliant idea.
When I was seventeen and I started writing songs my two main priorities were to not write a song that had already been written and to write lyrics that no one could possibly think were actually related to me and my actual emotions regarding someone else. As time has gone on I’ve come to think about songwriting in a completely different way. I think I will inevitably write songs that have basically been written hundreds of times before – the same chords, the same notes hopefully just in a different enough order that i don’t get sued. And pretty much they will be about the same things as all other songs – love and the sky and all that. But I guess what will make them slightly different and what will make them worthwhile for me is the fact that they are my thoughts and feelings. As scary as it is to think of someone knowing how you feel, I guess at the end of the day how we feel and think about things is all we’ve got to share (especially if we’re highly impractical arts graduates).
So even though I’ve often resisted thinking about how I write songs because I do believe over thinking things can be fatal, I do want to be clearer in my own head about why I write songs, and feel more confident in the fact that there are many ways to write a song and if one way isn’t working another one might. And I also feel pretty great that every time I feel like I’m just writing songs that sound like extremely poor imitations of my favourite bands, I can remember that that’s what The Beatles did. And as far as I can make out, they did alright.