Who Writes The Songs?

Tues 10th Oct 2006, Tim Briffa

Songwriting is a funny thing. I can go a couple of months and produce nothing but a few scraps of lyrics and some dirgey bits of melody. Then all of a sudden a mood descends and a rush of ideas come so thick and fast, it’s a struggle to get them all down. There’s usually some fine-tuning and polishing to do, but it can be surprisingly minimal – I’ve had songs fully complete in half an hour. When I come back to it, I sometimes notice little melodic themes, internal rhymes and other bits of ‘cleverness’ I didn’t consciously intend and I’m left wondering how I managed it in such a short time. It seems like something I spent days or weeks crafting and sweating over. Usually they sound better than the ones I have spent weeks sweating over.
Sometimes I’ve had the bulk of the song come in one go, but got stuck. There might be a lyric I don’t like or it needs another part. I can come up with lots of ideas that more or less do the job, but none feel like the ‘right’ one somehow. Then maybe months later a line or melody comes into my head and it’s ‘Eureka!” I know instantly it’s what I was looking for (not that I really knew what I was looking for) and when I add it, not only does it fit perfectly with the bits before and after, but it adds just the right amount of weight, humour or whatever the song felt like it was lacking and prevented me from letting it go.
When stuff like this happens, rather than being the composer, it feels like my role was closer to that of a secretary taking down ideas (perhaps down a dodgy phone-line?) then being left the job of putting it all together.
I’m not the first musician to have these thoughts. Keith Richards compared the process to an aerial receiving signals from the ether, Hendrix compared it to automatic writing, Neil Young to ‘fishing’ and numerous others have talked of songs coming to them complete or feeling like they were acting as some kind of conduit. It would be easier to dismiss if not for the quality of some of the material it’s been claimed for. Pete Townsend said most of the Who’s rock opera Tommy was ‘received.’ John Lennon said Nowhere Man came to him in one go (“words, music, the whole damn thing”) as did Across the Universe – a song that even mentions words floating through the air. Similar statements have come from classical composers as well as poets, authors and artists.
Yet even as I write this I feel uneasy – and not just for putting my name next to those of people like Hendrix and Pete Townshend. Because there’s something about the idea of ‘divine’ inspiration or whatever one calls it, that goes against the fundamentally throwaway spirit on which rock ‘n’ roll was founded and some of the best of it was made. Was Iggy Pop really connecting to some higher plane when he sang I Wanna Be Your Dog? Or the Sex Pistols when they wrote Anarchy In The UK?
There’s another reason I feel uncomfortable, as even talking about this topic, I’m breaking an artistic superstition that says one should never analyse the source of one’s creativity as to do can endanger it – inviting that most-feared condition of creative impotence known as ‘losing it.’
I doubt I need to offer examples. The list of artists who went from genius to near irrelevance sometimes in a few short years, is as long as it is depressing and nowhere is the phenomenon more common than rock music.
Which creates a paradox. Because the fact there’s so clearly this ‘it’ that can be lost, suggests something mysterious about creativity, marking it out from simple craftsmanship (did you ever hear of a carpenter suddenly losing his ability to build a wall cabinet) and yet we’re supposed not to think about it, even if its to seek a solution. So I should probably stop this now.
Yeah right, like that’s going to happen.
Perhaps the most dramatic case of ‘losing it’ is that of Brian Wilson, the tortured genius behind the most of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits including Surfin’ Safari, Fun, Fun, Fun, California Girls and what’s considered their crowning glory, the Pet Sounds album. Featuring majestic, semi-orchestrated arrangements and themes of innocence and loss, it was a radical departure from the mainly three-chord songs about surfing, cars and girls that made them the biggest US band of the time. Even the seasoned session pros Brian brought in to work on it were amazed by the 23 year old’s production and songwriting skills and it was immediately hailed a masterpiece by the pop aristocracy of the time including members of the Beatles, Stones and Who, while their label Capitol began printing up badges proclaiming ‘the God-like Genius of Brian Wilson.’
Despite the acclaim, the album only just made the Billboard Top 50, to the irritation of some in the band who’d warned Brian against the change in direction (on first hearing the backing tracks, Mike Love famously accused him of ‘fucking with the formula.’) But Brian was always more concerned with creative success however and set to work on what he promised would trump even Pet Sounds. The soon-to-be notorious Smile LP.
It got off to a great start. Brian debuted a solo version of Surf’s Up (intended for the album) on a show hosted by conductor Leonard Bernstein, where it was compared to that of serious classical works. But as the sessions dragged on, he seemed to lose direction, endlessly re-working parts and becoming racked by indecision.
With a mounting studio bill and little to show for it, the more conservative elements within the band, persuaded Capitol that Brian had finally ‘gone too far’ and conspired to release Smiley Smile, a mish-mash of semi-completed Smile tracks and re-recordings with only minimal input from their composer.
Brian had already been acting strangely, but she now seems to enter full-blown psychosis. He would spend the next thirty years battling terrifying inner demons, with tales of him wandering around Hollywood barefoot, hiding in cupboard and at one point applying for a job in a health store.
Brian had suffered a breakdown prior to this, but where the first led them to spending his time in the studio and a blossoming of his creativity, the second all but killed it.
Though he made some recordings during this time, by his own admission they never matched his earlier works in particular Pet Sounds which he still refers to as ‘holy music.’ (Brian was a strong believer in the notion of ‘artist as conduit’ sometimes starting sessions with prayers for divine assistance.)
In an effort to reconnect to his Muse, Brian tried various diets, gurus and therapies. He’s seems to have made some recovery of late, mentally and creatively and with the help of some younger musicians had even managed to complete his own version of Smile. He recently said it was his failure to deliver the promised masterpiece that led to his problems, but what caused him to lose his musical way in the first place?
Some blame this simply on his (prodigious) drug intake. Others say the trigger was Sgt. Pepper which came out while working on Smile and which he supposedly felt he could never top (Brian felt a strong artistic rivalry with the Beatles.) He was also dealing with various personal stresses, including the breakdown of his marriage and a pending lawsuit over songwriting royalties.
The product of an abusive household (the deafness in his right ear is thought to have resulted from an early beating from his father, Murray) Brian had always been a fragile soul. One day Murray bought a piano for the house. As soon as he began pounding the keys Brian found he could screen out the abuse around and actually feel happy for a change.
As his playing improved, he persuaded his brothers Carl and Dennis plus cousin Mike Love to form a group. Ever the opportunist, Murray appointed himself manager, secured them a small deal and within a few months they had their first hit.
Like most musicians, it seems Brian’s primary motivation was play the stuff he liked and have a bit of fun (fun, fun.) Photos from the Pet Sounds sessions show how much he and the other musicians were enjoying themselves. By the time of Smile (ironically) the expressions are mostly drawn and tense. With the lawsuit hanging over him and both Capitol and the other Beach Boys breathing down his neck, the music that had been a refuge from his problems was now the source of them, the studio once his playground was now a battlefield. In short, the fun had gone.
I believe all great art comes from a spirit of fun and playfulness and once that’s left the process, it’s usually not long before the quality starts to suffer.
Having ‘fun’ doesn’t mean you have to be grinning from ear to ear the whole time, nor does the subject matter have to be happy. It’s more a matter of being completely absorbed by what you’re working on, and it could be a story of a twisted child-killer as long as it’s fascinating to the author. Not all of the process is likely to be enjoyable. There can be a lot of hard work involved, especially in the later fine-tuning stage, but if it’s not enjoyable at least at the conception, it’s unlikely to have a deep impact on an audience.
This is relatively easy when starting out and your only ambition is to play a few parties and/or impress some girls. But should success result, following your artistic whims can start to look like an indulgence, in the knowledge that one flop is often all it takes to finish a career. And it’s not just your livelihood that depends on you continuing to come up with the commercial goods, but also that of your band-mates, management, etc all of whom will have their own idea of what direction you should be going and how much you can afford to ‘fuck with the formula.’ And that’s not even mentioning pressures from the record label. Maybe this is why ‘losing it’ is so common among rock musicians.
So was the ‘it’ that Brian and so many others lost, merely the enjoyment? And where does this leave the notion of the ‘artist as conduit’?
A few years ago I was given a book on mediumship issued by the College of Psychic Studies and was struck by the similarity of the initial creative state and what it said was the optimum for receiving psychic impressions (relaxed, but alert – passively noting all impressions regardless of whether they appear to make logical sense.) It also advised against forcing results (John Lennon said Nowhere Man came to him when he went to lay down after spending five hours trying to come up with ‘something meaningful’) and not to worry if nothing came, maintaining a kind of ‘so what?’ indifference both to failure and success, focussing only on the job in hand.
This indifference to success seems common to many great artists – at least while they were being great – and can almost be seen as an indicator of creative good health. Prior to Tommy, Pete Townsend described the Who’s entire output as ‘rubbish.’ The Beatles were also dismissive of their previous works including Sgt. Pepper. Others with long careers such as Bowie, Dylan, Neil Young and Nick Cave have also often burned their musical bridges by refusing to play old material or periodically reinventing themselves.
For most of the 60s Brian Wilson also seemed focussed only on his current work. Like many acts then, he was working so hard – producing up to four albums a year – it gave little opportunity to dwell on past successes.
But at some point during the protracted Smile sessions, I believe he took a step back to ponder his previous creation. Realising what he’d achieved through fun, hard work and whatever strange magic helped inspire it, he became as in awe as others. With all the accolades flying, he began to wonder if he could repeat the trick, let alone surpass it as he’d been boasting.
Just as a mountaineer shouldn’t look down, lest he lose his nerve, an artist shouldn’t look back. The more he worried, the further removed he became from the creative source, until a paralysis began to set in. Any hope of regaining his confidence was then destroyed by having the album taken off him – and he’s been in mourning for his lost Muse ever since.
Ultimately it was the success of Pet Sounds that led to the failure of Smile and his subsequent problems. If he wants to fully regain his powers I believe he needs to step from its shadow – perhaps denounce it as the saccharine whimsy that harsher critics have accused it and return to making music for its own sake. Should the Muse bestow her blessings, brilliant, if not, at least he’ll have enjoyed himself.
To those of a more scientific bent, the whole notion of divine inspiration is probably nonsense anyway and can be attributed simply to the latent, incredible powers of the human brain. They might also point out that creativity is mainly an occupation of the right hemisphere, which would explain why left brain activity such as self doubt, worry or even analysing the subject would tend to inhibit it.
The two viewpoints are not necessarily incompatible. Inspiration could still involve a mediumistic element, while requiring a certain frame of mind to enter it.
A more compelling counter-argument in my view, is the fact that most great works are easily recognisable as being written by their composer, you wouldn’t confuse a Bob Dylan song with one by Brian, for example, and which shouldn’t be the case if they’re all drawing from the same source. Rather than being something external this might suggest ‘the God is within’ (as many mystics have claimed) or a more dualistic ‘God is my co-writer’ type thing.
Personally I can accept that a song like Never Gonna Give You Up can be written through craft alone, but to produce something as musically out-there and lyrically profound as Across The Universe in one short sitting, is much harder to get my head around.
But in the end, it doesn’t really matter, as one’s approach should be the same either way. I also find it reassuring that if there is some kind of God involved, it seems he wants us to be happy.