Why songwriting is the key


I just listened to “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner. This 60’s pop gem was written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich was Phil Spector’s attempt to put Ike and Tina Turner at the top of the charts.  It’s a masterpiece. How do I know this? Phil Spector said so. So did George Harrison and shit load of other people.  When it was released it rose to #88 in the US charts and then dropped out of sight. Phil Spector was so bummed he quit the music business for two years and slowly, thereafter, became a homicidal recluse. The fact that it went straight to #3 in England didn’t impress him. He still felt that he had failed.  I am now going to argue that he was right.

The damn record is a beautiful roar of overproduction.  He, of course, is known for creating the wall of sound style of production and this single is the ultimate example of that over-the- top style.  Unfortunately this buried the perfect song that should have carried the song into the whistling repertoire of every kid in america.  It’s interesting to note that the song later became a standard live hit for Tina Turner. This just proves my point. It’s a fuckin’ great song. It sums up obsessive love in a few verses and says it in a way that can punch holes in your heart.  Great song, overproduced = notable success without mega success.  Phil knew what he was writing about. He’s an obsessive guy. He once gave his wife twin five-year old boys as a christmas present. He didn’t ask he just got them and gave them to her.  Sure… that’s normal…. everyone gives other humans as Christmas presents.  So he’s nuts. We’ve established that fact without even exploring his recent homicide conviction.  Even so he knew how to write hits.  That talent is priceless and the true key to making it to the top. Let’s look for some examples that prove the point.

Bob Dylan -ugly fucker, can’t play, arrogant asshole that’s subject to maniacal obsessions, brilliant writer = superstar writer

Tom Petty – ugly bastard with weird voice, great writer =superstar writer

Lennon, McCartney, Harrison – pleasant people, hipsters, undeniably brilliant writers = changed the world for a generation.

I can come up with hipper and weirder examples but it all points to the same thing. Songwriting is the core of what makes bands breakout into the rarefied air of superstardom. If you want to succeed learn to write a great song. One will do. Tons of undeniably brilliant songs would be better but that may be too much to shoot for.

Writing great songs is a combo of vision, some talent and lots and lots of craft. It is a process that can be improved and honed, polished and practiced. It rarely appears wholly developed in useable form.  All the great writers learn from those that come before them. They listen to other great writers and absorb their themes.  If you listen to a great songwriter, say Bob Marley, for instance you can see that he writes about universal truths…..”No Woman, No Cry”…Gee that’s simple and boy is it true.  Great writers also steal with no shame. They don’t steal songs..well Zeppelin stole all their songs but they weren’t great writers…they steal phrases from the world around them. A friend says something true that’s clever or sad or funny and a song is born. They see an old movie and hear a perfect phrase and boom a song is born.  Great writing is the process of seeing things clearly, seeing the truth, or hearing the ring of truth in the hubbub around you.

The inspiration for a song is a morsel of magic. There is no denying that. But the heavy lifting of writing is to work and rework until the whole song is condensed into a perfectly balanced slice of life. It doesn’t matter if the meaning of the song is lost on others, they will inject their own meaning, it still must ring true to the writer and this will come through to the listener.

So this week’s blog is short. It’s also of paramount importance. If you are the writer for your band learn your craft. Learn it from the great writers. Think about their themes and their tricks to reach your soul. That’s why they are great writers and that, if you want to succeed at rock, is what you must do….

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

The Only Bands that Matter…………..


I was given my first album at age 5, a disc by the band The Four Seasons. They were a cheesy vocal pop band that competed with the Beach Boys at the top of the charts in the early sixties. (you’ll notice that they don’t appear on the list later in this blog) From that moment I was hooked. I have been collecting and, more importantly, listening to music compulsively. I don’t watch TV. I don’t follow sports (I do enjoy baseball as a live spectator sport)  Now why, you may ask, do you give a damn about this little personal biography?

50,000,000 fans can't be wrong

50,000,000 fans can’t be wrong

Oops!  Forgot one or two

Oops! Forgot one or two

It’s simple really. For the past 48 years I have been listening to music, mainly rock, and learning what counts, what is related to whom and what is truly worth listening to. If you are in a band then listening to other bands is the most important thing you can do. It’s research. It’s what influences your thinking and what shapes your music.

If you are a young musician then most likely you are obsessed with one or two bands or at best obsessed with a particular rock movement like Nordic speed death metal with superhero themed concept albums. This is natural when you are young. You are developing your sense of aesthetics. (feel free to look that word up, I did) You may also be convinced that French guitar pop or Early 80’s straight edge hardcore or Electronica or Zydeco or Polka blues is the most important music in the universe. You are wrong.  It is very important to you and it has its place in the great pastiche of rock but it is not the only form of rock that is important.

The most common mistake bands make (other than not firing the drummer)is they are too focused on the one or two bands that they love. As a result they end up sounding just like the bands that they admire (or worship) and end up making music that is a pale imitation of another band.

I have listened to thousands of demos in the past thirty years. Really great bands are rare. Really bad bands are equally rare and often can be highly entertaining because they are so awesomely bad (The Shags for example) the vast majority are OK, mediocre, uneventful and they are always derivative.  This is the mistake that almost every band makes; they sound like another, successful band.  They fail to do anything new, to do anything risky, and to do anything that makes them truly special. Why listen to a band that sounds like the Black Keys? Why not just listen to the Black Keys?

No one bought our record and now we're the theme song to that 70's show

No one bought our record and now we’re the theme song to that 70’s show

That brings us to the subject of this blog and likely a few more to follow – What bands really count? What bands are great?  And I mean undeniably great. I intend to list a shitload of bands in an effort to outline a good basic knowledge of rock and roll. As you read through the list you will likely say to yourself, ‘hell, I know all these guys. There is nothing new here’. That may be so. I doubt it but assuming you do know all of these bands are there any on the list that you haven’t heard? If it’s on the list and you haven’t heard it then you should check it out then wonder ‘what other cool bands are out there?’.

I am also posting this list to spur people to comment. Please suggest additions to the list. Feel free to criticize my choices and to justify your suggestions. I know that I have ignored large sections of rock history. This is a result of putting together a quick list. Feel free to post bands the comments section.

I will be posting some lists from other people soon. I am certain that the following lists will highlight some of the holes in my first list.

Finally I’ll close with a rock anecdote. When Columbia records acquired The Clash for the American reissue of the first Clash record and for all the follow up records someone at the label’s PR department came up with the slogan “The Only Band that Matters!” In one of those truly rare moments in history the record label had it right. In many ways The Clash were the most important Punk band and Punk was the most important change to come along in a decade.  Over the intervening years it became apparent that The Clash summed up and perfected all of the elements that made Punk important.  You may disagree with this opinion or you may agree.  If you never had bothered to listen to the Clash’s five main albums could you really claim to have an understanding of Punk and be certain that your Punk band is really something fresh and new, something great with a capital G?

This is Rock

This is Rock

[for the sake of brevity I have only included bands and artists from the first 4 decades of rock, that is to say 1950 to 1990]

Classification(s)  B-blues, J-Jazz, P-Punk, PR-Prog Rock, CR – Classic Rock, F-Jazz/Rock Fusion, H- Hardcore, I-Influential, S- Soul, A- Alternative Rock, N- New Wave, O – Folk, SY-Psychedelic Rock, C-Country, Reggae –R, Metal – M, Glam Rock -G


The only bands that matter Part 1

The Clash – P, The Sex Pistols – P, The Buzzcocks – P, The Damned – P, The Germs -H, The Dead Kennedys – H, Mission of Burma – A, The Modern Lovers – I & A, Velvet Underground –I & A, The Beatles – CR, John Lennon – CR, Paul McCartney -CR, George Harrison – CR,  Big Star I &  CR & S, The Small Faces -CR, The Faces -CR, David Bowie -G, Robert Johnson – B, The Kinks CR, Jimi Hendrix –CR, Creedence Clearwater Revival –CR, Velvet Underground-I, The Soft Boys- I, The Pogues – P, The Band – CR, XTC- N, Nick Drake – O, Tim Buckley – O, Fairport Convention – O, Sandy Denny –O, Richard Thompson –O, Traffic –CR, The Byrds –CR, The Ramones –P, The New York Dolls – I, Yes – PR, King Crimson – PR, Frank Zappa –PR, Captain Beefheart  – I, The Talking Heads – N The Creation – SY, Love-SY,  Scott Walker –SY, The Pixies –I & A, Genesis –PR,  Leon Russell -CR, Cream –CR, Derek and The Dominoes – CR, Hank Williams –C, Johnny Cash – C, The Dictators – P Tommy Roe –CR, Jimmy Webb –CR, Joni Mitchell –CR, Janis Joplin CR-, Lou Reed –I, Jethro Tull –CR, Echo and the Bunnymen –N, Bebop Deluxe – N, War – S, Sam and Dave –S, Otis Redding – S,  James Brown –S, Gang of Four –N, The Smiths –N, Curtis Mayfield – S, Booker T and MGs – S, Ray Charles –S, Blind Lemon Jefferson – B, Bob Marley and the Wailers –R, Peter Tosh – R, Jimmy Cliff –R ,  Bob Dylan –CR, Led Zeppelin –CR & B,  Van Morrison – CR & S, Temptations –S, Ike and Tina Turner –S, Peter Gabriel –N, The Who –CR,  The Rolling Stones – CR, The Dead Boys – P, REM – A, Flamin’ Groovies – I, Thelonius Monk – J, John Coltrane – J, Charlie Parker –J. Count Basie – J, Chet Baker – J, Santana –CR, The Feelies – A, John Cale – I & A,  The Replacements – I & A, Deep Purple – I & CR, Little Feat – CR, Grateful Dead –CR, Metallica – M, T Rex – G, U2 – N, Elvis PResley – CR, Buddy Holly – CR, Beach Boys – CR

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

Songwriting, yes, that’s right songwriting…………………..


I just listened to “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner. This 60’s pop gem was written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich was Phil Spector’s attempt to put Ike and Tina Turner at the top of the charts.  It’s a masterpiece. How do I know this? Phil Spector said so. So did George Harrison and shit load of other people.  When it was released it rose to #88 in the US charts and then dropped out of sight. Phil Spector was so bummed he quit the music business for two years and slowly, thereafter, became a homicidal recluse. The fact that it went straight to #3 in England didn’t impress him. He still felt that he had failed.  I am now going to argue that he was right.

The damn record is a beautiful roar of overproduction.  He, of course, is known for creating the wall of sound style of production and this single is the ultimate example of that over-the- top style.  Unfortunately this buried the perfect song that should have carried the song into the whistling repertoire of every kid in america.  It’s interesting to note that the song later became a standard live hit for Tina Turner. This just proves my point. It’s a fuckin’ great song. It sums up obsessive love in a few verses and says it in a way that can punch holes in your heart.  Great song, overproduced = notable success without mega success.  Phil knew what he was writing about. He’s an obsessive guy. He once gave his wife twin five-year old boys as a christmas present. He didn’t ask he just got them and gave them to her.  Sure… that’s normal…. everyone gives other humans as Christmas presents.  So he’s nuts. We’ve established that fact without even exploring his recent homicide conviction.  Even so he knew how to write hits.  That talent is priceless and the true key to making it to the top. Let’s look for some examples that prove the point.

Bob Dylan -ugly fucker, can’t play, arrogant asshole that’s subject to maniacal obsessions, brilliant writer = superstar writer

Tom Petty – ugly bastard with weird voice, great writer =superstar writer

Lennon, McCartney, Harrison – pleasant people, hipsters, undeniably brilliant writers = changed the world for a generation.

I can come up with hipper and weirder examples but it all points to the same thing. Songwriting is the core of what makes bands breakout into the rarefied air of superstardom. If you want to succeed learn to write a great song. One will do. Tons of undeniably brilliant songs would be better but that may be too much to shoot for. 

Writing great songs is a combo of vision, some talent and lots and lots of craft. It is a process that can be improved and honed, polished and practiced. It rarely appears wholly developed in useable form.  All the great writers learn from those that come before them. They listen to other great writers and absorb their themes.  If you listen to a great songwriter, say Bob Marley, for instance you can see that he writes about universal truths…..”No Woman, No Cry”…Gee that’s simple and boy is it true.  Great writers also steal with no shame. They don’t steal songs..well Zeppelin stole all their songs but they weren’t great writers…they steal phrases from the world around them. A friend says something true that’s clever or sad or funny and a song is born. They see an old movie and hear a perfect phrase and boom a song is born.  Great writing is the process of seeing things clearly, seeing the truth, or hearing the ring of truth in the hubbub around you.

The inspiration for a song is a morsel of magic. There is no denying that. But the heavy lifting of writing is to work and rework until the whole song is condensed into a perfectly balanced slice of life. It doesn’t matter if the meaning of the song is lost on others, they will inject their own meaning, it still must ring true to the writer and this will come through to the listener.

So this week’s blog is short. It’s also of paramount importance. If you are the writer for your band learn your craft. Learn it from the great writers. Think about their themes and their tricks to reach your soul. That’s why they are great writers and that, if you want to succeed at rock, is what you must do….

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011