Tuesday, 8 April 2014

My Top Ten Songs About Songwriting

In a much-requested sequel to last week's post on Songwriters, here's ten songs about "the process"...

10. Jeffrey Lewis - Songs About Songwriting Suck

Let's start with a tune that rules this whole Top Ten insignficant.
There's nothing wrong with singing songs about being low and blue
Just don't feed me crap about how you know you're saying nothing new
Either have the confidence to tell me something real or something fun
Or put down the guitar until the muse returns to turn you on
I agree with him in principal, but if we followed Jeffrey's Law, the world would never have heard the nine gems below...

9. Barry Manilow - I Write The Songs

Deano suggested this last week, although he went for a cooler cover. But I'm not ashamed to say there are Barry Manilow records in my collection, or that I enjoy getting them out from time to time. On first listen, the idea that "I write the songs that make the whole world sing" seems a little arrogant. Until you realise that old Manly Barrimore (copyright Terry Wogan, 1981) isn't staking this claim for himself. Oh, no: this record is written from the perspective of Music itself.
I've been alive forever
And I wrote the very first song
I put the words and the melodies together
I am music and I write the songs
Beat that, Sting!

8. Eels - I Write The B-Sides

Which brings us to E's gloriously self-deprecating riposte to the Bazzer Boogie...
I write the b-sides
That make a small portion of the world cry
I like the seaside
And singing songs that make you not wanna die
Wonderful stuff.

7. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Wrote A Song For Everyone

A common theme in John Fogerty's songwriting was protesting against the Vietnam War draft, and this one starts in similar vein. The twist in the chorus is rather sweet though, taking us from protest anthem to ballad, as Fogerty admits he can write a song for everyone... but he can't write one for you.

6. Justin Currie - Every Song's The Same

Ah, heartbreaking cynicism, thy name is Currie. Here's your basic songwriting lesson from JC... the second line should rhyme with something in your baby's heart.

5. The Blazing Zoos - I Didn't Have The Material (Before Now)

Phew. For a second I thought the internet was going to let me down. Youtube hadn't heard of it, but fortunately I was able to locate Andrew Mueller's twanging comic-country genius on Soundcloud. If you've never heard The Blazing Zoos before - and I'd be surprised if you had - give this one a spin, please, and hear Mueller tear strips off the woman who gave him everything he needed to pen this tune...
Always wanted to write a country song
But  never had a girl who did me wrong
I didn't have the material... before now!
4. Art Brut - Formed A Band

This one will surely make its way into my inevitable Top Ten Songs About Being In A Band, when I get round to that, and you might think it'd be more appropriate there. Except for the wonderment of verse 2...
I want to be the boy -
The man -
Who writes the song
That makes Israel and Palestine
Get along

I'm gonna write a song
As universal as Happy Birthday
That's gonna make sure
That everybody knows
That everything's gonna be OK

I'm gonna take that song
And we're gonna play it
Eight weeks in a row on Top of the Pops
Eddie Argos hasn't been the same since they cancelled TOTP.

(And, yes, that is his singing voice. It's not irony. It's not rock 'n' roll. He's just talking to the kids.)

3. Harry Chapin - There Was Only One Choice

At almost 14 minutes in length, this is a masterclass in songwriting from one of the best in the business. An autobiographical rage against the machine-cum-sage lesson in life, it's epic in every way.
Strum your guitar -- sing it kid
Just write about your feelings -- not the things you never did
2. Bruce Springsteen - Dancing In The Dark

The story has become legend. Bruce had written the majority of the songs for the album that would become Born In The USA, but (to quote Tom Petty), "The A&R man says he don't hear a single." And so he was tasked with writing a radio hit... and the ensuing struggle with writers' block is chronicled metaphorically in the lyrics to Dancing In The Dark.
I get up in the evening
And I ain't got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help

You can't start a fire
You can't start a fire without a spark
This gun's for hire
Even if we're just dancing in the dark
The irony, of course, is that he almost did his job too well, creating his biggest ever radio hit... and launching Courtney Cox's career in the video to boot. But the album had plenty more singles to come...

1. The Beautiful South - Song For Whoever 

Songwriter Paul Heaton had me from that inspired opening...
I love you from the bottom of my pencil case
...but by the time Dave Hemingway hits the line about loving you because of the "PRS cheques that you bring", it became clear that nobody had ever written a love song about the fringe benefits of writing a love song before... even if they couldn't remember exactly which girl they wrote this one for.
Deep, so deep
The Number One I hope to reap
Depends upon the tears you weep
So cry, lover, cry

Oh Cathy, oh Alison
Oh Philippa, oh Sue
You made me so much money
I wrote this song for you...
See also Throw His Song Away, Prettiest Eyes, One Last Love Song, My Book... and many more. In fact, Heato's probably written more songs about songwriting than any other lyricist (since, credit where it's due, the music was mostly written by Dave Rotheray). And, no, Jeffrey Lewis, none of them suck.

So... those were my favourite songs about songwriting. Which one do you love from the bottom of your pencil case?


  1. Black, Sweetest Smile.

    Discovered recently that he's still at it, still writing exquisitely sad songs.

    1. Thanks, Patrick. And good to see Colin's still delivering the goods.

  2. Not sure but isn't Bowie's This Is Not America about the lack of inspiration? Would that qualify?

    1. Well, if Dancing In The Dark is allowed (on the same subject), then definitely. Of course, this leads me to my planned Top Ten Songs About Writer's Block... one day.

  3. I can think of a few songs where songwriting is mentioned, like Fire and Rain by James Taylor, but struggling to come up with too much of direct relevance.

    The only thing I could come up with was "Hit Song" by Custard, an Aussie indie rock band of the 90's/00's that didn't take themselves too seriously. Although even in this song, they change their tact about song writing halfway through it. Hard to find on youtube, but found this, not great quality - skip to 3 minutes in for the song I was talking about...


  4. Two of my favourites...only one of them being Barry Manilow...

  5. Many people hate Abba, but they wrote a great song about songwriting: Andante, Andante. When you first listen to it, you probably will think it's a love song. Then when you realize it isn't, it hits you like a ton of bricks.


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