Peeling Back the Layers of the Hits
What are the elements of a great song? What is it about some songs that wends its way into our hearts and souls and stirs emotions in us even 40 years after we first heard it? Why do some songs endure and influence the history of music in such deep ways? As Rod Stewart once sang, “every picture tells a story,” and so, according to Wall Street Journal writer Marc Myers, does every song.
In his new book, Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B, and Pop (Grove Atlantic, November), Myers lets the artists and musicians involved in enduring hits tell the stories behind them in an effort to give us an intimate glimpse — as much as is ever really possible — into the process of the making them come to life. The songs he covers include, among others, Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Little Willie Littlefield’s “K.C. Loving,” The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” and The Temptations’ “My Girl” to The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” The Clash’s “London Calling,” and Merle Haggard’s “Big City.”
Anatomy of a Song grew out of Myers’ Wall Street Journal column of the same name, which he launched in 2012. In some columns, Myers chats with various people associated with the song, whether the writer, singer, producer, or musicians who played on the album. In other columns, he talks only with the artist him- or herself. The artists he speaks to reveal, in Myers’ words, the “original motives for writing the song as well as the emotions they poured into the song and the discipline, poetry, musicianship, studio techniques, and accidents that helped turn these songs into meaningful generational hits that still endure today.” Myers provides a historical sketch of the times into which each song entered, and which it affected.
To get the story behind the Stone Poney’s 1967 hit “Different Drum,” Myers talks not only with Linda Ronstadt, whose voice gave the song its character, but also to writer Michael Nesmith, the band’s guitarist Bobby Kimmel — who did not play on the song — and studio harpsichordist Don Randi, who also played with the Wrecking Crew. Myers really reaches for the song’s historical significance, though, writing that it became identified with the feminist movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Nesmith recalls that the lyrics — which “had nothing to do with my personal life since I was newly married with a pregnant wife” — came very fast. Nesmith has long said that when he writes he creates little “movies in his mind,” and it was no different with “Different Drum”: “I was thinking about two lovers — one of whom decides he loves different things in life.”
Ronstadt was very unhappy with the way that the recording session worked out; she had been working with Kimmel on guitar and Kenny Edwards on mandolin as a trio, and she thought they were going to do an acoustic ballad version of “Different Drum,” which the Greenbriar Boys had already recorded as a slow ballad. Instead, producer Nick Venet had other ideas. “We didn’t rehearse,” Ronstadt says, “I was just thrown into it. … I was never happy with how I sounded. It took me 10 years to learn how to sing before I had skill and craft. Today I will break my finger trying to get that record off when it’s on. Art wasn’t meant to be frozen in time like that. Everyone hears something in that song — a breakup, the anti-war movement, women’s lib. I hear fear and a lack of confidence. It all happened so fast that day.”
Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” (1968) still stands as one of those classic songs about which everything seemed just right. As co-writer and producer Billy Sherrill recalls, “When the song ended, it was like a graveyard in there. Everyone just sat there and looked at each other. Someone finally broke the ice by saying, ‘Damn.’ Tammy started laughing when she realized that everyone was as much in love with the song as she was.”
Although the song was marketed as Wynette’s answer to women’s lib, Sherrill laughs, “Women’s lib never entered my mind. Or Tammy’s. Tammy was already liberated. Even in ’68, with her early hits, she continued to drive back and forth to Iuka, Mississippi, where she lived and was a hairdresser. Throughout her career, up until her death in 1998, she always kept up her hairdressing license, in case things went sour: ‘You never know,’ she’d say.”
Although Creedence Clearwater Revival first hit with “Proud Mary” in 1969, Solomon Burke and Ike and Tina also scored hits with it. Sonny Charles, the lead singer of the Checkmates Ltd., whose big hit was “Black Pearl,” recalls that his producer, Phil Spector, told him that he and Perry Botkin Jr. had written an up-tempo gospel version of “Proud Mary” for the Checkmates. Charles was excited by the terrific sound of Spector’s version, and it was supposed to be Charles’ next record, following “Black Pearl.” But, according to Charles, “Spector sat on it, releasing it only in the UK.” Next thing Charles knew, Ike and Tina were performing a version similar to Charles’.
Creedence frontman John Fogerty recalls the way he wrote the song: “The chord riff was based on the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. … I didn’t like how Beethoven had composed it. I preferred hitting the first chord hard for emphasis, not the fourth. When I added rhythm to the chords, the song had the motion of a boat. I had always loved Mark Twain’s writing and the music of Stephen Foster, so I wrote lyrics about a riverboat. … I finished most of the song in two hours.”
Who doesn’t like to listen to musicians tell their stories about the genesis of a song? Or to hear them laugh at the deep meaning that listeners often invest in it when for them it was, well, just a song about a breakup?
Myers’ book has something for everyone, though of course, the greatest disappointment — and that may be too strong a word — is about his choice of these 45 songs. Where are Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke? The Beatles? Aretha Franklin? Chuck Berry? Carole King? Like any other list of songs, this one will invite and provoke conversation. Perhaps if that happens, Myers will have achieved a small measure of success.
In the end, he throws the question back to us: “What 45 songs would be on your list?”