For Breakthrough Single, Guy Chambers collaborates with record producer, Mark Ronson, and singer, Tawiah. I thought about giving this episode a miss, since I don’t pay any attention to chart hits, but decided to challenge my (almost) invincible ignore-ance of things that don’t immediately sound interesting. After all, the previous episode opened my eyes and ears to the enjoyment of pop ballads.
The major difference between Ballad and Breakthrough Single seems to be that in the latter, music sets the tone (as it were) and lyrics are added as a secondary process. Chambers and Ronson first worked out a rough musical framework before calling in Tawiah to write lyrics for it. In the Chambers/Wainwright collaboration, music and lyrics evolved simultaneously.
The programme raised the question of pop songs being manufactured out of a set of musical ingredients – hook, bridge, chorus and so on – combined in formulaic proportions. So, by extension, bands like The Spice Girls and The Monkees could also be assembled to appeal to a particular demographic.
Breakthrough Single used the example of Motown, which did indeed churn out songs on an industrial basis, using formulas and writing teams. But they could still be good songs. Lamont Dozier, of Holland-Dozier-Holland, pointed out that talented and creative musicians made the difference: “Works of art make rules, but rules don’t make a work of art.”
Another issue was the emergence in the 60s of singers writing their own songs – before that, record studios would commission songs independently of the singers. And who’s to say just what it is about a song that makes it sell, so creative writing credits were given for quite small, but possibly decisive, contributions.
What emerges sometimes needs selling even to the singer. Boy George talked about the hit single, Karma Chameleon, which he wasn’t so sure about at first: “I’m going to have to sing this for the rest of my life.” Needless to say, he changed his mind.
By the end of the first day, Chambers, Ronson, and Tawiah had a structure, melody and potential chorus for a song called Ghost, about a woman waking to an empty bed and singing about her lost lover. Tawiah moved the musical structure toward Highlife, a musical genre from Ghana.
On day two, Guy and Tawiah finished the lyrics, while a real drummer laid down a drum track, and horns were added for sparkle.
As with Ballad, the greatest pleasure of this series is watching and listening to the musical alchemy, as they create a new song. There’s something about professionals, deeply involved in practicing their craft, that kindles a delight in the final product. Even if it’s something I normally wouldn’t bother listening to. The comments from other musicians come a close second, and the package is nicely rounded out by insights into the industry from the narrator.
Final verdict from the radio pluggers was lukewarm. One said, “It’s not bad but it’s not great,” and the other was “not using the H-word.” You can decide for yourself in this video of the first live performance. I like it.