Secrets of the Pop Song: Ballad (1/3)
Secrets of the Pop Song: Breakthrough Single (2/3)
Anthem saved the best for last – pop anthems that make you sing along, music that makes you feel really good. Guy Chambers teamed up with singer, Shingai Shoniwa, and guitarist, Dan Smith, of the Noisettes. Three days were allowed for writing this song, perhaps in recognition of the innate difficulty of the job. While the music and lyrics need to be fairly simple, so people can sing along to it, finding the special something that makes an anthem successful is notoriously elusive. As the narrator points out, “anthems aren’t made, they’re anointed.”
They began with a Sly and the Family Stone riff, using I Can Take You Higher as inspiration. I was amazed at how quickly and fluidly Shingai improvised the lyrics to the rough outline of the music. That was ditched in favour of another riff. By the end of the first day they had the basic musical structure worked out, and Shingai had laid down a vocal track, using some of the lyrics. This was Precious Time.
On the second day, Guy dropped Precious Time, thinking they needed something more contemporary – the song had a 70s feel to it. The next idea seemed to work well, but Shingai felt the chorus was “too polite,” so that was changed. They had the musical building blocks in place, with work needed on the lyrics and a catchy title, by the end of the day. This is important because without a catchy hook, people won’t want to sing it.
The final day took them outside to work on Hampstead Heath, overlooking London, after being cooped up in Guy’s recording studio. To see them sitting out on the grass, with families, children, and dogs wandering past, gave a new, open feel to the idea of professional songwriting. Let’s Play was the result, recorded back in the studio.
As before, interspersed with footage of the creative process in action, the narrator introduced a lot of background information, through clips of bands from the 60s (You’ll Never Walk Alone, by Gerry & the Pacemakers) to the 90s and noughties (Common People, by Pulp).
The interesting thing is how rousing, feelgood music transcends genres and migrates to the strangest places. Take football songs. You’ll Never Walk Alone began as a Rogers & Hammerstein song from Carousel, then became associated with the Munich air disaster of 1958, in which many Manchester United footballers died. Jerry & Pacemakers then recorded the song, and it’s since become inextricably associated with Liverpool Football Club.
Not just musicals, either. Songs as diverse as gay anthems (I Will Survive), operatic arias (La donna e mobile), and Land of Hope and Glory have all made their way to the football terraces, although sometimes with different words.
We are a musical nation, as Reverend Jenkins says of the Welsh in Under Milk Wood. This series has been a delight. I’ve learned a lot about pop music, most importantly the craft that goes into it, and the enjoyment that comes out of it. It’s been an epiphany. I’ll leave you with Shingai’s comment on the creative process:
Make good love, and hope for the most beautiful sonic baby.
Here’s the first public performance of Let’s Play, with the full Noisettes line-up and Guy Chambers on keyboard. I loved it.