In this article I want to highlight the work of four songwriters from different eras, commenting upon the way they each approach writing a song and how this song relates to the time it was written in.
Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ ((1989)
One of the most iconic and instantly recognisable songs of the past 30 years, it was written during one of Neil’s tours in the late 1980s, and first performed live in Seattle and released on the album Freedom. One of Young’s band members allegedly observed whilst watching the news about events in the Middle East, that It was better for us in the West just to “keep on rockin’ in the free world” and not get involved in that part of the world. This seems more true than ever these days, in our post-9/11 world it seems almost prophetic.
Neil’s own Left-wing politics were to heavily influence the lyrics. It was very critical of the then President Bush senior who later went on to launch the first Gulf War. It also became an anthem associated with the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These days it remains a powerful and challenging
critique of the way we live in the West, and seems to highlight the fact that our way of life may not actually be the best, or making us better people despite our many freedoms. It highlights the dark side of democracy.
With its pounding bass riff and its simple 3 verse structure the song is very accessible and easy to remember. As ever with Neil the song is a series of little pictures and ironic takes on them. The ‘colors on the street’ in the first verse refer to the Presidential campaign which promised to make the USA a better place, despite the social ills that were there for all to see around them.
The second verse is observation and comment: the woman putting her baby in a bin because of her drug addiction, “that’s one more kid that will never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool”, a very disturbing and sad image that lingers in the mind. Then the chorus which is rather ironic – how can we be blind to the problems our society creates even though we are ‘free’? Neil seems to be saying we are free to go to a Hell of our own, and that we need to do much better than this.
The third and final verse takes a more birds-eye view of the country itself, the “thousand points of light for the homeless man”, the luxuries everywhere, “department stores , Styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”, all pointing to the gulf between rich and poor in America and the cost both to people who fall through the net and to the environment too, “Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive..”
The song is sometimes, wrongly, used or cited as a pro-America anthem, which ignores many of the ironic overtones of the lyrics. While the chorus at face value does appear to celebrate the USA, it’s juxtaposed with grim verses that really do paint a haunting picture of life in the USA, both in the late 1980s and many would argue even still. The idea that Americans can just ignore global problems which they think don’t concern them is definitely criticised in the song.
Donald Trump recently tried to use this song prompting a backlash from the musician. Clearly this is a song that continues to be controversial and misunderstood by people not paying attention to the lyrics. Bruce Springsteen’s iconic 1985 song Born in the USA, a tale of a Vietnam veteran returning home to discrimination and unemployment, suffered a similar abuse when Ronald Reagan tried to use it for his campaigns. Rolling Stone rated Neil’s song number 216 on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
I’m drawn to this song because I think it does paint a haunting picture, and its simple structure but very carefully thought-out lyrics make it very memorable. It’s been described as “a nasty rock ‘n’ roll sword swinging freely at the political administration of George H W Bush” (Ted Drozdowski, 2009), written in what Ronnie Earl referred to as “the key of the people – E”. The fact that many bands have incorporated it into their own live sets, most notably Pearl Jam and even Bon Jovi, is a testament to its staying power and on-going relevance.
‘Your Song’ by Elton John/Bernie Taupin (1970)
Another very famous and well-covered song, Your Song was written by 17 year old self-styled Norfolk poet Bernie Taupin in 1967, in about 5 minutes in the kitchen as legend has it. Taupin had only just started working with Elton following an ad placed in the music press (NME) brought them together working for a record company writing songs and melodies for established artists on the label. Taupin has spoken of “the virginal sentiments” expressed in the song, and said in a 1989 interview “it has got to be one of the most naïve and childish lyrics in the entire repertoire of music, but I think the reason it still stands up is because it was real at the time. I was 17 and it was coming from someone whose outlook on love or experience with love was totally new and naïve” (Music Connection, 1989).
Elton, who has always done this separately from Bernie, wrote the music in about 20 minutes after being given the lyrics by Bernie on “a particularly grubby piece of paper with coffee stains on it”. It went on to become Elton’s first single to chart in its own right and released on his second album Elton John in 1970. It was this song that got him noticed in America, culminating in his breakout gig at The Troubadour Club in LA.
The song, indeed the album, became part of the new wave of singer/songwriter work featuring strong acoustic ballads with guitar and piano that flourished in the early 1970s, especially on the West Coast where artists like James Taylor, Carole King and Jackson Browne (even Neil Young) were producing heartfelt songs about the human experience of love and loss. In this sense the song is very much of its time, but its fusion of simple lyric and beautiful piano melody has enabled it to transcend its origins and become a classic, always still part of the set list at any Elton concert. “I don’t think I’ve written a love song as good since” Elton has said, “It’s a perfect song, and the older I get the more the lyrics resonate”.
Again, as with many of the most durable and well-loved songs, simplicity seems to be the key, together with the seamless fusion of words and music, a big achievement given that Elton and Bernie have never sat in the same room once ever to write and compose a song. This in itself is interesting, and shows that great songs do not have to be the product of just one individual’s imagination or talent.
Unashamedly romantic in nature, Your Song is a kind of love letter addressed to someone, perhaps that is why it has been embraced by many people who feel it very much captures something of what they are feeling about their partner. Clearly the song is being offered in itself as a gift instead of the “big house where we both can live” , because “how wonderful life is, while you’re in the world”. The singer remembers in a conversational tone :
‘So excuse me forgetting but these things I do,
You see I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue..
Anyway the thing is, what I really mean,
Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen”.
This is the secret of this song, it’s casual but heartfelt lyrics, addressed directly to the subject of desire, and why I think so many people have felt over the years that it speaks for them about their own feelings for someone else. The simple piano melody in the key of Eb made it stand out on the radio in the eary 1970s as there were no guitar songs in this key. Deceptively simple, it fused with the lyrics to create a simple song that caught the feeling it was describing.
There’s nothing political or over-analytical about this song, which is probably a great strength considering all the protest songs that had dominated the airwaves in the late 1960s. Elton and Bernie were not looking to change the world with Your Song, just capture a feeling that we have all no doubt experienced when falling in love with someone, and I think this is why the song remains a firm fan favourite and why so many other artists have chosen to cover it over the years; my own favourite is the version done by Ellie Goulding.
It illustrates a very different kind of focus and energy than Neil Young, and the diversity of approaches to creating songs that exist. It’s a little ironic to think that such a sentimental mini-hymn to a loved one was composed by a lyricist and musician working collaboratively but separately, and shows how versatile and open to innovation the song writing process can really be.
‘When the Day is Done’, Nick Drake (1969)
In contrast to the angry Rock protest anthem of Neil Young and the sensitive romanticism of the song by Taupin and John, Nick Drake, now revered as a great innovator using open tuning on the guitar, and still mourned due to his untimely death from depression at the age of 26 in 1974, included this song on his 1969 debut album Five Leaves Left. Alternative Press called it “one of the most beautiful and melancholy albums ever recorded”. This song closed the first side of the record.
This haunting song is a meditation on The End that in retrospect seems to anticipate Nick’s own very brief and disappointing career in the music industry given that he struggled to perform live or promote himself due to his anxieties:
‘When the day is done
Down to earth sinks the sun
Along with everything that was lost and won
When the day is done”
When the night is cold
Some get by but some get old
Just to show life’s not made of gold
When the night is cold
A violin gently weaves a mournful melody around the seven verses that can equally be read as a poem to loss, evoking a series of autumnal images that perfectly reflect the emotional mood of the song. Without doubt one of Drake’s saddest and most beautiful songs, I think its beauty lies in its fragility, its seemingly seamless match of words and music, and its airy vocals that seem to float in from a different world. In its brief, simple verses, it paints a picture of a great artist but a troubled human being. Yet the final farewell is also a return to the beginning, as the closing lines of the verses always echo their first lines, and even the opening verse recurs at the end of the song.
Whilst Neil Young and Elton John look outwards in their songs, Nick has here tried to convey his state of mind and his take on the world. It is a psychological state of being set to music, and seems even more poignant now that we know how Nick’s own story ended a just a few years later from an overdose of antidepressant medication (deliberate or not no one can say).
Robert Kirby, a contemporary involved in the early recordings, said of Nick Drake that he saw “his work above all as a series of extremely vivid, complete observations and not mere exercises in introspection as some might. They’re almost like little epigrammatic proverbs. The music and the words are welded together in such a way as to make the atmosphere in all his songs the most important facet. I know that was Nick’s primary purpose – I don’t think he was hung up about his lyrics being ‘great poetry’ or anything. They’re there to compliment… to compound a mood that the medody dictates in the first place” (Nick Kent in The Guardian 1975 article).
Drake was friends with the late John Martyn, and picked up a lot of Martyn’s acoustic style. Martyn then used some of Drake’s techniques in his own work. It was the late Nick Kirby who arranged all the strings for Five Leaves Left, and although some purists feel that this led to the album feeling over-produced and that the strings detract from the simplicity of the songs I think they give the songs added weight and meaning.
The song is very poetic with its images of setting suns, cold nights, departing birds, and lost chances. The melody is simple and repetitive, with the violin giving the song added pathos. There is nothing political about the song and it doesn’t attempt to address problems in the outside world; equally it is not a love letter addressed to someone else. Nick’s song is a haunting meditation on the nature of existence and lived experience of loss, and though it reflects his own state of mind somewhat (he was beginning a slow descent into the chronic depression from which he never really recovered) it also says something about the human condition that everyone can relate to, and this is why I think it is so profound. The combination of guitar and strings and fragile vocals make it truly memorable. It is a great example of how diverse song writing can be. Although Your Song is similarly just vocal, piano and strings, the emotional effect is completely different and its tone much darker. Simple musical arrangements, one serving a romantic love song, the other a melancholy picture of things that are lost, illustrate the choices that songwriters have when trying to express themselves in lyrics and music.
The final song I should like to mention in order to again illustrate the diversity of approaches to songs and their purpose is a song that featured as the last track of the debut album by The Smiths in 1984.
‘Suffer Little Children’
Regarded as perhaps the most important Indie band to have flourished, briefly, in the last 30 years or so, the Manchester-based quartet led by Morrissey delivered a unique and disturbing song that directly spoke of the horrendous child murders committed by Myra Hindley and Ian Bradey on the moors surrounding their home city in the mid-60s. The song was written after Morrissey had read a book detailing the facts of what was know as the Moors Murders, and it was strangely one of the first songs that he wrote in collaboration with lead guitarist Johnny Marr. After release some of the victims’ living relatives took exception to the lyrics (a testament to a song’s power to create extreme reactions) in which three of the (5) victims are mentioned by name. Some high street stores even refused to stock the album because of this controversy stirred by the subject-matter.
‘Over the moor, take me to the moor
Dig a shallow grave and I’ll lay me down…
Lesley-Anne, with your pretty white beads
Oh John, you’ll never be a man
And you’ll never see your home again
Oh Manchester, so much to answer for… ‘
The song goes on to address one of the killers directly:
‘We may be dead and we may be gone
But we will be, we will be
We will be right by your side
Until the day you die
This is no easy ride…
You might sleep but you will never dream’.
The use of a simple, unassuming quiet guitar-driven melody suggestive of innocence as a background to the lyrical content is striking. It has been described as “the creepiest pop song ever written” and the fact that most of the song is actually sung from the voice of the dead children themselves tormenting one of their murderers is nothing like any other song I can think of. Its menacing chill has not been replicated since. The cold wind over the dark barren moor can almost be felt the song’s haunting message to the child killers. The gruesome narrative, delivered through Morrisey’s detached, mournful crooning juxtaposed with Marr’s soft, lullaby-like guitar sounds, is more than enough to send a chill down the spine.
It might be said that the song does look for social justice, and that by addressing the events that cast a terrible shadow over the city for years Morrissey was honouring the victims of a sadistic crime (although 2 further bodies had not been found at the time of writing the song). In this way the song is very much rooted in a time and place, and preoccupied with a specific event. In his autobiography Morrissey has spoken of visiting the moors as a young man, and how his generation growing up in the North were haunted by these murders. The song features someone pretending to be Hindley laughing.
The song is a complex narrative, moving from setting the scene to actually using the child’s voice in the first person to talk to their killer. It was only ever performed live once, not surprisingly, at their first gig at The Ritz in 1982. It also kind of sits alone on their debut album because its lyrics are so very specific and the subject-matter so dark, without the use of irony or black humour that typified such a lot of Morrissey’s writing at the time or since.
It is the most complex song in terms of structure that I’ve highlighted , lyrically definitely even if the innocent underlying melody only serves to give it a savage kick.
The reaction to the release of the song was not surprisingly extreme in some areas of the press at the time. Morrissey was portrayed as exploiting the crimes to get publicity and make money.
He said in response “Veiling the Moors Murders is wrong. We must bring it to the fore. If we don’t overstate things they’ll continue to happen… In the north I was painted as a hideous Satanic monster, and the word was that I’d upset Anne West (Lesley Anne’s mother). In fact, I had not, and have since become good friends with her” (Morrissery, 1986).
His motivation for writing this song, as a tribute to the victims, was clear:
“I happened to live on the streets where, close by, some of the victims had been picked up. Within that community, news of the crimes totally dominated all attempts at conversation for quite a few years. It was like the worst thing that ever happened… All the details… You see it was so evil, ungraspably evil… (Morrissey, The Face, 1985).
Morrissey wanted a song that gave the victims some kind of a voice that had been denied to them in life by their killers, and although it is far from an easy listen or a song you want to hear over and over, it is a song that should be heard by everyone at least once if they are looking to for a way to grasp what actually happened to those poor children back in the mid 1960s.
In this assignment I have tried to illustrate how diverse the song writing process can be by comparing the approaches of four very different songwriters to their chosen subjects, and to highlight the social circumstances involved influencing their decisions where relevant. The motivation for writing songs has appeared as one of the strongest factors influencing the decisions, both lyrical and musical, that artists make. Whether it arose because of a chance remark someone made (like in Neil Young’s song), the musings of a teenage romantic (Taupin), the troubled mental state of an individual singer (Drake) or the need to exorcise a personal demon and tackle a terrible historical event (Morrissey), all of these writers have in different ways tried to translate their thoughts into memorable and suitable music.
The rock-driven anthem of Neil Young, the piano-based ballad of Elton John, the string and guitar soundscape of Drake and the lullaby electric guitar of Marr, all of them have used melody and music to reflect the lyrics to good effect and created deceptively simple songs that have had a lasting impact, usually popular, sometimes notorious as in the case of The Smiths’ song.
Some writers just look to express their own inner feelings, some address issues they care about in the wider world. This is the great strength of songwriters, and the choices individual artists make when it comes to making music are very varied. Many songs, if not just the product of one person’s imagination, are more the result of a collaboration between lyricist and musician, and shows how multi-layered the process is.
I hope this article has given some insight into how interesting some of these choices can be, and the very different kind of songs that can be created.