Daily Archives: 24 September, 2011

What makes a song great?

Today’s Musice:Dave May – great traditional country
Today’s Adventure: Adapting a dynamic climbing line to be a surfboard roof rack (bad idea!)
I listen to a lot of music. It’s one of the things I enjoy most in life.
And sometimes I wonder about what makes a song great.
There are songs most people agree on – The Beatles – Twist and Shout, Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven, Eric Clapton – Layla.
There has to be a hook. It might be something catchy that sets your feet to unconsciously tapping. It might be something haunting that grabs you low in your gut or make you joyously, ecstatically happy.

The musicians have to know what they’re doing.
I saw a guy recently open for Buckethead (who was incredible). The opening act, however, was singing through his tuba. Couldn’t understand a word (not the venue’s fault). He was playing riffs then looping them over each other.
He was crap. There was no musicality to it. I can appreciate the skill in techno, in industrial, and  in anarchistic screaming punk, but if you’re going to take my money to see you perform, at least have one song recognizable as such.

There’s nothing at all wrong with using technology. Kraftwerk are nothing without electricity. And check out this video of K.T. Tunstall – Black Horse and a Cherry Tree. A master class in using loop pedals, but don’t tell me that song isn’t stuck in your head, at least for a little while…

On the other end of the scale are performers like Lou Reed, who once said he knew 3 chords, and was still trying to perfect those, but Walk on the Wild Side shows he’s got them down just fine.

I’ve been subjected to some hideously memorable hooks over the years. the worst lately is the Ting Tings, who I hate. But just typing “Ting Tings” has started the endless loop of “that’s not my name” in my head. Where it will be for the next 3 hours.

But what about great songs that don’t find an audience?
A lesser known song I’ve been listening to is They Might Be Giants – Anna Ng. If that song were coverd by the Foo Fighters, it would be in the top 10, but aside from Ironic Hipsters, how many people do you know that recognize that song, let alone They Might Be Giants.
Sometimes it’s cool knowing about a song that no one else has heard of yet. I saw David Gray perform Babylon right before it exploded, and that night, it didn’t seem like there was any way possible it would be a monster hit.
I hope everyone will hear and love The Vaccines Wrecking Bar, partly because it’s a great song, and partly because then I’ll be so much cooler for hearing them first!

But the songs that stick with me after the “Breakfast at Tiffanys” and “Tub Thumbings” have faded away into “whatever happened to…” status, are ones that make a point – Neil Young – Rockin in the Free World (great hook, good lyrics, strong statement) or Paul Simon Spirit Voices which gets me every time, especially at the bridge.

You may think I’m full of it, and that every song I’ve singled out is crap. You may have your own list that has nothing to do with mine, filled with Trance and Industrial and other sounds I really don’t like.
But if we put our lists side by side and described what it was about those songs that moved us, that made us think they were great, we would probably both be saying the same thing – we are emotionally invested in them, because they make us feel something. They make us angry, or they inspire us, or they let us let it all out and forget our problems and lose ourselves in the moment.

Isn’t that what makes a song great?