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How do you write the perfect pop song?

Published: Thu January 29, 2009  News Feed

From Jarvis Cocker to Donovan, stars tell the stories behind their hits - and why musical ability is over-rated!

Jarvis Cocker

Jarvis Cocker: You don't have to be a great musician to write great songs!

[from The Guardian] By his own admission, Jarvis Cocker isn't the world's greatest musician. He can't read music, nor does he have any knowledge of formal composition. And, while we're on the subject, he's not a particularly gifted singer. "My mother is tone deaf," he says. Yet, alongside these apparent drawbacks to a career in music, he has an ability few possess: he writes brilliant pop songs.

What makes the perfect pop song? That's the question I've been putting to British songwriters, including Cocker, for a TV series I've been making. I've talked to household names who have fallen out of critical favour (Phil Collins, Mick Hucknall); songwriters to the stars (Albert Hammond, responsible for such standards as The Air That I Breathe and When I Need You); and singers resentful of the success they had with their old bands (Hugh Cornwell, formerly of the Stranglers, who almost stormed out of our interview after one question too many about the punk years).

So how do you write a classic hit? The only thing everyone agrees on is this: nobody has a bloody clue.

"It helps to be in tune," says 1960s pop minstrel Donovan. "And to be able to count to four. A lot of songwriters don't know how to count to four."

"I take a Dictaphone everywhere I go in case I have an idea," says David Gray, the million-selling author of Babylon. "Once you've captured an idea, the song builds up from that."

For Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch, songwriting is not a choice, but a therapeutic necessity. "When I'm not writing songs, it's cryptic crosswords and Countdown on the telly. Everything gets a bit fuzzy, a bit bleak."

A pop song does, however, follow certain rules. It is generally around three to four minutes, has a verse and a chorus, and uses a bed of chords to support a melody, with words that convey some sort of sentiment that an audience can relate to. Most of the songwriters I spoke to start with a melody. But these rules only serve to get a song written in the first place. They do nothing to give it the rare magic that great pop possesses.

For Cocker, the key to writing successful songs is not to aim for lofty artistic heights, but to look at what's around you. "I fell out of a window and was in hospital for a while," he says, on the formation of a technique whereby he uses local detail and observation to write songs that have the descriptive power of good fiction. "I was sitting in a convalescent ward with all these miners, and I realised that there was more material in looking down at the ground than up at the stars."

Such an ethos produced Joyriders, from Pulp's 1994 album His'n'Hers. Soon after getting out of hospital, Cocker was driving outside Sheffield one night when his Hillman Imp broke down. "These kids came up in a posh car," he says. "They were only about 15 so I didn't think it was theirs. I thought I was going to get mugged, but they were very nice, driving me to the nearest station and giving me chocolate limes, which I'm sure just happened to be in the car when they nicked it."

Real incidents do seem to form the seed of many classic pop songs. Just as there really was a rich Greek girl at St Martin's College, who inspired Pulp's 1995 anthem Common People, so all the international hits written by Albert Hammond come from the songwriter's own life. The son of a fireman, British-born Hammond grew up in Gibraltar but came back to London in the late 1960s to make it, supporting his young family by working at a shoe polish factory by day and washing dishes by night. He finally had a hit in 1972, with It Never Rains in Southern California - a song that had nothing to do with US weather, but rather hard times in Europe.

"It was written on a piano on a rainy day in Fulham," says Hammond. "There's a line, 'Will you tell the folks back home I nearly made it/ Please don't tell them how you found me' - that was based on the time I was actually begging in Madrid. I bumped into my cousin, who was on honeymoon there, and I pleaded with him not to tell my dad about seeing me begging. But he told him anyway."

But a pop song also needs a hook, a melodic idea or motif that won't let the listener go. Take the sad, lilting hook to Hammond's When I Need You, a No 1 for Leo Sayer in 1977. However crassly sentimental the song may seem, there's an emotion in the melody that digs in. "You have to have it in you," says Hammond on creating hits. "I wouldn't know where to start teaching somebody else. I can hardly play an instrument. I don't even know the names of the chords. I just know that my songs have an emotional story behind them and that comes out in the music."

Actually, a lack of musical knowledge seems to help.

The Beatles

The Beatles: better if they were better musicians? Not likely...

Italian movie soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone once said the Beatles would have been a lot better had they studied classical composition, but judging by the paucity of great pop songwriters emerging from the classical world, it seems unlikely. Mick Hucknall wrote arguably his best song, Holding Back the Years, one afternoon in his bedroom at the age of 16, when he had only learned to play two chords - E and A - on a guitar. "I lifted a finger off the A to create some other kind of chord," he says. "It sure sounded pretty and soon these words came out. The song took under an hour to write."

For all Hammond's assertion that songwriting comes from within, there are cases when a cataclysmic event (a divorce, say) can spur a hitherto non-songwriting type (a drummer, perhaps) into action. Phil Collins spent close to a decade in Genesis before he started writing songs in 1978, to fill the void created by the collapse of his marriage: "My wife had gone. My two children had gone. My two dogs had gone. I had nothing to do. So I started to fool around on the piano and write these messages to the ex-wife. You know - if she hears this, she'll understand how hurt I am. Funnily enough, the original lyrics were written on the back of the decorator's notepaper - who ran away with the wife." So why does Collins still write songs, given that his divorce was long ago? "Three divorces, mate. Three," he replies, holding up that many fingers.

Given that pop songwriting appears to be something that can't be taught, what advice can these grand practitioners of the mysterious art give? Perhaps the best insight of all came from Cocker. "The beauty of songwriting is that any human being can do it," he says. "And they learned how to do it their way. One minute someone was sitting in the living room, having a cup of coffee. The next they picked up the guitar and wrote something from nothing. That's a miraculous event. That's what keeps me going".

Songwriters essential gear:

Acoustic Guitar

Portable Recorder

... and some inspiration!

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