Song Man: A Melodic Adventure, or My Single-minded Approach to Songwriting by Will Hodgkinson
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|Song Man: A Melodic Adventure, or My Single-minded Approach to Songwriting by Will Hodgkinson|
|Reviewer: Paul Harrop|
|Summary: Armed with a horrible voice and scant musical knowledge, journalist Will Hodgkinson seeks to discover how to write and record a song which, if not guaranteeing him fame, at least won't embarrass his kids.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: June 2007|
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC|
When watching a TV documentary, I'll routinely grumble "this'd be better on the radio", so unedifying is the visual content. It's rare that a book will elicit a similar comment, but while reading Song Man I longed to hear, or even see, what was being described.
Being partly an account of the songwriting process, the book inevitably lacks arguably the most important aspect of that art: the music. Which means we're often left with Will Hodgkinson's dodgy lyrics. Mercifully his prose style is far more sophisticated.
He also redeems himself with some first-class music journalism. It's the wisdom he extracts from some of the best practitioners of the trade that make this book more than yet another high-concept comedy quest (à la Tony Hawks's One Hit Wonderland).
Having chronicled his struggle to master the guitar at the age of 34 in his previous book Guitar Man, Hodgkinson here takes the process to the next level: to preserve some of his compositions for posterity in the form of a vinyl single. His slightly ironic hope is that future generations will discover it as a lost classic.
But first he has to write the songs. It's not as easy as it seems. His only excursion into the genre is called Mystery Fox. His voice is, he confesses "horrible". It's not a promising start. But he has various more musical friends; his long-suffering wife has a passable set of pipes. Thanks to his trade as a journalist writing for The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, as well as the music magazine Mojo, he also has access to the PRs of some of the biggest names in songwriting.
His roster of tutors is impressive: Keith Richards; Hal David; Andrew Lloyd Webber. He even coaxes revealing comments from the notoriously taciturn Ray Davies. As, if not more, enlightening are the revelations of more cultish or maverick denizens of Tin-Pan Alley: Andy Partridge; Lawrence Heyward; Cat Power; Arthur Lee.
But I thought the most useful revelations came from his friend Mara Carlyle. As a professional singer, she makes some of the more thought-provoking points. For instance, some vowel sounds are apparently easier to sing than others at certain pitches. His other interviewees try, with varying degrees of patience, to provide similarly practical advice to steer Will in the right direction.
As with any art form, the source of a song will always be almost impossible to pinpoint. None of the other artistes can come much closer than citing divine inspiration, not that you'd really expect them to. But they do provide useful reinforcement of what Will already knew: that the best songs are simple, as well as some elementary tips - like the importance of providing a discernible melody for a singer to follow.
Armed with such advice, Will drags his less-than-willing songwriting partner Doyle off to the Hebridean Isle of Eigg in the hope that rural isolation will provide the spark of inspiration lacking thus far. Apart from ensuring entertaining encounters with various island eccentrics, this episode does little to boost Will's confidence that the forthcoming recording session will be anything but a disaster.
Song Manwill undoubtedly appeal to anyone with more than a passing interest in the popular songs of the last 50 years. It may well disillusion those who grew up admiring the wordy likes of Elvis Costello or Peter Gabriel: it repeatedly emerges that lyrics are nearly always secondary.
The book also nails the idealistic notion that a great song must convey earth-shattering profundities - look no further than Louie Louie or Wild Thing (its writer Chip Taylor is interviewed). Nor is musical knowledge a prerequisite: we're reminded that many classic compositions have come from those who wouldn't know an E flat minor-seventh if it punched them in the ear.
As a chronicle of the songwriting process, Song Man is less strong. His interviewees often rightly imply that Will is simply going about it the wrong way; his motives are equally suspect too, although this does serve to avoid any textbook earnestness. I was also unsure whether Will's songwords were meant to inspire admiration or amusement. Even the best lyrics can look banal on the page; Hodgkinson's are no exception. The reader cries out to hear them in context. (Although Hodgkinson claims to have posted the songs on MySpace, I couldn't find them.)
Nevertheless it is a worthwhile, witty, honest book. It provides several genuinely revealing takes on songwriting which certainly had never occurred to me. As such, it is almost guaranteed to send you back to your music collection - whether that be Burt Bacharach or Lou Reed - with a renewed appreciation of the songwriter's craft. And that's got to be a wonderful thing.
For a professional's perspective on the record industry, you might enjoy Tony Visconti: the Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy
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You can read more book reviews or buy Song Man: A Melodic Adventure, or My Single-minded Approach to Songwriting by Will Hodgkinson at Amazon.com.
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Ian Williams said:
I didn't know of the existence of Bill Hodgkinson's Song Man until it mysteriously came to hand at my local public library. I'm a believer in Jung's theory of synchronicity, and as a yet unpublished (but not unperformed) songwriter who can't play any musical instrument beyond learner level. I enjoyed his book from that perspective, e.g. how the heck do you write a song that might make you immortal when you're not an especially competent musician?
So my thoughts as I read Song Man centred around an interest in discovering the secrets of successful songwriters, rather than the possibility that Hodgy might actually write and sing a decent song. The latter excercise is really the coathanger for him to hang a fascinating collection of anecdotes which highlight his excellence as a storyteller. How lucky he is to have more than one string to his bow.
Ian Williams Dunedin New Zealand