Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers

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Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers

Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: This book is based on a column from the Wall Street Journal, with forty-five songs from the years 1952 to 1991 examined through interviews with the artists, songwriters and others who created them. Though there are some obvious omissions (no Beatles, Dylan, or Springsteen, for example), and an inbuilt bias towards the American songbook with only eight British groups or singers are included, there is a good cross-section of genres represented with some less obvious choices alongside the better-known.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: November 2016
Publisher: Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802125590

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This book developed from a series of columns from the Wall Street Journal over a period of five years, in which forty-five songs (what an appropriate number) from the years 1952 to 1991 were put under the microscope and examined through interviews with the artists, songwriters and others who created them.

A few major acts are not represented at all, maybe because any suitable interviewees were off limits, and any reader will inevitably compile their own shortlist of omissions. For example, we have nothing by The Beatles, Beach Boys, Who, Bowie, Dylan, Paul Simon or Springsteen. Nevertheless, the selection provides a good spread across different fields – pop, rock, reggae, country and everything else - even if there is a heavily inbuilt bias towards the American songbook with only eight British groups, singers and writers or writing teams included.

You will probably have known some of the songs here off by heart for years – but how much did you know about their origins, or the creative processes that went into making them such definitive oldies? There is little more to say other than the basic routines of writing, arrangement and production which went into the processes behind hits of the 1950s, of which three comprise the opening chapters of this book, the first being Lloyd Price's 1952 rock'n'roll standard, Lawdy Miss Clawdy. But later on, singers and musicians learned to refine their technique. In the case of the group behind the first British record featured, The Kinks' You Really Got Me, they went the other way by roughening the sound up with power guitar chords and distortion – not to mention punching a few holes in the speaker with a knitting needle (every rock guitarist should have one) - in order to get away from the more polished product that most of their peers were after. As we know, it succeeded perfectly, and two flops were followed by a No. 1 single that is regarded as one of the godfathers of hard rock.

By the late 1960s, more and more groups and singers were pushing the boundaries out further, both lyrically and musically. Revelations about the care that went into the arrangement of The Four Tops' Reach Out, I'll Be There, which the quartet originally begged Motown Records not to issue as a single, and psychedelic classics like The Doors' Light My Fire and Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit, make compulsive reading for any music lover. And I was intrigued to learn that the introductory guitar chords to Creedence Clearwater Revival's Proud Mary were based on the opening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, though writer and group leader John Fogerty said he 'didn't like how Beethoven had composed it'. It's a bit late to complain, John.

The chapters span all genres of music, and look at some less obvious choices alongside the better-known. Everyone of a certain age is familiar with Blondie's Heart of Glass and Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall, but it is enterprising to find the not so well-known Stevie Wonder number Love's in Need of Love Today and The Rolling Stones' Moonlight Mile both given some attention. Mick Jagger supplies some insights into the latter, while earlier in the book Keith Richards discusses the nuts and bolts of Street Fighting Man. From the endearing singalong folk-rock of Rod Stewart's timeless Maggie May and the punk of the Clash's London Calling to the early disco-era favourite Rock the Boat by The Hues Corporation, alongside autobiographical singer-songwriter classics like Joni Mitchell's Carey and Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time, to say nothing of hits by Jimmy Cliff, Aerosmith, Elvis Costello and REM, there is a very comprehensive trawl through the decades to be found in these pages.

For further reading and a detailed look at the work of three very different songsmiths not represented, we also recommend Ginger Geezer: The Life of Vivian Stanshall by Chris Welch and Lucian Randall, The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie And The 1970s by Peter Doggett, and Still on the Road: Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2008 by Clinton Heylin.

Buy Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers at Amazon.com.


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