Song Development: Collaboration

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We start each of these blogs with the same point:  we write these not because we’re good at any of these, but rather because were students of all things music.  As we learn, we share.  We hope you’ll continue to do the same, as well.  This is a little blog about collaboration in song development…

Collaborations – examples, types and our lessons learned.   Short and Cheerful.

A. Examples:  Let’s start with some great example of songwriting collaborations:

    1. The Beatles:     There’s a nice collection of examples of L-M’s collaborations, I found at Curvature.   Little items are fun:  McCartney’s bass on Lennon’s Come Together, or Lennon’s contribution of ‘I Love You, I Love You, I Love You’ on McCartney’s Michele.  Or Lennon demanding that McCartney keep ‘The world is on your shoulder’ in Hey Jude.  Best to read that blog, but here’s a little summary of my top 2:
        1. We Can Work it Out:  Paul’s song about a fight, but beautifully Paul – bubbly, sweet. Even in a fight things are going to be okay.  But Lennon adds something extraordinary, switching the rhythm from 4/4 to 4/3, taking over the vocal and assert that life is short, to fight is a crime and he’s going to ask her only one more time to work it out.   A bit of darkness clouds Paul’s song.  And it is perfect.


        1. A Day in the Life:  This is the work of three men at the top of their game.  Lennon’s song completely…initially.  The verses were constructed from various newspaper articles of the day and heavily influenced by drug references.   There’s the heir to Guinness fortune, Tara Browne dying in a car accident and an article about filling potholes in Blackpool – which led to ‘how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.’  And there’s ‘I’d love to turn you on’, referencing Tim Leary’s movement.   All dark, all Lennon – cynical, desparate, dis-enfranchised, mocking.   But he struggled with the mono-tonal nature of the song and wanted a break.  Enter McCartney – he kept fragment books filled with little pieces of songs. Some were from his youth, about smoking, about commuting.   The fragment he offer to John was about a commuter rushing through his routine only to have a smoke and fall into a dream.  Perfect.  Now the cynical observer is one of us, a bloke who runs a comb thru his hair to catch a  bus.  And finally, there’s George Martin, who has to tie all this together.  The song is Lennon, then a long transition point of McCartney, then a long transition to end.  Martin’s fills these with an orchestra who he guides through a chaotic rush from from a low e major through rough stage gates up the scales to the light piano in Part One leading to Paul’s bit. In Part II it leads to ‘The Chord.’  And the chord defines the song – does it evoke ‘the final day’, ‘time to sleep’ or what?  (Personally, I’m for ‘or what?’ which is this is what you can do after you smoke a little pot and paid an orchestra £367 for the day — massive amounts at the time.)

    2. Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook (Squeeze):  Often cited as the heirs to Lennon-McCartney, Difford (lyrics) and Tillbrook (music)led Squeeze and created some fantastic music together.  Theirs was always a pure partnership, and they viewed themselves as traditional song-writers, one with lyrics, one with music, working together for 3 decades.   It took a lot of digging to find discussions of how these two wrote.  But they are similar to Elton John and Bernie Topin.  Chris writes the lyrics as poems, seldom with a tune in his head.    He typically gives a set of 20-30 lyrics to Glenn, who said he learned to always have a piano or guitar with him when he read the lyrics.   He then ‘reacts’ as though he’s working on a cover and tries to find the music and tune.  Glenn is of the perspiration school and unlike Dylan (‘If he doesn’t happen in the first two hours, abandon the song”), will work for weeks on one song, likening it to a sculpture that you have to keep chipping at the edges.   They describe writing my two favourites – Pulling Muscles and Another Nail.   Chris wrote Pulling Muscles about his holidays as a kids, trying to evoke some early Kinks songs.  Glenn remembers getting both the same week, and aided by a bit of weed, wrote through the evenings in a very small apartment…from a     My two favourites:

B.  Types:  In terms of collaborating during early song-writing, there are five major types:

  1. Nose to Nose:  This is early Beatles.  Two artists, facing each other, writing songs together.    Few others have done so much noses to nose and John and Paul.
  2. Divide and Conquer:   One guy takes lyrics, the others music.   This is Difford and Tillbrook.  This is Elton John and Bernie Taupin.
  3. Mix and Match:  This is Lennon and McCartney with Day in the Life or We Can Work it Out.
  4. Cherry on the Top:  This is McCarntey with the bass on Come Together.  The cake has been made but it needs the embellishments.
  5. Sausage Making:  This is the whole band working together, where it is a bit hard to know who did what.  Surprisingly, Coldplay does a lot of saugage making (surprising to me, as I thought Chris Martin arrived with finished songs).

At Abubilla Music we do a lot of Sausage Making (e.g. No Bells)  and Dividing and Conquering (e.g., Breathe).    And we’ve learned a few lessons that might be helpful:

    1. Pay Attention to Rob’s ‘Something Smells Expression:’   The first part about good collaboration in songwriting is about all the bad songs that have never been written. There’s not a lot of talk about this, but it is by far the biggeest contribution of your band or mate.  To tell you the stuff is rubbish.  In our little community we have only a couple folks who say something is actually rubbish (which is good because it hurts a bit), but we have Rob’s facial expressions.  Basically, he’s the best rubbish meter in the band, and as you play all you need to do is look over.  If he’s making a face that seems like one of the Dog’s might have been playing with the woofer, than you pretty much know it is bad.  We now call it ‘Rob smells something.’  We can all do it.  It is a nice way to stop a lot of rubbish going forward.   We’re pretty sure Paul and John had ‘something smells bad expressions.’  We just don’t know because those songs were never finished.
    2. Let Your Ed’s have their Ed Moments:   The second part of good collaboration is to let you each other experiment and try something.  You have to assume a 90% failure rate, but you keep trying – and every once in a while (well about 10% of the time if my math works) you get something good.  Paul brought in a clear plastic bag of tapes that he had cut up and wanted to be respliced and used for Tomorrow Never Knows to support John.  It worked.   Ed suggested the sound of  water pouring between pans for one of our songs.  It was ridiculous.  But Ed keeps adding ideas and a bunch of them work – like the trumpets in Footprints.    Martyn made us do a song about Mah Knees.  And Hunter suggested he’d to the video.  And we got this:

    1. Get alone time, as little pairs, go off for a cuddle:  Often, collaboration is really about two folks working together.    Sometimes, it is better for two folks to go and have some ‘nose to nose’ moments to get the song to work.   Jagger and Richards were locked in a room to get a couple songs done.   We’ve found that some of our best collaboration occurs when everyone pairs off in the villa just working on songs together.     Jimmy and Ed wrote Depth Perception on the steps of the Spanish Studio – they weren’t allowed in because Andy, Gus and Sophie were making sausages with Whisper.   Andy and Rob invested time together to get Breathe right.     They figured out with the Ark to go in pairs – they must have been on to something.

  1. Newton’s law of musical karma.   There’s a pretty importatn rule in collaboration.  You can’t just be the destroyer.  in fact, you need to create something for everything you destroy.  It is good and vital that folks stop others from making rubbish.  But if you have to keep the karma balance right – every act of destruction must be met within 24 hours with an equal and opposite act of creation.  Bands start to notice folks that are only destroyers.     We call this Newton’s law of musical karma.  Well ‘we’ don’t.  Jimmy does.  And the band thinks it is a rubbish thought.  He’s still waiting for their creative input.   Newton’s law of musical karma.

And that’s enough about collaboration.  It has been so hard to write this alone.


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