Monday, June 21, 2010

How to Come Up with an Idea for a Song - How Do You Approach the Blank Page?

As songwriters we have all been there - we sit down to write some new lyrics as the basis for a new song, but then draw a blank. How do you get around this readers? It seems as though that first verse or chorus is the hardest to write. Here are ways that I use to get the creative flow started.

1. Come up with a story to tell. The song "Heartbreak Hotel", written by Tommy Durden and Mae Borden Axeton, was inspired by a news story about a man who committed suicide. In the man's pocket was a note that read "I walk a lonely street." Tommy Durden came up with the lyrics. He said that he imagined the lonely man checking into a hotel frequented by those lonely broken hearts and this was the basis of the song. I once used an illustration from a tarot card deck as the starting point for a story.

2. Try changing your chord progressions, tuning your guitar to an alternate tuning, or adding chord color variations. New sounds can help you break out of the same old associations and evoke different moods that can inspire feelings and words inspired by such feelings.

3. A friend of mine says he often thinks of the title of a song first and then goes from there. I have written songs based on a memorable expression or a clever line - often something that has an element of humor.

These are just some of the strategies I employ. What are yours?

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Police v. The Clash – Songwriters Match Up #8

Two eighties supergroups vie for this week's songwriters match up. Both groups revitalized rock with a fresh infusion of diverse musical influences - among the first major white bands to have a sound that incorporated ska and reggae. With the exception of the U.K., ska and reggae were little known in the United States. The Police were more of a new-wave band and The Clash was defintely more punk, although The Police was also punk influenced.


Lyrics - Ten Points

Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were The Clash's principle lyricists. The lyrics they wrote were classic punk - angry, political and powerful. Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner (Sting) wrote most of the lyrics for the Police. Sting had a two-year stint teaching English literature at St. Paul's Middle School, and his lyrics are noted for their literary quality. This is so close - in keeping with my new system of awarding points, I'm going to have to call this a draw. The Police are more lyrical, The Clash more anthemic. Five points each.

Composition - Ten Points

Both bands wrote more adventurous compositions over time. The Police's later albums, A Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity featured layered synthesizer tracks. The Clash combined elements from folk, blues, disco and even choral arrangements in some of their recordings - violins, marimbas, saxophone, harmonica, xylophone, among the instruments heard on these albums, and lots of sampled effects can be heard on Combat Rock and on Sandinista. I am giving this category to The Clash because I believe they were more daring and unpredictable. Six points for The Clash, four points for The Police.

Originality - Five Points

As noted in the introduction, both bands were innovators - both were among the first white bands to be heavily reggae and ska influenced. I think you could argue that The Police developed a more original sound due to the superb guitar work of Andy Summers and Sting's vocal styling. I'm awarding The Police three points here and The Clash two. Another close call.

Influence - Five Points

Though both bands certainly did have influence, The Clash had more in my opinion, especially on white ska-punk bands that followed such as Rancid, Sublime and No Doubt. I think this is so because The Clash's greater dose of punk. The Clash are the winners here three points to two points.

Durability - Five Points

I believe that The Police have the edge here. Their songs are less about events that were transpiring around a specific period history - the cold war, revolution in South America, etc. Also being not so heavily identified with punk makes it easier to transcend the late seventies and eighties. So this category goes to The Police by three points to two points.

Conclusion - We have a draw, 17 points for each band. I was leaning towards The Police as better songwriters at the beginning of this match up, but based upon my criteria, The Clash managed to close the gap.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bad Decisions, Short Sided Outlook Crippled the Recording Industry

Randy forwarded me a link to a very good blog post this morning. The title of the post is "Four Mistakes That Killed the Record Indstry (sic) Before File Sharing" posted by blogger Jeff Balke. The four mistakes listed in the post are:

1. CD Sales are not the same as record sales

2. Longevity trumps the flavor of the week

3. Destroying the Chain of Distribution is Death

4. Killing the D.J.

I don't want to steal the author's thunder, so I'll post a link to his blog post so that you can read the complete post:

Four Mistakes that Killed the Record Industry

Corporations are the root of a lot of evil - from BP and the calamity in the gulf of Mexico, to the banking industry, and as described in the article, the entertainment industry. The whole philosophy of always having to earn short term profits to pay out dividends to stock holders tends to encourage short-sided policy that hurts business and society in the long term. And they also bring out the worst in people by rewarding excessive greed and ruthlessness. OK time to come down off of my soapbox.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Pete Townsend v. Eric Clapton – Songwriters Match Up #7

After a one week hiatus, I'm back with the latest songwriter match up between two classic rock guitar gods – Pete Townsend v. Eric Clapton. Who will come out on top as the best songwriter? This weeks match up will differ from my earlier match ups in that I am changing the way I award points for each section – from now on the point total will be split among the two contestants instead of the way I have been awarding points where the winner takes all. I think that this will help make the scoring a little more accurate.

Lyrics (Ten Points)

Both Clapton and Townsend wrote great lyrics, and their works include some of the most memorable rock music ever written. But Pete Townsend, as the dominant creative force of The Who was more of a trailblazer – his best songs were right in step with the turbulent times in which they were written – the sixties and seventies, a time of heightened generational tensions. Rebellious youth embraced the energy and driving force of songs such as Substitute, My Generation, The Kids Are Alright as well as the ground breaking rock operas, Tommy and Quadrophenia. Eric Clapton's songs are written from more of a personal perspective, often that of the tortured artist and lover such as Layla (written about George Harrison's wife Patty Boyd who at the time spurned his advances). Clapton was not the primary lyricist of many of the great bands to which he had belonged (and there were many great bands – The Yardbirds, The Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith just to name a few). It took several years for Clapton to move from being guitarist to solo artist and songwriter. He didn't really contribute lyrics as a member of The Yardbirds and Jack Bruce and Peter Brown collaborated to write the lyrics for most of Cream's biggest hits (with the notable exception of Badge written by Clapton and Beatle George Harrison). It wasn't until his work with Derek and the Dominoes that Clapton really started to make his mark as a lyricist with classic rock hits such as Layla and Bell Bottom Blues. Clapton's work is heavily influenced by the blues. Townsend's songs drew from a wider variety of sources. I'm going to award this category to Pete Townsend – although his lyrics were more Pop in general than Clapton's, they are generally more imaginative. Pete Townsend gets the nod – 6 points to 4 points for Eric Clapton.

Composition (Ten Points)

This category definitely belongs to Pete Townsend. His studio work on albums such as Quadrophenia and Tommy is inspiring and more complex than any of Clapton's work that I know of. Then there is the innovative use of the synthesizer on Won't Get Fooled Again and Baba O'Reilly. While overall Clapton may arguably rank above Townsend as a guitarist, his songwriting sensibilities were less groundbreaking and more traditional. Pete Townsend is again the winner, 8 points to 2 points for Eric Clapton.

Originality (Five Points)

Eric Clapton was much more of a traditional blues disciple than Pete Townsend (one of the reasons he left The Yardbirds was because he felt they were getting further and further from their blues roots). His songs were usaully about fairly common topics such as unrequited love and love gone wrong. In more recent years he has broadened his depth as a songwriter with hits such as Tears in Heaven about the tragic accidental death of his son. Pete Townsend was capable of truly weird songs – the whole Pinball Wizard story and earlier songs such as I'm a Boy about a boy trying to retain his sexual identity despite the efforts of a perverse parent who dresses him as a girl are testament to this. I have to go with Pete Townsend here again 3 points to Clapton's 2 points.

Influence (Five Points)

While both Townsend and Clapton were hugely influential, I think that Eric Clapton as a member of several of classic rocks greatest bands as well as a highly successful solo career should be awarded this category. When you think of classic rock guitar sound who comes to mind? Surely Clapton and Hendrix would have to be at the top of the list. As part of Cream, Clapton took improvised extended jams to the extreme, influencing a number of progressive rock and jam bands that would follow. Townsend's biggest influence I believe was the rock opera concept. I think Clapton gets the nod here by a narrow margin – 3 points Clapton, 2 points Pete Townsend.

Durability (Five Points)

It seems as though Eric Clapton has been more successful commercially in more recent years – Pete Townsend's battle with Tinnitus may by partially to blame for a reduced amount of artistic output over time. This lessens the chance that Eric Clapton's work as a whole gets too stale or sounds too dated. Both of these guys will continue to attract new fans for decades because they are both so good. By a narrow margin I am awarding this category to Eric Clapton – 3 points Clapton, 2 points Pete Townsend.

Conclusion – this week's winner is Pete Townsend by a margin of 21 points to 10 points. It is quite an accomplishment to defeat GOD!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Cartersville Songwriters Exchange First Meeting at the City Loft

On Wednesday, The Cartersville Songwriters Exchange met for the first time at The City Loft in historic downtown Cartersville. The owners are very supportive of us and we were waited upon beforehand and had a chance to order some delicious food and drink from The City Cellar, the adjoining restaurant. The founder of the group, Randy Owens, and promoter Chris Hereth addressed us and laid out their plans on how the CSE would be run from this point forward including membership classes, how meetings would be conducted, plans for events featuring open mic competitions and a quarterly showcase. The hope is to generate interest from the music industry as well as to capture the attention of the potential fans of original music in Cartersville and the surrounding area. Afterward, all songwriters present had the opportunity to perform and the option of whether or not to be critiqued. New members Allen Hicks and Jeffrey Putnam performed and we were all impressed with their original material. Allen and Jeffrey perform occasionally in Nashville at The Commodore. They seemed enthusiastic about joining and said they were planning on attending future meetings whenever they could. Other songwriters in attendance were Denise Barker and Billy Owens as well as the usual suspects - myself, Randy Owens and EZ Powell. EZ and Randy provided PA's, mikes and a mixer so much thanks for that! I was getting so used to performing in a purely acoustic setting I was a little unaccustomed to plugging into an amp again. EZ joined me on bass when I performed my set and I got a chance to play harmonica during EZ's set as well as with The Owens Brothers. I am looking forward to next Wednesday's meeting.
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