I have always been interested in understanding how great songs, or more generally great ideas, come about. There is a tendency to believe that great songs and ideas spring to life, fully formed, but I know that this is not true.
For those that might be interested there are a number of great business books on this topic. I highly recommend:
Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hitzik
The latter, one of my favorite books ever, captures the story of how most of the computer innovations that we take for granted today (Graphical User Interfaces, the mouse, and Ethernet among others) came about as part of the Xerox PARC project.
Bringing this post back to topic of music lets travel back in time to the mid-1970s. Bruce Springsteen is hard at work on a follow-up to Born to Run. He has lots of ideas, all at different stages of development. Some don’t have real lyrics yet or even titles. Even so, he and the E-Street band are putting them all on tape. Lets take a listen to a couple of them.
The Fast Song
The second of these songs immediately catches everyone’s attention in the studio. It doesn’t have a real title yet but everyone calls it The Fast Song. The bones of the song are strong but Bruce is not happy with the lyrics other than some towards the end:
“She has men who’ll bring her anything she wants but they don’t know that what she wants is me”
Unfortunately there isn’t a story to support these lyrics. Who is this girl?
The first song is slow, some might say plodding, but it appears to have some personal meaning for Bruce so he keeps working on it. It is tentatively called Candy’s Boy. The lyrics hint at a back-story that is left untold but everyone fills in the gaps with their own interpretation:
“To get to Candy’s room you have to walk the darkness of Candy’s hall. Strange men from the city call Candy’s number and bring Candy toys but when I come knocking she smiles pretty…”
At some point Bruce has a peanut butter and chocolate moment, if you will, with these two songs. “Hey…lets take the beginning lyric from the slow Candy’s Boy and make it work in that Fast Song that everyone likes.” Boom! The magic happens and an incredible new song called Candy’s Room is born. Take a listen
Now..lets be truthful. I don’t have any idea if this is the way things actually happened but I do have some evidence in the form of the demos provided above. I think my interpretation of the evidence might be the way it really happened but, as always, let me know what you think.
This is the first of what is planned as a continuing series of posts. Although we all go to concerts for the music, some of the best moments are the stories that get told between songs. If you have ever been lucky enough to go to a Bruce Springsteen concert you know what I am talking about.
What I have for you today is something from my personal stash. It captures Neil Young in a 1974 concert at the Bitter End. In this piece he talks about why he quit playing Southern Man AND tells you how to make honey sliders. This is good stuff. As always let me know what you think.
Today we have a real treat for you. First Aid Kit is a Swedish duo consisting of two sisters. This video is from their new, soon to be released album. I am really looking forward to this one. I am a sucker for “blood harmony”.
You probably guess it already but in case you didn’t the video was filmed in Joshua Tree National Park. Let me know if you don’t get the connection.
In case you missed it, checkout this First Aid Kit of Fleet Foxes’ Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.
This is great stuff. As always, let me know what you think?
So….any opinions on the question I posed in the last post? Let’s provide some more background information in the form of a story and see if the answer becomes any clearer.
It’s 1973, the height of the singer/songwriter era, and you have just released your first album called Aquashow on the Polydor label. The headline for the Aquashow review in Rolling Stone magazine is: “He’s the Best Dylan Since 1968”. Here, let’s take a listen.
Great news? Nope….you are officially fucked because you have just been hit with the “Dylan comparison”.
But wait, you aren’t alone. Another young singer/songwriter name Bruce Springsteen has also recently been hit with the same comparison in the April 26, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone in an article titled “Bruce Springsteen: It’s Sign Up a Genius Month”. To quote the first paragraph of the article:
“It’s more than a decade since John Hammond Sr. of Columbia Records signed Bob Dylan to a recording contract. Since then, Hammond has signed a number of other successes and, by his own admission, a number of “stiffs”. Now he has signed Bruce Springsteen, 23, of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Hammond says. “He’s much further along, much more developed than Bobby was when he came to me.”
As it turns out, despite all of the critical acclaim, neither your first album nor Bruce’s first album has significant commercial success. Strike one
Move ahead to your and Bruce’s second albums (Lost Generation and The Wild, the Innocent, and E Street Shuffle). For this album you decide to jump to RCA, perhaps with the hope that they will promote you better. Bruce sticks with Columbia. To quote Paul Nelson’s Rolling Stone review for Lost Generation,
“Elliott Murphy’s first album, Aquashow (Polder), released 18 months ago, showed exceptional promise and intelligence, prompting many, myself included, to ready a place in the higher echelons of rock & roll for the talented Long Islander. Now after a lengthy season of hard times – new label, new manager, new producer – Murphy returns to stand, deliver, and collect. On Lost Generation, a brilliant but extraordinarily difficult LP, the artist is hurt, angry and confused by the shifting role of the hero in modern times and the growing division between intoxicating myth and sobering reality in his personal and public lives.”
Wow, commercial success seems to be a certainty, but once again, your hopes are dashed. Bruce’s fate with The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle is similar. Strike two
You and Bruce both recognize that your careers are behind with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. It is time to swing for the fences or go home. For brevity we will skip the story of Bruce’s third record here especially since everyone already knows it. Bruce did swing for the fence and produced Born To Run, an absolutely stunning album. Rolling Stone ranked Born to run as the 18th best album of all time, it was a huge commercial success, and Bruce’s was launched into superstardom.
You also took your best shot with your third album, Night Lights, but its receptions by critics and listeners was mixed. Dave Marsh’s review of Night Lights in Rolling Stone touched on what he considered to be a key difference between you and Bruce,
“In 1973 and 1974 it seemed to many of us in New York that it was a tossup whether Bruce Springsteen, the native poet of the mean streets, or Elliott Murphy, the slumming suburbanite with the ironic eye, would be come a national hero first. Well we all know how that turned out, and while Murphy must be almost as sick of being compared to Springsteen as to Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, their careers have such interesting parallels that it is almost unavoidable.
The crucial difference is that Springsteen’s genius was first perceived as lyrical and turned out to be musical, while it was Murphy’s music that was originally found compelling even though his literary qualities have come to dominate.”
The only positive in Marsh’s review had to do with the first song in the album named Diamonds by the Yard. Marsh noted: “Diamonds by the Yard is such a complete success as a spooky post-Velvet Underground mood piece that it would be a mistake to write off Murphy’s career. “ This ended up being a very insightful comment since Diamonds by the Yard became a cult hit…in France, as the album bombed in the US like your first two. It was indeed too early write off your career as you later decided to move to France where you have had a “successful” European career ever since. Just A Story From America indeed.
Before we leave this story let’s once again revisit the question that was posted in the previous post. I think that some of the answers are highlighted in the background details provided above. Elliott’s music did indeed focus on literary themes as highlighted by Dave Marsh and it was indeed difficult as highlighted by Paul Nelson, too much so, in both cases, for the typical American listener. As in many cases, a genius is not appreciated in his own time or in his own homeland. Jerry Lewis….anyone?
As an epilogue, it is worth noting that Elliott produced Just a Story From America, which many consider to be his masterpiece, as his forth album after switching to Columbia. It was too late to resurrect his US career but it is indeed a wonderful album.
If this post has made you interested enough to explore Elliott’s music as captured in his first four albums, I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that all of these albums are out of print and unavailable at any reasonable price. A quick scan of Amazon indicates that your best option might be a greatest hits CD named Diamonds by the Yard. Only one used CD is listed as being available for this album and it is priced at $99.99! Now the good news. Elliott Murphy has a wonderful website that lists his complete discography, well over thirty albums at this point, and provides in depth detail on each album. More importantly it allows you to listen to the songs for free. Enjoy! As always, let me know what you think.
You didn’t expect me to do all of the work did you? Your homework assignment for tonight is to listen to the song at the following link and consider the following question: Why do some musicians achieve huge commercial success while others who are equally talented never really make it?
We will talk more about this song and this musician this weekend. I wonder if the answer to the question posed above can be found somewhere in these night lights?
As I type this post it’s New Years Day 2012. All of my favorite music blogs are posting their Best of 2011 picks (check out I Am Fuel You Are Friends – a link to their favorites of 2011 will be provided in my next post) so I decided to get with the program. In keeping with my plans for thebestmusicyouhaveneverheard I have chosen to take this opportunity to introduce you to Mount Moriah, my pick for best new band of 2011.
It’s been a couple of years since The Everybodyfields announced their plans to split and pursue solo careers and I have been in a funk since that announcement (more about The Everybodyfields in a future post). My discovery of Mount Moriah last year started to fill the alt country gap left by The Everybodyfields!
Mount Moriah was formed by Heather McEntire and Jenks Miller in 2010 and they released their self-titled album last year. For a review of that album check out “hear ya” at the following link (if you look around I think you can also find a couple of free tracks from the album):