31. Where do song ideas come from?

Posted on 16/02/2017


31. Where do song ideas come from?

The mundane answer in many cases is: song ideas are commercial requirements. A lot of film music songs (‘Three coins in a Fountain’ for instance) were written because the plot of the film called for a song about this. One title could never have emerged from anything other than a musical:

‘Gilly, Gilly, Ossenfefer Katsenellenbogen-by-the-sea’

Most of the Bond themes are of this (mechanical results of a plot) type, which why most of them are pretty drab. They were written to order. Bob Dylan recently said that he disliked writing songs to order so much (presumably he’s often asked) that he preferred painting now!

The same is true of the average Top 20 song. The top 20 star has some half baked idea (I have just listened to ‘Diamonds in the sky’ by Rihanna: it makes a laboured parallel between two stars in the sky and herself and her lover). Not one of the most effective of images. I should add that I dont know if this particular song was created by a factory, but most of them are. These songs are written to order, in the sense that the basic plot is given to half a dozen recording studios. They then work up a song to order, and the producers use whichever they regard as the best one. The results can be heard each week in the Top 20.

I also checked the phrase ‘I will write a song’ on iTunes. The results were pretty grim. Una Jensen wrote a colourless song of this title, and expressed the wish that the world would sing along. John Muther went one worse ‘Lets write a love song’. Singers called Michael Howard and Timi Yuro also tried this idea and also failed. From this I conclude that anyone writing a song should not announce the fact. A counter example is ‘I’d like to teach the whole world to sing (in perfect harmony)’ which is a charming song and a big hit. But it wasnt about trying to write a song, so much as preaching world peace.

Enough gloom! One good way to write songs is from one’s own life. That is what Ed Sheeran has done, and its been pretty successful. That alone wont do the trick since a lot of inspiration and skill has to be added to the observation of human life to make a hit of it.

Some of the best lyrics have absolutely no obvious source. ‘What I might do’ is a brilliant song whose plot is completely beyond me. I have read the words but they are not self-explanatory:

‘I knew just what I had to be/when I heard you say what you said to me/

[But he never says what she said, and thus the key to the plot is missing]

‘look like you working up an appetite for the night, check it

by then I just sat at the back/peeping you out, the way you act…..

best off being a friend to me/you dont want to offend me/

better play it cool, dont know what I might do’

So the song actually end on a note of menace. Quite something in a non-rap song.The video is fun, but equally as unhelpful in explaining the plot:

Which leads me to the moral (which I could support with dozens of other songs) that good songs come from nowhere logical. My own song Gunter Green is a case in point since the title simply occured to me one morning. No logical explanation for it.

That does’nt mean that good songs cannot be created deliberately. I was not criticising that point above, but the factory approach to Top 20 Hits. That is to say by sitting down and trying to write a song about something, anything. Ideas will come into your head eventually. Its just a matter of trying. As usual the job is 99% perspiration and only 1% inspiration.

I once heard the author of Sir Cliff Richard’s one and only good song, Living Doll, say he’d written it in 15 minutes. However the author, Lionel Bart, wrote an awful lot of rubbish over most of his life (as well as some other OK songs). The one flash of inspiration had an awful lot of perspiration associated with it.

In my opinioin good song ideas come from nowhere. You just have to hope that they will turn up!


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