Rock and Roll Book Club: Marc Myers's 'Anatomy of a Song'

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Marc Myers's 'Anatomy of a Song'
Marc Myers's 'Anatomy of a Song' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Even if you think you know everything about rock and pop songwriting, you'll find some fascinating new insights in Marc Myers's Anatomy of a Song.

The book is a compilation of expanded versions of the column that Myers writes for the Wall Street Journal. Each entry is a short oral history of one particular classic song. In the book, the 45 entries are arranged chronologically from Lloyd Price's "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" (1952) to R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" (1991). Myers prefers to focus on songs that are at least a quarter-century old, since the distance allows a historical perspective that it's hard to attain with newer music.

Among the things you learn in Anatomy of a Song are surprising facts about the way particular songs were composed: like, for example, that Steven Tyler wrote the first draft of the "Walk This Way" lyrics on a wall because he'd forgotten to bring paper. Or the fact that the Clash's "London Calling" was inspired by an actual flood that was threatening to overwhelm the city. Or the fact that the opening hook on CCR's "Proud Mary" was taken from the opening sequence of chords in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

More broadly, though, you learn how songs come together in the rock era. In some cases, they're still the brainchildren of lone songwriters, or closely collaborating teams — but more often, like "Walk This Way," they're the result of a loose process in which ideas come together and evolve over time.

First there might be a riff, then a beat. "Losing My Religion" started with Peter Buck's mandolin chords, and then Mike Mills (inspired, he says, by the style of Fleetwood Mac's John McVie) figured out the bass line. That left it up to Michael Stipe to write a melody and lyrics, and once it all came together in the studio, the band's biggest hit had crystallized.

There's a healthy push-and-pull among songwriter, musician, and producer, even when all three are the same person. Knowing that the record — not the sheet music — will define the sound of a song, writers often encourage performers to try particular approaches. For example, it was wildly counterintuitive for Levi Stubbs to shout-sing lyrics like Bob Dylan, but that was exactly what songwriter Lamont Dozier had in mind for "Reach Out I'll Be There."

You can see how authorship disputes easily arise, but there's no beef in evidence between these covers: just good vibes between musicians like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, throwing ideas back and forth for "Street Fighting Man." Barry Mann recalls building a melody for "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" while his songwriting partner Cynthia Weil "shouted out lyrics."

If these are happy stories, it's because they all had happy endings: not a song among these isn't, in its own way, iconic. Sometimes musicians are bemused at the songs' success, other times they swear they instantly knew they'd written a winner. Imagine being Steve Cropper, answering the phone to hear the voice of Otis Redding saying, "Crop, I've got a hit. I'm coming right over." The result: "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay."

The Current's Anatomy of a Song Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Anatomy of a Song giveaway between 8 a.m. CT on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of Anatomy of a Song by Marc Myers. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $26

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, March 2, 2017.

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