CHAMBON, PHILIP J. (Kingston University, London)
Q: Where’s the song? A: It’s the track stupid!
[abstract] Many contemporary and indeed historical popular music songs have been created as a result of collaboration and improvisation between individuals in a studio environment (larger controlled spaces, multi-track tape, ProTools), or in a home recording environment (smaller unpredictable spaces, portable reel-to-reel recorders, multi-track cassette recorders, laptops) or a combination of these.
Popular music tracks are referred to as songs, sometimes even if there are no vocals. What is the song? Is it the basic top line – tune and lyrics and the piano chords? Probably not since Brill Building days, or music theatre has a song existed as a score. Paul Simon, one of the most successful songwriters of his generation, is quoted in Levetin (2008, p.2) as saying ‘The way that I listen to my own records is for the sound of them; not the chords or the lyrics – my first impression is of the overall sound’.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” is a landmark recording, but if you hear Lennon’s acoustic guitar and voice workings out at his home on a portable 1⁄4” reel-to reel would you say it was a great song? As far as the millions of people who know “Strawberry Fields Forever” are concerned, the released recording is the song. Is it possible to disentangle the art of songwriting from the recording and production process? Using contemporary and historical recordings as examples, this paper will attempt to resituate the concept of the song and the act of songwriting in the context of contemporary recording and production practices.
Philip’s background is as a practitioner – songwriter, producer, collaborator. He states his position that to the listener, the song and track are indistinguishable. He opens with a reference to his prior practitioner work and provides YouTube comments from a TOTP session in 1978 from his previous band ‘Tonight’ [I’ve embedded it here just for a bit of multimedia online fun – Philip was too modest to play us the actual video in the presentation];
The YouTube comments show that the commenters, at least, describe the video as ‘a song’.
He now looks at different perspectives on the issue, starting with Moore (2012) and also including David Byrne’s (2012) practitioner perspective. He discusses the ‘privileged position’ of the song.
Philip now cites an anecdotal example of a song that, in his practitioner context, was described by a band member as ‘a great song’ when all that was created was a guitar riff. He takes a partly historical approach, and looks at differently demarcated examples, going back to Tin Pan Alley, Leiber and Stoller etc. He quotes L&S as being motivated (by poor interpretations of their own lead sheets) to become record producers. Jimmy Webb notes that many songwriters blame L&S and the Beatles for the demise of the ‘golden age of songwriting’ [i.e. when artists used songs written by others].
We now look entertainingly at a contemporaneous 1964 transcription of I Feel Fine – a scan of the sheet music actually purchased by the presenter at the time. As a teen (and now!) he bemoaned all the aspects that were omitted – the guitar sound, the feedback, the riff, the correct key [!].
We now return to David Byrne, and his assertion that electric guitar sound can be considered part of the composition, with a long and revealing quote from How Music Works. Philip’s personal experience now triangulates this assertion, and he compares http://of the original demo and compares it to the final version released by Tonight. He takes the view that the band contributed an enormous amount to the finished product, and indeed the comparison of the two demos makes this point extremely well.
He concludes that the distinction between song and track is [a] economically unfair to creators and [b] unrepresentative of the creative process.