This post has reached article length; however, I do not wish to rework it as an article at this time. So I offer some thoughts on this very intriguing topic. Sorry my writing is not more tightly integrated.
When I was growing up, the radio airwaves were filled with a wonderful mixture of old-style pop (the great standards), the new rock and roll, and (my favorite) pop that was strongly influenced by rock. I loved it all, though I must say I found less to like in the pure rock. In fact, everybody loved it all. I did not get the impression of rock being a rejection of everything that went before—it was simply another style, eagerly embraced by most people who listened with an objective ear.
Thinking back, I realize that I most responded to good melodies. And some part of me was aware that the pre-rock tunes were generally superior. However, when I remarked to a friend that rock melodies were not impressive, his or her protestations that this was not true gave me pause. I began to think and listen more carefully, and changed my thinking: the melodies were somewhat more angular, they made more use of repeated notes and multiple notes for single syllables, and they leaned for support on the beat, but within this style many of them were outstanding examples of melody-writing.
As the 1960s drew to a close, I noticed that I was listening to radio less and less. My golden age of rock-influenced pop was ending. The great standards were much less in evidence. The pure rock was very often just boring. There were still good tunes to be heard, but emphasis in general seemed to have shifted to other elements of songs. I wanted to hear records that showed off their tunefulness unabashedly.
But there was music in my soul, although I could not read or write a note of it. Always shy with the opposite sex, I forced myself to overcome inhibitions when disco arrived. This was not listening music mostly, although it often made for great listening—it was for dancing! I was not going to deprive myself of all that fun I saw other people having. (Later, I would realize the excellence of “I Will Survive.”)
A bit before that, and partly through Ayn Rand’s influence, I had started to listen to more classical music. I remember listening to Beethoven even before discovering The Fountainhead; that book introduced me to the Romantics and to light classical music. Shortly thereafter, I began to teach myself music and started writing songs. It was Franz Lehár who started me thinking about the nature of good melodies, and my appreciation of this aspect of songs reached a fever pitch. Lehár, of course, had been mentioned in Who Is Ayn Rand?
I now maintain a website called Music, Melody, and Songs, which I update far too seldom, I admit. One of the plans I have for it is to present a list of songs I consider to be in the very top rank of songwriting. To be included in this list, the song would have to display awe-inspiring skill in melody writing and chord assignment. You have to be looking at the music and saying to yourself, “How in the world did the songwriter think of this musical move?” or “How did he or she think of using this chord?” The melodies should usually be natural, inventive, and long-lined. And—although this is less important for me—the lyrics have to be very refined and inventive. In short, these songs have to ooze professionalism and class.
At this moment, from the songs I have studied and that I can think of off the cuff right now, here is my list:
- Thou Swell (Both the verse and the chorus; and one of the extremely few songs whose lyric impresses me as much as the music)
- I Left My Heart in San Francisco (This song’s status as the city’s official song was revoked in favor of “San Francisco”; I hope the police are on that crime)
- There Will Never Be Another You (This shows mastery of the long line)
- The More I See You (Again, mastery of the long line)
- Love and Marriage (The middle section goes to a far-off key and somehow finds it way back)
- Young at Heart (So good that it overcomes my aversion to songs that seem addressed to the old)
- You Make Me Feel So Young (Ditto)
- Dein is Mein ganzes Herz (Franz Lehár’s greatest aria, whose English title is “You Are My Heart’s Delight”; at its premiere in Das Land des Lächelns, the audience abruptly ceased to be interested in hearing any other music or song)
- Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (There are some chords in here that I marvel at, not being able to understand how the composer found them)
- Makin’ Whoopie (Great lyric too)
- Hey There (Won’t you take this advice I hand you like a brother? / Or are you not seeing things too clear? / Are you too much in love to hear? / Is it all going in one ear and out the other? Oh, how I’ve lived this song)
- A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody
- The Girl on the Magazine Cover
- Goody, Goody (The best line, both musically and lyrically, is the last: And I hope you’re satisfied, you rascal you! I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, but it is great!)
The next level down, for me, contains the best of all the other great standards, songs such as “Just One of Those Things,” “High Hopes,” “Swinging on a Star,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Pass Me By,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Melancholy Baby,” and I could go on forever. In truth, some of these songs may belong in the list above; much of the time I can’t decide.
Several months ago I discovered another great song. Up to then, I had known only about the song’s origin. Apparently, some housewife wrote to the songwriter, who was already famous, about a great idea she had for a song title. He agreed, wrote the song around this title, and made sure she got part of the royalties. To me also, the title had seemed a great one, and I made a mental note to catch the music some day.
I walked into a local bookstore, and as I did the song was starting. The first line of the lyric consisted of the title, so I knew I was hearing that song I had been interested in. As it progressed, it struck me as exceedingly sophisticated, refined, natural, long-lined (both words and music were written by Johnny Mercer, who as well as being a great lyricist penned some fantastic melodies):
I wanna be around to pick up the pieces
When somebody breaks your heart …
The singer? Tony Bennett.
It seems to me that an appreciation for quality songwriting is making a comeback. In movies, on talk shows, in coffee shops, in the malls—directors, scriptwriters, singers, and shop owners seem to be pushing their own musical loves back into public awareness from the ghetto to which they have been so long confined. The walls of that ghetto were an idea: that every generation has its own music, that there is nothing objectively better in some musical qualities than in others, and that the young inevitably reject the preferences and the standards of their elders. Those walls have been slowly but surely eroded by one factor that those with a vested interest in this idea had been blind to: reality.
Who could have a vested interest in cutting generations off from one another? Anyone who wanted to continue the erosion of values remaining from a more individualistic and rational time. That is, modern intellectuals, who for decades have systematically undercut every manifestation of reason they see in the culture. In the field of music, this has meant the dismissal of melodicism, sophistication, and the idea that the young could ever adopt the values of the previous generation.
In the field of popular song, this undercutting had been directed at, not only the great standards I have been discussing thus far, but also the pop of the 1950s and 1960s and that progressive genre that has always been my special love: the rock-influenced pop of the early 1960s, especially what is termed Brill Building Pop:
The influence of mainstream American popular songwriting, embodied by the conglomerate of professional composers and publishers dubbed Tin Pan Alley, on rock’s early development is sometimes overlooked. While rock & roll was to a significant degree a reaction against the overly professional, sentimental, and sterile conventions of pre-rock American pop, the best of Tin Pan Alley’s melodic and lyrical hallmarks were incorporated into rock & roll to raise the music to new levels of sophistication. (Spectropop, “Brill Building Main Page”)
Brill Building Pop applied the concept of professional songwriters in traditional pop to rock & roll. Numerous teams of professional songwriters worked at the Brill Building—a block of music publishing houses in New York City—writing songs for artists as diverse as the Coasters, the Drifters, the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, Neil Sedaka, and Connie Francis. The songs were indebted not only to rock & roll and R&B, but also Tin Pan Alley pop, as the sophisticated lyrics and melodies proved. The productions on these early ’60s records were also more sophisticated than most rock & roll records, featuring orchestras and bands with large rhythm and guitar sections. Though it fell out of favor after the British Invasion, both British and American pop/rock demonstrated an enormous debt to Brill Building pop for years to come. (All Music Guide, “Brill Building Pop”)
Some major songwriters of Brill Building Pop were Carole King; Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart; Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart; Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield; and Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
In my mind, Carole King epitomizes these creators. By no means do I like all of her work, or even all of her most popular work. But she wrote many of my favorite melodies from this period: “Up on the Roof,” “Go Away Little Girl,” “It Might as Well Rain Until September” (which is my favorite), “(I’ll Do My) Crying in the Rain,” “The Loco-Motion,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Take Good Care of My Baby.”
Here is a link to a little-known King tune that may help convey a sense of this woman’s talent, for those who don’t yet appreciate it (of course, there may be those who won’t care for this particular one, but everyone to whom I have shown it so far has liked it): “Point of No Return” (headphones or good speakers urged). (Quite apart from the tune, I am fascinated by the arrangement. Note especially the subtle genius happening in the drums, right up to the end.)
The undercutting has taken the form of using the term “pop” with disdain. Instead, it is only considered “cool” to like blues, jazz, zydeco (whatever that is), rock, doo-wop, etc. Now, specific musical genres all have their own contributions to make, and can be combined in infinite ways. But our allegiance must ultimately be to music, and—here is my theory—pop is the category reserved for any record that strives simply to be good music. Pop is not a “genre” in the same sense as the others. Its standard is not the improvisational skill or virtuosity of the singer or the instrumentalist, its “faithfulness to its roots,” its lyrical message, how good the lyrics are poetically, who created it, how “honest” it is, whether the musicians are having fun “getting down” with it. The only thing that counts with pop is the total musical effect on the hearers. Observe how, when a genre record “crosses over” and becomes a hit, it tends to be considered as having “gone pop.” With the implication it has “sold out.”
Certain pop and pop-rock composers and performers are so respected that they are immune to the undercutting. Carole King seems to be one of these.
As for sterling songs by other composers in this general period and its influence, I would mention (to hear them, click on any links you see): “Town Without Pity,” “Run to Him,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” “Bobby’s Girl,” “Dawn (Go Away),” “The End of the World,” “Goodbye Cruel World” (an example of the long line; observe how it keeps introducing new material right up to the end), “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” “Georgy Girl,” “Johnny Angel,” “Today,” “Forget Him” (this link is not the original recording, but the song is so good it does not matter), “Moments to Remember,” “The Wayward Wind” (I love how the French horn here seems to be commenting on the lyric, sometimes by means of a single well-placed note!), “Venus” (this one may be very familiar and you may be tired of it, as I was for a while; but have you ever noticed what a sophisticated melody it has?).
I am here to say that the best of the melodies created by the composers in this period deserve to be just as esteemed as those of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Sammy Fain, and the other writers of old standards listed above. As I have mentioned, the only important musical difference of the best pop-rock from these masterpieces is the stylistic elements imported from the practices and experiments of rock and roll, including a general freedom and daring that, in most cases I think, does not so much constitute a rebellion as an impulse to progress. These writers heard the new beat, liked it, and integrated it to the rest of their values.
I believe this process will continue. The Internet, as you see, has refused to let the music I love die. There are even sites dedicated to “all-but-forgotten oldies.” Every day, I rediscover online an old friend I had completely forgotten about. The technology of the electron has come to the aid that of the soul.
(Edited by Rodney Rawlings on 5/12, 11:42am)