Bud Scoppa looks at three of
today's leading songwriters:
Keith Reid, Bernie Taupin and Robert Hunter
Songwriting teams were once the toast of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. Now, hardly anybody can remember their names. Not so long ago, the hallways of the Brill Building teemed with songwriting teams one for the music, the other for words. But the Beatles and Dylan pretty much did away with these types. Why perform, the very presence of these new stars seemed to suggest if you don't have something original to say? During the mid-sixties, there was a period when there were practically no performers in rock without some original material. At that point, there were a lot of vacancies in the Brill Building. The pop song industry had become a buyers' market.
Now the songwriting situation has loosened up a bit: Performers have begun to realize that there's no automatic connection between virtuosity and the ability to express one's self in original words and/or music, and many are looking for help with material from outside. Joe Cocker, Three Dog Night, Judy Collins and Tom Rush, have built solid reputations and substantial followings without having to labour over the steady production of original songs. It's acceptable now to be an interpreter as well a creator, if your taste is reliable and you stamp all the material you perform with a readily identifiable stamp of your own identity. Certainly, Cocker who's injected everything from Bye Bye Blackbird' to the Beatles with a ripping precognitive serum and Three Dog Night who literally dance on the ready-made structures of Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson have worked out the formula almost perfectly in terms of their own particular strengths. These performers hark back to an earlier breed in their approach. But, elsewhere in pop music an unprecedented merger of creative and interpretative skills is becoming apparent.
The Grateful Dead, Procol Harum, and Elton John to name the prime examples all sport creative appendages that take no part in either performing or composing. Robert Hunter, Keith Reid. and Bernie Taupin are specialists in a specialised world; they write lyrics, and that's all they do. Even more specifically, each writes only for the group he's attached to.
Pete Brown was perhaps the first notable exponent of this group-plus-wordman approach. Cream's three members were much too preoccupied with their own playing abilities to give more than token efforts to writing original material. Musical structures sprang naturally from jamming, but lyrics didn't: Cream didn't want to become known as the Ventures of the British Isles, so lyrics were needed. Conveniently Jack Bruce's buddy, Peter Brown, had a way with words at least in Bruce's estimation and he was persuaded to provide them when necessary.
Unfortunately, Brown wasn't content to write those earthy, lean rock and roll lyrics like Take It Back and SWLABR at which he was so effective. He, like practically every songwriter alive in '67 and '68. was under the spell of Sgt. Pepper and he, again like everyone else, was more than slightly intimidated by its inventiveness. The lyrics of White Room, Deserted Cities Of The Heart even Sunshine of Your Love have lost their lustre in retrospect: But then, so has a lot of Cream's music. Lines like 'Silver horses burned down moonbeams, in your dark eyes' may have been compensated for by Brown's later writing for Jack Bruce. But, at the time, they did make Keith Reid's style look awfully inviting. Whereas the lyrics of Cream songs often appear to be superimposed on the musical structures, Procol Harum's music and Reid's words have always been of a piece. Gary Brooker, who composes most of the music for the group, as well as singing Reid's words, still seems to be in awe of the circumstances that brought him together with Reid in the first place. He shrugs slightly as he explains, having uneasily accepted the odd pattern of events.
'Keith was just walking down the street one day when he decided that he wanted to write something although he'd never tried to write anything before. So he wrote some words, with the intention of some day having them set to music, although he never mentioned this to anyone. He brought this packet of words with him to the house of a friend, where I met him, and he gave me the packet to look at. I brought it home with me, stuck it in my cupboard, and forgot about it. A few months later, I discovered the packet and thought, What's this?' I didn't remember where I'd got it. I read the words, liked them, and was inspired to write some music for them, not knowing that that was Keith's intention. So I went to the piano, and, for the first time in my life, composed a song. The words had to do with a tombstone following Keith around I didn't discover until afterwards that these were the first words he'd written. That same afternoon, I received a letter from Keith. It asked me to ring him, and closed with a line from the words he'd written about the tombstone. We spoke, and decided to work together.'
Brooker is careful not to refer to Reid's writing as either 'lyrics' or 'poetry'. At any rate, Reid was either very lucky in finding a composer perfectly compatible with his rather bizarre literary tendencies, or a sorcerer who'd just discovered his powers. The beginning of the Reid-Brooker partnership was no less offbeat than their current, typical approach to songwriting. Reid does all his writing in isolation, communicating not at all with Brooker while he is at work. At the same time, Brooker is putting down musical ideas worked out in fairly concrete form: they exchange them. Strangely, the words and music always fit together, as if Reid and Brooker had been in constant communication as they wrote.
In the case of Procol Harum, the personnel were mated to the concept, rather than the standard progression of (a) group formation to (b) musical interaction to ( c) development of material. In building that concept with his writing Reid was in a very real way much more than a contributor of lyrics. That he and Brooker were able to find four other musicians so perfectly suited to expanding and developing that concept is another near miracle or the sign of a deft and sensitive artist who senses the materials necessary to realize his vision.
Then trip the light fandango Reid had himself a gold record from a song that not only topped the Top 40 charts and excited the art-rockers, but actually made number one in the soul market. He took it in stride, as is his wont it was as if he'd known all along that his song would spellbind two continents. A Whiter Shade Of Pale' was recorded before guitarist Robin Trower and drummer BJ Wilson joined up, so the victory predates the attack, but Reid somehow had managed to harness destiny for that moment. There was no stopping the song.
Since then, he's been less lucky. While his writing went from psychotic-vivid to dramatic-brilliant and Procol Harum metamorphosed into an ingenious and thunderously powerful performing unit his original audience lost interest. A smaller but much more fervent audience has since emerged, keeping Reid and his crew from starvation or critical neglect. Procol Harum and their wordman have no intentions of curtailing their joint activities, no matter who's listening. Certainly, the band has consistently turned out music that is as provocative, unusual. and dramatic as that of any other group or performer during the last four years. And Keith Reid has supplied much of the mystery as well as all of the words along the way.
He's moved from magic potions, conquistadors, and unicorns to images that are sometimes more disquieting; lately, Reid has shown a fascination with things that go bump in the night and a tendency to illustrate the more gruesome aspects of death and decomposition to the last detail. On stage, Brooker appears to be a trifle ruffled at having to shout. His eyes were alive/With maggots crawling,' but he's patient with Reid's gradually shifting obsessions.
There's no denying Reid's expressive power, no matter what his predilections may be at the moment of creation. More an auteur than most song-makers, he's shaped a really distinctive, if somewhat eerie, aura about his work. Reid's style combines elements of archaic language (as used by such nineteenth century romantic poets as Coleridge and Keats) with images that are striking in their contextual irreverence.
Procol Harum chooses not to spotlight Reid's words: instead. the band, integrates the lyrics into the whole, as if the words had the same impact and chromatic value as Trower's guitar or Wilson's drums. Even when there are no lyrics at all as in Repent, Walpurgis Reid's voice can still be heard in the juxtaposition of almost overpowering intensity and persistent subtle humour. Brooker's understanding of the words (he says he never has to ask Reid what they mean) and primitive-elegant voice enable him to place the lyrics within the total fabric with unerring accuracy: even when Reid lapses into the stilted or the exceedingly stylised, Brooker is able to make positive use of the language without undercutting the sense of it.
There is no other lyricist in rock whose ideas are as completely realized as Reid, because Procol Harum and Keith Reid are two ways of saying the same thing.
A completely different process linked the Grateful Dead and their lyricist, Robert Hunter that is, until a few months ago. Once the Dead evolved from a dance band to an improvising unit, they had need for original material to provide a starting point and a destination for their musical wanderings. No one in the group saw himself as a capable lyricist, so friend Hunter was entrusted with the job of providing words.
At first the lyrics sounded like attempts at a poetic response to the music the antithesis of the Reid-Procol Harum creative process. Hunter's early lyrics were characterised by the self-consciously non linear: this impressionistic approach depended on the Dead's music, not just for its impact, but for its very existence. Although the music of Dark Star, for example, can very well stand by itself. His attempts at imagistic poetry is almost embarrassing now. But it must be pointed out that perceptions differed appreciably at the time these lines were first written. In those heady days that contained the Summer of Love, language was required to sound acid-liberated. Writing of this nature eventually filtered its way to the mainstream pop structure, where Windmills Of My Mind eventually won an Oscar. Of course, we all know now that glass hands just don't dissolve into revolving ice petal flowers any more than our minds have windmills, or windows, or windshield wipers. It just seems that way sometimes. Although these lyrics proved to be as hollow as the Dead's music was full it isn't really fair to condemn Hunter for writing that is so directly linked with a specific time and place. Especially since he has subsequently shown himself to be a lyricist of some skill. When the Dead decided to move into reflective music. Hunter's role became much more significant. The lyrics to the songs on the last two Dead albums could hardly be labelled hokey or superfluous: they're a solid. integral part of the music. The key word here is songs': Hunter is an effective song lyricist, but it's quite another thing to write poetic commentary for non-songs such as Dark Star or St. Stephen.
For better or worse, both Hunter and Reid have at least been consistent at any given stage of their development. This can hardly be said of Bernie Taupin, Elton John's non-performing partner. Taupin is, to say the least, an erratic writer. He's a power hitter, and he connects often, so he can be forgiven for striking out a lot too. But even his strikeouts are dramatic.
Taupin is ambitious and daring even foolhardy at times. The themes he tackles and the metaphors he favours are tricky and often treacherous in a pop song context. Taupin is unafraid of sentiment, interested in old America, and obsessed with guns and (appropriately) father-son relationships. He can be brilliant and surprisingly awkward in the course of a single song Your Song is an example of the narrow partition that separates subtlety from silliness.
Taupin is just as obsessive a writer as Reid, but Taupin's words are generally less intense, his tone a great deal less overtly cynical. At times, Taupin's writing is strikingly similar to Reid's Burn Down the Mission comes to Mind, but the stylistic parallel occurs in songs that are nowhere near the best that either writer has produced.
Elton John depends even more on Taupin than Procol Harum does on Reid: Procol Harum is much less limited musically than John's trio, and capable of sustaining its own moods when necessary.
John has a bright, gospelly touch as a composer, but his tunes don't encompass the range that Taupin's lyrics cover. While Taupin is forever attempting two-and-a-half-front somersaults in pike position, John is content to do a safe cannonball with a big, dramatic splash. So the two really aren't perfectly suited to one another, but each does what he does successfully enough to make the pairing appealing. From what John has said 'I don't think I've ever spent more than 45 minutes on a song...' he might be wise to expend a bit more energy on his end. In the long run, Taupin might be better off working with more serious composers.
Still for just those three or four occasions when Taupin's words and John's melodies clicked, all the mismatchings can be forgiven. Where To Now, St. Peter makes me hopeful for the next batch of John/Taupin songs. It begins with a magnificently concise image 'I took myself a blue canoe' which John's soaring melody inflates. As the song progresses, Taupin cleverly mixes exclamations of panic about sudden death with sly double entendres.
Meanwhile, John flavours the scared-funny puns with a muted melody that barely refuses to give in to melancholy. The dramatic balance of the song as a whole is dramatically impressive. Perhaps other seemingly imperfect John/Taupin songs would be stronger in the hands of other performers. Rod Stewart and Three Dog Night found more in Country Comforts and Your Song, respectively, than Elton John the performer did. At any rate, both Taupin and John have plenty of songs, still inside them, and plenty of time to get them out. If Taupin can move past his Western-movie pseudo-imagery, and John decides to throw a change of pace occasionally, they might surprise us yet.
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