In addition to being a custom songwriter, I’m also an avid music fan, an avid reader, and a bookseller. Here’s a review of a fun music related book that I read recently.
If, like me, you spend a lot of time in bars talking about music, you’ll find plenty of fuel for your conversations within the pages of the 2016 book, Anatomy of a Song. Say you plop yourself down at your favorite watering hole, order your drink and then “Proud Mary” comes on. You can turn to whoever’s sitting next to you (in my case, almost always a dude, wearing a Residents T-Shirt, probably talking about the X-men) and say, “Hey, did you know that the intro to this song is based on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?” If you’re friends with the bartender, you could probably get her to rewind and play the intro again. You might even be able to divert the conversation away from Wolverine and co.
Author Marc Myers has a clear, concise writing style and an obvious passion for music. It’s no wonder that the editors of The Wall Street Journal enlisted him when they conceived of having a column that profiled classic songs with compelling back-stories. Anatomy of a Song is a collection of these columns. Each vignette profiles a song through a short introduction and then an oral history.
The book’s strongest segments are the ones in which Myers gets creative with his interview choices and includes an assortment of people involved in various aspects of the song’s creation. For instance, the chapter on The Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” has interviews with one of the track’s writers, the producer, a studio musician, one of the singers, and even Darlene Love, who recorded a later version of the song. It’s refreshing to hear from some of the people behind the scenes and from lesser-known performers. You not only get great anecdotes, but also glimpses into the writing process, studio techniques and more. In one case (Joni Mitchell’s “Carey”), Myers interviews the person that the song was written about (Carey himself), which I thought was gold! Unfortunately, with some of the more prominent artists (Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, stegosaurus, iguanodon), the interviews are limited to a single person and are less intriguing. You can read interviews with rock stars anywhere. I’m more interested in the guy who played the maracas.
The book’s subtitle is “The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop.” Although Meyers does a great job of providing a historical backdrop for the songs, he doesn’t provide clear explanations as to how or why some of the songs live up to the subtitle’s bravado. The introductions spend a lot of time listing accolades and parroting things that are later presented in the oral histories instead of spelling out how on God’s green earth “Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan changed rock (or R&B or pop). It’s the type of thing that makes me think maybe if I were smarter, I’d be able to read between the lines and understand it. Maybe people who read The Wall Street Journal are that smart. Well, as Grace Slick says on page 99, “I’m not a genius but I don’t suck.” I read a lot and know my way around rock music, but I don’t see any solid proof that “Darling Be Home Soon” by John Sebastian altered the trajectory of any genre. Maybe it does in one of those new agey “you changed the world the moment you were born” kind of ways, but not because of its content, musical structure, instrumentation, etc. I would need hard, concrete evidence presented very clearly to convince me that a number of the songs included in this book could be considered iconic much less game changers. Or maybe I just need better medication. Who knows?
In Anatomy of a Song’s introduction, the author suggests listening to the songs from the book in chronological order to “see how the music’s branches split off into other genres.” (I did this, and you can access my playlist here.) Again, I was compelled to take Mr. Myers at his word. The songs listed are pretty baby boomer-centric and don’t shine enough light on these “other genres.” The book gives a nod to the ‘50s, focuses mainly on the ‘60s and ‘70s, barely acknowledges the ‘80s and ends arbitrarily in 1991. The list clings too tightly to classic rock, country, and soul, especially in the ‘70s, where only twice (with Blondie and The Clash) does the tide flow away from AOR and classic oldies. The branches he mentions are presented as mere twigs, when they should have been long, luscious and full of leaves…or pine needles, depending on how much you like prog, glam, early electronica or any of the other genres not represented.
I appreciate that Anatomy of a Song gives heretofore undocumented perspective on the songs it details. Its succinct introductions and tightly edited oral histories can be enjoyed in snippets, anywhere, at any time. You can learn all about “Please Mr. Postman” while waiting for your coffee to brew. You can read the story behind “Runaround Sue” while you’re on hold with your credit card company. Although Marc Myers and I march to the beat of a different drum in terms of taste, I like to have my tastes challenged and generally found the book very entertaining. I picked up numerous rock trivia nuggets, and it really got me engaged and thinking about music, which is the whole point, right?