Anatomy of a Song by Marc Meyers (Book Review)

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?

Grace Slick ca. 1967
Grace Slick-She’s no genius but she doesn’t suck.
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?

 

 

Rose Parade by Elliot Smith Tutorial for Guitar

 

 

In addition to being a songwriter, I’m also a music fan and a teacher. Therefore, I was happy when a long time client approached me with the possibility of creating video tutorials and tablature for some of his favorite songs, including this one by Elliot Smith. Incidentally they are some of my favorite songs too.  This tutorial is fairly thorough, moves pretty slowly, and doesn’t assume a lot about your guitar skills. I hope that you can will find it a useful tool!

If you enjoy this free tutorial, please look around Custom Serenade and consider getting a custom song from us!

 

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Singer/songwriter Elliot SmithIn 2004, some months after Elliot Smith’s untimely passing, I was asked to participate in a  tribute concert in which musicians from the Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh area performed some of Smith’s songs. It seemed like a nice way to deal with a lot of the feelings that come up when someone you admire so much passes away, and I was eager to participate. When asked what song I wanted to do, my immediate response was Rose Parade. Unfortunately, it was the first choice for numerous other acts, and someone had already claimed it. It was and is probably my favorite Elliot Smith song. It’s kind of amazing that the main pattern  is comprised of all major chords, yet sounds so melancholy-the ever present riff within the pattern emphasizing the emotion. Then there are the lyrics. Imperfect, mysterious, and gritty. There’s a lot to like about this sad but beautiful song, and I hope that you have gleaned something from this tutorial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang! A collection of gun themed Vintage Valentines!

Valentine’s Day is a big deal here at Custom Serenade. Personally, one of my favorite things associated with this romantic holiday are vintage cards, and I have a special affinity for the strange ones.  In perusing numerous old valentines, I started noticing that tucked amongst the flowers and cute puns were a lot of guns. Yes, that’s right, guns! And Ammo! And even artillery! Deadly weapons don’t seem like natural companions for hearts and candy, but the past often seems weird, and weird is good, right?  So, here for your viewing pleasure are a collection of gun themed Vintage Valentine cards.  If you’d like to celebrate VTD with a little less explosive powder and a lot more romance, consider ordering a custom song from us!

vintage valentine #1
Nothing says love like being hunted by a bug eyed boy with a loaded rifle!

Except maybe being held at gunpoint by someone in a black mask.

strange vintage valentine #2

strange vintage valentine

Perhaps the abundance of available gun puns is the reason that they were so popular?

But then they struck gold with “aim”

Would you like to get a custom song for 25 dollars? Follow this link!

Finally, we have two suicide themed valentines.

Pretty sick huh?
If you enjoyed these vintage valentines and want to see something equally bizarre, check out this post that features meat themed valentines! If you are looking for a fantastic valentine’s day gift that doesn’t involve meat or guns, how about a ordering a custom song? Regardless, I hope that you have a wonderful Valentine’s Day full of cards, music and love!

 

Christmas Music for People Who Hate Christmas Music

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Let’s face it, some people love Christmas music and others don’t.  I understand both sides of the coin. I love Christmas music in general, but if I think I’d rather pour hot tar in my ears than hear Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” one more time. Here are some suggestions for holiday playlists that will keep the mistletoe fans happy while not driving the aural Scrooges crazy.

Look for new versions of the classics.

Mainstream music has a tendency to choose a microscopic sample of  available content in any given genre and run it into the ground. Holiday music is no exception, and hearing not only the same songs, but the same arrangements and recordings of these songs over and over again can drive you crazy. So, find different versions of the classic songs and see if they don’t go down a little easier.  Consider these:

Lew Stone and His Band-Winter Wonderland

Going vintage is a general way to find different versions of the standards that offer a fresh perspective. Here’s one from the late 1930s.

Chet Atkins-Silver Bells

Guitar great Chet Atkins’ take on the winter holidays is one that will please fans of great guitar work and yuletide enthusiasts alike. Here’s a wonderful rendition of Silver Bells.

Go instrumental

Sappy lyrics are a frequently cited reason for hating the season. Regardless of where you stand on Christmas music, you have to admit that some of the lyrics are maddeningly precious. So, take them out of the equation! You won’t have to look far to find a plethora of options for instrumental versions of nearly any Christmas song. Here are a couple to get you started:

The Ventures-Sleigh Ride

I don’t know how anyone could dislike this version of Sleigh Ride by surf rock legends the Ventures. Despite the obvious conflict of surf vs. snow, this genre of instrumental rock has a lot to offer during the holiday season.

Moog Machine-Silent Night

Electronic music buffs will love this, and hopefully you will too!

Find songs that are new to everyone.

As I stated earlier, hearing the same songs over and over again can get old, even if you’re a fan. So, why not dig into the nearly endless treasure trove of songs that have slipped through the cracks? There are some great ones out there, such as these:

Holly Golightly-Christmas Tree On Fire

Here’s a novelty country rocker that will keep the hipsters at bay.

Staple Singers-Who Took the Merry out of Christmas

Holiday or not, this is a soul powerhouse! Even if you’re at odds with the religious message, you will groove with this.

Hopefully these tips will help bring a little resolve to a squabble that can put a damper on the merriment. Best of luck coming up with a playlist that will please everyone. Here’s one that I made on Spotify that you can use to test the (frozen) waters.

Best Christmas Dad Ever

Best Christmas Dad Ever

He’s a football fan and a fisherman
and he makes up silly songs
the holiday season is the time he finds most pleasing
too bad it isn’t all year long

His decorations are a sensation
his house a winter wonderland
He’s going to write the next great American Carol
and it’ll be cooler than a snowman

Chorus:
He’s The Best Christmas Dad ever
He’s Santa’s right hand man
jingling bells and singing noel
are all part of the holiday plan

Carols start playing
the day after thanksgiving
there are reindeer on his roof
He’s the best Christmas dad ever
he’s got even got a yule tattoo

If Santa ever needed to take a year off
he’d surely give Derek a shout
and say “I need someone who’s motivated and fun
to come and help me out

(he would say) Jake and Grant will make great elves
they’ve been such good boys
your dog Carly can pull the sled
and you’ll deliver all the toys

Chorus:
One year the reindeer got a little lost
as they were flying their annual route
but Dasher said “I smell some FINE smoked bacons and eggs
and they knew they were at Derek’s house

Sharing the season with his family and friends
is a holly jolly priority for him
Merry Christmas from Jake and Grant
to the best Christmas dad on the planet

Chorus: