So how do the great hit songs actually get written ?
If the answer was just a matter of following a set of procedures then we'd all be songwriters right? But anyone that's taken pen to paper or written a tune and starts the business of what to write about knows it's far from straightforward.
It can be said for many it's maybe part inspiration, part perspiration but it's also probably fare to say the great songwriters are born and not manufactured, although that's not to say any songwriter can't improve the skill over time.
Some writers will begin with the tune and work the words around it, some will start with the words and the tune is already in their head.
Young songwriters in a band can have their ideas during jamming sessions or as they're practicing their instruments, a tune is sometimes stumbled upon and it leads to the lyric by almost an instinctive reaction and without much thought, it just seems to inspire. This makes for a thrilling moment for the young songwriter and as much as a whole album can pour out in relatively short time with maybe one or two of the other band members chipping in with ideas. This is a common method for young bands who've maybe grown up or known each other since school days and they go on to produce very successful debut albums. But, then comes the difficult second album we've all heard about. You've had an entire life to draw inspiration for the first album and then about 12 months, if you're lucky, to produce the second and now highly anticipated second hit album. A very different and more disciplined procedure altogether, and in many cases not that successful. And then there's the third album.. and on, if you get the chance that is. These days most recording contracts evaporate after one fail.
So further down the album line a songwriter may have to engage new conscious techniques.
David Bowie for instance once used a cut-up technique for his lyrics originally invented by William Burroughs when writing his beat books. Lines or phrases were written out and then later physically cut into strips and reassembled in a random order providing new unconscious ways of seeing the lyrics juxtaposed.
Some writers assemble quite abstract ideas from unlikely sources and do a sort of mental cut up until it feels right, like Captain Beefheart. They tend not to be the main stream hit writers but sure leave a fascinating and colourful record of their psyche.
Frank Zappa was a shrewd politician, humorist and sharp satirist, his subjects were as likely drawn by news events and archetypes of people that he viewed in the times he lived. He was always slightly detached from the personal, like an onlooker or commentator.
Bob Dylan, another of the great songwriters of the 20th century and still going strong, is more an orator of American history and culture but has also woven sequences of coded images and personal motifs into his songs that have set people discussing and arguing over them since his early days.
Few folk artists, if that's what Dylan was at one time, have dealt with the lyrics in this way preferring to use traditional themes or embellish them adding their own interpretation on a song sometimes hundreds of years old.
Completely alternative to all of the above are the heavy metal songwriters, who shape their lyrics on fantasy or effect that will exaggerate and enlarge the musical content as if each song was a chapter in a graphic novel or horror film. The subject rarely has any personal attachment to the songwriter but more like a vision of how the listener might perceive the overall effect with the power of the heavy metal music. Black Sabbath were no more satanists than William Friedkin was in directing the Exorcist.
Then lastly come the song-smiths. That rare breed of writer that just have the gift. Anyone who struggles to tear a song from themselves find them really annoying because the song-smiths just do it naturally. They seem like no subject is out of bounds for them to write a lyric or tune around. Whether the tune comes first or the words they just don't care. They are able to produce the genius in one song and the near trite in another with equal pleasure. The skill is usually prodigious.
Paul McCartney would probably be the best example. The man has written some of the most uplifting rock and roll as in 'Drive My Car', to the shear intensity of 'Helter Skelter', the most abstract rock of 'Why Don't We Do it In The Road' and then completely belies all that and thinks nothing of writing 'The Frog Song' for kids or 'The Mull Of Kyntire' for your granny.
The song-smiths are a law unto themselves.
It's known that Paul McCartney had the tune for his hit, and one of the most covered tunes of all times 'Yesterday', well in-advance of the words and was singing "bacon and egg's" to it before he wrote the final lyrics. That's only the one song though and as everyone knows his hundreds of songs would definitely make him an obvious choice as one of the 20th century's relentless song-smiths, and born with it.
He once claimed he could write a song about anything and who'd disbelieve him, that's what a song-smith can do. Hardly surprising he could sometimes drive Lennon to distraction.
So let's now take John Lennon, who as we all know has also individually written some of the worlds biggest hit records. How does he do it ?
By the nature of Lennon's music you tend to feel his lyrics are maybe more organic. He covers subjects nearest and more personal to him and if it doesn't mean something personally he doesn't do it. Well maybe in the early days he did a little of the Boy Girl Love You, You Don't Love Me songs but it wasn't long before he had his mind on his own personal experiences in a song.
Lennon's lyrics came out like pages of a diary and he never changed from that approach which is often the most difficult method of writing because the individual is likely to tell all good or bad. It's a risk that can work but not always.
Although it would be no exaggeration to say his 'Strawberry Fields' is one the cleverest and most memorable songs of the last 60 years and this video of the making of Strawberry Fields is a fascinating insight into how Lennon's song and song writing develops throughout 1966 to it's eventual release in 1967.
How the chords to the tune develop, how the lyrics slowly change, how Lennon experiments with the tune on a Melatron (in it's infancy in '66), how the group begin to construct and learn the song, how George Martin, who really was The Beatles secret weapon and who no other group of the time had the equivalent of, took the tune and orchestrated it with Lennon, to the final mix of the orchestra with the group.
How George Martin worked out the arrangement of the orchestra at a faster pace so it could then be slowed down on tape to work with the final mix is mind boggling.
Here then is 26 minutes of the evolution and making of Strawberry Fields. It should inspire many a songwriter.