It’s My Song
And I'll Cry If I Want To
so why can't the band play it properly? songwriters’ psychology made simple
You know your songs are potential chart-toppers: so why can't the rest of the band do them justice?
FEW THINGS IN LIFE are as thrilling as the moment when you enter the rehearsal room, breathless with energy and enthusiasm, because you know you've hit on the idea. The idea that will transform your band's fortunes almost overnight. The idea that will rocket your band to megastardom, gain you an appearance on 'The Last Resort', and raise your status as a songwriter to stratospheric levels.
It's perfect - just the combination of melody, harmony, driving rhythm and musical subtlety that you've been working towards for months. And now you've got it. The whole concept is just exactly right for you - and, of course, your band.
Sadly, few things in life are more soul-destroying than the scene when, three hours later, you storm out of the room, your hopes in tatters. You're not sure that you're going to speak to the guitarist ever again, let alone play with the moron. The drummer is beneath contempt, and the vocalist - well, you can't remember why you ever let her in the band in the first place.
What caused this catastrophic change of mood? It's obvious, isn't it? They ruined your piece. It's been reduced from a fabulous four-minute tour de force to nothing more than a sick joke. Assuming you'd even bothered to record it, you'd be embarrassed to play it to the cat, let alone to a real audience. (Never mind that those idiots couldn't attract a dozen friends to a gig, let alone a real audience.)
Does all this sound depressingly familiar? If it doesn't, you've never actually been in a band because, believe me, it happens to every band that was ever worthy of the name.
The crucial question is: how do you overcome the problem of the great mucked-up masterpiece - which is, after all, the cause of more broken musical associations than perhaps any other?
You obviously formed/joined your band for a reason. Was it because you needed a drummer to pound out the backbeat? Did you think that real music required a screaming lead guitar? Did you need a keyboard player because you couldn't afford all those lovely expensive machines that sound so trendy? Was the vocalist a necessity because your own voice sounds like wet gravel (the type you hear as your backside slides along it at 40mph having just wiped out your GSX250)? And bass players - have you always wondered what it is they actually do, anyway?
If your instinctive answer to any of these questions is "yes", then ask yourself why you are in the group in the first place. It obviously isn't because you want to be part of a genuine band. Maybe you just couldn't afford a four-track Portastudio or an Atari computer with sequencing software, drum machine, sampler, and synthesizers.
Or maybe I'm being unfair. You see your percussionist as just the right man to introduce new and exciting rhythms. Your guitarist is a composer/arranger in his own right and your vocalist has a great voice and contributes to the melodies and all-important lyrics. And your keyboard player, while a bit on the pompous side, really knows his way around a synthesizer. So why do you still end up storming out of every other practice? Where is it all going wrong?
The first thing to remember is that in music, as in everything else, people are all different. Not only do we have different abilities and different working speeds, it's inevitable that the very attitudes that led us into playing our instruments have given us quite different ways of looking at things. In my experience, drummers and bass players are always striving to inject power into a piece, keyboard players are insufferable with their harmonic progressions and structures, guitarists never quite get over the "where's the lead break go?" mentality, and singers can never fit their lyrics into the song properly (or alternatively, can never come up with anything they like in the first place). Some musicians can pick up a part in five minutes flat, whereas others may take a week to get it right. Some players freeze in the rehearsal room and need to practise all week long in their bedroom. And others don't touch their instruments from one performance to the next (although this is a course you are most definitely advised against).
"You should welcome the ritual of pulling the whole song to pieces and then putting it back together again."
So before you do anything else, you must learn to be tolerant. It might be, for instance, that the bass player isn't being awkward - it just isn't possible to play that marvellous sequenced synth-bass line on a bass guitar. Even if it can be managed at all, it may still sound awful.
Assuming that you've made allowances for all the players and instruments in the band and pitched the vocal just right for the singer, why do other members of the group still insist on messing around with your composition? After all, this almost inevitably leads to disagreement... or does it? Provided your fellow musicians are not complete idiots (and if they are, then it's your fault for agreeing to work with them in the first place) and you're not such a rampant egoist that you can't accept a little help from your friends, you should welcome the ritual of pulling the whole composition to pieces and then putting it back together again.
Of course there will be disagreement. You will frequently wish that you'd bought that drum machine with the never-answer-back facility. You will also experience a bit of self-doubt - was your original idea really a load of rubbish? (By the way, 90% of your ideas are rubbish - whoever you are.) If a few home truths about your compositions do come to the surface, that's no bad thing.
But once in a while, I promise, it will all come together. There will be a time when the combined efforts and skills of a band begin to pay dividends. That great solo you would never have thought of, the new harmonies that kept escaping you, the clever rhythms combined with... well, combined with whatever you put into the piece in the first place.
There is no single route to take in the struggle to ensure you do justice to your songs. Bands are as different as the people who are in them. The last two paragraphs will be meaningless if your band is made up of one brilliant composer and five backing musicians. But then, if that was the case, you wouldn't have had the argument in the first place, would you?
Experiment. Find out how you can best work with each other, rather than against each other. Try allowing each member of the band to be band-leader in rota, or maybe designating a neutral party to handle any dispute (there's usually one member of the band who's quite happy with either of the alternatives you are so passionately arguing about). Have a bash at developing one person's idea as far as it can go. If it's rubbish - scrap it; if not, keep developing. Never be afraid to throw away material: if you're keeping more than 25% of your rough compositions, you're setting yourself standards that are way too low.
In a nutshell, learn to compromise, listen to everyone's opinion, and remain constructively critical. That way, at least everyone will know that if they have a contribution to make, that the other members of the band are willing to listen. It's a form of mutual respect, and we all need it. Obviously some players are going to be more creative, and some are going to dominate compositions more than others. However, it's not how much contribution anyone makes that causes the arguments, it's how those contributions are expressed and how they are received that matters.
Avoid the enormous ego like the plague. It's a disease that afflicts guitarists, keyboard players, drummers, bassists and singers alike, and we can all do without the Cult of the Great "I Am". There are brilliant composers out there - geniuses in their fields. But the guitarist who just stormed out because he couldn't play A#m7 and "couldn't see the point of it anyway" isn't one of them.
Perhaps things are really desperate. Let's say you've been through the treadmill of recruiting new band members more often than you care to think about. You've eventually managed to find someone with whom you think you can work, and still, after the first few weeks, the same problems rear their heads. If that's the case, you may be tempted to buy a multitrack cassette recorder. This could cost you as little as £300, and would give you scope for piecing tracks together from scratch before going back to improve them, part by part. But beware - this can be a sterile road to take. Multitracks are fabulous machines, but they can give you a false sense of security, and/or make you treat your multitracked composition as an end in itself. You can find yourself isolated not only from the criticism, but also the ideas and the energy of your fellow musicians. Unless you're content to create music purely for your own consumption, you're eventually going to have to involve other people, so it's best to acknowledge the fact early on.
If your group has access to a multitrack machine, try the following tip. I've found it invaluable for involving all the members of a band, while maintaining the original integrity of a song. After composing your masterpiece, run off as many cassette copies as you need - one for each member of the band. The drummer's should have no drum track, the bassist gets one without bass, the keyboard player has no keyboards... get the picture? Each musician has the freedom to occupy their own space within the composition, without any preconceptions from the composer getting in the way. They all come back with ideas that surprise everyone else but, of course, the piece still hangs together. Sometimes the result is awful; sometimes it's amazing. But whatever the result, it's a worthwhile exercise.
As a final note, consider this. A piece of music written, arranged, and performed by one person (maybe with a few backing musicians) has all the input and expertise of... one person. But a piece made up of the mutual contributions of four, five, or even more people has a far wider scope. The chances are that you are not a Beethoven or a McCartney, and that that extra injection of life could be just the difference between obscurity and success.
Feature by Gordon Reid
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