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How songwriting collaboration can equal more than 1+1.

Robert White discusses the case for collaboration

If you have ever looked closely at a record label you are sure to have noticed the small print in brackets immediately underneath the song title, in which the composer(s) of the number are credited. In most cases it is likely that more than one name will appear, showing that the song was written in collaboration by two or more songwriters. For songwriting is a field where collaboration can be the key to success; over the years the popular music industry has spawned such talented partnerships as Lennon/McCartney, Goffin/King, Cook/Greenaway, Leiber/Stoller, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Chinn/Chapman and many more.

There are two main reasons for writing a song as a team. First of all, as a song is made up of the two basic elements of words and music, the majority of songwriting partnerships are comprised of a composer and a lyricist. Collaboration of this nature is particularly common in writing music for the theatre, eg Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hart, Lerner and Loewe, where the music and lyrics have to essentially tell the story by conveying a mood or atmosphere related to the plot. In the area of commercial popular music several prolific composer/lyricist teams have emerged, each producing many hit songs. Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Les Reed and Barry Mason, to name just a few.

Each songwriting partnership will probably have its own particular way of working. For example, to quote the favourite line of anyone who ever interviews a songwriter — 'Which comes first, the melody or the lyric?'. When writing with Barry Mason, Les Reed generally produced a melody first, to which Barry added what he terms a "cod lyric" — something spontaneous, written on first hearing the tune. He would then take the song away and write a permanent, well-thought-out lyric, but surprisingly he would often revert to the original "cod lyric" because its basic simplicity was the very ingredient which gave the number its commercial appeal. Elton John and Bernie Taupin, however, work in the opposite way, with Bernie providing the lyrics to which Elton composes a melody.

The second good reason why songwriters choose to work together is simply that in most cases two heads are better than one. Songwriting is a creative process and the individual members of the team act as a sounding board for each other's ideas. In writing a song a solo composer may be guided in its construction by personal taste, and subsequently avoid using a specific element which, while not to the composer's liking, could be a key factor in the song's general commercial appeal. However, with two songwriters working in conjunction with one another such a point may be apparent to the other member(s) of the team and be resolved through constructive criticism. The difference which writing in collaboration can make is emphasised by the number of songwriters who were completely unsuccessful with their individual efforts, but whose careers flourished when they began writing in partnership.

The fact that two songwriters get together does not of course mean that they will automatically be successful. Many well-known writers tried working with several different people before meeting the right person(s) and forming a partnership which worked. No one knows what makes a successful collaboration; it is just an indefinable rapport between two or more writers which acts as a catalyst on their creative ideas. As an example of how prolific a well-suited partnership can be, Les Reed and Barry Mason wrote three songs, namely The Last Waltz (Englebert Humperdinck); Everybody Knows (Dave Clark Five) and I'm Coming Home (Tom Jones) in one Sunday afternoon.

Even successful songwriting partnerships can run out of ideas and it is not unusual to find individuals from top teams interchanging with one another to write particular numbers. A change of lyricist or composer can often bring a change of direction and a fresh approach. In 1973, Neil Sedaka enjoyed a renaissance with a contemporary musical image signalling the end of a highly successful songwriting collaboration with lyricist Howard Greenfield during which they had notched up eleven world-wide hits. To suit his more serious style of writing, which contrasted considerably with his earlier 'high school' image, Sedaka began collaborating with a new lyricist, Phil Cody, and as a result produced such superb songs as Solitaire, Laughter In The Rain and Going Nowhere.

In today's recording industry composers often take collaboration even further when they involve record producers and arrangers in the early stages of writing a song; in many instances they also may be able to make a creative contribution to the development of a song. Apart from the classic example of George Martin and the Beatles, Neil Diamond also had a successful period with producer and arranger Tom Catalano.

This then is the case for collaboration, and whatever your interest in songwriting, whether as a beginner, an aspiring amateur or a hardened professional, the advantages of writing songs as part of a team are certainly worth considering and a glance at the popular music charts over the years proves it!

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Sound International - Copyright: Link House Publications


Sound International - Jul 1978

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Robert White

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