Dispatches from the Heart

By Lisle, Tim De | The Independent (London, England), September 11, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Dispatches from the Heart

Lisle, Tim De, The Independent (London, England)

Most popular songs lead short lives. But some endure - in the hands of other singers, and the minds of the public. They linger on; they strike a chord. These are the tunes that have appeared in our feature `Lives of the Great Songs', which ran for two series last year. This week it returns for a third run of eight articles, and also appears in book form. Tim de Lisle, arts editor, raises the curtain. Opposite, Giles Smith launches the new series with the story of Simon and Garfunkel's greatest hit

THEY'RE the tunes the busker plays when the hat is looking empty. They're the cards in the jukebox window that have gone yellow with age. They're the Muzak in the burger bar that doesn't put you off your food.

They're a finger on your pulse, and a shot in the arm. They're a sudden new mood (how strange the change from major to minor). They're the language of love, and a kick in its direction: a voice for the tongue-tied, a shove for the shy. They're a thrill, or a pill. They're an aide-memoire ("These Foolish Things" reminds me of you), and a lasting link: you may leave your lover, but you'll still have your tune (play it, Sam!). And so they're the ghost of love, a congenial torture (if she can stand it, I can). They're the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire. They're the top. They're the great songs.

THE SONG is the currency of popular music. This is an obvious point, but often overlooked. These days the music generates a lot of literature, and especially works of reference. A stack of them are beside me now, keeping a stern eye on my screen. They have been a great help. They have also been a great encouragement, because they're so bad at coping with songs.

The most recorded song in the world is "Yesterday", written by Paul McCartney. But you won't find an entry for it in the 739 pages of The Oxford Companion to Popular Music, or the 875 pages of The Faber Companion to 20th- Century Popular Music, or the 1,296 pages of The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, or even the 1,378 pages of The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. They mention it, of course. One calls it a "sentimental standard"; another runs to "lovely"; another cites it as an example of how McCartney was best at sad songs. The fourth offers no description at all (go and stand in the corner, Oxford).

This is not to say that they are bad books. It is to suggest that somewhere along the line, we have gone astray. We have dwelt on the singer at the expense of the song. Lives of the Great Songs is a small attempt to put that right.

It's no encyclopedia, but having started as a series in these pages, it has become a book - a set of critical biographies of three dozen songs, including "Yesterday". Each is short enough to be read at a sitting, but long enough to capture the magic of the song, and follow its progress from one singer to the next, one meaning to another, across the generations and genres.

THERE were three rules governing the choice of song. First, it needed to have had an interesting life: there had to be at least three significantly different recordings of it. This hurdle proved too high for dozens of great records, from Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely" to "Every Breath You Take" by The Police. (If you want to mint a standard, make sure it has a few imperfections.) Second, it had to fit into the series: we make no claims to completeness - among the songwriters not covered are Leiber and Stoller, Irving Berlin, Bacharach, Bowie and Prince - but we have tried to give a fair spread (only one Beatles composition). Third, the writer had to be convinced that the song was great; it was at this fence that "MacArthur Park" fell. Which brings us to the million-

dollar question: what makes a great song?

The obvious answer is: a memorable lyric, a catchy tune and a proper relationship between them - a feeling that (even if they are written by different people, which used to be the norm) they go together like the horse and carriage in "Love and Marriage".

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