John had an extra ticket to see Nick Lowe in Chicago. He said he’d drive.
It’d been awhile since just the two of us “did something” and there aren’t too many outings more suited to the principal songwriters of an obscure Midwestern band inspired to a large degree by Mr. Lowe’s half-earnest half-smartass aesthetic. Lowe’s True Hollywood Story-song of a silent film star eaten by her own dachshund, “Marie Provost,” had been on our setlist since Day One.
So we were traveling through Northern Indiana’s glacier-scraped farmland on a winter’s evening.
Our band hadn’t been a band for years, but we had plenty to talk about: John’s girlfriend’s sociology project which required her to find and inventory the lairs of homeless people in Indianapolis, while the homeless were (John hoped) out and away; a song cycle he was writing about Richard Nixon; our old bass player, who used to work at the same advertising agency I do, but had left to start his own place; my regret that I was unable to interest The Hopper Children in playing guitar or piano.
Those topics got us up to the Dairy Queen in West Lafayette, where we stopped for a Brazier dinner.
When we got back on the road, I eventually brought up a topic that I knew was confusing the various people who associated me with the Nick Lowe-y songwriting style of our old band. “So, yeah, I’ve been going down to Nashville a fair amount,” I said.
“Yeah. What about that?” he said. His tone was opaque.
Ironically, somewhat, Nick Lowe was once married to Carlene Carter, Johnny Cash’s step-daughter. But that connection either did not influence Nick’s songwriting, or Nick was uninterested in “the formula” for Nashville songs, or like a lot of people he simply never managed to sell Nashville a song despite his talent and moderate success elsewhere.
“Well…” I told John the basic story of my plunge into the Country Music Market.
I might say, at this point, that John is one of the best songwriters ever, even though you don’t know his work. He crystallizes complicated emotional ideas into hooks and compact phrases that are funny and poignant. Judge him by his song titles: “I Used To Be So Smart,” “Budweiser Microscope,” “I’m Alternative,” “Blue Waiter;” or by the opening lines of “Hey McGhee” which go:
I’m just trying to help you/And I hope I don’t get up your nose again;
or the chorus of “Guitar,” which says:
I’m staring at the ceiling/And I’m playing what I’m feeling/And my heart’s still beating on my guitar;
or the start of “Hardwood Floors”:
All my friends find ingenious ways to leave this town/They wear a tie and get transferred or join the Army/Or go to school and never come back/Not even at Christmastime/With their new wives.
“And they’re serious about having you write to a formula,” I told John. “You have to get used to it. But they don’t want it to be, y’know, boring or bad. They still want something interesting. Something original.”
He was skeptical.
“I don’t think it’s cynical. I think they believe in it,” I said. To me, it appears that Music Row’s devotion to form and formula is not strictly venal. It’s just the smartest way to send a song into the Machine without you being there to defend it. “The first rule of songwriting is, there are no rules,” Barbara Cloyd, a Songwriting Tutor, likes to declare at the outset of her class. Then she takes a fairly deep breath: “Having said that…”
And she goes on to explain the three or four acceptable formulas.
It all proceeds from the notion that there are basic truths about how people like to get information. Barbara quotes someone she knows as saying, “We like to hear something, then hear it again. Then we want to hear something different for a while. After that, we’re ready to hear the first thing again.”
That would be Verse Chorus, Verse Chorus, Bridge, Verse Chorus.
I knew John spoke the Universal Language of Beatles. “So the basic formula is like, oh, ‘Ticket to Ride.’ Or ‘Day Tripper.’”
I might have been a little didactic. “Then, if you want, you can start with two verses. That gives you an option to have one or two verses after the first chorus. But you never put two verses after the first chorus unless you had two at the beginning. That screws with the formula.”
John was laughing and shaking his head in a way that meant he couldn’t believe I had bought into this seriously.
“Like ‘Yellow Submarine,’” I said. “Two verses, chorus, one verse, chorus, the farting around in a submarine during the bridge, verse chorus. Actually, the bridge is optional. I’ve heard publishers say, ‘Do you really need a bridge here? There’s no new information in it…’”
John was allowing me to continue.
“Then you’re supposed to make your chorus melody different from your verse melody. They want the chorus melody to be big and soaring for the singer to really, y’know, take it away. And then there’s the Lift.”
Some people call it the Pre-Chorus. Songs everybody knows have these, but most of us don’t notice, or at least don’t know it’s a distinct section with a name. I didn’t. I even used to write a lot of Lifts, which would vaguely annoy John and the bass player when teaching them new songs. John would call it “The Chuck Part.”
I think they thought I was being ornate.
The Lift comes in between the Verse and the Chorus and sort of builds tension, or “lifts” the singer into the chorus. Barbara Cloyd compares it to stretching out a rubber band that you’re going to let go when you hit the chorus. Using the Beatles, the best I can come up with on short notice is the part of “Got To Get You Into My Life” that goes, Oo, then I suddenly see you/Oo, did I tell you I need you/Every single day of my life.
It’s a little long for a lift. And, of course, Sir Paul would be asked by the publisher to work on his chorus. Make it longer. Maybe put a little more detail in there. I mean, it’s just shouting the name of the song and a saxophone riff, really, when it comes down to it.
“You’re okay with all this, then?” John asked.
I guess I am.
The other form that’s generally acceptable, though less prized because it has no soaring chorus, is the “A A B A” form. The hook comes as the end line of each A section. It might show up at the end of the B section, but doesn’t have to. Most songs that are written with no thought of formula tend to be in this form. “Yesterday” is A A B A. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” is. “Girl” is. Most Bob Dylan songs are.
“What else,” I said, having trapped behind his steering wheel one of the few audiences in my life who could withstand this offloading of esoterica. “You also don’t want to start with the chorus, like ’Can’t Buy Me Love.’ That’s an old folksong form. You’re supposed to start with a colorful line, full of details, that grabs attention…”
I made John listen to some country music on whatever station we could find in Northern Indiana. He was clearly put off by most of it; he thought one of the songs was pretty good in a kind of corny way.
I let it drop.
John was always the opinion leader in the band. It was a democracy, mostly, but if he didn’t like something we didn’t do it. That was years ago, but once a relationship pattern is established, well, it’s a pattern. As the twigs are bent, so grow the band mates.
We turned the radio off and concentrated on not getting lost in Chicago.
Mr. Lowe had filled a large club. People were shouting out requests for his mostly unpopular pop songs. “Yes, oh yes,” he said with British dry wit. “There are so many, aren’t there. So many.”
At which point he strummed the opening to one of the tunes we’d come to hear.
Probably an A A B A.