Songwriting Partners

I’ve been thinking lately about the stylistic tendencies in songwriting partners. Not the words/music split of Gilbert/Sullivan or Hammerstein/Rodgers, but the Lennon/McCartney model: two long-running partners who share credit on everything even though they often write songs individually. The differences between the two Beatles are well-known: in broad strokes, Paul McCartney favored sentimental ballads and third-person narratives, while John Lennon liked screaming rockers and experimental noise. (There are many exceptions on both sides, of course.) Similarly, in the Clash, Joe Strummer skewed towards punk, Mick Jones towards funk.

But I’ve recently realized that there’s plenty of  songwriting partners where I have no idea what’s contributed by each. What’s the Fagen axis and the Becker axis when you plot the Steely Dan songbook? How does the Rolling Stones songbook divide between Jagger and Richards? Can devoted Squeeze fans tell the difference between a Difford tune and a Tilbrook one?

posted 12 November 2008 in Tasty Bits and tagged . 5 comments

5 Comments on Songwriting Partners

  1. Chris M. Says:

    Dunno, on any of those.

    While we’re picking apart all-for-one-and-one-for-all credits, what’s the typical breakdown on a Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe song, I wonder?

  2. Gavin Says:

    That I know: the other three guys collaborated on the music (sometimes having half- or mostly-finished songs already, other times just having melodic scraps) and then gave tapes/CDs of the instrumentals to Stipe, who would write the words.

    Apparently they learned to sequence the tapes/discs carefully because Stipe would improvise over them and a tune at the beginning stood a much better chance of becoming a fully finished song.

    As to the individual musical tastes/achievements of Berry/Buck/Mills, I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure Berry wrote the music for “Everybody Hurts.” And I recall some bit of snark that Buck had a long dry spell, which he broke with the mandolin part that became “Losing My Religion,” which rocketed the band to a new level of global fame.

  3. Gavin Says:

    Update: I had lunch with the well-versed Morgan Neville, who informed me that Chris Difford wrote the lyrics in Squeeze, while Glenn Tilbrook wrote the music. I don’t know how they split up the vocals.

    Apparently, Difford would do the words first, which is unusual–the only other pop-rock songwriting team I can think of that worked that way was Bernie Taupin and Elton John.

    (I know, by the way, that there are Stones songs where Richards did the music and Jagger did the words–e.g., “Satisfaction.” But there are also songs that are essentially solo compositions: “Angie” was a Richards paean to Anita Pallenberg, for example. What I don’t know is how the percentages break down–did they start off writing eyeball to eyeball and then drift apart as the years went on? Further research is required; one thing this is teaching me is that while many people know quite a lot of gossip and scandal about the Stones, their creative process is relatively underdocumented.)

  4. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    My understanding is that, at least since around 1970, Jagger and Richards would go off alone and write their own stuff, then bring songs into the studio to be completed. “Moonlight Mile,” as I recall, was all Keith, and “Start Me Up” was all Mick. But there would generally be enough collaboration in the studio so that the co-writing credits would be well-earned.

    You would think, by the way, that the riff-rockers like “Shattered” would have been Keith’s and the more pop-oriented stuff, like “Miss You,” would be Mick’s. But “Angie” blows that theory out of the water.

  5. Pete Best Says:

    Re: R.E.M., I believe Bill Berry wrote the music to Perfect Circle, too. And I’m always amused that Rock the Casbah, one of the most popular Clash songs, was written by Topper Headon. I think he played almost everything on the backing track, too.

    One of the things I’ve always thought is that the “one guy does lyrics, the other music” is not really accurate. In some cases (like Difford/Tillbrook, Taupin/John) the lyricist only writes the words, not the vocal melody. But in most partnerships, I believe the lyricist writes the vocal melodies. I think this is true for Michael Stipe. I’ve always wondered how it worked with Morrisey/Marr. Did the Moz write the vocal melodies, too? Or was it all Marr?

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