It’s pretty cliché to say the opposite of creation is destruction. But when I think about the bands I love, and the songs I adore, I often think that juxtaposition is at the heart of it.
As an aspiring songwriter, the problem I find with my own material is it’s too me. There’s no yin or yang. There’s no push and pull. Everything is always exactly what I would do. It all falls (or fails) to my sensibilities.
There’s creation, but no destruction. There’s no counterpoint, no devils advocate. No opposing view point.
This is why many of music's most successful songwriters have been teams: Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Leiber/Stoller, Holland/Dozier/Holland.
Now, I’m not saying that an individual can’t write a great song. After all, it’s been done too many times to count. Merely that collaboration often elevates a song from good to great. Take for instance “Getting Better” by The Beatles. Imagine what it would be like if it were just McCartney’s optimism of “It’s getting better all the time”. What makes the song – to me at least – is the juxtaposition of Lennon’s pessimism (or realism, depending on how you look at things) in the line “It can’t get no worse”.
There are many more examples of the Beatles collaborating like this, and it’s one of the reason’s they’re considered by many to be the world’s greatest pop band. Add into that the talents of George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Sir George Martin and Billy Preston and you have a recipe for greatness – and the reason why none of the four Beatles solo works live up to their group efforts.
The band Badfinger was signed to Apple Records, named by John Lennon, and their first hit was written by Paul McCartney for a film starring Ringo Starr. George Harrison also co-produced one of their albums. Like the “Fab Four” all four members wrote and sang. But some of their most memorable songs are the ones in which they collaborate, such as “Without You” which was a number one hit for both Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey. “Meanwhile Back at The Ranch/Should I Smoke” and “In the Meantime/Some Other Time” are two of the more memorable songs off their album Wish You Were Here and were only fractures of songs when the band entered the studio, but with the help of their producer, Chris Thomas, parts were combined to great effect. When the songs switch gears and a new singer takes over mid-song, you can’t help but recognize the unexpected and the clash of different personalities.
Memphis’ Big Star toured with Badfinger, and are another example of a band with four distinct songwriters, and whose best work were written in collaboration. Their debut album, #1 Record was primarily attributed to Bell/Chilton, while their follow up introduces collaborations with bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens.
In more modern times, Canada’s Sloan is another example of four disparate songwriting voices: guitarist Jay Ferguson tends to favor Beatle-esque pop, while drummer Andrew Scott takes a more artful approach, even incorporating sound effects from time to time. Guitarist Patrick Pentland favors a hard rock approach while bassist Chris Murphy is more straight forward rock. Their albums consequently are extremely varied, from shoe gaze to power pop to blues rock to avant garde. And it’s all to the listeners benefit. In fact, their least popular album, 2004’s Action Pact is a record where they brought in an outside producer and allowed him to choose what songs made the album. He opted for the more commercial work of Murphy and Pentland and forsook all of Scott's songs all together. And while there are some great songs on the record, it feels the most one note of their eleven album catalog. Similarly, their 2014 album, “Commonwealth” suffers from a similar problem. This time, however, each band member was given a full album side to do with as they want. Andrew Scott chose to make one 23 minute song of mini suites, while the others each composed four or five songs. Despite many good songs, listening to a collection of songs from Jay, then Chris, then Patrick then Andrew doesn’t hold one's interest as well as when their songs are interspersed amongst each other. Back to back they lack the push and pull and variation the other members offer. Forcing one to wonder how much more enjoyable this album would have been if sequenced differently.
Perhaps the most famous example of art out of adversary is Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. At the time, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had broken up, as had Christine and John McVie, all of whom were in the band together. Simultaneously, Mick Fleetwood’s marriage was falling apart. But out of all the emotional turmoil came a platinum selling record, and one of the most beloved records of modern pop music.
Tanya Donelly of the Grammy nominated band, Belly took this approach a step further with the “Swan Song Series”. A collection of 31 songs which she co-wrote with over a dozen other musicians and authors. According to Donnelly, “the main idea was just to do a bunch of collaborations with people that I’ve admired and who I thought would be a good fit – or even not a good fit, because sometimes a better song comes out of a mismatch.”
The songs range wildly, and the writing process was “all over the map” as some songs were written remotely and other songs came from just a scrap of music or lyrics.
But song writing isn’t the only place in music that can have conflict. There are also bands where, while one member may be the primary or even sole song writer, there are other alpha personalities within the band which lead to conflict. The Who is a great example of this. While Pete Townshend may write the majority of the songs, all the members contributed their own parts and the friction amongst them – particularly Daltrey and Townshend resulted in some of the greatest music of the ‘70’s.
Oasis is a similar band where there constantly seemed to be friction between lead guitarist and song-writer Noel Gallagher and his brother, vocalist Liam Gallagher.
And while this conflict can lead to great music, it can also eventually take its toll on a band, leading to “creative differences” and a need to go separate ways. A double-edged sword for sure! But as they say, it’s better to burn out than fade away.