Reflections on Rock Music: How to Become a Songwriter…

Originally posted 2009-04-20 23:38:17. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Regardless of which genre of rock music you listen to, chances are that you are a fan of songwriters.  As recently as the fifties and even into the sixties, it was considered par for the course to have the songwriting separated from the performance.  For instance, consider Lieber and Stoller’s contributions to Elvis Presley’s catalog.  Johnny Cash wrote some of his songs, but he certainly covered more than he wrote.  And this was an understandable system.

Somewhere along the line, the singer/songwriter became a closely watched and more appreciated commodity.

It really began in the sixties, predominantly with Dylan and the Beatles.  Both acts began by playing traditional music and covers before they started writing their own music.  Whatever it was, something struck them, and from that point forward, it only made sense to record their own material.  This most likely contributed to the legendary heights that sixties rock music reached.  Consider Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s groundbreaking records that truly sounded like nothing that had come before.  Take Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ experimental and, in the case of the latter, concept albums that literally changed the texture of album making as we know it.

Meanwhile, don’t forget all the other singer/songwriters who emerged during that period and since.  Brian Wilson went so far in the mid-sixties as to stop touring and devote his attentions one hundred percent to songwriting and arranging lush, complicated — and, of course, beautiful — background tracks, perhaps best showcased on Pet Sounds and the finally-released SMiLE (the latter of which literally drove him crazy).

Since then, some of my personal favorite bands and individual artists have been, first and foremost, songwriters.  Take Warren Zevon’s unique brand of songwriting, particularly his dark humor and literary references.  Or R.E.M. and their contributions to the genre now known as “alternative rock,” wherein Michael Stipe purposely cut out electric guitar solos and — at least in the band’s early work — muffled the lyrics so that there was no single set of understood words for each song.  It was literally left up for interpretation.

Later acts have split off in a range of directions.  For instance, acts like Ben Folds, the Barenaked Ladies, and the Wallflowers have clearly taken their lead from classic sixties songwriters and then added their own unique lyrical and instrumental twists.  Other bands, such as Pearl Jam and Wilco (to name only a couple), continue to make music that stretches and redefines the boundaries that have previously been set for rock music and songwriting in general.  (This is a painfully short list of five contemporary bands that I love, but they are enough to provide fodder for conversation…)

So, based on this, how does one become a songwriter?

If you’ve always wanted to be a songwriter but were never sure how, or even if you’ve just been curious, then this list is for you…

1)  Rebel Against Something

This is a requisite coming-of-age process for all you prospective songwriters who hope to make it to the big time.  Whether you have grown up in suburbia or on the streets, there are always reasons to rebel.  For Bob Dylan, it was the dull realities of daily life in a dying mining town in Minnesota that caused him to see music as an escape.  He has described his exhilaration as he tuned his radio in to whatever distant stations he could pick up.  Others, such as Eddie Vedder, found music as a way to channel their emotional reactions to what they experienced and witnessed around them.  Vedder reflected on such experiences from young adulthood as abusive relationships, dysfunctional people, and secrets being kept from him.

2)  Show Your Distaste for Tradition and “The Man”

Once you’ve begun the process of rebelling (and perhaps even winning over the masses), it’s time to stick it to “the Man.”  The Beatles’ history epitomizes this development.  They certainly didn’t go from “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” overnight, but one thing is certain: the more they rebelled, the more fans flocked to Beatlemania.  Bob Dylan brought a giant light bulb to a press conference, refused to communicate in a straightforward manner with any member of the press, and plugged in — full volume — at the Newport Folk Festival.  The Moody Blues promised they would record a classical album, then turned around and used the studio time alotted to them to record their own original material for Days of Future Passed.  Pearl Jam fought the good fight against the “convenience charges” implimented by Ticketmaster, and Eddie Vedder, after a fan threw a copy of Rolling Stone onstage during a concert, wiped his butt with the magazine, explaining to the crowd that RS printed a cover photo of him without the other members of his band in the shot.  When Trent Reznor tired of record label interference and corporate nonsense, the Nine Inch Nails frontman began releasing his music online — including his 2008 album The Slip — for free.

And the list goes on…

Perhaps the best example of the importance of this step in the successful songwriter’s career is found in the Beach Boys’ decision not to play at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival.  For the late 1960s and well into the 1970s, they were labeled as “them” instead of “us” by many music fans.  It is arguable that the Beach Boys’ clean cut image that skyrocketed them to success in the early sixties ultimately led to the band’s decline in popularity.  Ah, the irony…

3)  Go Through Rehab

This sounds like a terrible and heartless suggestion to make to you.  Yet, while there are some artists who have not gone through rehab, there are indeed many great musicians and songwriters who have had to face their addictions and other demons at some point in their careers.  Recently, Jeff Tweedy underwent rehabilitation to deal with an addiction to painkillers.  He, like many other artists in the past, was asked what the effect would be on his music.  (I was delighted with his reply — essentially, he said he was feeling better than ever and that his state of mind can only have a positive effect on Wilco’s music.)

Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle crash was asserted by many to be his way of stepping back from the spotlight after a wild tour overseas where he was known to take downers before the acoustic half of his show and then take uppers during the intermission before coming out with the Band.  He was quickly setting a precedent that no individual could survive.  Brian Wilson, of course, withdrew from music and life in general for decades after failing to release SMiLE; it is apparent to anyone who has seen him recently that he still battles with those personal demons.

If not rehab, then every songwriter certainly needs to undergo a period of reflection after a fall from grace.  Take the case of the Barenaked Ladies’ Steven Page, who recently left the band in the aftermath of his cocaine bust.  To read many so-called fans’ scathing rants against him online, you would think you had stepped back into Puritan times.

(Still, I can imagine that he will only be stronger for the experience, and I can’t wait to hear what his next album will be like…)

4)  Have a Family Period

As a songwriter, you may lead the life of a rock star for a matter of years, but eventually everyone has to bring it all back home.  This is the point at which you must find a wife, have one or more kids, and attempt (probably unsuccessfully) to live an ordinary, anonymous life for a while.  The most notable example of this truth is Paul McCartney whose utter failure to accomplish domestic normalcy has been given a name.  It’s called Wings, his band for much of the seventies.  The lineup, much to the chagrin of his earlier fans,  included his wife, Linda.  The lyrical content was often nonsensical enough to make even the most gullible, innocent three year old ask, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”  And yet this is a rite of passage for all music fans, as well.  We’ve all gone through a Wings phase.  Go on, you can admit it…

The Barenaked Ladies have been in a family phase for years, evidenced most recently by the masterful Snacktime.  Ben Folds briefly indulged in the “normalcy” of family life, recording such simple, touching songs as “Gracie,” but his 2008 album Way to Normal strongly suggests that he’ll be a bachelor for some time to come.  Dylan’s so-called family period lasted from the aforementioned motorcycle crash until about 1974 when he apparently got the itch to tour and record music again.  As he sings in the Planet Waves deep track “Something There Is About You,” “I can say that I’ll be faithful.  I can say it in one sweet, easy breath.  But to you that would be cruelty, and to me, it surely would be death.”

Pretty much speaks for itself…

5)  Um… Continue to Write Songs!

So, after all these steps, phases, and experiences, what’s a songwriter to do?

Continue to write songs, of course!

At this point, you can pretty much choose career paths from a plethora of options.  For instance, you could “find religion” and record a series of records devoted to expressing your spirituality.  You could get more personal and vulnerable by going acoustic for an album, or for that matter, turn to harder rock and roll to showcase your newfound rage over a breakup.  Why not record music for a different genre?  (I would recommend country music, as that seems to be the going trend these days.)  Oh, and don’t forget to release an album exclusively through Wal-Mart, although that’s probably best reserved for a planned reunion or comeback album.  In the meantime, you can always record four non-album tracks per release and split them up, offering one exclusively at iTunes, Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart respectively.  It may seem like you’re screwing the fans at the time, but don’t worry; you’ll eventually release a rarities CD that will contain all the non-album tracks.  Put your heart into those non-album tracks now, as there’s nothing more disappointing — and perhaps more predictable — than a sub-par rarities compilation.  Consider it an investment in the future… a future in which you may be writing songs more slowly than ever and yet still be in need of a record to satisfy your contract.

If none of that works, you can take a break from writing for a while to work on covers.  Record a traditional album?  Contribute to a compilation of covers for a famous artist?  Join a supergroup?

The opportunities and options are endless…

Whatever you do, don’t stop caring about what you’re writing and recording, because you’ll always have a fanbase out there that will buy whatever you put out, be it a masterpiece or a recording unworthy of serving even as a paperweight.

So, good luck, and we’re all counting on you!

Warren Zevon’s “The Envoy” (1982) – The Deep Racks Report

Originally posted 2010-09-12 10:00:43. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

A Special Edition of the Weekend Review

I think we’ve all heard the term “deep track,” used to refer to songs that do not receive much (or any) commercial radio airplay.  This series is dedicated to brief but focused reports on ALBUMS that do not receive as much commercial or critical attention as they should.

By Chris Moore:

Considerable time has passed since I last dug deep into the racks for a dusty gem, as Cuomo and company might say, to wipe off and take out for a spin.  Inadvertently coming across this record today has proved reason enough to revive the Deep Racks Report.

To suggest that The Envoy is least appreciated of all Warren Zevon albums would be an understatement.  It is the production whose reception resulted in his record label dropping him by the wayside.  It is the release that coincided — not so coincidentally, after he discovered he was unemployed via a music magazine — with a self-destructive run that landed him in rehab.

Some albums that are not as successful as the big-wigs may have hoped are given a second shot in re-release. The Envoy was given that chance…

…twenty-four years after it hit the shelves.

On the eve of its release in 2006, I found it conspicuous that this Zevon record had never been converted to CD previously.  The obvious question was, how bad could it possibly be?

I had my reservations.

Admittedly due in part to my low expectations, I became immediately enamored with these nine tracks.  It is a brief album, to be certain, but in my opinion, there are far too many examples of those releases that suffer from the opposite flaw.  The nine songs that comprise The Envoy are a cohesive set that negotiate the common territory of, well, negotiating the concerns of the singer: love and authority, to name a couple.

While not innovative, these songs are far from pedestrian.  Zevon continues along the same sonic veins that he has established on previous records, adding the uncharacteristically stripped-down, acoustic “Jesus Mentioned” — a preview of what was to come in the latter half of his career — and the unhinged romp “Ain’t That Pretty At All,” which shakes up the formula at the top of side B.

Warren Zevon's "The Envoy" (1982)

Warren Zevon's "The Envoy" (1982)

There are those that might scoff at my self-righteous resurrection of a lost album, mumbling to themselves about how albums are often deserving of their respective fates.  How low must my bar be set that I could admit such a lost and forgotten sample from Zevon’s nearly three decade long recording career?  The answer is: because I’ve heard lots of Zevon lots and lots of times.  I know a good Zevon release from a great one, and I can distinguish between the misguided, the mediocre, and the amazing.

This album leans decidedly towards the latter.

The Envoy has it all.  There is the fantastic, destined-for-the-greatest-hits track “Looking for the Next Best Thing.”  There are the straightforward rockers “The Envoy,” with its clever, then-contemporary political implications, and “The Overdraft,” which voices concerns of a more personal nature.  There are the tongue-in-cheek, tragic (i.e. typically Zevon-esque) tracks “The Hula Hula Boys” and “Charlie’s Medicine.”  And, for good measure, the songwriter reminds us that he’s not entirely jaded with a pair of purposeful, confident, and dare I say even romantic numbers: “Let Nothing Come Between You” and “Never Too Late for Love.”

Equally important to any serious study of The Envoy is the investigation of the songs that didn’t make the cut.  Wisely, Zevon withheld the overly eighties-sounding “The Risk,” a decision that speaks volumes for his clear mindedness regarding album sequencing, even at the worst of times. And it does makes a fun little bonus track, as does his cover of “Wild Thing.”  I would hope there was never any serious consideration paid towards adding this Troggs cover to the lineup, but all that really matters is that it was never included.

Even if these outtakes had been added, there would be no clear reason to excommunicate The Envoy from Warren Zevon’s body of available work.  There would have been less reason to respect it, but the nine tracks that did, in actuality, make the cut amount to a tight, smart album that knows when to crank up to breakneck speed and when to unroll a ballad, where to be sardonic and where to be sincere.

It is with great pleasure that I add The Envoy to my list of “Deep Racks” recommendations.  I hope you enjoy it!  (If you can find it…)

Warren Zevon’s “Warren Zevon” (1976) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2010-06-07 22:03:32. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  5 / 5 stars

Technically not his debut album, Warren Zevon is the first true Zevon record.

It came after quite a series of career turns, beginning with Zevon and high school friend Violet Santangelo forming lyme & cybelle and nicking the charts with the co-written “Follow Me.”  Although it was clear that Zevon had tremendous potential — “(You Used to) Ride  So High,” anyone? — he was replaced after two singles by the snooze-worthy Wayne Erwin (who somehow ended up firing Santangelo).

So, Zevon spent time as a songwriter (try “Outside Chance,” which the Turtles covered), session musician, and even jingle writer.  Then, as Zevon put it, “Wanted Dead or Alive [his solo debut] was released in 1970 to the sound of one hand clapping.”  Supposedly, there was a second album in the works, but information on that is very difficult to find.

After working as the band leader for the Everly Brothers, both as a duo and as solo artists after their breakup, Zevon had the good fortune to be noticed by Jackson Browne.  Their collaboration led to Browne producing Warren Zevon.

It was such a long time in coming, but this is an album with some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, lyrically interesting songs ever written.  The performances are largely minimalist, but resplendent in their tight yet natural arrangements.  With a blend of humor and straight-faced realism that was never equaled by another artist, always poetic, the eleven tracks on Warren Zevon explore and explode the sides of ourselves that we don’t like to acknowledge.

Even the opening ballad “Frank and Jesse James” paints these infamous outlaws as victims of the turning political tides of the American government.  This version of the story may be skewed, and yet this is a theme that continues to have relevance to the present day and represents an aspect of our nation that few — particularly those in power — wish to take ownership of.

Warren Zevon's "Warren Zevon" (1976)

Warren Zevon's "Warren Zevon" (1976)

Sales were not overly impressive, but A&R men were impressed, like Burt Stein who reflected, “I got to run with that record and we got the ball rolling for Warren.  It was warmly received…”

The critics agreed, which found Newsweek describing Zevon as a “refreshing rarity” and The Village Voice hailing him as an “upcoming major artist.”  Of course, unsurprisingly, Rolling Stone gave a positive review tempered with such qualifiers as “despite its imperfections” — um, which would those be? — and “on its own artistic terms it is almost a complete success” — where do they find these numb-skulls?   What kind of wishy-washy middle-of-the-road garbage this was, and RS‘s Stephen Holden didn’t stop there.  He noted that it doesn’t have the “obvious commercial appeal of an Eagles album,” as if that is something that any serious rock artist would strive for.

Without question, without qualification, Warren Zevon is a truly classic album, one that you can listen to repeatedly without ceasing and without tiring.  It is one of those albums that, particularly while driving at night, you could lose yourself in if you’re not careful.

The pinnacle comes right at the middle with “The French Inhaler,” an exploration of Zevon’s question: “How you gonna make your way in the world, woman, when you weren’t cut out for working?”  His lyricism is unsurpassed here, as he tosses barbs (“You said you were an actress, yes, I believe you are…”) and voices biting observations (“Your face looked like something death brought with him in his suitcase…”).  The final movement of the song, with the title of the song, is poignant.  There is a sense of loss here that pervades many of the songs on this album, and yet he manages to create these seedy and somber landscapes in the form of focused rock’n’roll tracks.

Elsewhere, the music is soothing (“Mohammed’s Radio”), utterly devastated in its heartbreak (“Hasten Down the Wind”), energetically defiant (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”), and mournfully beautiful (“Desperadoes Under the Eaves”).  This is not even to account for some of the best tracks on the album, single-worthy songs like the definitive Zevon-esque track “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (the song I wish he’d been known for by the general public, rather than “Werewolves of London”), the compelling “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path” and the downright catchy “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded.”

What keeps me coming back to Warren Zevon are the fascinating lyrics which drive these tracks.  If you’ve heard the piano demos of any of these songs, then you know what an undeniably brilliant songwriter and performer Zevon is.  Instrumentally, I find new riffs, solos, and other more subtle aspects of Waddy Wachtel and David Lindley’s guitarwork each time I listen.  Bob Glaub and Larry Zack pull off bass and drum duties (on most tracks) with more than a session musician’s proficiency; there is a creativity and finesse here that I delight in on each track.

And have I mentioned how much I look forward to Carl Wilson’s vocal arrangement on the tag of the album closer, “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”?  Whenever you call a Beach Boy in for vocal duties, you’re pretty much assured a heavenly vocal presence that many have tried and few — perhaps none — have actually duplicated.

For these and so many other reasons, Warren Zevon is the first true Zevon record and ranks among the best of his career.  This is not to say he peaked on his quasi-debut album; rather, it is to say that Warren Zevon deserves more credit than many would give it when they refer to the “potential” expressed by these eleven songs.

Truly, this is not the lead-off effort; this is the first home run of an under-appreciated career.

“Excitable Boy” (Warren Zevon Cover)

Originally posted 2008-02-07 00:06:53. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

There’s lots of good stuff happening here at! I’ve been spurred on by Jim and Jeff’s recent plans for releases and by all of Jim’s tireless work designing the website, so I have a couple “extra’s” for you today.

First of all, I posted my review of Ringo’s Liverpool 8 album a half hour ago. (Another goal of mine this year is to write at least brief reviews of all the new albums I buy this year.) In the coming days and weeks, you can look for reviews of both Sheryl Crow’s and Jack Johnson’s new albums that came out today.

In addition to the CD review, I have also posted a second “Behind the Scenes” video. I had the idea to make this short film when I was recording the session for Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy.” It’s really cheesy, but it was easy and fun to make, and I wanted to share it with you all.

Finally, of course, I have posted my second song from one of my absolute favorite artists, Warren Zevon. You may know him for “Werewolves of London,” but he has written so much more! This is one of his more well-known songs and I hope you enjoy it. It’s somewhat disturbing, but if you think about the overall idea of the song, it’s actually an interesting statement from Zevon.

I hope you enjoy all the new posts to be found on the site today, and you can look forward to all-new material from Jeff and Jim in the days to come as “a session-a-day keeps the viewers…um, coming back to” continues!