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Editor's Corner

Alchemy, Perpetual Motion and the Perfect Song

There’s a reason why hit records are termed “solid gold.”

You woke up this morning brimming with energy. The sun was shining brightly, the birds were singing a merry tune, the fresh-brewed coffee hot and strong. The homemade granola you had for breakfast was so healthful you could almost feel your cells thanking you as the nutrients coursed through your system.

Next, a brisk jog to your local convenience store, where you bought a scratch-off lottery ticket and won ten grand. Inspired, you returned home and picked up your guitar and all of a sudden that chord progression you’d been struggling to master fell into place easily.

OK, reality check.

More likely, you woke up half-asleep, or half-hungover. The skies were depressingly gray and the only sound you could hear was your neighbor’s lawnmower or snowblower. You burned your toast and you’d run out of coffee the day before, so there was no benefit of caffeine and therefore no hope of a jog. No matter; the last time anyone had won a scratch-off at your local convenience store was back in 1992.

And that chord progression? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Those of us who are perfectionists are forever doomed to disappointment, for this is an imperfect world. But that doesn’t stop many of us from trying to create perfection anyway. And you know what? That’s a wonderful thing.

Throughout the entire history of mankind, people have always challenged the “impossible” — sometimes with magnificent results. Light without fire? Couldn’t be done … until Thomas Edison proved otherwise. Horseless carriages? No way … until the automobile came along. Wireless transmission of audio and video? A pipe dream … until the age of radio and television.

Other times, the outcomes are, well, somewhat less positive. For centuries, inventors labored in vain to build a perpetual motion machine, with a notable lack of success. For nearly a thousand years, alchemists struggled to find a formula that would turn base metal into gold, and not one of them managed to come even close.

And almost since the dawn of man, composers have attempted to write the perfect song.

Have any succeeded? Well, the answer is, of course, purely subjective, so it’s up to you to decide. For me, the more interesting question is, what would the “perfect song” entail, and what kind of reaction would it evoke? Fans of the 1970s Monty Python comedy show (and I’m certainly one of them) may recall the group’s brilliant sketch called “The Funniest Joke In The World.” The premise was that the joke was so funny, anyone who read or heard it promptly died from laughter. Would the best song ever written be so universally stirring that hearing it would cause the listener to break down in tears, or enter a nirvana-like state of joy and contentment?

In her recent “Song Envy” article here on the Yamaha blog, my colleague Shelly Peiken touched on the subject, talking about what she termed “WiWi” (short for “Wish I Wrote It”) songs, and the importance of using them as sources of inspiration, not frustration. I couldn’t agree more!

In the article, Shelly asks that readers consider their own personal top “WiWi” songs. After some deliberation, I decided that mine has got to be the Smokey Robinson classic “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” To my way of thinking, it’s got everything the ideal song needs: a catchy title, a relentless guitar hook, simple yet memorable lyrics, stop times that continually resolve and reconstruct the tension, and a call-and-answer chorus that lives like an earworm in your brain for days afterwards. I especially love the Beatles’ rendition, which features uncannily tight three-part harmonies courtesy of Messrs. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison.

Yet, for all my enthusiasm, I think that relatively few people would characterize this as a “perfect” song, if only for the simple reason that it wasn’t a huge hit for The Miracles, or The Beatles, or, for that matter, the Supremes or the Temptations (both of whom also provided worthy covers).

Many would rate Paul McCartney’s Yesterday as the greatest contemporary song ever written, yet McCartney himself has frequently cited Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows as his personal choice. Magazine polls (again, purely subjective) often include Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone,” Freddie Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody and/or John Lennon’s Imagine in their top five. There are arguments for and against any of these, but, once more, I would make the case that none are “perfect,” if for no other reason than that none enjoy universal acceptance. (For every fan of “Yesterday,” there’s going to be someone who can’t stand “God Only Knows,” and vice versa.)

Not that any of this should stop you from attempting to write the perfect song. Just like Edison or Marconi, you may be the one who succeeds where everyone else has failed, to the benefit of us all. As author and motivational speaker Les Brown once said, “It is better to aim high and miss than to aim low and hit.” You may be frustrated by the lack of perfection in this world, but that’s no reason to end your pursuit of it.

 

Editor’s Corner appears here on the first Monday of every month. Check out Howard’s other postings.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Howard Massey is the executive editor of the Yamaha Music USA blog. He is a longtime journalist and music industry consultant who formerly served as an editor with Musician and Performing Songwriter magazines. He has authored hundreds of online and print articles as well as more than a dozen books, including "The Great British Recording Studios" and the two-part "Behind the Glass" collections of interviews with the world’s leading record producers. Howard was also privileged to co-author legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick’s 2006 autobiography "Here, There and Everywhere." He lives in New York.

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