Dispatches from the heart

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The Independent Culture
Most popular songs lead short lives. But some endure - in the hands of other singers, and the minds of the public. They linger on; they strike a chord. These are the tunes that have appeared in our feature 'Lives of the Great Songs', which ran for two series last year. This week it returns for a third run of eight articles, and also appears in book form. Tim de Lisle, arts editor, raises the curtain. Opposite, Giles Smith launches the new series with the story of Simon and Garfunkel's greatest hit

THEY'RE the tunes the busker plays when the hat is looking empty. They're the cards in the jukebox window that have gone yellow with age. They're the Muzak in the burger bar that doesn't put you off your food.

They're a finger on your pulse, and a shot in the arm. They're a sudden new mood (how strange the change from major to minor). They're the language of love, and a kick in its direction: a voice for the tongue-tied, a shove for the shy. They're a thrill, or a pill. They're an aide-memoire ('These Foolish Things' reminds me of you), and a lasting link: you may leave your lover, but you'll still have your tune (play it, Sam]). And so they're the ghost of love, a congenial torture (if she can stand it, I can). They're the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire. They're the top. They're the great songs.

THE SONG is the currency of popular music. This is an obvious point, but often overlooked. These days the music generates a lot of literature, and especially works of reference. A stack of them are beside me now, keeping a stern eye on my screen. They have been a great help. They have also been a great encouragement, because they're so bad at coping with songs.

The most recorded song in the world is 'Yesterday', written by Paul McCartney. But you won't find an entry for it in the 739 pages of The Oxford Companion to Popular Music, or the 875 pages of The Faber Companion to 20th- Century Popular Music, or the 1,296 pages of The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, or even the 1,378 pages of The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. They mention it, of course. One calls it a 'sentimental standard'; another runs to 'lovely'; another cites it as an example of how McCartney was best at sad songs. The fourth offers no description at all (go and stand in the corner, Oxford).

This is not to say that they are bad books. It is to suggest that somewhere along the line, we have gone astray. We have dwelt on the singer at the expense of the song. Lives of the Great Songs is a small attempt to put that right.

It's no encyclopedia, but having started as a series in these pages, it has become a book - a set of critical biographies of three dozen songs, including 'Yesterday'. Each is short enough to be read at a sitting, but long enough to capture the magic of the song, and follow its progress from one singer to the next, one meaning to another, across the generations and genres.

THERE were three rules governing the choice of song. First, it needed to have had an interesting life: there had to be at least three significantly different recordings of it. This hurdle proved too high for dozens of great records, from Roy Orbison's 'Only the Lonely' to 'Every Breath You Take' by The Police. (If you want to mint a standard, make sure it has a few imperfections.) Second, it had to fit into the series: we make no claims to completeness - among the songwriters not covered are Leiber and Stoller, Irving Berlin, Bacharach, Bowie and Prince - but we have tried to give a fair spread (only one Beatles composition). Third, the writer had to be convinced that the song was great; it was at this fence that 'MacArthur Park' fell. Which brings us to the million-

dollar question: what makes a great song?

The obvious answer is: a memorable lyric, a catchy tune and a proper relationship between them - a feeling that (even if they are written by different people, which used to be the norm) they go together like the horse and carriage in 'Love and Marriage'. And it's true that in the best songs - 'Yesterday', 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye', 'The Tracks of My Tears' - the listener is hard put to say which is better, the words or the music. But there is more leeway here than you might expect. The tune of 'You're the Top' is nothing special. The words of 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life' verge on the banal, and don't even rhyme ('You are the apple of my eye/Forever you'll stay in my heart'). But both are great songs.

As long as you do one element really well, you can get away with mere adequacy in the others. The tune to 'You're the Top' is the vehicle for an outstanding lyric. That was not uncommon in the 1930s, when songs were mostly written to be in shows, and recordings were done in one take, and diction was not something that singers found difficult. By 1973, when Stevie Wonder was scratching his head to come up with a rhyme for 'life' ('wife', incidentally, wasn't on: he had one, and she wasn't the woman he was addressing), the balance of power had shifted. These days, the lyrics are often there to carry the tune, and it shows.

What else? Structure. One reason why not many great songs have been written lately is that the club-goer is king, and many chart-toppers pay more attention to the foundations of a record - the drums, the bass, the groove - than to the architecture - the tune and the words. Structure doesn't mean a beginning, a middle and an end. Most of the rock songs in this series, as opposed to the show tunes, have a beginning, a middle, a bit more beginning, and then some more middle. They may make some attempt at a climax (a crash of drums, a peal of thunder), but most likely they either fade away or come to a crisp halt. Structure is more about making different bits of the song do different things. One tune for the verse, another for the chorus, perhaps a third for the middle eight. A bit of narrative or scene-setting in the verse, a comment or symbol or exhortation or exclamation in the chorus.

The most vital element of all is emotion. A song, like a poem, must put its finger on a feeling. As this is a popular art form, the feeling should be ordinary, democratic. You were always on my mind. The way you look tonight. And in addition to being about emotion, it must evoke it. It must make your heart sing.

As somebody said of jazz, these qualities are hard to define but not hard to spot. 'Yesterday' has all of them: with as little doubt as there can be, it is a great song. 'Paperback Writer', written by McCartney a year later, and a bigger hit, is not: it's entertaining rather than moving. 'Bridge over Troubled Water' is; 'Bright Eyes', also sung by Art Garfunkel, also a No 1, is not. It's not unemotional, but the emotion is a little cheap, a little watery.

'Yesterday' was born great - if birth equals recording, rather than the arrival of the tune in the writer's head (when it was called 'Scrambled Eggs', and probably wasn't great). But the old line about some achieving greatness and some having it thrust upon them applies to songs as much as people. In a popular form, a work is only great if it is seen to be great. It may be excellent, but if it's unknown, great is not the word. 'Across the Borderline', written by Ry Cooder for a not-great film (The Border) in 1981, was a well-kept secret until a decade later, when it was sung in concert by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen - 'two fellows', as Richard Williams said in the article that became the prototype for this series, 'you'd trust to know a good tune when they hear it'.

Most of all, the test these songs have passed is that of time. There is a paradox here. As art forms go, pop music is here today, gone tomorrow. Lives of the Great Songs, being partly a collection of journalism, is thus in danger of being the ephemeral in pursuit of the disposable. But art is art, and if something is good, you don't throw it away. All these songs are still giving pleasure, years after their release.

The test of time is a long-distance race, and you can recover from a poor start. Two of the Rolling Stones didn't think 'Satisfaction' should even be a single - Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, its authors. 'Blowin' in the Wind' was hailed by Dylan's friend Dave van Ronk as 'an incredibly dumb song]'. Louis B Mayer, finding The Wizard of Oz too long, suggested dropping 'Over the Rainbow'.

AS THAT list suggests, our book, like the series, flits between two kinds of pop music - rock 'n' roll, the dominant sound since 1954, and its predecessor, the Broadway tradition. These categories can overlap - 'Sunshine of My Life' was written by a rock star, but soon hijacked by men wearing tuxedos and Brylcreem; 'Fever' has travelled the other way, from Peggy Lee to Madonna. But the distinction remains strangely sharp. A lot of music- lovers have never bought a Sinatra album. A lot of Sinatra fans have never deigned to investigate Simply Red.

This goes back to the Beatles. By making it with their own songs, they put the cover version out of fashion as surely as the short back and sides. This was a bit rich when they'd started as a covers band. But it happened, and it had consequences. The art of interpretation was maligned. Good singers were encouraged to become indifferent songwriters. Radio 1 arrived, and Radio 2 became sneered at in certain circles (when 'easy listening' is a term of abuse, something is awry). Most record collections are still biased one way or the other.

Greatness doesn't work like that. A great song can come out of anywhere: it's the places it goes into that are more revealing. Our 36 songs have one final thing in common. They bring something out of people. They are the canvas as well as the picture. I hope you enjoy gazing at them as much as I have.