The secrets of songwriters

The day the Kinks overtook the Beatles, why the Clash wrote ‘Rock the Casbah’, when Johnny Marr first drove to Morrissey’s house … Daniel Rachel has interviewed many of the nation’s best songwriters. Here are some highlights

The Kinks. Photograph: Harry Goodwin/Redferns

Ray Daviesthe Kinks

Can you recall the sentiment behind writing “Lola”?
It was about love, but not directly. The song was designed. I didn’t show the words to the band. We just rehearsed it with the la-la la-la Lo-lachorus which came first. I had a one-year-old daughter at the time and she was singing along to it. But I was bothered by the arpeggio guitar at the beginning. I said, “It’s got to be hit in the first three seconds.” Later I went back in the studio and took the phrase at the end of the verse, C C C C D E, and replayed it at the beginning to grab people’s attention. I had a new Martin acoustic guitar which I tracked three times all slightly out of time to give it character. And then I put a National guitar on top of it.

Isle of Noises: Conversations with great British songwriters by Daniel Rachel

What was the ambition at the turn of the 70s?
The Who and the Kinks were both on a quest for the same destination but went about it in different ways. I did it with things like “Shangri-La” and “Australia”, what people call the section songs: the thematic songs. I was trying to set up the idea that songs could be playlets, small theatre pieces. To put them in a format so they could be treated as more than a three-minute pop song. I will always aspire to write the great three-minute song. I’ve not written it yet. “You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night” and “Tired of Waiting for You” came close. I just know there’s more juice in the tank. Better performances. There’s always a better song to sing.

Do you remember writing the intro to “Sunny Afternoon”?
I do. I’d bought a little white upright piano second hand. I hadn’t written for a time. I’d been quite ill. It’s chromatic … writing scales practically on the piano. I was living in a very 60s-decorated house. It had orange walls and green furniture. My one-year-old was crawling around on the floor and I wrote the opening riff. I remember it vividly. I was even wearing a polo-neck sweater. All the times when I’ve had big success it’s been at a time when I’m either ill or miserable or we’re stuck. When “You Really Got Me” got to No 1 we were stuck on a train that broke down on the way back from Torquay. The press were waiting to meet us. We all got flu, freezing cold in this carriage. It was a joy to have a hit with “Sunny Afternoon”. England won the World Cup and we knocked “Paperback Writer” off the No 1 spot. It’s not one of their greatest singles but … it was quite significant.

Was it difficult as a writer, with the emerging dominance of the Beatles and the Stones?
You know what, sometimes they envied our freedom; we had one thing they didn’t have and that was the right to fail. We didn’t have the publicity machine the Beatles had. They were more accessible. They had more clearly defined roles within the show business society and hierarchy. With the Kinks, sometimes the audience are a little bit hesitant. It’s like, “What mood are they in today?”, “Are they going to please us or challenge us?” I think in a strange way it’s paid off.

Joan Armatrading. Photograph: REX/Judy Totton

Joan Armatrading

Where do you stand on the narrative of your songs?
Depends on the song. Some songs are written about me: “Me Myself I”, “This Charming Life”, “Blessed”, “I’m Lucky”. You can tell: they say thank you for my life … I do have to get involved in the thing I’m writing about. If we go back to “Liza”, people thought that was a gay song but it’s about a guy and his fiancee … A song like “At the Hop”, that’s just a made-up song. It’s not something that I do very often, just something to get the rhythm going. “Barefoot and Pregnant”: this chap that I knew was telling me about somebody that he knew, this woman who was in this situation of being almost a prisoner to this guy. He would shower her with all kinds, but he wouldn’t allow her to go out and have her own life and be her own person. He was very controlling of her. As I say, you have to write in a way that allows people to identify with her.

John Lydon, the Sex Pistols

Do you carry a notebook to capture phrases or ideas?
No. I wouldn’t do that. Urrgh, no I’m not one of the Clash. I remember Joe Strummer used to sit in front of The News at Six and wait for titles and slogans that he could write down. Then he’d rush off and write a song around it: “sten guns in Knightsbridge” and “White Riot”. It’s all fucking ridiculous. It’s too manufactured.

There is poignant footage of you on Christmas Day serving cake to the kids of striking miners and firefighters in Huddersfield, and them chucking it back in your face.
Fantastic. The ultimate reward. One of my all-time favourite gigs. Young kids, and we’re doing “Bodies” and they’re bursting out with laughter on the “fuck this fuck that” verse. The correct response: not the shock horror “How dare you?” Adults bring their own filthy minds into a thing. They don’t quite perceive it as a child does. Oh, Johnny’s used a naughty word. “Bodies” was from two different points of view. You’ll find that theme runs through a lot of things I write like “Rise” – “I could be wrong, I could be right”. I’m considering both sides of the argument, always.

Was there a point from the unknown to the known John Lydon that affected your writing?
It’s a tough thing to become instantly Britain’s most unpopular, popular person. That’s a tough one to try and wriggle out of. You could so easily fall into being a cliche of yourself. There are many people that would love to think that’s what happened, but it didn’t. But of course the thoughts are there. I’m always riddled with self-doubt. I’m very far from arrogant. That’s a word that’s wrongly been placed on me; fear and loathing of myself really, and self-doubt and a huge lack of faith in my own capabilities. These are constant problems.

What does the name Johnny Rotten mean to you?
It was a nickname given to me by Steve Jones. I thought it was hilarious. It was because of my teeth.

It’s astonishing “Pretty Vacant” escaped the censors.
“Va-cunt”: yes, I got away with it holding the pause, but the BBC aired it. There was a debate about it. There was a second’s delay. They very rarely let me go out live. It’s not because I might use naughty words, the Fs and the Cs which I think are valid: it’s the content of what I have to say. It’s too disturbing. And it should be. You should make people aware. You should wake people up and give them the freedom of thought. You grab the moment and you turn it into a mad opera and everybody goes home laughing. There’s no spite or victimisation in what I do at all, unless you’re a government figure.

Mick Jones, the Clash

How complete were your and Joe Strummer’s ideas before you took them to the band?
Sometimes I had a little tape recorder … for instance, “Complete Control” was pretty much all done. “London Calling” we had a thing about the lyrics, but also in the music it was a bit more chunky before and I made it smooth, somehow … They were mostly complete, I think … Later on we got a little bit more experimental. We stretched out a little bit and then obviously we had to cut it down. It was like the two ideas of “Casbah”: Bernie [Rhodes] said, “Why does everything have to be raga?” you know, really long … and at the same time, while our manager was saying we need to shorten everything, the ayatollah was saying: “I don’t like rock’n’roll.” Topper went into the studio; it was amazing. He put the three things down: the piano, the bass and the drums. I did the chorus tune, Shareef don’t like it, then Joe did the lyrics, but Topper was the main guy.

Paul Weller and Bruce Foxton of the Jam. Photograph: Phil Dent/Redferns

Paul Wellerthe Jam

“Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” revealed your sophistication and depth as a songwriter. Can you describe the evolution of that song and your changing ability to hone in on the small and the particular?
That started as a long prose-poem thing, like a short story in a way. It came from my insecurity and paranoia at being in London. I didn’t have any music for it. I was in two minds whether to do it. I was coaxed and talked into it by Vic Smith, our producer at the time. He was saying: “This is really good, you should try and set it to music.” The attention to the details is part of the person I am anyway, but it’s also bound up in the mod ethos which is predominantly all about attention to detail. We were talking about English songwriters: it’s picking up on the mundane, the everyday things and putting them, into a different setting, the very, very ordinary feelings, emotions or details that, once in song, you hear them in a different way. Without something too poncey or pretentious I was thinking about pop artists as well, where they took the everyday objects and made them into art. I don’t think it’s that dissimilar.

What was the appeal in chronicling the mundane?
It’s a very English thing, the way we all  like to moan about the weather or we like a cup of tea or a particular fucking biscuit and all that nonsense, but it’s us. It’s our identity, isn’t it?

“Saturday Kids” and “That’s Entertainment!” are songs that touch people’s experiences very deeply but with an apparent simplicity. Was that difficult to achieve?
It was easy for me because that’s just who I was. I was a very simple person; there isn’t any great intellect behind it. It was the simplicity that people connected with: a 20-year-old kid or young man writing how I saw and felt it and connecting with other 20-year-old young people. I didn’t have to sit down and deliberate too much on it, put it that way.

As in “A Town Called Malice”, which for such an upbeat song drops to a minor chord on the verse after the introduction. The flirtation between the major and minor chords is very effective.
It is effective, yeah. That’s just born out of me growing up on the Beatles and Motown, because they use all those kind of mechanisms. It’s part of your tools of the trade.

Sting, the Police

I understand you wrote “Walking on the Moon” in a Munich hotel with the original words “walking in the room”.
I did! I do remember waking up in Munich, it’s amazing you know that, and I had that bass riff in my head and I started walking round the room. You can’t have “walking round the room”! “Walking on the moon” seemed a useful metaphor for being in love, that feeling of lightness, of just being able to walk on air. It’s an old idea. So from that refrain I just worked backwards, so 1969: “Giant steps are what you take”, one giant step for mankind … It’s not meant to be serious.

Andy Partridge, XTC

Does Swindon shape the sound of your work?
Yes, because I can see those chalk hills out of the bedroom or attic window upstairs. I can see the trees. I walk the dog in the park where you can see carpets of daisies or in the summer be getting the idea that you’re drowning in flowers. It’s enormously influential in its mundanity, in its everyday. It’s a Victorian park here, it’s a wet alleyway there, it’s a load of cars choking up a length of tarmac there. It’s some people you know and their funny small-town manners. I don’t know about dusty California highways. I don’t know about denim-clad hippies, chicks laid across the bonnet of your Buick ’57. I don’t know about this accepted rock language. It doesn’t speak to me.

Do you remember writing “Senses Working Overtime”?
I’d stand there staring out of the window or at the black wooden floor with a guitar, just trying to pull stuff out. I thought, I’m going to write a single. How do you write a single? What’s the most moronic thing I can think of? I know, Manfred Mann’s “5-4-3-2-1”. Fuckin’ hell, that is so moronic, so obviously that was a hit because before it even gets to you people know what the next lyric is going to be: after 5 it’s going to be 4; the next lyric is going to be 3. Instantly moronically acceptable. So why don’t I use that as a basis and sing “one, two, three, four, five”? I’ve got the chorus. “Five what? What’s five? Five days of the week?” Five senses was the only thing I could think of. So I started to write “one, two, three, four, five senses”What are they doing? “They’re working,” so you have sensory input. “Wow, they’re workingovertime. Good phrase. Working, working overtime, senses working overtime. OK, got it.” So I’ve got “one, two, three, four, five senses working overtime”. It’s got to be instant: it’s got to go crunch, crunch, crunch.

Squeeze. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

Chris Difford, Squeeze

“Black Coffee in Bed” opens with “There’s a stain on my notebook” and “Is That Love” begins “You’ve left my ring by the soap”. Do lyrical ideas infiltrate your everyday thoughts?
Yes, images that burn themselves into lyrics. It’s a bit like blotting paper: it blots up the images. If they’re interesting enough I can use them in some way. “Is That Love” was about the domestic situation I was in at the time. We’d just got married, the whole nesting thing had been taken care of and now we were just man and wife. The ring was by the soap, the beds were being made. It had become very mundane: is that love? The finger was being pointed at the individual.

Did “Up the Junction” originally have 10-plus verses?
It was quite long. Glenn’s got all the original lyrics. It was my attempt to write something like Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?”, although more so; it was inspired by a radio show, folk music hour or something, and there was this wonderful domestic song. It may have been Shirley Collins. I thought, that’s amazing, how she’s summed up domestic harmony, or disharmony.

Suggs, Madness

What gave you the confidence to keep writing?
I wrote “Baggy Trousers” pretty early on, which was a good start. In that context I used to really like Ian Dury and I noticed quite a lot of his songs were just lists of things. That was a list of things I felt about going to school that I then managed to make rhyme and into the format of what could be sung as a pop song. I didn’t set out to do that. Then I came up with the idea of the chorus because Pink Floyd had written that song “Teacher, leave them kids alone” [Another Brick in the Wall”]. I remembered how put-upon the teachers were at my school so I decided to make the chorus “Oh what fun we had, but at the time it seemed so bad” to try and put both sides of that coin. I suppose there was some innate guilt that I’d let myself down at school and it wasn’t the teachers’ fault any more than it was my fault that the school was so rubbish.

Do you keep the rails of meaning in place when you are writing or do you allow your imagination free rein?
Each time I’ve written a song it’s because of some peculiar combination of coincidences. I was in a pub on the corner and they put “Our House” on the jukebox. I was thinking about the whole thing: the tambourine, the idea we were trying to do something a bit Motowny. We were going to do a concept album about London and then Cathal [Smyth, aka Chas Smash] was the only one who wrote any words. We had this really fantastic string part, then we got to the chorus and there’s no strings because we put the chorus in after. Clive Langer said, “We’ve got to have some sort of chorus,” so we wrote this quite prosaic “our house in the middle of our street”, which I thought was a bit boring, but actually because the song was so melodic and fabulous it really worked. It was totally outside of the idea of crafting in any way.

The Eurythmics. Photograph: Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

Annie Lennox, Eurythmics

Did you have territories of writing as your relationship with Dave Stewart developed?
I wouldn’t really like to think of them as “territories”, but I wrote the lyrics and Dave would work as a kind of mentor/editor in that department. Sometimes I’d write 90% of a complete song … like “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”, or “There Must Be an Angel (Playing With My Heart)”, where Dave would have great input in terms of structure and form, and at other times we’d start a song from scratch and both put ideas in, like “Sweet Dreams” or “Here Comes the Rain Again”. He was definitely in charge of the technical side of the recording process, as he’s incredibly au fait with cutting-edge technology, so he was more of a “producer” in that sense, but I also had a part to play in production ideas in a more organic way. We always shared everything 50-50, as that was how we saw our partnership.

Johnny Marrthe Smiths

I understand the inspiration for “Hand in Glove” necessitated calling at Morrissey‘s house without an invitation.
I was round at my parents’ house and I’d moved my cassette player to where I was living. There was this little guitar that Andy [Rourke] had given me and I’d given to my little brother. I played the riff and immediately knew it was a song. Angie had her parents’ little Volkswagen outside; she’d just passed her test, and we drove to Morrissey’s, and by the time she’d driven there she’d said about five times: “Make it sound like Iggy.” So I went from these clipped kind of funky chords to this big open thing. She was absolutely right. I’ve still got this three-track cassette recorder, which is a kind of an anomaly; it’s two-track and you can bounce it down, and we wrote all the early Smiths stuff on that.

“Bigmouth Strikes Again” has just one opening verse, which is unusual for a pop song. Was the shape of the song your vision or was it determined by Morrissey’s vocal decisions?
Both of us had absolute unshakable faith that what the other person was doing was right, whether we heard it or not. Alongside that, unshakable faith in what we were doing individually. In that example, it didn’t need to go anywhere else … It would have got too conceptual, too conceived, too thought out and just too fucking crafted had I put some clever bit in there. It’d have been bottling it. Sometimes it’s cooler just to let it go, let it fly. “Rusholme Ruffians” is an extreme example of that. It’s just the same cycle. The same point being made round and round and round … It would have been the easiest thing in the world to add a device to break it up. I wanted it to be insistent.

The marriage between your music and Morrissey’s words is so fluent it’s incredible they were not conceived together.
That is proof that despite the differences in our personalities there were emotions underneath that we both share and understand about each other, whether we like it or not. Luckily we found each other and were able to put it to music. We helped each other realise our dreams and escape our situations and have success. But we also found someone that we could both match and play emotional snap with. We were both romantics.

Did your music change when you became familiar with Morrissey’s personality?
Not the way I composed or the technique, we both expressed things … there’s a lot of our relationship in those songs. That’s not to say the words are about our relationship, but the feeling in the recordings and some of the songs are a product of our relationship because we are so wrapped up in each other.

Did you ever write together?
Once, which was “Half a Person”: that was incredibly uncanny. The morning we were supposed to do the B-side he said, “What are we going to do?” I picked up the guitar and said, “Maybe it should go like this?’ and he hummed the melody whilst I found some chords. It was done in like four minutes. We did it that one time because the tape was rolling in the next room and we hadn’t come up with something. It was just a necessity. We’d decided, very unexpectedly for us, impulsively, to do an A-side which was going to be “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”. We wrote and recorded that in 24 hours. That tied us up. I put it down and the band learned it, he took the cassette away and the next morning all the words were written. We were pretty prolific.

How important was his reaction to your music; how did you present your ideas?
I’d bring a cassette round to his house, which was the main thing, or, because we were always working, either in the studio or at gigs. I knew he’d be waiting for me … my riffs would be around. When I put “Bigmouth” on a cassette for him it was that riff I’d been playing at the soundcheck for the past two weeks … Sometimes I’d stick it through the letter box and split, with a little card saying, “Check this out, check this out, check this out!” He’d digest it and call me back a couple of hours later and say, “It’s a single,” or “It’s a triumph,” or “It’s so great I even switched Coronation Street off”.

The Smiths created a style and sound unique in British music, but it was often infused with American railroad rhythms.
I was trying to draw on American music in a way that had been forgotten. I’m into writing with rhythms that are very infectious but don’t have any traces of James Brown in because I wanted my band to be different. A very deliberate and keen interest in finding rhythms that other bands around me were not using, that I liked hearing my parents play: Eddie Cochran; Elvis Presley; and because I was such a Stones nut, Bo Diddley. I always was obsessed by that beat. “Nowhere Fast” has that rockabilly rhythm and “Shakespeare’s Sister” was written entirely from that rhythm; some idea of a fucked-up Johnny Cash on drugs. It sounds half like that.

The Pet Shop Boys. Photograph: Lynn Goldsmith/ Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, Pet Shop Boys

Do you read Neil’s lyrics before he records them?
Chris: If I’ve been presented with lyrics to put a melody to I’ll obviously study them, but no. First time I’ll often hear them is when Neil goes to the microphone and sings them.

Neil: Any songwriter has got to be really conscious where they place melody. Madonna, who in my opinion writes quite a lot of banal lyrics, but she’s a mistress of banal lyrics because she gets sound. She knows how important the vowel sounds are in the song and drops them in the right place.

Chris: “Like ring, ring, ring [“Hung Up”]: she makes that sound great, doesn’t she?

Neil: Think of (sings): “Every little thing that you say or do I’m hung up waiting for you-oo.” Every key bit is a vowel sound. I couldn’t sing that. I’d be saying, grammatically it’s all over the place! But as an ecstatic disco song she’s delivered the vowel sounds, hitting the key notes of the melody. It’s a kind of chant as well. (Sings) “Get into the groove.” It’s vowel sounds all the way through: ee, oo, oo, ee-ee. She totally gets that. I assume it’s instinctive and probably she’s a dancer. Madonna is someone for whom melody comes from choreography, which is a very interesting way of thinking.

Damon AlbarnBlurGorillaz

Did you write “Parklife” as prose or was it in metre for singing, as such?
I had (sings riff) and the chorus. I think I wrote it as prose. It sounded really weird to me when I did it. Graham and I had a childhood obsession with Meantime and Quadrophenia so we just chanced it and contacted Phil Daniels. It was so natural and immediate when he did it. It was fantastic.

Another line from “Essex Dogs” reminded me of Terry Hall: “the smell of puke and piss on your stilettos”.
Yes, exactly, very close.

The musicality of Jerry Dammers is evident in your work, particularly in Gorillaz.
Yeah, absolutely. There wouldn’t have been Gorillaz without Fun Boy Three or the Specials or Big Audio Dynamite, and obviously De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest.

Noel GallagherOasis

How long can you go without writing?
Oh, fuckin’ 10 months. I don’t chase it any more, doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It only really dawns on me when I’m out with Weller. He’ll say, “Have you written any songs recently?”, and I’ll say, “Actually no, I haven’t.” He’ll say, “When was the last time you wrote?” and I’ll say, “Oh fuck, nine months ago.” We’ll have an argument about that or something or other and he’ll say, “Get your fuckin’ finger out, you lazy …” – all that. From when I joined Oasis to when we became a real big, fuck-off band – when you fall into that cycle of album, tour, a year off, so it’s once every three years – I was on a mission. All that Definitely Maybe, Morning Glory and Be Here Now stuff was all written while I was on the dole. After that other shit gets in the way, like going on tour for a year and a half. It slows you down a bit. It comes with age, kids: you don’t get the time to devote to it any more.

When the band needed a first single you just went into a room and wrote “Supersonic”.
That just appeared. We were doing “Bring It on Down” because Creation wanted it as the first single and it was just fuckin’ rubbish. Instead of scrapping the session somebody said, “Just go and write a song.” I had the chords and that, it was just magic, and I’ve never done it since. It was amazing, that night. I wrote the whole song in less than half an hour, recorded it and mixed it that night, played it to Creation and that was it – fuckin’ hell, great.

Do you think in traditional structures when you’re writing?
I only listen to music derived or from the 60s. I’m not interested in jazz or hip-hop or whatever’s going round at the minute; indie shit. I don’t loathe it but I don’t listen to it. My education as a songwriter was from listening to the Kinks and the Who and the Beatles. I don’t listen to avant-garde landscapes and think, “I could do that.” I’m not a fan of Brian Eno. It’s Ray Davies, John Lennon and Pete Townshend for me.

Where would that education take you? Was it listening and absorbing or thinking, “What’s Ray Davies doing here?”
No, I’m not that clever. I would play along at home to “Dead End Street” and “Waterloo Sunset” but that’s it. I taught myself to play the guitar; it’s just a tool for me to write songs. I’m not a great guitarist. I don’t study it. It frustrates me sometimes. I’ll never be the super session guy: I can do sessions for Oasis. It would take all the magic out of it to break down “I Am the Walrus” to its basic components. I listen to it and go, “It’s fucking amazing; why is it amazing? I don’t know, it just is.” That’s why I find journalists such joyless fucking idiots. They have to break music down and pull it apart until there’s nothing left, until they know it all; they analyse it down until it’s bland nonsense. They don’t listen to music like the rest of us.

Is it a default when you’re stuck for ideas: rain, shine?
I’m not one of the world’s greatest thinkers. Damon Albarn said this once in an interview: he can “see four black dudes playing cards in a pub in Notting Hill and write a symphony about it”. I would see the same four black dudes and to me it’s just four black dudes playing cards. It’s just how you perceive things in life. I’m not a great reader of books; I’m not a great art lover. What I know is street life and street talk and football and drugs. I am probably the only songwriter in the entire world that hasn’t written a song about 9/11.

Jarvis Cocker. Photograph: David Levene

Jarvis CockerPulp

Am I right to say with the album Different Class that the band set out to write 12 pop songs where each one could be a single?
That could be true! It was written very quickly, that record, because we’d forced Island’s hand a little bit by making them release “Common People” as a single before we’d recorded an album. Usually what people do is go into a studio, record 15 songs, and then see which one seems to be the best; release that one as a single, and then the ones that didn’t turn out so well, have those as B-sides and then that’s it, you’re done. But we’d written that song and felt it had to come out. It felt like it had captured some kind of feeling that was in the air at the time and we were scared if we took too long that moment would pass. So that was a big success and then that put a big pressure on us to actually have a record to follow that up. So it was done very quickly, which in the end was the best thing that could have happened, really, ’cause you just kind of get on with it. Maybe at some point we thought everything could be a single.

Lily Allen

Wonderful rhyming couplets dominate your songs in “LDN” : Tesco / al fresco; “Everything’s Just Wonderful” weight loss / Kate Moss; “Him”: caucasian, tax evasion. Do you find rhyme leads your thoughts? 
Yeah, definitely, but weirdly, because my mum and dad always used to sing stupid songs to me when I was little. My mum is a big couplets fan; that’s her thing. She sings this song to Ethel [Allen’s daughter]: “You’re a little trouper, you’re a star, You’re a little trouper, you’re a star, You’re Ethel Merry Cooper, yes you are.” She’d always just do that about silly objects: what you’re wearing or what you’re having for dinner. Maybe I was always trying to second-guess where she was going with the end of her songs. I’ve probably inherited it from her.

“I am a weapon of massive construction”
Yes, that’s a really Lily-ism; it’s what we are, isn’t it?