Song Writing Is An Art – Let’s Not Leave It To Rock Stars

Frank Sinatra Recording Session

Expecting our musical heroes to be good at everything is unfair. Bring in the proper songwriters and stop fretting about credibility.

“And at least they write all their own material” is a regular point made by music fans and journalists as a mark of credibility for a band or singer – a sense of authenticity, showing that these performers are not mere musical puppets but in charge of their own destiny – no mere cover artists or manufactured pop minions, but a serious, valid act.

But frankly, writing your own material seems a weird thing to be proud of, particularly when that material might not be very good. Some rock bands – or, if you want to be a pedant, bands of any musical genre – really can do it all, year in year out, to a consistent level. But not many, frankly. For every band that has a solid back catalogue of albums, there are probably ten – at the very least – who have come out with one or two hit songs and several LPs of long forgotten filler material and clumsy rubbish. Song writing is hard and coming up with the goods constantly seems pretty much impossible unless your act is blessed with one or two really good songwriters – the sort who could (and sometimes do) cut it as writers of material for other people.

We expect bands to be great musicians (or at least innovative and efficient musicians) who can cut it on record and live, have the right look and come up with the goods once a year or so, at least until they make it big and can take the foot off the pedal a little. But that seems a big ask. Even bands who might have delivered a cracking debut LP might struggle once the songs that they had written over a period of years and honed to perfection in gigs – while discarding the lesser material – dry up and they have to come up with an album’s worth of new material (and even now, in the age of single track streaming, the album full of material still seems to be a requirement for most acts).

It would be surely better all round if those bands could pick and choose material from a variety of song writers rather than relying on the efforts of their own members. The idea that it should make an act less credible is retrograde and ludicrous, clinging to some outdated idea of separating the manufactured act from the authentic. The fact is that some of the best performers in music history – the Sinatras, the Dusty Springfields – were those who interpreted other people’s material rather than writing it themselves. Interpretation is an artform in itself and deserves more credit than it gets.

No one seems to have an issue with a band using an outside producer rather than doing it all themselves, even though that producer might entirely redefine the act’s sound and change not only the structure of an individual track but also the entire musiclal direction of a band. If we accept that – and yes, I now, the interference of a producer is sometimes very controversial amongst fans of a band who suddenly see their heroes become something else – then surely we should be able to accept them picking and choosing the very best material out there.

I’m not even talking about cover versions – though frankly, there’s little I like more musically than a well-crafted cover that radically but respectfully reinvents the familiar and makes it the performer’s own. But it would be a good thing if our ideas of musical credibility, and the egos of rock bands, could relax to allow groups to just focus on the important thing – the music.