The Delicate Art Of Song Morphing

DSC_2400‘I found a song that people liked, that radio liked… I found this basic concept and all I did was change the lyrics and the melody a little bit… changed the song and the chord progression a little bit and I sold it to them over and over again.’

Buck Owens

A few weeks ago I wrote, I will admit with a degree of indignation, about Bob Dylan’s plagiarism. A longtime song-writing hero of mine had, over the time it takes to listen to a few YouTube videos, dramatically lost his mystique, only to be revealed as a clever craftsman of other people’s musical and lyrical material.

Well, the blows just keep coming.

I’m also a big fan of Paul Kelly, and it was in his memoir ‘How To Make Gravy’ that I recently read the above quote.

Buck Owens was an incredibly successful songwriter and music businessman so, according to Kelly, ‘when Buck talks it’s worth listening’.

And listen he did.

In the same passage, Kelly speaks of a time when Christine Anu asked him to write her a song like ‘Beat Of Your Heart’, a song he wrote in the early 90s, which lyrically he had significantly derived from a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.

‘Sitting in my dreary hotel room, I ‘bucked’ ‘Beat Of Your Heart’ into ‘Jump To Love’ in the space of an hour or two and took it to Christine the next morning. A week later she recorded it with an insistent dance beat that her producer ‘borrowed’ from a Kylie Minogue record’.

So it seems that it is only fools like me get bogged down with the idea of originality and that morphing a song like this is so common that it’s even acquired a special term: ‘bucking’.

Earlier on in his book, Kelly also writes about a time when he was living with the great Don Walker (keyboardist and hit songwriter for Cold Chisel). This was 1984 -85, a year or so before the release of his fist really successful album Gossip (1986), which peaked at No.15, and featured the chart topping ‘Before Too Long’, which hit No.15, and ‘Darling It Hurts’ which made it to No.25.

“Don had a white grand piano in the front room of his double-storey house. I wrote a few songs on it, including ‘Adelaide’, inspired by the tune of John Cale’s ‘Chorale’. I also had some lyrics from a Robert Johnson song in my head – ‘From Memphis To Norfolk Is A 36-hour Ride’ – which I’d adapted some. I was planning to write a blues. But that beautiful white piano took me somewhere else, took me to The lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Never Going Back’, a gorgeous tune which mutated into something else via Don’s piano. The mutation was pretty infectious. The day it came I couldn’t stop humming it and by sunset a set of words was attached. When Don came home I said, ‘Can I play you something?’ He listened and said, ‘You’ve got your own thing now.”

So while Kelly does talk about other song writing techniques, including the recording improves approach that I employ, it seems that many of his songs have their origins in other people’s tunes.  And crazily enough, despite their derivation, such tunes moved the great Don to speak appreciatively of Kelly acquiring his own sound!

And to wipe away any uncertainly on this, in a section entitled ‘Advice To Young Singer-Songwriters’ Kelly writes, among other things, ‘Take what you want from old songwriters, and leave the rest”.

So put that in ya pipe n spoke it!

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photo by: qwrrty