Long weekend of Songwriting: Part 2

To round off my long weekend down in London, I went to see Neil Tennant in conversation with Michael Bracewell at the new EartH venue in Hackney. The interview can be streamed here. In his introduction, Bracewell earned a cheer for his positing the notion that aside from the Beatles, Pet Shop Boys have written more great pop songs than any other group, which sounds plausible at the very least. Neil was interviewed for around an hour or so, and it was good to hear him speak in some detail about his songs in his usual thoughtful, often humorous manner. He wasn’t afraid to pause to digest a question before delivering an answer.  Questions were also taken from audience members. I would have asked something about middle eights I’m sure, but sadly didn’t get my moment!

While I don’t intend to recount the entire interview here, Bracewell asked two questions inspired by Brian Eno (another musical favourite of mine). The first examined the extent to which pop music is concerned with ‘creating new imaginary worlds, and inviting people to join them’, and it was clear that Tennant sees the Pet Shop Boys as fitting into Eno’s definition comfortably, specifically as a result of their disparate and often unusual influences (including American Hip-Hop and Russian history) which create a unique world to which the listener is invited, and also through the visual imagery that each new incarnation of the Pet Shop Boys incorporates.

The second Eno inspired question was about how the best songs are encapsulated by their title, to the point where the ‘story’ of a song is almost contained there in its title alone. I’m intrigued by this idea, though not sure I can 100% subscribe to it. A pithy title isn’t always borne out by an equally eloquent song, and equally, otherwise good songs can of course have ropey, or at least unhelpful titles. But I like the idea that a solid concept can be boiled down and expressed pretty concisely, in a sentence for example (as is the case with a number of Pet Shop Boys song titles including You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk, How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously and the particularly cumbersome This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave).

I was also reminded of the fact that unlike many pop stars of his time, Tennant was into his thirties before he found any kind of fame as a songwriter (there’s hope for me yet!), though he was previously a successful music journalist. It turns out that he’s older than my Mum.

The book itself promises to be a good read, with each of the songs accompanied by an explanation by Tennant himself, along with an introduction by the author. There are plenty of his songs with which I am still fairly unfamiliar, others I feel get far less credit than they deserve (King of Rome, The Theatre, Don Juan and Kings Cross to name but a few). I’m sure I will refer to the book in future posts.

So the weekend as a whole has given me plenty of food for thought about the craft of songwriting, and pop music in particular. I look forward to reporting on lots more long weekends of songwriting.

Long weekend of Songwriting: Part 1

So… my not-so-long awaited weekend of songwriting is upon us. The weather is good, the arrangements are made, and London is its usual bustling, exciting, unfinished self. When will they finish London?

First up, I’ve been taking part in my first ever pop music songwriting workshop.

Having booked up fairly late in the day, taking a chance of an offer from Music-Match (very useful website for music job opportunities), I didn’t have too much time to prepare (which was probably for the best, as I am prone to nerves in group situations, which is perhaps odd for a teacher, but there we are). The workshop took place at Tileyard Education in London, a short walk from King’s Cross. The Tileyard Complex it turns out is a sort of industrial estate of creative organisations of various kinds including some 90+ studios, writing rooms, management companies, publishers etc.  The two-day course was run by Emma Stakes and Penny Foster, both accomplished, published songwriters among much else. The students on the course ranged in age, location, but all were incredibly talented, friendly and passionate about their craft.

Day one was all about introductions, discussing the often brutal business of songwriting and the music industry more widely, a look at some current songwriting briefs (i.e. actual artists looking for actual songs) which made it feel very real indeed. We spent some time listening to songs written by both the workshop leaders and attendees, which was a good eye-opener to the quality of songs and production out there among us mortals.

Being truly woeful at small talk, I found the experience initially daunting, but certainly by the second day, had found it within myself to get immersed come what may. As it turned out, day two presented an incredibly fulfilling opportunity to collaborate on a song as part of an impromptu songwriting team. Having been initially trepidatious about writing in groups, our particular team (myself and three others) turned out to work incredibly productively together, and I hope some future collaborations will follow from here. We managed to write, record and produce to a decent level a verse, pre-chorus, chorus and breakdown of a song with working titles of ‘Bite the Bullet’ and later ‘Stubborn’, along the theme of a relationship on the rocks. After initially attempting to respond to a specific brief discussed the previous day, the track took on perhaps a darker mood than we had intended, but given the tight deadline, we reached a point-of-no-return and thus followed the idea through. Each member of the team made fantastic and vital contributions including lyrical material, melodic and harmonic ideas, and production, and it was incredibly gratifying to feel so instantly comfortable with a group of strangers, and be able to create something with real potential in such a short space of time. We intend to finish this track between us remotely and see where it goes! I am therefore a collaboration convert and I hope to do a lot more of this kind of work going forward.

I have learned a great deal from this songwriting camp. In particular, I am now certain that to demo a song successfully, particularly when working towards a particular brief, the production needs to be top notch, and the vocal must leave no room for doubt in terms of emotional expression.

In relation to the crafting of the song itself, I hadn’t appreciated before this weekend the importance of the concept of ‘top-lining’, i.e. composing a melody and lyrics, as a distinct part of the writing process, and moreover that this is something that is often done by a single, dedicated individual. While obviously a song needs a melody to carry the lyrical content, I’d up until now considered that just another part of the process, more or less equal to the others. Of course, melody is a massively important part of the songwriting process, but perhaps for pop music, melody is just that little bit more important, while harmony takes a back seat.

Its also abundantly clear that a song needs a hook, not just in a melodic sense, but also from a conceptual viewpoint. While this is obviously not songwriting rocket-science, I guess sometimes these things need hammering home, and again, I would argue that within the pop world, this conceptual hook is even more vital.

The weekend has given me just a little more self belief. I hope this is true of all the students on the course. For myself, I pledge simply to write more songs, believe in them, see them through to a high demo standard when I feel they have the ‘legs’ to justify it, and then to attempt to push them towards the places I feel they belong, to give them a life beyond the studio.

This evening, as my long weekend of songwriting comes to a close, I will be going over to Hackney Arts Centre to witness one of my songwriting heroes, Neil Tennant talk about his songwriting, as he releases a book, ‘One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem’.

The Middle Eight

[All the songs mentioned below can all be found in this Spotify playlist.]

A change is a good as a rest, as they say, and no-one knows this better than the humble songwriter (particularly one jetting off to a secluded log-cabin for a ‘writing retreat’). Introducing change or contrast within a song is one of the most fundamental tools in the songwriter’s creative toolbox, whether it be the gradual development of a melodic line from one phrase to the next, or the subtle deployment of a new chord to accentuate a lyrical idea. There are occasions however when such gentle manipulations as these just don’t cut the proverbial mustard, and a songwriter needs to put on his or her big boy (or girl) pants and give a song a real drama injection.

Enter the bazooka in the songwriter’s arsenal of structural weaponry, deployed when only the starkest of contrasts will do, the rather confusingly titled ‘middle eight’. While the ‘eight’ fairly clearly refers to the number of bars this particular chunk of song takes up (though it isn’t always eight… that would be far too straight-forward), the ‘middle’ presumably refers to the fact that it occurs somewhere between the beginning and the end of the song (as to suggest anything approaching equidistant between the two would be to over-simplify the far more chaotic reality.) 

Lily Allen succinctly recounts, her first encounter with the middle eight:

“[My manager] said its that piddly bit in the middle that’s not the verse and not the chorus but links the two.” (Rachel, D. 2014)

Well quite.

For clarity, I’d like to differentiate the middle eight from other structural linking sections such as a ‘break’, ’break down’ or ‘instrumental break’ by suggesting that the middle eight necessarily introduces new (and specifically harmonic) musical ideas, unique within the song, which are distinct from, and not predictable based on those of the verse, chorus or any other section elsewhere in the song. My definition would preclude therefore a number of songs which have been hitherto identified as featuring middle eights within popular music journalism. Sections which to my mind would not constitute a middle eight would include those characterised by a thinning out of the musical texture (as in Outkast’s Hey Ya!) or a new melodic line over familiar chords (as in Beyonce’s Crazy in Love). A middle eight, and its constituent musical ideas, occurs only once within a song and are not repeated, nor mirrored elsewhere.

Happy? Good. So now we’ve established what isn’t a middle eight, let’s get our hands dirty with some examples of things that definitely are.

Lyrical perspective

While some songwriters rarely veer into such dangerous territory, others just love to lead us down this most particular of musical garden paths. Sting, hugely successful solo artist and front-man of The Police often uses the musical contrast offered by the middle eight as an opportunity for a shift of perspective in the lyrics, and as we’ll see, he’s not the only one to use it as an opportunity to put an alternative twist on the subject matter of the lyric, though he does it with particular panache. As Daniel Rachel observes in his introduction to Sting’s songwriting in his amazing ‘Isle of Noises’ book…

“Middle eights invert and shift the lyrical perspective, whilst the chorus anchors and connects the song’s thematic whole.” (Rachel, D. 2014)

The verses of his country music tinged I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying for example make for, I would argue, a fairly unemotional account of the breakdown of a marriage.

“Seven weeks have passed now, since she left me, and she shows her face to ask me how I am. She says the kids are fine, that they miss me. Maybe I could come and babysit sometime?” (Sting, I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying)

He goes on to tell us that he’s been awarded “joint custody” of the kids and “legal separation”. It’s all very matter of fact. The choruses, while letting us “in” a little on the protagonist’s inner world, continues in similarly somber fashion…

“I’m so happy that I can’t stop crying, I’m so happy, I’m laughing through my tears.”

It’s not until the middle eight however that we start to see some sunshine.

“I took a walk alone last night, I looked up at the stars, to try and find an answer in my life… Something made me smile, something seemed to ease the pain, something ’bout the universe, and how it’s all connected.”

The music too here exhibits a lift, engaging more subtle colours in its chord progression, and propelling the final verse up a semi-tone from its predecessors, to reflect the conciliatory (though certainly not triumphant) tone of the lyrics as the track ends.

“The park is full of Sunday father, and melted ice-cream. We try to do the best within the given time. A kid should be with his mother. Everybody knows that. What can a father do but babysit sometimes.”

Diatonic and borrowed chords

Otis Redding – (Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay. Short though it may be, Otis Redding manages to squeeze a nice little middle eight into this track, released shortly following his death in 1967. The song is in the key of G Major, though the chords of the verse and chorus meander up and down settling on just as many non-diatonic chords (chords which don’t belong in that key along, coloured in red below), as those from the key signature (coloured in green) along the way. The middle eight on the other hand speaks in an altogether simpler harmonic language, largely utilising the three primary chords in the key (G Major, C Major and D Major) which lend it a more direct, urgent tone reflected perfectly in the lyrics. Interestingly, the song features exclusively chords of the major persuasion, which is pretty unusual.

(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay - Otis Reading
Verse
G                      B7

Sitting in the morning sun
           
C                       A

I'll be sitting when the evening comes

G                       B7

Watching the ships roll in
          
C                        A

And then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah
Chorus                
G                       E

So I'm just gonna sit on the dock of the bay
            
G            E

Watching the tide roll away
         
G                          A

Ooo, I'm sitting on the dock of the bay
        
G             E

Wastin' time

Middle EightG     D    C                                       

Looks like, nothing's gonna change

G    D     C           

Everything still remains the same

G D             C                 G

I can't do what ten people tell me to do

F                   D

So I guess I'll remain the same

Conversely, in their anthem Motorcycle Emptiness, the Manic Street Preachers save their non-diatonic chords for the middle eight, rather than the other way round.  This song is in the key of E Major, and so a quick look at the Circle of Fifths diagram (on this page) shows us that all the chords of the verse and chorus (shown below in green) are in that key, as they are those which surround E Major. The middle eight likewise begins diatonically, but the C Major and D Major chords in the second and fourth lines (shown in red) are not in the key of E Major at all, but are borrowed chords from the parallel minor key of E Minor. They only sound marginally out of place due to the gradually ascending contour of the chord sequence as it progresses (A to B to C to D).

Motorcycle Emptiness - Manic Street Preachers
Chorus
E         E/D#     C#m       A

Under neon loneliness motorcycle emptiness

E         E/D#     C#m       A 

Under neon loneliness motorcycle emptiness
Middle Eight
A               B                     A               B

All we want from you are the kicks you've given us

C               D                     C               D

All we want from you are the kicks you've given us

A               B                     A               B

All we want from you are the kicks you've given us

C               D                     C               D

All we want from you are the kicks you've given us

Let’s look at some another. Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69 would be a very different song without its quite unexpected (at least the first time you hear it) jump of a minor 3rd from D Major to F Major and I would argue, not for the better. The jump is only a temporary one however… I guess nothing can last forever, hey Bryan?

As Bryan effortlessly demonstrates, the middle eight is typically characterised by a change in not only the lyrical, but the also the musical landscape.

Bryan Adams - Summer of '69
Pre-ChorusBm               A

Standin' on your mama's porch

D                     G

You told me that you'd wait forever

Bm                A

Oh, and when you held my hand

D                 G

I knew that it was now or never

Bm             A             D

Those were the best days of my life
ChorusA

Oh, yeah

D                      A

Back in the summer of sixty-nine, oh
Middle EightF           Bb                  C

Man, we were killin' time, we were young and restless
   
Bb

We needed to unwind

F        Bb               C

I guess nothin' can last forever, forever.

As amply demonstrated by Summer of ’69 (and as we can see from the above, continuing the use of green and red colours to denote diatonic and non-diatonic chords respectively), a middle eight is often characterised by a shift in musical key.

Sometimes (as is certainly the case here) the new key verily gate-crashes the party without any of the carefully contrived transitioning we might expect from the world of classical music, where the harmony can often be found seamlessly modulating from key to key, with (depending on the composer) effortless grace.

Paul Weller highlights the challenge inherent in middle eights which jump to new keys, in his discussion with Daniel Rachel in Isle of Noises in relation to his song Wings of Speed.

“… you’re in the key of C, but all of a sudden you’re in the key of E-flat, but then you find a way of getting back to [C]” (Rachel, D. 2014)

As you’ll hear if you give the song a listen, Weller indeed finds his way back to C Major most gracefully.

Looking back at Summer of ’69 for a moment, and by referring again to a Circle of Fifths diagram (such as the one found on this page), its possible to see that the keys signatures of D Major (verse / chorus) and F Major (middle eight) are only distantly related (a quarter of the circle apart), which explains why the middle eight sounds musically unfamiliar within the context of the song up until that point. On closer inspection however, we can also see that F Major is actually the relative major key of D Major’s parallel key, D Minor, and this realisation helps us to understand how, despite having come crashing rudely in, the middle eight is able to get up, dust itself down and make a rather more respectable exit. As the final chord of the middle eight, C Major is the dominant (V) chord in the key of F Major, it is able to build musical momentum in such a way that we could be forgiven for thinking that the middle eight might be about to repeat itself, rather though it provides a handy springboard from which to shift everything up a tone (see the section of intervals on this page) from C Major back to our much missed D Major, ready for the next verse. Phew!

Relative keys

While Summer of ’69 deliberately grinds the musical gearbox by switching key signatures altogether, other writers attempt to exploit the possibilities closer to home, at least in a harmonic sense (if not in any other), as we’ll see now.

Ash – Shining Light. This veritable cornucopia of classic songwriting techniques features a no-less classic middle eight. Again, we’re in D Major, but this time rather than an unrelated key, we encounter a transition to the relative minor key of B minor, which shares all of its notes with D Major, but offsets the musical function of each of those notes, so that B Minor becomes our new tonicchord. The bass-line initially stays firmly put, hammering out the B note (known as a pedal note), while the chords go on something of a downward journey painting a subtly different picture with each new chord. It all resolves beautifully to pivot back into the major key with a ii – V – I turnaround, just in time for an epic guitar solo… and why not!

Sting – Englishman In New York. In contrast to Ash’s more melancholic minor meanderings during the middle eight, Sting (partial to a middle eight as well we know) goes in the exact opposite direction. The verses and chorus share a fairly straight-forward three-chord progression which centres around the key of B Minor. The middle eight however jumps to the relative major chord (D Major) and sees out its obligatory eight bars apparently making its way back to its minor base in the manner to which we have become accustomed, only to surprise us with what can only be described as a jazz wig out, closely and unapologetically followed by a break-beat break down, before the song gets back down to business.

Rhythm and Time Changes

Its not just the chord sequence which can vary in the middle eight section (though as I’ve argued, that’s pretty vital). To accentuate the change in mood, there can also be rhythmic changes too. A good example is the fantastic tongue-in-cheek Jesus He Knows Me by Genesis, wherein the drum beat is stretched out to half its original tempo (music-posh for ‘speed’) during the middle eight, choking the otherwise frantic pace of the song.

Taking this concept one step further, the Sugababes twist even more fundamentally the rhythmic component of their track Round Round during its middle eight, moving from it from the commonplace, simple time signature of 4 4 to a compound time signature (6 8 or 12 8) whereby each beat is divided into three sub divisions, a metre more often found in ballads (which Round Round temporarily becomes before it comes to its pounding, electronic senses). There is little to prepare us for the profound change in mood this brings, and the contrast is stark to say the least, to mention nothing of the headache it presents to anyone trying to look cool dancing to it.

Instrumental Middle Eights

So far we’ve dealt exclusively with middle eights which feature lyrics over unique musical material, and when a songwriter is really bringing their A game, the lyrics can beautifully mirror this change in musical character in some way. But often the middle eight serves to provide some temporary respite from the barrage of lyrical truth-bombs being dropped on the listener.  The middle eight in Erasure’s A Little Respect, while an absolute beaut (and an iconic and integral part of the song) is a subtle affair, blink (or whatever the auditory equivalent of blinking might be) and you’ll miss it. The verses and choruses are centred around the key of C Major with one or two non-diatonic chords along the way… nothing too crazy. The descending melody which leads us into the middle 8 (you know… da da da daaaa daaaa daaaa) numbs us slightly to the appearance of the chord of Bb a tone lower than C Major, borrowed from the key of C minor.

Two further examples of middle eights which are purely instrumental in nature are the equally wonderful Dream Brother by Jeff Buckley and No Surprises by Radiohead. In both these cases, the temporary departure of the vocal line, combined with obligatory musical contrast, serve to maximise the impact when the remainder of the songs kick in, albeit in different ways. Where Radiohead use the middle eight as a springboard into the song’s final heart-breaking denouement, Jeff Buckley brings the mood down after the middle eight before a final build.

In researching middle eights, I have found them to be like branches of Costa Coffee, or (more happily) defibrillators… you don’t appreciate how many there are around until you start looking. I will continue to add examples to the Spotify playlist as I happen upon them, and appreciate suggestions. My inkling is that middle eights are less fashionable than they once were, though I’d love to be proved wrong on this.

And finally, the award however for most committed middle eight composition (if such a thing existed… it should!) must go to the Pet Shop Boys for the song Legacy, the epic, if lyrically vague closer to their 2009 album Yes. Not content with our now familiar truck driver’s key change, abrupt shift in musical style and a shift in metre from four to three beats in a bar (“ooom pa pa”), singer Neil Tennant decides to start singing in French. Beat that Bryan!

References: 

Rachel, D. Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters. Macmillan, 2014.

Bibliography:

Spotify Playlist: “Pete Paphides’ Top 40 Middle 8’s” – Created by corway https://open.spotify.com/user/corway/playlist/701w1084SU1kLdxVIH7cp7?si=UhPFEtV_Tems8eIzCnzUiQ

Spotify Playlist: “Now That’s What I Call A Middle Eight” – Created by Pete Paphides https://open.spotify.com/user/kalavas1/playlist/28Du5523cSOPV0d8qpiNVH?si=jeOTt0yISJeJQa9veHG5Yg 

Article: 8 Magnificent Middle Eights: Horton, M (2012) http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/8-magnificent-middle-eights