ANATOMY OF A SONG: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop, by Marc Myers. Grove Press, 336 pp., $26.
Want to write a timeless rock and roll hit? Come up with a snappy title, and worry about the lyrics later. That’s one of the lessons in Marc Myers’ “Anatomy of a Song,” a winning look at the stories behind 45 pop, punk, folk, soul and country classics.
There are, of course, many ways to pen a catchy tune. But according to Myers’ interviews with dozens of top songwriters, you may want to try this recipe: Start with a crisp phrase — dream it up yourself or borrow it from somebody else. This is your working title. Let it simmer for a bit, then jot down a few makeshift verses. Can you hitch your words to an infectious melody? If the answer is yes, you may be getting somewhere.
It worked for Aerosmith. Guitarist Joe Perry tells Myers what happened after his bandmates saw Mel Brooks’ comedy “Young Frankenstein”: “They were throwing lines back and forth from the film. They were laughing about Marty Feldman greeting Gene Wilder at the door of the castle and telling him to follow him. ‘Walk this way,’ he says.” That night, Perry and singer Steven Tyler started writing “Walk This Way,” an FM staple ever since.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty had similar results with a different phrase. In 1967, he wrote down a provisional title: “Proud Mary.” “I didn’t really know what those two words meant,” he says, “but I liked how they sounded together.” Months later, after learning he wasn’t being sent to fight in Vietnam, Fogerty felt inspired. Out came “lyrics about a riverboat,” he recalls. “Then I opened my notebook for a song title. There was ‘Proud Mary,’ ” a hit for both CCR and Ike and Tina Turner.
Myers’ collection of music milestones covers four decades. The most recent song is from 1991. By his reckoning, it’s impossible to say yet which songs from the past 25 years will endure. Fair enough, but there are some oversights. He could’ve stuck with his timeline and still included an original hip-hop track — Myers discusses rap only when noting that Run-D.M.C. covered “Walk This Way.”
Generally, however, “Anatomy of a Song,” adapted from Myers’ Wall Street Journal column of the same name, is a smart, gracious book. His interviews yield some fascinating details.
In a chapter about “Street Fighting Man,” Rolling Stone Keith Richards cites an overlooked element of the 1968 song that was a response to anti-war protests in European cities: Its “seesaw tone pattern” mimics “those odd sirens French police cars used.”
Cissy Houston, who recorded “Midnight Train to Georgia” before Gladys Knight and the Pips, tells Myers how she lobbied to rename Jim Weatherly’s song. It was initially called “Midnight Plane to Houston.” “My people are originally from Georgia,” she says, “and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else.”
The book’s sweetest story comes from Dorothy Morrison of the Edwin Hawkins Singers, whose “Oh Happy Day,” Myers writes, was “the first pure gospel recording to reach Billboard’s secular charts.” In 1969, Morrison heard her voice on the radio for the first time: “I froze. I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, that’s us — that’s me.’ ”