Sunday, June 01, 2003

by Wayne Robins

I hadn’t listened to WCBS-FM/101.1, New York City’s flagship oldies station, for years, in silent protest of their cancellation of Don K. Reed’s “Doo-Wop Shop.” But I couldn’t blame them too much, since it was obvious that the audience for music of the 1950’s, CBS-FM’s original raison d’etre, had long since moved on, to retirement in Florida, or to heaven, or both. And because the value of Motown’s catalog has become depleted do due overexposure--in TV commercials, movie soundtracks, and in prolifically shoddy compilations under a succession of greedy but inept guardians, that cornerstone of mass appeal oldies radio had little appeal to me.

But I was listening to WCBS-FM as I was driving around Queens doing errands this morning. Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” gave way to the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away,” the Mamas and Papas “Words of Love...” None of these are all-time favorites of mine, but they have one thing in common: They were hit records that were composed by geniuses, or at least song crafters of the highest order.

The pop charts of today will reveal no such coincidence of composing greatness, performance, and song. The successful pop and country hit-makers sing utterly dreary, formulaic material. Not to dismiss the many rap hits on the charts, but rap hits are the product of a producers’ ability and the performer’s attitude, and the currency of the Beat.

While niche areas such as Americana have produced interesting, offbeat singer-songwriters, they are hardly the rage. And “rock and roll bands,” the mediocrity of which make even the disrespected 1970s icons like Grand Funk Railroad and imitators like Bloodrock seem brilliant, Foreigner a bunch of Einstein’s, and Bon Jovi’s better tunes exemplars of the songwriting craft, don’t write songs today as much as they do loud projections of personality and attitude that have very little to do with the Songs themselves.

Since I started in this game as a teenager in the late 1960’s whose goal was to be a lyricist, I’ve always been a Song Man first. Motown’s golden era was the fortunate alignment of great songs first, with tremendous producers and musicians second, with disciplined performers the third priority. Which is why Berry Gordy Jr. would have numerous artists cut the same song, and release the best one as a single. It’s also why “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” could, in sequential years be a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips (1967) and Marvin Gaye (1968), and a hit album track from Creedence Clearwater Revival hardly months later. The song is that good.

When you think about Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” productions in the early 1960s, the hits by the Ronettes (“Be My Baby”) and the Crystals (“He’s A Rebel”) were great, formidable records; separated from
Spector’s production, however, the songs are thin soup: You wouldn’t want to hear anyone else sing them.

There may be some good records on the charts these days...Sean Paul’s “Get Busy” ain’t bad, R. Kelly’s “Ignition” sounds okay...but the only song in the top 20 is Uncle Kracker’s means of getting in with the in-crowd is its no-brainer cover of Dobie Gray’s 1973 “Drift Away,” featuring Dobie Gray. It would be coverable without Dobie for the simple reason that “Drift Away” is also a great song, the kind of which no one seems focused on writing anymore.
(c) 2003 Wayne Robins. All rights reserved, some rights available. E-mail me. (Click on the highlight).

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?