The rock era has produced an astounding number of great songwriters. And I confess to being somewhat envious of their skill because although I can play an instrument, I cannot write a song to save my life. The one and only time I really tried to someone said it sounded like a Jeff Beck tune called “Jeff’s Boogie.”
And while there are a lot of great songwriters and songwriter teams, I single out here the three that I think stand head and shoulders above everyone else. (And those other writers will be featured in a subsequent post). So for me the three best are:
Dylan effectively changed modern songwriting. He made it more political, more personal, more poetic. Sure, he also sometimes sang what sounded like nonsense lyrics. But for every “Rainy Day Women” there’s at least two like “With God on Our Side”:
Through many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.
Lennon and McCartney changed what was possible for a rock band to be. They played and wrote their own songs – something that Buddy Holly did – but they also expanded the sonic pallet for songwriters. As far as rock music – or even popular music – there is before the Beatles and after them. But I think for the Beatles, it’s as much – or more – about the music and arrangements as it is about the words.
So how to pick a song? How about “In My Life?”:
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed.
Some forever, not for better.
Some have gone, and some remain.
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall.
Some are dead and some are living.
In my life I’ve loved them all.
Even before he went solo, Paul Simon had written some of the best, most poignant, most melancholic songs of the rock era. “Sounds of Silence,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “The Boxer,” “America.” And then he goes solo and does “Loves me Like a Rock,” “Something So Right,” “Still Crazy,” the entire Graceland album! Extraordinary. (Simon, with and without Garfunkel, will get his full due down the road. Here’s a little bit of “The Boxer”:
I am just a poor boy.
Though my story’s seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles
Such are promises
All lies and jest
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.
Yes there are a lot of great songwriters of the rock and folk era. For me, as great as the rest of them are, these three represent the gold standard. Not just in the quality of their songs but in the quantity and variety over so many years.
Coming soon – everybody else.