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Rock & Roll Safehouse, Part II: How to Write and Record Your Own Song

Last week, we explored how to make a music video without leaving the editing room. For its sequel, we’ll look at how to make the song underneath it. We’re about to get deep into the weeds of music making, and at some point, the eyes of non-musicians may begin to reflexively glaze over. But when I was starting out, I would search high and low for books and magazines on how rock and pop songs were constructed, and the above song is due in great part to information I gleaned doing my own detective work during the stone knives and bearskins pre-Internet era of home music recording. Hopefully budding musicians will learn a trick or two from what follows.

Thomas Edison famously said that “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration.” When writing a song, the amount of inspiration often helps to reduce the perspiration necessary, but a fair amount of the latter is very often required.

As British music author Rikky Rooksby has written in his excellent book, How To Write Songs On Guitar, diving into writing a song requires one of three first steps: Songs are begun from the bottom up, starting with an interesting sounding drum loop or drum machine pattern. Or from the middle outward, starting with an interesting chord sequence on guitar or keyboard, or even an interesting synthesizer sound. And finally, from the top down, starting with an interesting lyric or melody.

It was via that last method that I began “Rock & Roll Safehouse” last year. As I mentioned last week, I was inspired by a 2015 interview of Elvis Costello by the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Myers, that was included in his book Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop, in which Costello said:

Soon after I completed [1977’s “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,”] I was signed to Stiff Records, a British independent label. Stiff sent me off to Headley Grange, about an hour and a half southwest of London, to rehearse backed by members of Clover, an American country-rock band that was in the U.K. to record an album. Headley Grange was a former poorhouse that became a rock ’n’ roll safe house where record companies lodged their bands and had them work on material before recording. It was cost-effective for them.

As I wrote in Part 1, the “rock ’n’ roll safe house” phrase was great; it also conjured up images of TV series like Miami Vice, where the cops are always hiding people out in an undercover “safehouse” before a case goes to trial. Headley Grange was where Led Zeppelin wrote or recorded much of their best material, including both “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir,” and where Genesis wrote their breakthrough Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album. The phrase also evoked Nellcôte, the French villa where the Rolling Stones, as tax exiles, recorded much of their epochal 1972 double album, Exile on Main Street. Both locations conjured up mental images of rock bands under pressure (or at least enough pressure to add some drama to the song), surrounded by their roadies, hangers-on, and other louche types on the make.