Review: ‘Anatomy of a Song’ by Marc Myers

Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and PopAnatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You can see the underpinnings of a more thorough book in “Anatomy of a Song.”

In this work, Wall Street Journal columnist Marc Myers collects 45 of his articles from his column of the same name, providing a tour of rock history through some key singles. He starts with Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and concludes with R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” taking time to breeze through “Please Mr. Postman,” “Chapel of Love,” “My Girl,” “Different Drum,” “Maggie May,” “Rock the Boat” and several others — 45 songs in honor of the 45 rpm record, the longtime form of the single.

“Breeze” is the operative word. Though there are a few revelations — I had no idea Fats Domino played piano on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” or there was an early, crummy mix of “Rock the Boat” (and Jim Gordon and Larry Carlton played on THAT) — too much has been written elsewhere, and sometimes you get the feeling chapters are cut off before the artists (or producers, or writers) really have a chance to dig deep.

That’s a given with an 800-word column, but it shouldn’t necessarily be a given in a book from those columns.

Probably the most interesting material comes from songwriters, who often had a completely different idea in mind — certainly inspiration — than the producers or artists. Michael Nesmith wrote “Different Drum” as a story song; Linda Ronstadt ended up winging the lyrics because she didn’t have a sheet in front of her. (She also hates how she sounds: “I hear fear and a lack of confidence,” she told Myers.) “Midnight Train to Georgia” was inspired by a call songwriter Jim Weatherly made to his friend Lee Majors, whose then girlfriend, Farrah Fawcett, answered and told him she was flying home to Houston. Edwin Hawkins’ piano influence on “Oh Happy Day” was Sergio Mendes. And Smokey Robinson didn’t write “My Girl” as a response to his own “My Guy,” which had topped the charts for Mary Wells a few months earlier.

But I always found myself wanting more. Mick Jagger talks about “Moonlight Mile’s” development, but I wanted to know about that weird mesh of chords at 1:02 — one that doesn’t repeat itself later in the song. John Fogerty alludes to difficulties with CCR as early as 1968 in the “Proud Mary” chapter — he didn’t like the band’s background vocals so he did them himself — but it’s a lot less revealing than an interview with Doug Clifford I saw a few weeks ago.

Also, Myers — who often writes about jazz — is a little stiff and academic in his setups. A book about rock ‘n’ soul needs more energy.

Still, it’s a pleasure to hear so many musicians give credit to a) their predecessors and b) serendipity. One thing that often bugs me about music post-1980 or so is it sounds so damned polished. (That’s practically a prerequisite for anything in the AutoTuned 21st century, but Ed Ward even complained about the same attribute for 1969’s “Abbey Road,” and I can’t argue.) But it’s the flaws that usually make the greatest songs.

In the chapter on “London Calling,” Clash drummer Topper Headon repeats the oft-told story about producer Guy Stevens, who insisted one song was done after Topper complained that it sped up. (He was probably talking about “Brand New Cadillac,” not “London Calling.”) “All great rock ‘n’ roll speeds up,” Stevens responded. To which Headon says now, “He was right. It made us realize that a good rock producer leaves imperfection in there somewhere.”

“Anatomy of a Song” is equally imperfect, but it’s got enough juice to make for an entertaining read. Now, if only I could read the extended version.

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