Written by Liz Buckley

Arts

The speed of sound

Sam Smith wrote his Bond song in minutes. Is that something he should be bragging about? Liz Buckley took a look.

Sam Smith photo by Pistenwolf via Wikimedia Commons.

Sam Smith photo by Pistenwolf, via Wikimedia Commons.

Boasting about how little time a song took to write depends on something not all artists seem to appreciate: it’s only impressive if it’s a really good song. When Sam Smith quipped to the world this week that his new Bond theme only took 20 minutes to write, the world listened to the song and collectively thought, “Take longer.” It’s a Bond theme, Sam; there’s a strong chance a lot of people will hear it. Take some pride in your work.

Bond themes have a habit of coming fast. The lyrics of Adele’s Skyfall were reputedly written in the cab to the studio and the vocals recorded in less time than it takes to hear it twice. That said, the song’s producer and co-writer Paul Epworth also said he wrote the music for it in super-fast time after watching 13 Bond films back to back. To me, the writing process includes those Bond films and that viewing marathon would actually be the slowest week of my life.

Songs written quickly can be a sign of genius of course – a song that on first hearing sounds so natural, anyone hearing it wonders why it didn’t already exist; plucked out the ether, just waiting for someone to play it first.

The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction was written in two minutes flat before Keith passed out, having vomited out the song that was to be their first American number one. Axl Rose overheard Sweet Child O’ Mine from upstairs when the band were just messing around; he thankfully went downstairs to let Guns N’ Roses know they had something.

“At a time when Dolly Parton was leaving her one-time mentor and manager Porter Wagoner, she was churning out the biggest hits of her life at a rate of three multi-million selling singles a day. A day!”

Likewise, REM’s Losing My Religion was written by Peter Buck when he was just sat around learning to play the mandolin, and that is its very charm. The simplicity of finding those early, simple strums that make the song so cyclical and mesmerising was all part of the learning curve.

Michael Stipe says the lyrics he put to it are about being at your wits’ end over an obsession, an unrequited love, but now when I hear, “I thought that I heard you laughing, I thought that I heard you sing / I think I thought I saw you try“, I’ll just think of a man getting highly strung with a stringed instrument. But my, does messing around on a fretboard sound good. Give that man a Grammy. And a trumpet. (Here. Try the trumpet next, Peter.)

Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was written in minutes and nothing could be more fitting. The song, after all, is the equivalent of a sassy text message. Written quickly, once it’s in your day it takes over, and the day after you move on and forget it. Taylor says she deliberately wanted it to be catchy to get repeat airplay and drive the subject of her soured relationship mad. It was her first US number one and sold 623,000 in its first week alone. Revenge is sweet, but my how we all suffered in that break-up.

Periods of high emotion do tend to help with creativity and at a time when Dolly Parton was leaving her one-time mentor and manager Porter Wagoner, she was churning out the biggest hits of her life at a rate of three multi-million selling singles a day. A day! Dolly says over her lifetime she has written at least 3,000 songs and writes something every morning, be it a song or an idea. And to think I feel proud of myself if I work out how to put on an All Saints cardigan.

“Now when I hear, ‘I thought that I heard you laughing, I thought that I heard you sing / I think I thought I saw you try’, I’ll just think of a man getting highly strung with a stringed instrument.”

Dolly’s Jolene was famously covered by The White Stripes who were not unaccustomed to being fast workers themselves. Seven Nation Army was written in minutes and the anthemic, air-punching, ground-stomping refrain can now unite stadiums full of sports or music fans in seconds. Herds of people will sing “der der der der-der der DER” as they trudge all the way back to the train station, heads bowed, and a seven nation army couldn’t hold them back.

The guitar-nerd film It Might Get Loud about Jimmy Page and more, actually has a 10-minute section where Jack White writes a song during filming: the pencil scribbles fly, the guitar pick gripped in his mouth. “OK, let’s see,” he says politely before writing, performing AND a recording a song on spec. And it’s bloody good. Which thanks to Sam Smith, we’ve learned is a bonus.

Sometimes amazing riffs might be too good to be true, however. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid – a seminal, instantly recognisable, legendary track the band say they wrote in a matter of minutes – was intended as pure album filler. It could be argued that a bit more care might have been needed, however, as some things come too easily; there is a marked similarity in the opening of Paranoid to Michigan band Half-Life’s Get Down, recorded the year before. Very few people will ever get to hear Half Life in comparison, and perhaps both songs having the same start is pure chance, but when the devil has the best tunes, it’s quite likely the devil has DJed the previous weekend.

If I wrote this too quickly, please don’t judge me.

@liz_buckley

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Written by Liz Buckley

Department manager at an independent record company. Liker of Frank Sinatra and Nick Cave. Very sudden laugh. Pasty but tasty. Quite tired.