A wise man once said that there are three meanings to every song: what the songwriter meant when it was written, what the performer thinks about as they perform it, and what the listener thinks about when they hear it. Regardless, music fans are still curious about the “real” meaning of a song, the original, initial thoughts that entered the minds of those compelled enough to write and record it, and there are plenty of books, magazine articles, and websites devoted to all of those backstories.
For six years, Wall Street Journal contributor Marc Myers delved into these kinds of stories in his Anatomy of a Song column which, as a self-described “oral-history jukebox”, featured interviews with the artists, musicians, songwriters, and studio personnel involved with making songs that weren’t just considered big hits, but iconic pieces of art. The result was popular enough to produce the new book, Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B, and Pop, a compilation that gradually forms a cohesive history of modern popular music.
The 45 individual song entries, beginning with Lloyd Price’s 1952 classic “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and ending on R.E.M.’s 1991 hit “Losing My Religion”, manage to include most genres of music, including pop, rock, R&B, soul, country, disco, and even usually neglected styles like gospel, reggae, rap, and island/creole music. Chances are if you already were a devoted fan of any of these genres, then you probably already knew the stories behind the songs featured in the book, but there’s still a certain appeal to seeing an assorted collection of all of these vastly different hits presented together in chronological order.
Despite the fact that the book’s promotional materials advertise that readers can “jump in anywhere”, Myers states in the introduction that it is “a collective story about the music’s evolution and the role each song played” and suggests that readers should listen to the featured songs before and after reading “in chronological order, so you can hear the same audio history of R&B and rock that I heard and see how the music’s branches split off into other genres.” Therefore, in order to tie things together, each entry starts with a look at the genre and cultural circumstances of the specific song being discussed.
This approach naturally works better on some songs more than others, such as how the entry on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” sensibly discusses how the growing popularity of FM radio in the late ’60s led to album-oriented rock’s extended single lengths. However, some of these introductions seem to be stretching for historical significance, such as how the entry on The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” begins with the start of the gay rights movement.
Anatomy of a Song‘s biggest strength lies in its rather diverse and impressive group of interviewees. Mike Stoller, Lamont Dozier, Booker T. Jones, Cynthia Weil, Grace Slick, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page, Stevie Wonder, Debbie Harry, and Bonnie Raitt are just a small sampling of featured industry experts, and the reader really gets a sense of just who is talking about what. For example, there’s a big difference between the type of words and experiences that Loretta Lynn uses and mentions (discussing how her husband’s adulteries inspired “Fist City”), and the recollections of Joe Perry and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith (who reveal the origins of both versions of “Walk This Way”). This is natural, and as it should be.
It’s also intriguing to read how one person might just focus on their own personal experiences (Joni Mitchell’s thoughts on “Carey” read more like pages from an autobiography than anything else), while another interviewee (usually various studio musicians) will take the theme almost too literally, giving a specific play-by-play of who did what in the recording studio. Some entries even go into the after-effects of the song being discussed, such as Cyndi Lauper’s memories about the music video shoot for “Time After Time” and Roger Waters elaborate onstage tour plans and sequels to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”.
Unfortunately, just because a song is iconic, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has an interesting backstory. Too much of the book deals with the technical aspects of recording, which, unless you are an industry professional or a real gear-head, makes for a dull read. The rare exception to this rule is when various sonic implementations lead to something groundbreaking, such as the part when The Kinks use razors and knitting needles to slash and punch out speakers in order to get their desired distortion on “You Really Got Me”.
In a book like this, song selection is key. It’s a credit to the writer that its song list is so diverse, mixing both inescapable hits (The Temptations’ “My Girl”, The Doors’ “Light My Fire”) with cult classics like John Sebastian’s “Darling Be Home Soon” and Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come”. But still, a few of the inclusions are puzzling, such as why out of the entire oeuvre of The Rolling Stones, “Moonlight Mile” is one of their two featured songs. Not to mention, only the last ten entries come from the past 40 years. Myers does state in the introduction that, “a song is not iconic until it has stood the test of a generation — twenty-five years”, but admits, “there are songs recorded as recently as last year that seem destined for iconic status”, which still leaves the reader left wondering why the book ends when it does.
All in all, Anatomy of a Song makes for an interesting read, but considering the infinite possibilities of its concept, it could have been a lot more fun.