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DB Lampoon! Melodies From Up Above

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Still flummoxed by the popularity of Auld Lang Syne and why we sing it at New Year, Peter Sherwood reveals how easy it is to write a hit song.

Classical and contemporary composers have said they feel music is drifting around in the firmament waiting to be discovered. In other words, music already exists and needs only a conduit. If there’s a God at work here, my slothful self is disappointed; I could use the royalties. The great John Denver said Annie’s Song fluttered into him on an Aspen ski lift, while another hit landed while horseback riding in the Rockies. He wrote both in minutes. No effort, just ‘Hey, here’s a hit song if you can find a few minutes to scribble it down.’

At age 21, Paul McCartney awoke one morning with a tune driving him crazy; he couldn’t place it. Days later he realised he’d written Yesterday in his sleep. With over 2,200 cover versions, Yesterday has been voted the number one pop song of all time. Another for tune made for hanging around doing nothing. For Lennon and McCartney, the atmosphere was thick with money-making tunes. Sammy Cahn was even more prolific, with dozens of standards and an astronomical 31 Academy Award nominations. A Hollywood director hurriedly asked Cahn and cowriter Julie Stein for a song for his film Three Coins in the Fountain. It took them a couple of minutes and hearing it today that’s all it was worth. It became a number one hit.

Cahn was one of a string of Jewish composers who wrote hundreds of The Great American Songbook. Cahn said, “I don’t write songs, they write me. Do you think I wander around all day thinking I must write a song called Three Coins in the Fountain? Only an idiot would do that.” Of the genius Jewish composer, Irving Berlin, he said, “If a man in a lifetime can point to six songs that are immediately identifiable, he has achieved something. Irving Berlin has 60.” Religion is no barrier. Eleven of the top Christmas songs have Jewish composers, including Berlin’s iconic White Christmas.

Bing Crosby’s original has sold 50 million copies. For sheer speed, the Beastie Boys 1986 hit (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) was knocked off in five minutes, which is laudable provided I don’t have to listen to it. The Rolling Stones’ (I can’t get no) Satisfaction took a ponderous 20 minutes, and had it been two minutes I wouldn’t be shocked.

Ten-minute songs: Lady Gaga’s Just Dance, Adele’s Skyfall for the Bond movie, REM’s Losing My Religion, and U2’s 40 (as they were being kicked out of a recording studio in 1983 for overstaying). On the slow side, Bob Dylan took two years to write Tangled Up in Blue.

But winner of the most glacially slow, tedious, and musically moronic piece ever dragged down from the heavens is… the John Cage classical composition Organ2/ ASLSP (as slow as possible). Cage died in 1992, and was surely taking the piss. He must be rolling around in hysterics as the good and pedantically demented burghers of St Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, Germany, have taken him at his word. They played the first chord on September 5, 2001 and have found a way to keep the organ bleating out one dreary note every few years. This riveting show is scheduled to end on September 5, 2640. I don’t know about you, but I can’t get no satisfaction.

Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 20+ years. The former head of an international public relations firm, he is the author of 15 books and has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post.


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