If you float around the internet and read the latest article about “American Idol,” one of the biggest criticisms you consistently see is that many viewers are unhappy with the era of music that is being performed on the show. But are viewers not responding to the music itself, or to the modern artists’ lack of interpretation? We saw one such example of this just this past week when contestant Amber Holcomb needed to have the lyrics of “My Funny Valentine” explained to her, and we also saw it earlier this year with Candice Glover’s version of “Come Together” during the Lennon / McCartney songbook week.
Given that this is an issue that has long frustrated us, and as a believer that any song can be a good one with smart lyrics and the right understanding behind it, we turned to a man who has studied enough music of the past to write a comprehensive book about it: Brian L. Forsythe, author of Inside the Songs of the Sixties. We’ve spent the past month in communication with him about music and reality TV, and we narrowed the focus for the sake of this article to a few select performances from Lennon/McCartney week from earlier this season.
Do you think there are any sort of Beatles (or Lennon /McCartney) songs that are better suited for modern audiences? And with that, do you think that the contestants picked pretty good songs?
The Beatles began by writing love songs with simple lyrics and arrangements. That was their musical hook and that’s what captivated Europe and North America. With that in mind the contestants did, for the most part, choose great tunes with the exception of ‘Come Together’ and ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. However, one would have an extremely hard time picking a bad Beatles tune. Interestingly, even though all of these songs were attributed to Lennon/McCartney, not one of them was an actual Beatles collaboration.
Do you think there is a substantial difference between the quality of the songs written then, and the ones now? Could this serve as some sort of correlation when it comes to why older songs are so popular on these shows?
During the late fifties and early sixties, a great majority of the performers did not write their own songs. That was left to songwriters, who came to work everyday with the intention of writing a pop tune. The famous Brill Building housed the great Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Boyce & Hart, Leiber & Stroller, Doc Pomus, Phil Spector and a guy named Jerry Landis, also known as Paul Simon. Most of the hits we heard from that era came from these fabulously talented songwriters. Motown, which was founded in 1959, by songwriter Berry Gordy Jr., provided several dozen hits as well, including Jackie Wilson’s smash hit ‘Lonely Teardrops’. (By the way, Jackie Wilson was performing ‘Lonely Teardrops’ live in the early 70’s, had a heart attack on stage, fell and hit his head, and went into a coma which lasted for nine years before finally dying).
In today’s era, almost without fail, the groups and performers write their own songs, which I attribute to The Beatles success and the massive amounts of royalties they receive. Because of this, we now must endure a great majority of songs and music written by those who lack the talent to do so. When we bought an album in the sixties, all the songs were great. Get a CD today and we find ourselves skipping through to find the one or two listenable tunes.
Can you give us some insight into some of the songs from earlier this season?
‘With a Little Help From my Friends’ was originally titled ‘Badfinger Boogie.’ This came about when John Lennon injured his fore finger and had to use his middle finger to play the piano. Also drummer Ringo Starr insisted that the opening lines were changed from ‘What would you think If I sang out of tune? Would you throw ripe tomatoes at me?’ to ‘Would you stand up and walk out on me?’ He was concerned that if they ever played the song live that fans would actually throw the tomatoes, citing the time that George Harrison mentioned that his favorite candy was ‘jelly babies’ and thereafter fans showered them with these at every live performance.
‘Come Together’s’ history began when John Lennon was inspired by Timothy Leary’s campaign for governor of California titled ‘come together, join the party’ against Ronald Reagan. Leary was a well known pro LSD activist but his campaign was cut short when he was thrown in jail for possession of marijuana.
‘Yesterday’ was originally entitled Scrambled Eggs. It was voted as the # 1 song of the 20th century by MTV and Rolling Stone magazine. It holds the Guinness book of world records for being recorded by over 2,200 artists. This tune was solely written by Paul McCartney and in 2000, McCartney asked Yoko Ono to change the songwriting credit to McCartney/Lennon but she refused. How’s this for a bad decision: The song was offered to pop star Chris Farlowe who turned it down because he considered it to be too soft. Where is he now? Farlowe went on to become a collector and seller of war memorabilia from a shop he owned in England.
Ever heard of Melaine Coe? This is the gal from her front page newspaper story that inspired Lennon/McCartney to write ‘She’s Leaving Home.’ The song is self explanatory but in a bizarre coincidence McCartney had actually met Coe three years earlier when he selected her as a prize winner on the UK’s TV show ‘Ready! Steady! Go!’ Coe, at one time in her life was dating Burt Ward who played Robin on TV’s ‘Batman’ series.
Do you think that there are some songs that have been buried somewhat in the 1960s that would make for successful covers today on an ‘American Idol’-type show?
The Beatles, though pioneers, were not the most popular group of the sixties … [They] were outsold by several other groups including The Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones, and The Supremes during their heyday. I’ve noticed that folk songs are not presented on these talent shows. Take for instance Bob Dylan. He wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ a thoughtful and provocative song, which is pretty much the anthem of the sixties. However, I wouldn’t think that it would translate properly in this day and age. And what about ‘Surf’ music? Huge in the sixties in the US. Short, groovy tunes about carefree fun in the sun. Catchy and enjoyable songs that the majority of the viewing audiences would love.
Asking if there are any particular songs that should be covered now-a-days is like asking what 10 records I would want if I was shipwrecked on a desert island. Could I come up with a list of songs? Sure, but I’d probably change my mind tomorrow.
Thanks to Brian for his insight! What we hope for you as a reader, and prospective singing-show contestants, get out of this article is that with every song comes a story, and some of the most-beautiful music ever composed came in an era in which many young singers do not remember (or were even born in). If you are looking to purchase Brian’s book “Inside The Songs of the Sixties” then be sure to check out his website, we highly recommend getting a copy, it’s a great read.
If you want to see where the remaining “American Idol” contestants stand, be sure to visit the link here.