Six Damn Fine Degrees #45: The white collar approach to rock’n’roll

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

There is that myth of a writer tirelessly scribbling away, lost to the world, waiting for the muse or the ether to whisper myriads of scintillating ideas into their ear, and the writer as some sort of conduit, putting the words on paper, finishing text after text with agonizing industry. It is a myth because there are days and weeks of frustrating inertness, where the next sentence sounds wrong, and where you throw the work of months into the fireplace, howling with rage, because the story just doesn’t have any pulse. But the myth persists: writing seems to be forever associated with solitude and otherworldly inspiration.

With music, it’s a slightly different story. Especially with rock’n’roll, the myth of groupies and drugs and throwing stuff from hotel rooms in a drunken frenzy will most likely never die (what dies is, more likely, the rockstar doing the throwing). Musical output seems to be a sideline, almost an afterthought; it’s just there when you need it, like a tap.

What goes unsaid is that many careers just don’t last if you don’t put in the hours. Guns n’Roses have faded away mainly because they were never on time, if they turned up at all. There is a kind of white collar attitude that happens behind the scenes that puts an end to that myth. George Martin insisted on strict office hours and gave the Beatles similar haircuts and identical suits; not exactly white collar suits, but the thought behind that was that they should work as a group, not as individuals. There was a lot of moaning from the Fab Four, but they did it, and it made them famous. Even the album covers from that early era look similar. like four stylish lads going to the office. Martin took a risk because Ringo Starr was not exactly the best drummer available, and with Lennon and McCartney both writing songs, there could have been a clash of egos, but maybe he also realised that he could use them both so that their output would vary: there could be typical Lennon songs and there could be typical McCartney songs. Seems to have worked, wouldn’t you say?

An unlikelier example of 9 to 5 diligence is Nick Cave. There was a time where he donned his suit and tie, left his house with a small suitcase, went to his office and concerned himself with songwriting. This is perhaps the best way to maintain your own standards: you write 50 songs, and the best dozen will make it onto the album. If you cobble together a dozen songs and book your studio time, you will find that half of them might be fillers. If you realise that, it’s great to be able to fall back upon a wide range of other unrecorded material. Artists take enough risks nowadays, why should they knowingly rid themselves of that safety net? Writing songs is in your job description – why not push it as far as you can? You might surprise yourself with what is there to find, and if you surprise yourself, you will sure as hell surprise your audience. Dazzle them with your quality output; you can still throw that TV from your hotel room for publicity.

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