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Monday, October 03, 2005


Carl mentions Dylan's hot streak of '64 - '67, "Another Side" through the Basement Tapes. Streaking has always been part of pop, especially in its rock phase. Few rockers have stayed at the top of their songwriting game for more than 7 or 8 years. Lennon & McCartney peaked for a short time, '63 to '71 in Lennon's case, or maybe '70; McCartney wrote a lot more good songs in the '70s than Lennon, but more bad ones too. Stevie Wonder had an incredible string from "Music of My Mind" to "Songs in the Key of Life," and he was writing some of his material before then. I don't know all of her albums, but Joni Mitchell wrote a ton of amazing songs between '69 and '77 ("Don Juan's Reckless Daughter"). The first 4 Talking Heads albums shined, or at least did so at the time (I only listen to "Remain in Light" any more). The most astounding to me is Brian Wilson's string in the '60s.* His albums:

1962: Surfin' Safari
'63: Surfin' USA, Surfer Girl, Little Deuce Coupe (2/3rds new material)
'64: Shut Down Vol. 2, All Summer Long, Beach Boys Concert (no new originals), Christmas Album (half originals)
'65: Today, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), Party (no new originals)
'66: Pet Sounds
'67: (Smile outtakes and bootlegs), Smiley Smile
'68: Wild Honey, Friends, Stack-o-Tracks (instrumental trax from the hits)
'69: 20/20

Wilson collaborated with lyricists, and on "Friends" and "20/20" the other Boys started contributing significantly, but until then he basically was the Lennon/McCartney AND the George Martin of his group, writing and producing 8 albums of originals between '62 and '65. (He didn't officially become the producer until "Surfer Girl.") There's some filler on most of these albums, but very little -- less, I'd say, than on the Beatles or Dylan albums of the same period, at least up through "Friends"; though the Beach Boys filler is more obviously fillerish.

It isn't because the Tin Pan Alley guys didn't perform as a rule that they had longer hot streaks. (Irving Berlin, 1911, million-selling smash "Alexander's Ragtime Band," to 1946, "Annie Get Your Gun"; and he had had hits, but none that became "standards," before Alexander.)

Duke Ellington led a band from 1924 to 1974, constantly touring, with several streaks of the hottest sort, maybe '26 to '31, and again '39 to '41, and again '56 till the illness that killed him forced him to retire in '74. Miles Davis, Roland Kirk, and Ornette Coleman had briefer or less prolific careers, but all kept writing fresh stuff for longer than any rock songwriter I can think of.

Hundreds of songwriters have written one or 2 songs that thousands of people keep in their hearts for decades. I think about this, because I'm in love with songs. If as a songwriter I were to write one song that reached that standard, well, that would be a heck of a thing, wouldn't it?

* I recognize that lists of this sort are valuable mostly as evidence of the writer's blind spots. Where's Prince? Where's George Clinton? Where's James Brown? Holland-Dozier-Holland?
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