Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Song Writing Duos - If It Ain't Broke Don't Change It

As I kick back and rest today, I’ve listened to a few songs by favorite bands. These are songs that take me away and get me out of my head and into my heart and soul. I’ve always sat in admiration of songwriting from the heart. How someone can take words and melodies and tie them together to strike an emotion, change a state of mind from sadness to happiness or just plain get you to hum along in your head all day long, that memorable hook from a song. There are some teams of song writers that are just brilliant. There are individuals that also have the gift, when they write for their band and there are some who are talented as a solo project. The ones that amaze me the most are the duet writers. Probably the best example of these writers is Lennon and McCartney. John and Paul will go down in history as the greatest song writing team of all time.

Mind you, when they were together they were absolutely brilliant. When the Beatles broke up, they were good in their solo careers, but I don’t think that they were ever the same as they were when they were in the zone as writer for the Beatles. I’ll probably have half my Beatle friends tell me that they were better apart, but I’ve always wondered, if they didn’t have all the drama and BS of normal life going on, that they wouldn’t have succeeded way into their 60s, writing more music with each other, if the tragedy that occurred to John Lennon hadn’t have happened.
There are other great acts that have the song writing teams embedded in them. When these teams take a “break” to go write with others, do solo projects or break away from the band permanently, you can see things happen, that just don’t feel the same.

Major case in point with the band Yes.

The few years that Jon Anderson left in the early 80s, to me, were some of Yes’ worst moments. Not to say that the Trevor Horn album was bad, it was just different and it wasn’t a Yes album. Turn around in 83/84 with the loss of Steve Howe and the band took an entirely different direction when Jon Anderson returned, turning them into a more Pop 80s band with “Owner of a Lonely Heart” from 90210. While still having that Jon Anderson “new age” feel to it, it just wasn’t Yes material, but, I still love the album nonetheless. I think if they hadn’t have had Trevor Rabin for the new guitarist, they wouldn’t have survived those years. Now, trade in and out Chris Squire, Bruford, Wakeman, White and Howe again…back and forth, till all of a sudden, you get to Union. This album had almost everyone on it from both time periods. You could hear them wanting to go back there again, into their progressive rock roots and find Yes again. Enter, “The Ladder”. To this day, my all time favorite Yes album. It did not do very well on the charts, but, it was Yes picking up at “Fragile” and heading into the future as Yes again. It was great to have them back and touring.
Jon Anderson has had some respiratory issues this last year and had to take time off. Squire has decided to go the route of Journey and Judas Priest and substitute a karaoke singer for the lead. While I have a lot of respect for Benoit David and his band Mystery and his other project CTTE (Close To The Edge Tribute to Yes), he is not Jon Anderson, he just sounds like him. Just like Arnel Pineda and Steve Augeri did for Journey and like several other bands have done… Boston, Judas Priest, Styx… It just doesn’t add up when you are trying to find an imitator to replace the original. I hope that Jon gets better soon so that Yes will continue with him on tour.

The other band that haunts me with this formula from the past is Kansas. They were going gangbusters. Great album after great album, then “Audio Visions” hits and Steve Walsh decides to leave and do his own project called Streets, with one of my favorite guitarists Mike Slamer (I will be writing about Mike someday soon). This project rocks, and the two albums are good, but no following occurs. Walsh was Kansas’ main singer and a good chunk of the keyboard writing was done by him. Kerry Livgren was the other part of the writing team for Kansas. Kansas hired John Elefante, a great songwriter himself, with a descent voice. They put out “Vinyl Confessions” that next year and you know, if I had wanted to buy a Steely Dan album, I would’ve bought Steely Dan, not Kansas. “Diamond and Pearls” come on guys, that song was putrid. To me, this is what happens when you break up a great song writing team. This was a true team, from Phil Ehart to Steve Walsh to Robby Steinhardt to Rich Williams, Dave Hope and then Kerry Livgren. Mind you, Livgren took a lot of the credit for a lot of the hits, as to writing the main melodies, but they were all writers of the music and it showed when Walsh left.

Now that Walsh came back to Kansas in the 90s, it was a shame to see Livgren go on to do his projects. Livgren has a following outside of Kansas and his project called Proto-Kaw is doing well for him in the Christian Progressive Rock market place, but nothing would be finer than to see him come back and play with them again. I would love to see one last Kansas album done with the original line up (since “Somewhere to Elsewhere” didn’t do so well) and would love to see the original lineup tour once more before they finally call it quits and retire from music altogether.

For my last rant in this opinion tirade, and the argument for what works, works, so don’t destroy it. There are two bands. One making its way back and one is just leaving the marketplace. The first is Triumph. Welcome back the original three person line up with Rik Emmett. They finally have buried the hatchet as well and are going to go back into the studio again. Just like the Police are heading that way and Extreme has just released their new CD. It’s good to see another solid songwriting duo back together.

The last band is a lesser known one. Some of you might remember them struggling to make it onto the charts from Canada back in the early 90s before the hair metal extravaganza of the 80s bit the dust to Alternative Grunge bands of the 90s. The name of the act: Harem Scarem. They survived overseas and in their native Canada for almost 20 years. Their albums have been songwriting masterpieces. This duo of Harry Hess and Pete Lesperance, are to me, the best song writing duo since the 80s. A lot of people overseas equate their song writing prowess to Lennon and McCartney (which I will have to agree with in many areas of their song writing abilities). To me, these guys couldn’t write a bad song if they tried. In fact, there was a time in Germany back in 2002 when one of their albums (Weight of the World) had 8 hits on the radio. Not one was played over here in the US. We, in America, are too caught up in commercial radio driven markets that are owned by powerful record companies that don’t give a crap what we like to listen too. The Europeans get it. That’s why there’s been a market for rock, metal, hard rock, folk, dance, trance and disco overseas since its left here. The Europeans and Asians eat this stuff up folks and love it.

Thank God for the internet and being able to find this kind of music that I love through sites like Melodic Rock because that is where I reconnected with Harem Scarem back in the late 90s. From “Weight of the World” to the last album this year titled “Hope”, this band has rocked my house on a regular basis. Sadly, after writing, releasing and touring for the last 20 years as a career just to make a living, gigging has taken a toll on this act and they are calling it all quits for now. I hope that we don’t lose this song writing duo totally, because I feel that if the rest of the public were to hear the music that they produce, maybe they would have the crowds that Bon Jovi draws for singing that cheap pop country that he does now. I love Jon Bon Jovi, but when you start to change your style too much, you start to lose my interest. Again, stick with what you are great at. Bon Jovi is not a folk or country act; they are a heavy metal – hard rock band!
Song writing teams that have never been the same since they have split:

Queensryche – Since Chris DeGarmo left after “Empire”, has never been the same
Journey – Since Steve Perry left, has never been the same
Styx – Since Dennis DeYoung left has never been the same
Survivor – Since Jim Petrik left, has never been the same
Angel – Since Greg Guiffria left has never been the same

Bands that have always realized their talent is strong with their songwriting teams and have stuck together and kept on going or reformed.
Rolling Stones
Moody Blues
REO Speedwagon
.38 Special
The Eagles

Let’s hope that some more of these bands from the past, wake up and reunite. It’s almost like this was what they were put here on Earth to do and they got lost along the way, they just need to find themselves again. :)


  1. Hey...great article you've written here. It's not a blog entry, it's an article...it's that kinda good.

    My take...it's inevitable that with success, they all go their separate ways.

    As you and I were discussing, Henley wrote (with assitance) some great stuff after the Eagles....Heart of the Matter, End of the Innocence, Dirty Laundry, Boys of Summer, NY Minute, Last Worthless Evening, All She Wants to Do Is Dance...so he might be an exception.

    And the Beatles...yep...when they were writing together, truly together, eyeball to eyeball, there was nothing better. But that didn't last too long. I think the fact that they were in competition with eachother to a degree...and that they respected eachother always inspired them to write to the potential even IF they weren't writing together.

    Great story McCartney told at his last NYC concert. He and John had just finished writing "She Loves You"...they raced home to play it for Paul's dad, who was a talented musician and somewhat "proper" kinda guy. He listed and said "It's very catch...but can you change "yeah yeah yeah" to "yes yes yes"?


    Great job Dave.

  2. Thanks John. Greatly appreciated. :) Love the McCartney story by the way.