The pop star who lives in my house is always playing me new stuff which she invariably describes as ‘a great song’.
It’s frustrating for her that I frequently say, ‘But there is no song’.
What I mean by that is that a lot of today’s pop music – and I’m not knocking it; don’t get me wrong – lacks the very things that go to make up what older generations know of as ‘song’, including a chord sequence, a melody and the sort of structure that we are used to: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus.
The two most immediately recognisable trademarks of a modern pop track are that there will either be one chord and a ‘banging beat’, or the same chords will be repeated, in the same sequence, throughout the song.
There are, of course, notable exceptions to this. Adele is the most obvious, and it is no accident that her albums (not just her singles) sell in such huge numbers all over the world.
Last week, the pop star pointed me at a Rudimental track, Baby, which the drum and bass band (their Wikipedia description) had put up on SoundCloud and invited all comers to remix.
Apart from anything else, one of the fascinating aspects of modern pop for us older producers is how it’s put together. For that reason alone, I took off to SoundCloud and downloaded the ‘stems’ – digital-speak for what we used to call the individual tracks on multi-track recording.
This is what it looked like when I’d imported it into my Logic software. Each of the lines represents one instrument or a vocal.
And here it is after I’d finished my remix.
I know. I know! It looks like I took apart a jigsaw of a nice geometric design and couldn’t figure out how to put it all back together.
And that’s a reasonable analogy. Because what I did was, I cut it into pieces and put it back together to make a different picture.
The first thing I did was remove the ‘song’ – well, what might be called the verse part of it. This remixing lark is a subjective business, and my approach was to make it into a summer festival singalong, in three orgasms.
I’ll explain that…
One of the things I love about modern pop producers is that they really know how to build a crescendo. For my money, it started with The Pixies, who perfected the ‘loud, quiet, loud, quiet, loud’ pop blueprint that first grunge, and then indie adopted. Nirvana usually get the credit; but The Pixies did it first.
The people who really took it to extremes, though, were the dance producers who can do things with synthesisers that I still cannot work out. In the space of 30-45 seconds they can go from foreplay to orgasm and then take you right back down to start the whole process all over again.
At some point on Saturday night, pretty pleased with what I’d done, I played my version to the pop star who lives in my house. “Pretty cool,” she said, but before I could start preening she added, “but it needs more structure”.
She’s 17! I’ve been writing songs, and certainly studying the form of them, for over 50 years.
But I didn’t shout, I didn’t stamp, and I certainly didn’t pout. Because structure is something she’s studying on her way to her superstar mansion. So I listened again, trying to think as she would, and I realised, she was right.
Even when you strip something down to the bare bones – a hook and a beat – it still needs more structure than you’d credit. Whatever you think of modern pop, there is real skill involved in making it.
So I went back and, thinking in the old style, rebuilt. Now I’m really pleased with it, but – and it’s a big but – I have absolutely no clue how my remix will be received by Rudimental or their young fans. For all I know it is a travesty.
After I’d uploaded it to Rudimental’s site, I had a listen to other remixes. To my surprise, some were cover versions, completely rerecorded. Others were radically brutal, using techniques I couldn’t possibly fathom. By comparison, mine’s a light soufflé….
And here it is.
And here’s Rudimental’s original.