Songwriters Workshop: Collaborations

by Bruce Pollock

This is the third Songwriters Workshop, where Bruce Pollock shares excerpts from some of his interviews with notable songwriters. Bruce's book By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Revolution of 1969, was described by The Huffington Post as "An astounding overview and enough information to crash Wikipedia... the best primer on our culture's history and psychology precipitating Woodstock to date."

Sooner or later almost every songwriter winds up collaborating with someone else. Even Bob Dylan once wrote with Carole Bayer Sager and, more recently, Robert Hunter. With that in mind I put together this Songwriter’s Workshop on Collaborations with some of the more notable teams in the history of classic rock.

Paul Stanley & Gene Simmons/KISS

Originally Gene and I would tend to help each other fill in the gaps. “Rock and Roll All Night” came about because we felt we needed an anthem, a song that could be the rallying cry for all of our fans. So I went back to the hotel and came up with the chorus and the melody. Then I went down to see Gene and he came up with the verses. We used to write a lot like that. As Gene and I became better writers we became either less willing to bend on our individual ideas, or it may have been that we both figured our songs would be stronger if developed by the person who wrote them.

I could never write one of his songs and he could never write something like “Tears Are Falling.” I’m more involved in texture and subtlety than Gene is, not only in writing, but in arrangement, in dynamics, in terms of what goes into a recording. I tend to think of how the song’s going to be produced. Gene seems to enjoy writing constantly. He’ll write 30 songs for an album. I’ll write eight. I don’t write as an exercise. I’m if not getting a charge out of a song immediately I don’t want to finish it. I’ve often asked Gene why he writes so many songs, even ones he knows are not gems. I think he’s curious as to what someone else’s response to the song will be. I am too,but ultimately the person that counts the most is me.

Sometimes I work with a collaborator, like Desmond Child. I always think of a songwriting partner as someone I can throw the ball to and they throw it back, somebody who is a catalyst in a sense. The foundation has to be mine, but after so many songs I do get impatient. Very often I’ll start something almost like a sketch and I want somebody to help me put the final coat of paint on it.

James Hetfield & Kirk Hammett/Metallica

We basically start with a subject and a song title and maybe some key lines and we’ll start on the other half musically, with a riff, and maybe a few things that could go along. It depends on what kind of mood I’m in or where we are. Sometimes I’m real angry and bitter and sometimes I’m happy go lucky. We’re not the kind of band where all of a sudden the four of us are rehearsing and we’ll kick into something and, oh, he’ll add that and I’ll add that. I’ll do that by myself with my four-track, but not jamming.

We write riffs on the road and jam on the riffs when we’re warming up at soundcheck. We never play songs, we always play like 30 seconds of a riff and then we stop. Yeah, that’s pretty cool, what else do you have? And then play a minute of another riff and stop. And it all goes on the master riff tape at the end of the tour and songs are made out of it at that point. A lot of the riffs are written while we’re in our hotel rooms, listening to music or watching TV. I always know what the song is about. Sometimes I can use that as a direction on where to go, a source of inspiration. On a song like “Dyer’s Eve,” I thought to myself, this has got to be a really really cutting solo. I’d have to make it pretty intense but there would still be winding moments of thoughtful melodies. And that directly influenced how the solo turned out.

Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia/The Grateful Dead

There are three kinds of songs I mainly do, the ones I work hard at, the ones that pop out of my head finished, and the jigsaw puzzles, where I carve lyrics into prearranged holes in someone else’s changes. These are three different crafts, each of them with its rules and rewards.

Hunter is much more prolific than I am, so the most typical way we work is that he’ll give me his output, which is just like lots of lyrics of various sorts. I go through those and a few of them will sort of stick with me in little phrases, which find their way into a melody just by hanging around in my mind. But we’ve also done the thing of actually flogging it, where we get together and sit around a piano with nothing in mind and nothing worked out and build from the ground up. Once in a while I get a song with the phrasing and everything, except lyrics. I have a sense of where I want the vowels to be and so on. Sometimes Hunter will give me a piece that has eight or nine verses but I’ll only like two of them. And I’ll say, we need a stronger verse plus a bridge that I want shaped like this and he’ll take it back. It’s reciprocal too, where I’m developing something and then he’ll feed me something and I will in turn update an idea.

One song that had dozens and dozens of versions evolving over a four year period of continuous working on it and changing it from the original concept was “Rueben and Cherisse,” which is totally unrecognizable from the initial concept and melody I had. I had just a little simple minded Calypso melody and Hunter came up with a lyric to it that was sort of the groundwork, a story about a musician and a train that evolved into something that was about New Orleans. But it went through countless incarnations, none of them quite satisfying, but the lyrics got better and better until finally they were getting to be really beautiful.

Daryl Hall & John Oates

We have completely different styles. Daryl likes to leave things to spontaneity. He likes to go in with the barest germ of an idea and develop it in the studio, whereas I enjoy doing elaborate demos, not even demos; they’re records, with overdubbing, vocals, the whole thing. Then I can sit back and listen to it as a completed picture and say, ah, now that it sounds like something, I can see where it went wrong.

When we used to live together John would hear me playing something on piano and say, hey, why don’t we try this? But we haven’t done that for years. Now its more like working separately and then bringing our ideas together. In the old days, when we didn’t really have a band and were relying on studio musicians, I had to have a song to play for people. Now I don’t have to do that, so I just gather ideas. At home I have a tiny Sony tape recorder I use; it doesn’t even have an overdubbing function. I have a mixer and a lot of synthesizers and guitars lying around that I pick up and use to get ideas. But it’s really just snatches, working tapes, pieces of ideas that I review right before we’re going into the studio. I don’t feel the need to put the whole song down. I do that because I like the feeling of something happening for the first time right on tape. That immediacy is stimulating; it can also be nerve wracking.

November 16, 2009
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Comments: 2

  • Chris F. from Albuquerque, NmExcellent article! It's always cool to read about songwriters who generally aren't given enough attention in this sort of public scholarship.
  • Anonymous (am I Spelling That Right?)where is John Lennon & Paul McCartney?
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