ANATOMY OF A SONG
The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop
By Marc Myers
Illustrated. 323 pp. Grove Press. $26.
I once asked the Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora if, after hundreds, perhaps thousands of performances, he ever got tired of playing the band’s much-loved hit “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
“You ever get tired of getting laid?” he replied.
Apart from being a spectacular comeback, Sambora’s quip gets at how rewarding creating a song that people respond to wholeheartedly night after night, year after year can be. That same spirit informs Marc Myers’s “Anatomy of a Song,” a collection of 45 samples from the popular column of the same name that he writes for The Wall Street Journal. In these pieces, many expanded from their original versions, songwriters and performers speak in their own voices, edited from interviews with Myers, about one of their signature songs. Because of Myers’s skill as an interviewer, their pride and enthusiasm come blasting through. Each story is a pleasure to read and will deepen your listening experience.
Which is saying something. If you’re a serious music fan — and who else would be reading this book? — you might initially wonder what’s left for you to learn about such chestnuts as the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” or Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” Turns out to be plenty — not so much in terms of eye-popping new information (though there’s some of that), but in the depth and feeling of the tales of artistic inspiration. Even though, like every subtitle these days, the one for this book oversells its claims, Myers bears down hard on these songs, and the artists rise to the standard he sets.
Each of the book’s chapters begins with a brief introductory essay that provides context for the songs. These are dutiful more than revelatory; still, they serve as effective opening acts for the headliners. The magic happens when the artists themselves speak, and they deftly — and movingly — cover a range of issues, from the technical to the emotional. For Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” for example, the engineers Eddie Kramer and George Chkiantz discuss how microphone placement helped create the song’s booming sound, while the guitarist Jimmy Page describes its overpowering riff as “addictive, like a forbidden thing.” Joni Mitchell recalls the intense love affair in Crete that generated her song “Carey,” but in a brilliant stroke, Myers tracks down the real-life Cary (Mitchell misspelled his name) for his side of the story. The “mean old daddy” Mitchell describes sheds his defensiveness and admits, “The truth is I was in love with Joni and missed her.”
It’s thrilling when the artist’s experience so closely mirrors our own, as when Stevie Wonder speaks about the joy he felt completing his gorgeous “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” “But hearing the song back in the studio also hurt,” he says, “because it was so emotional. It’s still emotional for me.” You can also imagine the R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck rolling his eyes when he mentions the band’s excitement that Prince might stop by while the band was mixing its album “Out of Time,” including the single “Losing My Religion,” at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios. The group was informed that “if Prince showed up, we weren’t to look at him or talk to him.”
“Losing My Religion,” which came out in 1991, is the book’s last entry; Lloyd Price’s delicious “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” from 1952, is its first. More contemporary selections would have added texture to this book, but that’s just a thought for Myers’s ongoing column — or, perhaps, for what would be a welcome second collection.
What can make me feel this way?
Photograph by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post, via Getty Images