By his own admission, Jarvis Cocker isn’t the world’s greatest musician. He can’t read music, nor does he have any knowledge of formal composition. And, while we’re on the subject, he’s not a particularly gifted singer. “My mother is tone deaf,” he says. Yet, alongside these apparent drawbacks to a career in music, he has an ability few possess: to write brilliant pop songs.
What makes the perfect pop song? That’s the question I’ve been putting to British songwriters, including Cocker, for a TV series called Songbook. I’ve talked to household names who have fallen out of critical favor (Phil Collins, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red); songwriters to the stars (Albert Hammond, responsible for such standards as The Air That I Breathe and When I Need You); and singers resentful of the success they had with their old bands (Hugh Cornwell, formerly of the Stranglers, who almost stormed out after one question too many about the punk years). Charismatic frontmen such as Pulp’s Cocker and Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch have also mulled over how pop works. So how do you write a classic hit? The only thing everyone agrees on is this: nobody has a bloody clue.
“It helps to be in tune,” says 1960s pop minstrel Donovan. “And to be able to count to four. A lot of songwriters don’t know how to count to four.”
“I take a Dictaphone everywhere I go in case I have an idea,” says the million-selling star David Gray. “Once you’ve captured an idea, the song builds up from that.”
For McCulloch, songwriting is not a choice, but a therapeutic necessity. “When I’m not writing songs, it’s cryptic crosswords and Countdown on the telly. Everything gets a bit fuzzy, a bit bleak.”
A pop song does, however, follow certain rules. It is generally around three to four minutes, has a verse and a chorus, and uses a bed of chords to support a melody, with words that convey some sort of sentiment that an audience can relate to. Most of the songwriters I spoke to start with a melody. But these rules only serve to get a song written in the first place. They do nothing to give it the rare magic that great pop possesses.
For Cocker, the key to writing successful songs is not to aim for lofty artistic heights, but to look at what’s around you. “I fell out of a window and was in hospital for a while,” he says, on the formation of his technique of using local detail and observation to write songs that have the descriptive power of good fiction.
“I was sitting in a convalescent ward with all these [coal] miners, and I realized that there was more material in looking down at the ground than up at the stars.”
Such an ethos produced Joyriders, from Pulp’s 1994 album His’n’Hers. Soon after getting out of hospital, Cocker was driving one night when his car broke down. “These kids came up in a posh car,” he says. “They were only about 15 so I didn’t think it was theirs. I thought I was going to get mugged, but they were very nice, driving me to the nearest station and giving me chocolate limes, which I’m sure just happened to be in the car when they nicked it.”
Real incidents do seem to form the seed of many classic pop songs. Just as there really was a rich Greek girl at St Martin’s (art) College in London, who inspired Pulp’s 1995 anthem Common People, so all the international hits written by Albert Hammond come from the songwriter’s own life. The son of a fireman, British-born Hammond grew up in Gibraltar but came back to London in the late 1960s to make it, supporting his young family by working at a shoe polish factory by day and washing dishes by night. He finally had a hit in 1972, with It Never Rains in Southern California — a song that had nothing to do with US weather, but rather hard times in Europe.