Sep 26, 2023  |  
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11 Feb 2023
Steve Sailer

NextImg:Why Can't Composers Stay On Top Very Long?

Bacharach-David’s ridiculously popular hit “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” in 1969 from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the moment when the two songwriters suddenly passed their 1963-1968 peak. It’s not a terribly good melody compared to the superlative stuff they were composing a few years before.

Still, Bacharach-David’s peak era was about as long as Lennon-McCartney’s.

With Bacharach-David, it’s quite hard to say what their greatest song is, the way that “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” stand out for Paul McCartney, or “Mrs. Robinson,” “Sounds of Silence,” and “Bridge over Troubled Water” for Simon & Garfunkel, or “Satisfaction” and “Gimme Shelter” for the Jagger-Richard, to cite other songwriters who peaked around the same era. (You’ll notice I’m not trying to be contrarian here. I prefer “Honkey-Tonk Women” or “Get Off of My Cloud,” but Martin Scorsese likes “Gimme Shelter,” and he has better taste than I do.)

I’m prejudiced toward “I Say a Little Prayer” but I can see many other choices.

It’s hard to stay on top for even five years. When I was a kid, Jimmy Webb was thought to be the new Burt Bacharach. From 1966-1968, the radio was full of “Up, Up and Away” followed by his geographic classics: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “MacArthur Park”, “Wichita Lineman”, and “Galveston.” And then, about the time everybody had learned Jimmy Webb’s name and expected him to go on to a magnificent career, the memorable melodies stopped coming.

It didn’t always used to be like that. Irving Berlin’s two most famous songs, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “White Christmas” were written about 30 years apart. Richard Rodgers’ career was of similar magnitude. Cole Porter’s peak period was only about a decade from “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” in 1928 until his horrific horseback accident in 1937. Gershwin died young, so who knows how long his hot streak would have continued.

In more recent times, Bob Dylan wrote a lot of great songs in roughly 1962-66 (e.g., “A Hard Rain Is Going to Fall” in late 1962 right after the Cuban Missile Crisis) but then suffered a motorcycle crash and wasn’t quite the same until, say, the awesome “Tangled Up in Blue” (released 1975).

The Rolling Stones’ last colossal hit was “Start Me Up” in 1981, but they composed it during their 1972 Exile on Main Street sessions. So their classic era probably ran from 1965’s “Satisfaction” to 1972, which was a long time for rock musicians.

The Who and the Kinks had hits from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. I could see an argument that the Kinks run from 1964 “You Really Got Me” to 1983’s “Come Dancing” is the record for classic rock bands, but that’s also disputable. I could also see the argument that all the Kinks’ post-1970 songs are good but not great.

Led Zeppelin’s first song on their first album was “Good Times Bad Times” in 1968 and their last great song was “Kashmir” in 1975. That’s a long run.

I don’t know anything about 21st Century music.

Anybody know why composers can’t stay on top very long?

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