I am not a songwriter by any stretch of the imagination. I can only play a few chords on the guitar and a few songs on the piano. However, one thing I can recognize is a hit song. As long as I can remember I have always had music in my head. There is always some song running through my head and I frequently whistle or hum without realizing it…much to the annoyance of my friends and family, I need to add. But by working in the industry for so long and being familiar what radio what and wouldn’t play, I somehow developed a sixth sense about songs. I discovered this early in my career and it has not let me down. Occasionally a song that should be a hit doesn’t make it for some reason. But hardly ever does a song that is not very good turn out to be a hit. Formats are interchangeable in my mind. A hit song is a hit song. It can be changed from a pop song to an R&B song, or to a country song. A real hit song was a hit the minute it was finished.
The mistake that almost every young band makes is that they don’t know what a hit song is. It is also virtually impossible for a songwriter or a young band to be objective in most instances. They traditionally think the last song they wrote is their best and since it is their best, it must be a hit. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
It is all about the HOOK. You can try all you want to convince me otherwise, but a song that does not have an amazing hook doesn’t stand a chance of breaking through. There are lots of ways to create a hook. Typically they are lyrical hook enclosed in the chorus. There are musical riffs that turn out to be the hooks. The horn part in “Bitch” by the Rolling Stones is as strong a hook as there is.
As is the guitar riff from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. “Jumpin Jack Flash” also has a brief chorus that is also deadly. Hooks come in all forms. “Leonard Cohen’s “Hallejulah” is arguably one of the greatest songs ever written. It’s hook is as simple as it gets. “Hallejulah”, over and over again. The brilliance is in its simplicity and the greatness of each version relies on the singer. Leonard’s original version is strong, but it took Jeff Buckley’s pleading vocal to bring the song the recognition it deserved.
I speak with young writers all the time. 99% of them have no clue as to how to write a killer hook. They hope that their good looks and good playing will get them through. Absolutely not. Without the ability to write a great hook they stand virtually no chance at all to have any sort of impact on the public.
Even heavy metal songs have hooks. Megadeth’s “Angry Again” is a perfect example. The band had a good deal of success in the 90s within the heavy metal arena. They delivered a song for the soundtrack of one of the worst movies ever made, “Last Action Hero”. The movie sucked, but the soundtrack was awesome. “Angry Again” became the biggest chart success for Megadeth. We worked the soundtrack at Columbia. I got phone calls from the bands manager and from its leader Dave Mustaine, thanking me and complaining how bad their label’s promotion staff was because they never delivered any substantial chart success for the band. I think their head of rock promotion caught a good deal of shit from management because we had a success with the band, when Capitol couldn’t. It wasn’t his fault. “Angry Again” is the most commercially viable songs Megadeth ever wrote, why???? Because it had a huge hook. Virtually the entire song was a hook.
I like songs that don’t have huge hooks. Shawn Colvin’s “If I Were Brave” doesn’t not have an obvious hook. It is there, but it is more of an internal feeling than a toe-tapper and certainly nothing that you could sing along with. Therefore it is a song that is frequently in my head, but never one I either sing or hum. Do I think it is a great song, Absolutely!!. Will it ever be a hit. No way. In this day and age it is all about hits.
About once a week I am approached by young bands looking for management. I always listen just in case. But until recently I have never acted. Out of the hundreds of bands that send me music only one has struck my interest. The band is called “Ryan and the Rumours” and they are a young band out of Sussex, England. Ryan, the lead singer looks good and sings like a bird. All of which is helpful, but without the ability of he and his bandmates to write good hooky pop songs they wouldn’t be worth even thinking about.
I think most of this talent comes naturally. It is difficult if not impossible to teach someone to write a hook if they don’t the talent somewhere inside them to do so. I can talk until I am blue in the face, but it won’t make a difference. It is possible to work with someone to bring out that talent, which is hidden. But it has to be there in the first place. That is why songwriters are such an important part of the industry. There are always the performers who can both write, sing and perform. But without people like Burt Bacharach, Diane Warren, Russ Ballard and many other amazing talents that just write, we would have never even heard of some of the biggest pop and rock stars of our era.
My advice to you if you are a young aspiring writer is try to write hooks. Without a great hook, even the greatest verse will not be enough. If you find you either don’t have this talent or haven’t yet been able to develop it, find someone to work with that can write. Without some sort of a relationship with a great writer, you don’t stand a chance. College is full of people who are not songwriters. My advice is to join their ranks.
But, if you discover you can write hooks, don’t stop until you have a couple of truly great songs under your belt. Right now, good isn’t good enough to be successful. You have to be great. Don’t kid yourself, don’t fall in love with the sound of your own voice. When you write a truly great song you will know it the instant you are finished.