The role of songwriters in pop music today can be seen as a nefarious job; backroom technologists, groomed by major labels, meticulously manufacturing polished turds to a formula prescribed to an accepting and indifferent audience. These anonymous producers are scorned by “real” artists, those claiming a superior legitimacy because they write their own material.
Certainly the case is strong against the offensive product spewed forth by those hired for reality TV stars’ winning singles, boyband B-sides and the like, but those who transgress the vapid output of such faceless factory-line robots become the in-demand hit-makers of the most progressive and immortal chartbusters.
Thus, for every Chris Martin there is a Max Martin, the man responsible for Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’, Britney’s ‘…Baby One More Time’ and Taylor Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’. Rihanna, meanwhile, relies heavily on Norwegian duo Stargate for her hits – the pair’s power and dominance in the pop field leading to their own label, co-run with Jay Z.
It’s a fine line between art and science, but the conflict is an old one. After the initial explosion of rock and roll in the ’50s, a perceptive and unscrupulous music industry sought to capitalise on the teenage pop market by pushing cute, clean-cut white alternatives to the young American public. With Chuck Berry in jail and Little Richard resigning himself to Jesus, there was a gap in the market. Enter the inhabitants of The Brill Building.
Music publishing had long been a source of revenue for aspiring composers and musicians, and New York was a hub for creative inspiration. The Brill Building, situated at 1619 Broadway, at its peak housed 165 music businesses, each offering essential resources to musicians.
From writers and publishers to recording labels and promoters, it was a one-stop-shop for tomorrow’s stars to make themselves known. Like Motown later, it was a pop production line catering to specific tastes, where smart lyrics married infectious melodies. The songs were crafted by a host of young writers and musicians, including Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Sonny Bono, Neil Diamond, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Phil Spector. Their output from here, too bountiful to detail, reads like a roll call of classics: ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Leader Of The Pack’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Love Potion Number Nine’…
Gerry Goffin, who died this week aged 75, was a supreme songwriter that tirelessly grafted under the same roof amid such exalted competition and consistently delivered the goods.
Writing alongside his wife Carole King, whom he married in 1959, the pair thrived throughout the ’60s – the radically innovative decade where striving for authenticity seriously endangered the role of songwriters – crafting incredible songs, and demonstrated their unique talents and the range of their music by the variety of artists who interpreted them. Brian Wilson called Goffin a “big influence”, while The Monkees’ Micky Dolenz acknowledged: “His words expressed what so many people were feeling but didn’t know how to say.”
In tribute to Gerry, we have chosen 7 Of The Best Goffin/King collaborations (Gerry continued to work with other writers after their divorce in 1968, but we’re going to focus on his earliest treasures). It’s impossible to choose favourites from this prolific team – for this exercise we’ve had to excuse ‘Take Good Care Of My Baby’, ‘Chains’, ‘Up On The Roof’, ‘I’m Into Something Good’ and ‘Oh No Not My Baby’ among many others – but the seven shortlisted perfectly exemplify the breadth with which their gift grew, and the diverse results it produced.
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The Shirelles – ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ (1961)
Still simply wonderful after all these years, this plaintive plea for respect the morning after the night before was Goffin and King’s first success, commissioned for The Shirelles as a follow-up to ‘Tonight’s The Night’. Surprisingly, it was Gerry who wrote the distinctly feminine lyrics, whose innocuous sexual undertones originally distressed US radio stations.
Apparently the original score was for a slower, more romantic rendition, but the young Shirelles convinced Goffin and King to take it more up-tempo – calling it “too country and western” for their tastes. Their intuition proved correct and the song reached number one, making The Shirelles the first black all-girl group to do so.
Carole King revisited her breakthrough hit for her iconic 1971 solo album ‘Tapestry’, and has been recorded by artists such as Cher, Bryan Ferry, Lykke Li and Amy Winehouse, who couldn’t fail to replicate its innate charm.
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Little Eva – ‘The Loco-Motion’ (1962)
Unlike the Twist and the Mashed Potato before it, the Loco-motion was not originally a dance craze – the others popularised by young African-Americans then adopted by teenagers nationally. The ploy of using a song to capitalise on a dance has unfortunately endured longer than the fads themselves, as Psy artlessly demonstrated in 2012, but in actual fact Goffin and King composed the song before accompanying moves were devised.
Little Eva was Eva Boyd, a babysitter for the couple whose voice impressed them enough to ask her to demo the song. Perfectly capturing the vibrancy and energy of the song, her vocals became the final cut, and the single was a million seller, topping the US charts in 1962.
Eva’s subsequent recordings fared less well – the hits drying up two years later – and she retired from music in 1971, later resurfacing in the wake of Kylie Minogue’s successful cover in 1988. Sadly, she personifies the curse of singers who don’t write their own material; with no royalties from her biggest hit and no guaranteed income, she died in relative obscurity in 2003.
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The Chiffons – ‘One Fine Day’ (1963)
Demoed with vocals from Little Eva, ‘One Fine Day’ – a song about the hope of reversing unrequited love – was eventually passed onto New York black girl-group The Chiffons by way of their producers, The Tokens, four white doo-wop singers, who modified and updated the demo to better suit The Chiffons’ sound.
The quartet found fame with ‘He’s So Fine’ (later reworked by George Harrison for his ‘My Sweet Lord’), a number one hit and the title of their first album. ‘One Fine Day’ repeated that feat on their second, but thereafter the group struggled to subsist, and by the ’70s were working full-time jobs and performing as The Chiffons on weekends.
After the death and retirement of three-quarters of the group, one original member, Judy Craig, continues the legacy of The Chiffons.
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Dusty Springfield – ‘Goin’ Back’ (1966)
By the mid-’60s, the notion of indistinctive singers dependent on songwriters was becoming obsolete. However, the emergence of more astute artists, blessed with the talent and looks of their reliant counterparts but with an appetite for authenticity and the determination to be respected among their peers, ensured there were still voices available to deliver Goffin and King’s songs, even if that meant their writing had to adapt to fit the times.
Dusty Springfield was a white English singer besotted with black American music. Her love for Motown in particular led her to pursue more soul-infused material, in spite of the industry’s desire for her to remain a pop artist. Her voice was both belting and blissful; she could do raw soul, but when she really emoted – like on this song of the lost innocence of youth – the fragility of her own tragic circumstances (coping with her sexual identity) truly become apparent.
The 1969 album ‘Dusty In Memphis’, produced by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler and recorded with Aretha Franklin’s band, remains the pinnacle of Dusty’s blue-eyed soul pursuit, and features four further Goffin/King cuts.
Dusty’s career persisted through the commercial and personal ups and downs of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, until she succumbed to cancer in 1999.
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Aretha Franklin – ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ (1967)
When the Queen of Soul exclaimed she was made to feel “like a natural woman” in 1967, its meaning was not lost on a generation of young African-Americans who had embraced the principles of black power, which celebrated their heritage with noticeable pride in the face of prejudice. ‘Black is beautiful’ was the maxim, and as social consciences grew at the same rate as afros, the desire to feel natural was a sign of dignity and self-worth.
Instigated from an idea by Jerry Wexler, the lyrics came directly from Goffin. Their proclamation of assurance, trust and love makes it a classic anthem of romance, and has been covered by Mary J. Blige, Céline Dion, Whitney Houston and, incredulously, Rod Stewart. Carole King’s own interpretation also featured on ‘Tapestry’.
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The Monkees – ‘Porpoise Song’ (1968)
Famously manufactured specifically for a TV show, The Monkees were inspired by the playfulness and rounded appeal of The Beatles, but, unlike the fab four, were not trusted to write their own material, despite the (admittedly minor, initially) musical talents they had. Therefore reliant on The Brill Building and their like, the frustrated Monkees were veterans of Goffin and King’s endowments.
By 1968, the group were rebelling – they wanted creative control and independence – in an effort to be taken more seriously. Indebted to star in a feature film after the cancellation of their TV series, the resulting movie, Head, was a psychedelic conceptual – and highly uncommercial – reaction to their previously immaculate image.
Commissioned by the film’s producer, Bob Rafelson, Goffin and King submitted ‘Porpoise Song’ to the soundtrack. In the scene where it plays, the group has symbolically jumped off a bridge while escaping from the maddening frenzy of a pursuing crowd. Indeed, Goffin’s lyrics are a plea for freedom, evading a life of lies.
The following year, as tensions within the band mounted, The Monkees began to splinter, eventually splitting in April 1970. ‘Porpoise Song’ was recently covered by Django Django on their ‘Late Night Tales’ compilation.
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The Byrds – ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’ (1968)
Though The Byrds made a habit of adapting Bob Dylan songs into their trademark jingle-jangle folk-rock sound, they had within their ranks the solid songwriting talents of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and, especially, Gene Clark, and were innovative musicians that adventured through blues, jazz, ragas and space-rock in their lengthy career.
Resorting to The Brill Building was never really necessary. In 1967, however, Crosby was fired – incidentally, one cause of friction within the group was his disapproval of their covering ‘Goin’ Back’ – and Gene Clark, who’d quit in 1966, returned in 1968 with significantly less contributions. Against all odds, The Byrds’ 1968 album ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ proved to be their most progressive, as contemporary ’60s themes (drugs, peace, freedom, etc) were explored through diverse genres, including country-rock, which would be pursued more fully on subsequent album, ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’, with the arrival of new recruit Gram Parsons.
That the acid-tinged ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’ fits alongside these philosophical and sociological hippie dreams is testament to Goffin and King’s abiding relevance and the expressive qualities they effortlessly exuded. Its message of denying conventions was used to great effect the following year in Easy Rider, poignantly aligning the straight world of The Brill Building with the ’60s counterculture, and drawing a template for all future subversive pop collaborations.
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Gerry Goffin, 1939-2014
Words: Simon Harper
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