Book Review - Anatomy of a Song


Anatomy of a Song* by Marc Myers
"Every great song has a fascinating backstory. In Anatomy of a Song, based on the ongoing Wall Street Journal column, writer and music historian Marc Myers brings to life five decades of music through oral histories of forty-five transformative songs woven from interviews with the artists who created them. Bringing readers inside the making of a hit, Anatomy of a Song includes the Isley Brothers' memorable song "Shout," Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz," and R.E.M's "Losing My Religion." After receiving his discharge from the army in 1968, John Fogerty does a handstand and reworks Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to come up with "Proud Mary." Joni Mitchell remembers living in a cave on Crete with the "mean old daddy" who inspired her 1971 hit "Carey." Elvis Costello talks about writing "(The Angels Wanna War My) Red Shoes" in ten minutes on the train to Liverpool. And Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart, the Clash, Jimmy Cliff, Roger Waters, Stevie Wonder, Keith Richards, Cyndi Lauper, and many other leading artists reveal the emotions, inspirations, and techniques behind their influential works. Anatomy of a Song is a love letter to the songs that have defined generations of listeners."

I've mentioned on my blog a few times how much I love a 'behind the scenes' look at things, like movies, TV shows and books.  I love finding out the story behind 'the story', how did the author come up with the plot? Why was that guy cast as that character? Those types of things have always pulled me in, I'm who the DVD extras were basically invented for, I'm the target audience of the unnecessary but wholly loved featurette.  So when I saw that this book, which was billed as a 'behind the story' of music type read, I knew I had to give it a go.

So I have read a lot of articles, books and posts about what certain songs are about, I sort of feel like any I have read are just a retelling of the original quote from the songwriter and I have never been that impressed so I was a bit worried that reading a whole book like that just wouldn't keep me interested but I honestly couldn't have been more wrong.

Marc Myers the author, writes a column called Anatomy of a Song for the Wall Street Journal, the  column sets out to find out what a song is really about from those who were involved in making the song.  Depending on how old the song is this can vary, maybe it's that the bass player who played on the original song is the only one left to tell the tale of what inspired the writer to put pen to paper that day but with most songs Marc speaks with a variety of people who helped make the song, including the writers, singers and musicians who all made it what it became.  So Marc took these columns and put them in this book, with new bits added here and there and  pulled everything together to make it sound like one cohesive blend of storytelling.

I have to put my hands up and say that I had never heard of Marc nor his coloum, so it was all new to me, every single interview and I have to say this book has turned out to probably be my number one favourite read of the year.

As I said above I have read similar variations on this topic of 'what a song about' but this was nothing like anything I had come across before, it was in depth and inspiring and because of the way Marc had interviewed the writers and musicians it felt like they were speaking directly to me, it mentioned in the book that the set up should feel like your listening to a podcast and I can't tell you how much that this is true.  It feels more like you are listening into a conversation, something between friends and you happen to overhear.  The writing is so natural and having the artists and writers speak in first person really gives the book such a special feel.

The book is filled with massive legendary names, not quotes from sources about them or from friends who are retelling a story but from them themselves, they all give over the honest, truthful and sometimes really personal meaning behind some of their greatest and most famous work and I think that adds to making the book feel like a really amazing thing to read.

There are over 45 songs in the book, each with some detail about the type of music and the history of how that song changed the musical landscape and then the interview with what the song is about.  I got through the book in about a day and a half, I could not stop reading it.  I didn't let myself peek at what songs were included in the book as I wanted it to be a surprise and it just so happened that over a handful of my favourite songs were included. 

"This collection of forty-five songs does not purport to be a list of the best songs ever recorded nor do the songs chosen claim to cover every major event in music history.  Together, they simply are a subjective collection of music milestones that I believe provide us with a greater understanding of the songs, the artists, and the music's history.  Some readers might argue that other songs belong on the list.  Maybe so.  But I don't believe their inclusion would have dramatically altered the book's larger story about the music's development.  Ultimately, these forty-five songs are standins for the music's major turning points, presenting us with a  starting point for conversation and debate about other worthy songs"

Even though some of my favourites were included and they were obviously highlights for me to read and find out more about, I also read about songs that I knew but wasn't too fussed about. But hearing the meaning and really getting a better understanding of the song helped me appreciate them so much more.  Something which I am so grateful for is discovering some new music too, well new to me anyway but I have found some songs that somehow managed to pass me by but I have now fallen head over heels for them. Would I have done so if I didn't know the funny/emotional/heartfelt/beautiful (delete where appropriate) meanings behind them, probably not....

"Certainly, there have been songs recorded after 1991 that seem to have all the ingredients of an iconic work.  Only time will tell.  In my mind, a song is not iconic until it has stood the test of a generation-twenty-five years.  There's no question that there are songs recorded as recently as last year that seem destined for iconic status.  But the truth is we simply don't know that to be the case yet.  In my role as a historian, I decided that 1991 was as good a cutoff date as any, since it gives us at least twenty-five years to evaluate a song's merits free from the gravitational pull of fads and music trends that existed when they were released"

I know I'm gushing about this book but honestly its changed the way I actually feel about so much music and I found it just so inspiring and beautiful to read.  I love music so much, its been such a massive and important part of my life for as long as I can remember and reading something like this just makes make me fall in love with it even more.

If you love music then this is a must for you, I promise you won't regret it.  Also I think this would make the most perfect Christmas gift for any music lover out there too....

You can buy it in hardback, I imagine it will be a sort of coffee-table style book which I so wish I had it in or on kindle too.  You can buy it from Amazon or on Wordery and get free delivery too

You can also follow Marc's blog HERE I've been reading it since I finished the book and its really great!

*All quotes are taken from the book