I’ve been reading Paul Simon’s biography. I clearly remember the shift in his writing when he went from Simon and Garfunkel to being a solo artist. It is illuminating to see the way his skill as a writer developed quite consciously.
I didn’t know he started writing songs as part of the Brill Building group with Carol King and the like in New York… when he was a teenager! He ploughed on for years without success, trying to imitate the hits of the time like the Everly Brothers, which accounts for some of the songs like Bye Bye Love in the early S & G repertoire.
Eventually he gave up and tried just writing whatever he felt like (as is quite common, he had no hits until he stopped trying to write hits!). His new songs were rejected by record companies at first – like the Sound of Silence, which are now classics.
Anyway – last night’s chapter is later on in his career, and I was struck by the writing of a pretty big hit in the 70s called ‘Kodachrome’. (see here on Spotify)
When he first came up with the idea the lyric in the hook was “going home” not Kodachrome… quite commonly we start songs with one or two words alongside a melody that feels strong and then progress the song around that hook, building to it and away from it.
But sometimes something tells you that lyric isn’t strong enough even though the hook is. It can feel too bland, or unmemorable with no mystique or intrigue to make someone wonder ‘how can a song be about that?’ or ‘what about it??’
This is a case in point. The concept and sentiment of ‘going home’ is universally emotive, but just using those words is not necessarily poetic enough to stand the test of time as a stand-alone song.
So what did he do?
He tried singing through every other set of words that could be sung like ‘Going Home’, unitl he came up with Kodachrome.
Then he realised that his early life (the stuff that makes ‘home’ important) had all been captured in Kodachrome pictures, which also makes such moments look extra vivid, just like the imagination stores formative emotions… so Kodachrome is the metaphor in a song about going home, and the song just flowed.
Moral of the story – don’t go with your first idea, but retain its feel and build on it. Song writing is usually quite hard work if every word is going to count.