The other day, a Facebook friend (is there any other kind for those of us who enjoy typing, but can’t bear the thought of meeting anyone in person?) mused whether God Only Knows or Waterloo Sunset is the more beautiful song. I thought about how, if you removed Rasa (Ray’s first wife) Davies’s gorgeous background singing from the record of the latter, it would likely induce considerably less swooning. Which in turn got me thinking about how many people don't bother to distinguish a song from an arrangement from a performance from a production, as witness the amount of blowback my famous belief that “Sweet Home Alabama” is the worst song of the rock era invariably elicits.
Very simply, a song is its lyrics and melody. In the case of “Sweet Home Alabama” it isn’t the song people like, but the arrangement, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s deft performance thereof, and Al Kooper’s effective production. Musically, the song is a non-event, with a melody that makes that of “Hot Cross Buns” sound in comparison like that of “Ode to Joy.” And the words are no improvement. In Birmingham they love the Gov'nor, boo-hoo-hoo, indeed!
You could have either a really horrible singer, or one of those American Idol/Voice singers who’s really good in a way that’s really horrible — showoffy and dripping patently fake emotion — sing the Gershwin brothers’ sublimely beautiful “Someone To Watch Over Me,” let’s say, in a way that you wouldn’t enjoy in the slightest. That wouldn’t mean it’s not a glorious song. Or you could hire a really inept producer to record a very good singer singing well, and dislike the record. That wouldn’t make “Someone To Watch Over Me” a lesser song either.
The subject of what constitutes a song comes up a lot in terms of songwriting credits. Over and over you see how someone in a famous band is irate because he or she isn’t in line to get publishing royalties for having contributed significantly to the arrangement of a song on a hit record. I’m not saying it’s entirely fair, but the fact is that you can’t copyright an arrangement, as you can a melody and lyrics. In recent years, both Procol Harum’s original organist, from whose Bach-derived playing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” benefitted enormously, and singer Clare Torry, whose improvised singing on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” essentially made the record, have nonetheless sued successfully. Earlier this year, a court decided that the…vibe of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” so vividly evoked that of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” that the former owed the latter $7.3 million. Given that precedent, it surprised me that the estate of the late Percy Sledge didn’t sue Procol Harum for the great resemblance of “Pale” to “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
If you really want to compare songs as songs, you need to get a pianist and a vocalist who’s good at sightsinging (that is, singing the notes off sheet music), neither of whom has ever heard the songs, to perform them “cold” live — that is, unproduced. The piano part should be very basic, lest a clever arrangement start to influence the listener.
Paul McCartney’s “Here There and Everywhere” is obviously more beautiful than either “God Only Knows” and “Waterloo Sunset,” and Rogers & Hammerstein's "Old Man River" is more beautiful than "Here There and Everywhere." So there.