“In my mind, a song is not iconic until it has stood the test of a generation – twenty-five years.”
-Marc Myers (from Anatomy of a Song)
When I was very young I would often spend afternoons playing my family’s modest single 45 record collection of mostly children’s songs and the theme from the Batman TV series (with its imaginative lyrics: A constant repetition of “Batman”) on a red and white portable mono player, which despite its small size and anemic speaker, was still too loud for my parents’ taste. (I could never understand why we had more than one yellow adapter…after all we could only play one record at a time! And why did LP’s have a small hole, and 45’s have a big one?) Times have changed to the point where one could hear a song and own it minutes later on their phone no less, which my brother often says leaves him feeling “unfulfilled.” But in the end what really matters is the listening experience. Not just the words, the music, the arrangement, but how it affects us when it all comes together. That is the subject of Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by journalist Marc Myers.
Anatomy of a Song (as its full title describes) is a collection of articles previously published in The Wall Street Journal, each telling the story of a particular song, with musical styles running the gambit from R&B to C&W to R&R and everything in between. Each piece begins with a few paragraphs from Myers explaining the technological or artistic background and cultural and social-economic context of the particular record, followed by excerpts from interviews with one of, or most often several of, the principle(s) involved.
A book structured and compiled that way can be quite monotonous, especially if the pieces were intended for individual publication at least a week apart and never meant to be read continuously. What saves Anatomy of a Song is that each article covers a different aspect of song writing and producing; some are more technical with specifics on what kind of microphone was used (detailed down to make and model number) and where it was positioned on the studio, while others just anecdotally recount the story of where the inspiration came from or its promotion and marketing scheme, like my favorite about how Phil Spector got AM radio stations to play The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, a song considered too long at 3 minutes and 45 seconds for their format, simply by lying on the label about its playing time (page 58).
Needless to say Anatomy of a Song is and endless slough of facts that made me listen to most of the recordings again, even the ones I thought I knew backwards and forwards, with what felt like a whole new set of ears, noticing subtle nuances and even mistakes that I overlooked before.
I do have a couple of minor complaints (more personal than anything): Why are there two songs from The Stones but none (none!) from The Beatles? And where is More Than a Feeling from Boston and Layla by Derek and the Dominos? Are those classics not good enough for Myers?
Overall Anatomy of a Song is a delightful treat for music aficionados, and has potential as an interesting, informative textbook for music industry and sound engineering courses.