Any time someone writes a song, they hope it’s going to be a hit. Even if it’s you or me, with precious little hope of that ever happening, we daydream. And we try to make it attractive to people.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula, but that doesn’t stop people throwing in every trick they can think of.
Songs have to have ‘hooks’, but what is one of those when it’s at home? It’s a catchy little bit that goes on repeat in the listener’s brain.
However, you either think of one or you don’t. The blessed few, such as Paul McCartney, have been supplied with catchy bits way beyond their fair share over the years. From Yellow Submarine to The Frog Chorus and beyond he has come up with tunes you can’t get out of your head.
Another potential tool at the writer’s disposal – and one which any mere mortal can use – is the catchy title, particularly a popular expression, saying etc, whether classic or fashionable.
As an example, take drop dead gorgeous. It’s an expression that emerged some time in the 1990s and spread throughout the English-speaking world. It was only a matter of time before someone used it for a song title, and lo and behold, in 1997 a band called Republica did just that and had a hit. This was followed a couple of years later by a film of the same name and there are probably beauticians’ shops and boutiques all over the world trading under those three words too.
The English singer and producer Nick Lowe took advantage of the expression “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” and duly reaped a number 12 spot on both sides of the Atlantic in 1979, while three years later Kylie Minogue benefited from Stock Aitken and Waterman’s eye for a commercial idea with Better The Devil You Know.
Scottish songwriter/singer B. A. Robertson enlisted the posthumous help of William Shakespeare for his To Be Or Not To Be, a title which has also been used by other artistes, including the actress Courtney Welbon, whose more recent song owes nothing whatever to Robertson’s.
Elvis Presley was a pioneer of the buzz-phrase title with It’s Now or Never in 1960, and the years following that used the trick relentlessly.
Early Motown legend Mary Wells had a big hit with Smokey Robinson’s Beat Me To The Punch, well before her classic My Guy.
Around the same time a group of US Marines, three men and a girl singer, had a degree of success with Easier Said Than Done, which did well in the US and just scraped into the UK charts, boosted by its popularity on the Northern Soul scene.
The world’s leading exponent of the art of making a song out of a title must be Jim Steinman, creator of hits for Meatloaf and others, who came blasting out of nowhere in the 1970s with Bat Out of Hell. He kept his corpulent, overacting friend in the hits with other such gimmicky numbers as Dead Ringer and perhaps the most despicable abuse of words in the history of music, (I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. But don’t feel sad, cos) Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. Along the way he provided Bonnie Tyler with Total Eclipse of the Heart and Celine Dion with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.
The late Irish blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher seemed incapable of naming a song or an album without resorting to snappy familiarity: Big Guns, Photo Finish, Stage Struck, Fresh Evidence.
And people are still doing it. R. Kelly’s Thank God It’s Friday took advantage of a phrase coined by a restaurant chain, while Aerosmith gratefully accepted a few million bucks via Diane Warren’s I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.
In the 21st century if there is one saying that was asking for this treatment it is that ubiquitous piece of dumb wisdom What Goes Around Comes Around, and Justin Timberlake did the honours in 2006.
Or perhaps the top candidate was (What doesn’t kill you makes you) Stronger, which provided inspiration for both Kelly Clarkson (or her writers, anyway) and Kanye West.
Honourable mentions: Queen for Another One Bites the Dust, Helen Reddy for That Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady and The Eagles for New Kid in Town