How do you write a hit? I’ve asked that question of enumerable hit writers. Their answers are either vague, as in “I wish I knew”, or trite, as in “start with the chorus, then repeat it”. The general consensus, though, is that it takes three minutes. Three minutes, a rabbit’s foot and divine intervention.
The closest I myself have ever come to a hit is a song called Parachute. It currently has 2.3 million streams on Spotify. This is ‘small beer’, as my children delight in telling me, compared to say, Beyoncé, or indeed the lad up the road who posts road-kill videos on TikTok. But to me it is a source of quiet delight.
And before you ask, yes, it took three minutes and, yes, it starts with the chorus and then repeats it. But does that tell the full story? No. Does it reflect the years leading up to those three minutes? The late-night polishing songs that even I struggled to remember? No.
By the time we wrote it we’d been professional for three years. That was three years of listening to music and lyrics forensically, of putting in the hard graft, of lessons being learned. Many people helped along the way, but for me, with that song, one man stand out.
His name was Tony Berg. When we met him he was an aspiring producer in LA working on an album with Sean Penn’s brother Michael. That album, March, was superb. Everything about it, the production, the sound, the lyrics appealed to us. The fact that he knew Wendy & Lisa (yes, The Wendy and Lisa from Prince fame!) and that they would drop into studio didn’t do any harm either.
One day, by the pool – it was LA after all – he slipped me a copy of the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet on cassette. I had never heard it. He set it up for me before I listened, telling me to pay close attention to Jagger’s vocal, the easy blues feel, Keith’s incredible guitar.
I was mesmerised. It is the ‘back to basics’ album that inspired The Beatles to head in a Get Back direction. “Tony knew things,” I concluded. So, when he chose to have a quiet word with me about my lyrics, I was inclined to listen.
“That song of yours, Beach,” he said, “No beach in it?”
“No.” I nodded.
“And that other song, Forget Georgia,” he added, “no mention of Georgia anywhere, but, yet, a lot of beaches.” I nodded again. “The Whole of the Moon, on the other hand.” I got his point.
Back in Ireland I resolved to concentrate on song titles. As Warren Zevon would say to me years later, “Once you have the title, everything else is just homework.”
When a man who has written songs like Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, Send Lawyers, Guns and Money and Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School speaks, it is beholden upon you to listen.
My mind, though, was also consumed by backing vocals (BV). We had none and for a band that admired other bands like Big Star, REM and The Posies,