What’s in a song title

Do you care much for song titles, are they important to you? I mostly listen to an album several times, enough to get the tunes in my head, and after that I may try to learn the song titles. Sometimes I just don’t.

But apparently, song titles are very important and we do care about them. It’s one of the first things that songwriters have to learn and master. I can understand the obvious stuff (and that’s why I say it’s obvious):

  • A good title is not only catchy, but it can (and should) set the tone and focus for and entire song you want to write.
  • Whatever your title is, everything in the song should focus around the central idea of that one title: your song needs to stay focused on one specific theme, idea, feeling, or emotion.
  • Should a title be short or long? The general rule is, the shorter the better. It’s easier to sing a shorter title and easier to remember it as well.
  • When you write a song with just one word in the title, that’s a great way to go because it helps to remember it that much easier.

“Songwriting: The Importance Of Good Song Titles”, by Mike Freze (Part 1 & Part 2)

Regarding one word titles, I was thinking about Aerosmith’s “Crying”, “Crazy” and “Amazing” from the “Get a grip” album while plotting this post. Great songs, but I would have included them in three separate records, really. That album had another two very catchy one-word song titles: “Flesh” and “Fever”. As for the song titles themselves, I like “Crazy”, I’m not sure about “Amazing”, and I loathe “Cryin’”. How and why those titles made it past John Kalodner is beyond my understanding. And that’s probably why he is one of the most successful A&R guys in music’s history and I just have this blog, right?

I’ve been thinking about all this because while reading around about John Kalodner and Aerosmith, I landed on the website of songwriter Jim Vallance. There’s this famous story about the song “Rag Doll” (from “Permanent Vaction”). Steven Tyler had originally written “Rag Time” while working with Jim Vallance, but John Kalodner didn’t like it.

John Kalodner: Steven gave me some bullshit about New Orleans, the old traditions, the roots of rock ‘n roll. I said to him “Kids won’t give a fuck about Rag Time”. So I called Holly Knight, who’d written for Pat Benatar and Heart.

And apparently song titles are so important that they brain-stormed for 3 days (3 days!!) before she came up with “Rag Doll”. She changed one word and got song-writing credit.

Tim Collins (Aerosmith’s manager): This was a big deal. John brought in Holly Knight, who changed one word and got a piece of the song. Later, when it was a big hit record, Tyler was enraged. He’d yell at me, “Who’s to say that it wouldn’t have been huge if it was ‘Rag Time’?”.

I knew the story about “Rag Doll” but I didn’t know the one about “Deuces are wild”. I really love that song, it’s one of my favourites of Aerosmith’s latest, most commercial era. I knew it was first released on the “Beavis and Butthead Experience” album because it didn’t make it into “Pump”, but what I didn’t know is why. The reason? John Kalodner didn’t like the title!

Jim Vallance: When the time came to select songs for Aerosmith’s Pump album, “Deuces Are Wild” was a contender. Everyone loved the song … everyone except Geffen A&R man John Kalodner!

(…) In mid-1989, myself and Steven Tyler (in one camp) and John Kalodner (in the other camp) locked horns over “Deuces Are Wild”. John liked the melody and the lyrics, but he insisted we find a different title. Steven and I loved the title. It sounded good. It worked. Like naughty school-boys we defied Kalodner and stood our ground! John Kalodner stood his ground too … and pulled the song off the album!

But why, John, WHY? Of all the things you’ve done that are incomprehensible to me, this one really hurts!

Fortunately, the song came around again later.

Jim Vallance: Fast-forward a couple of years, to 1993, when Aerosmith were asked to contribute a song to the compilation album “Beavis and Butthead Experience”. For reasons I’ve never fully understood (perhaps they were in the middle of a tour?) Aerosmith decided not to record a new track. Instead, they simply added Steven’s vocal and Joe’s guitar to the “Deuces Are Wild” demo I’d recorded in my home studio five years earlier (and some drum overdubs from Joey?).

You can listen to the demo on the website (Audio-2: The “music minus vocals” demo I recorded in December 1988). I absolutely love it, it moves me to tears.

The website of Jim Vallance is a treasure vault of inside information about his work, and it has many interesting anecdotes about many bands and how their songs came to be, as well as sound clips of early demos. Just check the list of songs, I’m sure there is something there you’ll find interesting.

Buns up and kneeling

This is a short clip from “The Making Of Pump” where Steven Tyler talks about how “Love in an elevator” came around.

Classic Steven Tyler.

He had used the line “Buns up and kneeling, I was wheeling and a dealing” before, in the song “Girl keeps coming apart” from the 1987 album “Permanent Vacation”. I just found out that it seems to be an original (please correct me if I’m wrong) by Frank Zappa, it’s in the song “Dinah-Moe Humm” from the 1973 album “Over-Nite Sensation”. It’s not that hard to imagine why this song would appeal to Steven

A certain fascination

I’ve always found fascinating, in the now defunct music industry (RIP), this type of “creative” characters working with the bands: producers, sound engineers, A&R people, scouts, and the like. For the most part their work goes unnoticed by the fans, but sometimes they reach stardom on their own. It is usually a combination of making great albums with great bands, and having a colourful personality.

As I’ve said before (and will probably repeat in the future) John Kalodner is one of such people that I find the most fascinating. Just read his bio and drop dead.

I first discovered John Kalodner through the “The Making Of Pump” video (and that tape deserves a post of its own). “Pump” is one of my favourite Aerosmith albums, and by that I mean it fucking blew my mind when I first heard it. That’s why it shocks me that he got to be known as the man who ruined Aerosmith.

Quoted from an interview for Melody Rock:

MR: Would you prefer a more public recognition of the work you’ve done? Would you prefer a bigger legacy on that side of things?

JK: No. I always wanted to have the legacy within the music business. I appreciate it when the public knows I do things, but the public tends to be a little more unreasonable…. meaning that my web site gets a lot of negative mail that I ruined Aerosmith or… I mean Miss Storm [Site web-mistress] gets a lot of negative mail because obviously they can’t get to Aerosmith or Steve Perry or Journey. They’re not available to them so they take their frustrations out on me. I’m not sure how much I’d want to be known to the public. I prefer it within the record business. I don’t really enjoy a lot of the beating I take from a lot of the public who for instance take out a lot of things on me that aren’t necessarily related to me.

MR: I understand. You’re only one person caught in the middle…

JK: It’s not the thing. I mean for instance, I get a lot of negative things about that I ruined Aerosmith. Well if people knew Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, first of all no one tells them what to do. You know they do the music that they want to do. They wanted to make commercial music, their lives have changed since they wrote ‘Sweet Emotion’ and ‘Walk This Way’ and that’s just sort of how it goes. I constantly get hate mail about that and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m supposed to make the best record that Aerosmith can at that particular time. That’s all.

No love from the fans, and no love from the bands…

MR: I know a lot of bands have spent years doing nothing when they really need somebody behind them kicking them in the ass all the time.

JK: Yes, but bands don’t want that and they do resent that. Even the famous bands but you just have to do your best. You’re really not the artists’ friend; you’re their A&R person.

Well, I guess the haters were right because since John Kalodner finished working with them, after “Nine Lives”, Aerosmith have gone to make fantastic albums, right? (That was sarcasm).

John Kalodner appeared on several Aerosmith videos, for instance in “Dude looks like a lady” (around 1:45) you can see him in a wedding dress, which was apparently a joke about the fact that he mostly dressed exclusively in white clothes.