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.