Posted on December 1, 2005 at 12:00 pm
The following is from a programme note, written by JRB for his 2005 Christmas engagement at the New Players’ Theatre in London.
1. "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" (1978), Billy Joel, The Stranger
This song alone could explain how I ended up doing what I do. It’s seven minutes long, it’s a wonderfully told story, it’s got a great piano solo in the middle of it, the melodies and the grooves are great, it’s basically a model for the type of work I ultimately came to create. Also: consider how so much of the pop music being created at that point in time was deliberately, aggressively primitive (it was all disco all the time on the radio stations my Mom listened to in the car), you can see where a musically curious kid would think this was the Holy Grail. It’s not even my favorite Billy Joel song (probably "Stiletto" or "Vienna"), but it’s amazing to look back to when I first heard this song – my Dad bought the LP as a gift to my Mom because she liked "Just The Way You Are" – and see how much it’s influenced me.
2. "Silly Love Songs" (1976), Paul McCartney and Wings, Wings at the Speed of Sound
I know, I’ve ignored the entire Beatles catalogue and I chose this song, but listen, people, I learned so much about arranging from this record. Just listening to the way it builds and crests for six minutes is like taking a master class in the art of making a pop record. And the bass line is fabulous. Again, there are plenty of other Paul McCartney songs that mean more to me (I’ve always said "Listen to What The Man Said" is the most perfect completely nonsensical song ever written), but this one seems to be lodged somewhere between my brain and my solar plexus.
3. "Cactus Tree" (1968), Joni Mitchell, Song to a Seagull
No matter how often I listen to Joni Mitchell’s work, even her lesser albums, I’m always caught off guard by how brave a writer she is. The kind of coruscating and lacerating self-analysis that she does in this song was unlike anything else that was being written then, and even now no one does it with as much style and class as Joni did. It’s got all the technique and structure of a classic ballad, but the lyrics are so fresh and personal. I couldn’t have written "The Last Five Years" without having grown up listening to Joni Mitchell.
4. "The Mayor Of Simpleton" (1989), XTC, Oranges and LemonsOne of the best things that can be said for England is that you people appreciate Andy Partridge. (I’ll overlook the whole Dannii Minogue thing.) Who else writes like this? It’s a melody that you can’t get out of your head, a tremendous arrangement, and the lyrics are simply sensational. Another absolute killer song is "You And The Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful" from Wasp Star, which is just the greatest song no one else in the world will ever be able to sing. Isn’t it nice when songs are smart?
5. "Finishing The Hat" (1985), Stephen Sondheim, Sunday In The Park With George
This list would suggest, not falsely, that I’m most attracted to material that reveals something about its creator. As much as I love virtually every note and word Stephen Sondheim ever crafted, nothing affects me on a gut level like this song. As artists, we all make choices about what’s important, what’s a priority, what’s necessary, and I think we all feel that nobody understands why we make those choices. I can’t imagine a more potent song about the creative life, so achingly and dangerously truthful.
6. "I Walk A Little Faster" (1957), Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, sung by Blossom Dearie, Give Him The Ooh-La-La
Perfect songcraft. A standard AABA form, but the music and the lyrics seem to be having a private dialogue and the result is always surprising, always penetrating. Listen to how the melody pops up on "castle in the air," tell me it doesn’t rip your heart out.
7. "The Riddle Song" (1996), Adam Guettel, Floyd Collins
What’s really spectacular about Adam’s writing is that you always feel him struggling to make the music tell the story. If you didn’t speak a word of English, I think you’d still always understand the stories Adam is trying to tell. He bends the structure, pulls the tonality apart, extends the phrases until they almost break in half, and generally seems to have more fun exploring what’s underneath the notes than anyone else writing music for the theater since Leonard Bernstein.
8. "Lonely Town" (1944), Leonard Bernstein and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, On The Town
You could have all the chops in the world, but if you can’t write a killer ballad, you’re not a real songwriter. In my song performance classes, I use this song to show the students how much music there can be in one song. Follow the lines, ride the waves, trust yourself to make music, not just make sound. Every note here has a purpose, every rest propels you forward. The students are always amazed to find out how much music was living inside of them, just waiting for the right vehicle to express it.
9. "Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)", (1972), Van Morrison, Saint Dominic’s Preview
Joy is a hard thing to capture without seeming like a dork or putting a cynical spin on it. What’s so great about this song is that such a spiritual writer knows how to evoke such secular joy. Dancing is as much a path to God as prayer, I think.
10. "Border Song" (1970), Elton John, Elton John
I’ve always loved musical theater, but I never thought when I was a kid that I was going to end up writing it for a living. Who even knew you could do that? I assumed I’d be a piano-playing rock star, like Billy Joel or Elton John. For the last couple of years, I’ve been bouncing back and forth from my life as a writer to my life as a performer, and I’ve decided that not only can I be both, but I’m really not satisfied unless I get to be both. "Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes" is a different side of my work than the shows I’ve written, but I’d like to think that as the years go by, it will all start to feel of a piece to people on the outside. I certainly don’t take the songs on the album any less seriously than the ones in the shows; in fact, in a lot of respects I’m much more meticulous as a "pop" songwriter. And I know I’m not doing the sort of work that gets you on "Pop Idol" and into Madame Tussaud’s, that’s not why I’m doing it. I just have things I need to express, and in my heart there are all these songs, millions of them, pushing and shoving and bursting to be brought to life.
I’m so grateful to you all for listening, and to everyone on stage and behind the scenes tonight for helping these songs breathe and grow.