The music of Marc Bolan sounds very simple in composition. I’m not talking the poetry of his lyrics, I’m talking the music. He composed everything, by the way, and with little input from bandmates. I mean, just listen to even this one, it’s folk rock, basically, with hints of what would later become funk, but nothing too much like the Jazz that funk sprang more closely from. It sounds like something anybody could learn in an afternoon, at least it did to me, and to the guitarist I worked with a couple years ago on a failed band.
If you have the same idea that Rod and I did, get it out of your head, now, this is a deceptive, fallacious thought. His composition is lieing to you.
Now, I’m not the greatest guitar player, even before I developed carpal tunnel syndrome and effectively can no longer play live —even if I was ever that good before, the most guitar I can noodle around with now is pretty much to write music that others will play. I’ve always been barely competent on guitar, but “Beltane Walk” taunted me for years.
He uses these chords, they sound familiar, but they’re obscure. His pickwork is also rather Hendrix-influenced, making adequate use of legato and fingertapping. Even people who are fairly good musicians often have trouble with shit like that, so even though Hendrix wasn’t actually especially skilled with that manner of guitaristry, he popularised the technique in rock music, making him the envy of many who thought they understood their instruments. Marc Bolan’s playing is often talked about amongst guitar people with the same words, but I’m of the opinion that Bolan was actually measurably better at his instrument than Hendrix was (and this is pretty much the primary reason that I don’t have a lot of super-serious guitarists I can count as friends), and I say this for one reason:
It’s a lot harder to write good pop music than it is to write good blues.
True, true, there are bigger Hendrix fans than i ever was, but here’s the thing —Hendrix was, first and foremost, a blues guitarist. Yeah, he relocated to England for a lot of reasons, including the fact that he tended to get along better with the scene for “black music” in the UK than the scene for “African American music” in the States. His musical background is was largely blues, and I believe some jazz and folk, and the ease with which he popularised hard psychedelic music just seemed a natural progression.
Bolan’s background, in spite of the nods to Bob Dylan all over the place, is a cornucopia of things, including the Rhythm & Blues and Cool / Modern Jazz popular with the Mods in the early 1960s, and even Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent (which sort of implies he’d've been a Teddy Boy, if both that scene was still “in” when he was the right age, and if he could bring himself to get behind the wheel of a car). Where Bowie was the chameleon who’d put on the skin of his surroundings, Bolan was more the chimera, taking bits of this bird and that beast, and this silly looking bug over here, and crafting it into something different, something that kind of sounds like its components, but at the same time, nothing like any single, easy-to-use genre tag.
But Ruadhán, what about pop music?
Well, I was getting to that:
(As we all know but please, suspend belief a mo’ and let me state the obvious as if it’s a grand revelation, whispered directly to me by way of Apollon’s tongue of violets) “Pop Music” is short for “Popular Music”. It’s more a marketing term than a genre (just like “Oldies” or “Classic Rock” or “Alternative”, but that’s another story for another time), and it can basically be divided into two categories: What is definitely popular, and What has popular potential. This means, yes, in the late 1990s, Marilyn Manson was pop music, but so was Siouxsie Sioux in the mid-1908s, and let us not forget any band aping “Mod appeal” in the 1960s. That which merely has popular potential are usually independent musicians / bands, but not always, and some of the best one-hit-wonders from both sides of the pond tend to fall into that category.
At various points in Bolan’s career, he was on either one, the other, or both sides of that tenuous divide between “definitely popular” and “potentially popular”.
There are several formulae for writing a popular song, but most seem to be some variation of:
- Pick a vague topic that everybody can, or feels they can relate to on some level. Remember, even Paris Hilton occasionally feels like this world wasn’t made for people like her.
- Write some lyrics about it. Try not to use too much swearing (though it’s best not to use any), and make any metaphor (especially for sex, addiction, or death) simple enough that most adults will get it, but sweet-and-lovely enough so that it’ll go right over the heads of small children. When in doubt, especially in a song about sex, take a lesson from Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” (or a good 10% of Bolan’s songs after the Electric Warrior record) and make the metaphor dance.
- Write music for it (or pair it up with the best-suited music you’ve previously composed, or that was composed by your writing partner). In writing the music, don’t make it sound too complex, the simpler it sounds, the better. If there’s a current trend for “[wink] ‘complex’ music”, ignore your istincts and, seriously, keep it at sounding basic enough to make most listeners think they could play it themselves, if they really wanted to, or we’ll run into another incident like what happens every time Jazz gets kind of popular —and don’t get me started on that!
- Now you have a fairly adequate pop song. If it’s doing its job, most people will forget about it in an hour. If it’s doing better, it might become the next megahit, but that’s not something novice songwriters need to worry about on their first song.
As per the formula, it’s easy to turn out a lot of easily forgotten crap, and that’s pretty much true of any genre or subgenre —if you think the genre or subgenre you favour is an exception, you’re are only fooling yourself. Now, don’t get me wrong, crap isn’t necessarily bad, it’s a colloquialism for a turd, and thus just is —ideally, a piece of crap will not only return, but give back to Gaia, and so a lot of crap, like Liszt-O-Mania, doesn’t really become good until it’s much older, and a lot of other crap will only ever be seen in a negative light because it is particularly pungent, to put it politely. While the rules of other genres and subgenres certainly make things clearer on how good music within that sort should be written (even if that lesson is unwritten and, like the mysteries of Elusis, are only revealed after initiation and is hard, if not impossible to describe later), the vague definition of “pop music” makes it much harder to write a good pop song. The Australian band TISM has noted this reality, long before their Internet-generated hit.
And so it’s clear that “Beltaine Walk”, deceptive in its apparent simplicity, is very intricately constructed. Playing this song at all was daunting, as I had to find rather obscure chords. Playing this song well is something I’ve never been able to accomplish, even before my hands got messed up. When challenging my former guitarist to learn it, he was able to pick up on the necessary chords and rhythms fairly easily, but the intricacies that you don’t even realise he’s doing untuil you’ve challenged yourself to mimic it, that all gets put under a microscope –and that’s when you realise it was Bolan whose slide has identified him as the control, and your own sample is the genetic defect.
Are there guitarists who can do this, and other Bolan songs, w ell? Sure, I’ll buy that they can do as well as well. But even then, you’ll know there’s something missing, even if the singer is a perfect mimic (I’m I’m probably the best I know of, but still imperfect), something no-one can ever really copy.