Book Review: Anatomy Of A Song: The Oral History Of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B And Pop by Marc Myers

Anatomy Of A Song: The Oral History Of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B And Pop

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Marc Myers


Rock memoirs are all the rage these days. In 2016 alone, Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, and a couple Beach Boys, among others, have written at length about their lives and music. Fans more interested in the stories behind the tunes than biographical details will enjoy Marc Myers’ Anatomy Of A Song, which gets the lowdown on about forty years of hits straight from the artists’ mouths.

The book collects Myers’ Wall Street Journal articles based on interviews with the songwriters, musicians, producers, and executives who had a hand in creating these evergreens. Calling them “Iconic Hits” as the subtitle does might be stretching it just a tad. It’s more of a random collection of memorable tracks, as  classic non-singles like “Moonlight Mile” and “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” stand next to shot-in-the-dark hits like “Rock The Boat” and “Different Drum.”

To his credit, Myers does manage to cover a wide swath of genres in the book in a time span that begins with 1952’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and ends with 1991 “Losing My Religion”; the MTV-fueled British New Wave of the early ’80s is about the only major movement that gets snubbed. And his list of interviewees is extremely impressive: Smokey Robinson, Loretta Lynn, John Fogerty, Jimmy Page, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder, and both Glimmer Twins are among the heavyweights who weigh in on their musical masterpieces.

Many of the bigger names get the chance to opine all by themselves about the songs chosen by the author, but the book works best when the oral histories contain multiple points of view. For example, the three surviving members of The Clash not only detail the context in which “London Calling” was recorded, but also explain the inspiration behind of each of their crucial instrumental parts. Read the story and listen to the song again, and you’ll likely find yourself appreciating its brilliance even more.

Obviously it’s always cool to hear how the musical sausage gets made, especially when it’s made by geniuses in the field. But Myers also does an outstanding job of unearthing the moments of humor and heartbreak that accompanied the creation of these songs, whether it’s The Marvelettes’ original lead singer missing out on recording “Please Mr. Postman” because she had to tend to her ailing mother, or Dion DiMucci improvising the unforgettable backing vocals to “Runaround Sue” with friends at a party, or Bonnie Raitt breaking up a bit when recalling her Grammy win for “Nick Of Time” due to the song’s connection to her father. When these tidbits emerge, it becomes evident that the heart counts for as much as the brain when it comes to the anatomies of these wonderful songs.

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