Review of Nonfiction Review of Reference Work

Music with hooks like talons – The Song Machine, by John Seabrook

Anyone who is a musician will recognize the image on the cover of John Seabrook’s book: it is a quaver note, and it has a tail coming out of the stem, and the stem and the note head have been made to look like a fish hook. All very clever, if you know what a quaver note is. But even if you are not a musician and still learning about quavers and semibreves and minims and whatnot, like I have been, this book will still intrigue and entertain you. I read it on the recommendation of sound engineer Luke Garfield, and because I wanted to know: How do people make music these days, and what is a “hook” in music?

Cheiron Studios

I found the answers to my general questions about music in the book, but I did not find a satisfactory (definitive) answer to the one big question I had: what makes a hook, a hook? What exactly is a hook? The book is about the song factories that churn out hits, starting with a trend-setting one, Denniz “Dagge” PoP’s Cheiron Studio in Stockholm, Sweden, established in 1992. And it is about what makes a song a hit: the hook.

The only thing that serves as a sort of definition is this statement on page seven, in the first chapter, right there, in front of your nose:

“Melodies are fragmentary, and appear in strong bursts, like espresso shots served throughout the song by a producer-barista. Then, slicing through the thunderous algorithms, like Tennyson’s eagle – And like a thunderbolt he falls – comes the ‘hook’: a short, sung line that grips the rhythm with melodic talons and soars skyward. The songs bristle with hooks, painstakingly crafted to tweak the brain’s delight in melody, rhythm and repetition.”

The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory, by John Seabrook, p. 7

Spoiler alert!

But, ah! Wait! It is not a recipe or a formula. What does he mean – “grips the rhythm”, “soars skyward”, and the “brain’s delight”? He doesn’t say. He gives examples of how perfect hooks give the listener “ecstatic moments”, but what exactly the rules are for writing them remain a mystery.

When I mentioned this to Mr. Sound Engineer, he chuckled and said, No-one would ever tell you how to do it! That’s what makes people money! It’s the goose that lays the golden eggs! To do that would be to give away the secret to making millions of dollars! Poor naive me, thinking I could learn to do it perhaps in my lifetime and a couple more lifetimes of reincarnations.

I have an idea that it’s tied up with how human brains respond to certain types of sound with a physical reactions – so, if you insert all the elements that give people feel-good sensations, then you’ll have a hook. But like with any food that makes you drool, you need to know when you make it: how much, of what, for how long, etc., so who knows?

The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory, by John Seabrook (Publisher: W W Norton; reprint edition, Oct. 25, 2016; originally published Oct. 30, 2015; paperback; 352 pages)

Threads woven together

Seabrook’s book is a superb (and eyebrow-raising) piece of research and creative writing. From the often obscure histories of wildly disparate artists, songwriters, publishers, producers, sound engineers and music moguls, he has pulled together the threads of the tapestry of modern music, the songs, and the hits.

It’s almost magical how the chapters connect. For instance, one chapter is about a former music magnate, Louis Jay Pearlman (whom Seabrook interviewed while Pearlman was in prison for fraud!), reminiscing about his success with boy bands. The next chapter is about secretive billionaire producer Clive Calder, born in South Africa, plotting to take over the music industry from London, UK. And then Seabrook connects these chapters bringing in a pivotal figure, the genius protégé of the lanky, blonde Swede, Denniz PoP, of Cheiron Studios in Stockholm: Max Martin.

Does the name Max Martin not ring a bell? Well, Martin wrote and co-produced Britney Spears’s hits “…Baby One More Time” (1998), and “Oops!… I Did It Again” (2000), the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” (1999), and NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me” (2000), and many more. Now, those songs are familiar. Martin is the very definition of someone who can write a hook to make a hit song.

Connections you’d never guess existed

How did they connect? They all wanted something: a hit, and not just one hit – a factory that could churn out hit after hit, which is where the title of the book comes from. The aforementioned “Big Poppa” Pearlman got the act he developed, the Backstreet Boys, a contract with Calder’s Zomba Music Group. The people of Jive Records, the subsidiary of Zomba which was going to produce the records for Backstreet Boys, went looking for someone who could write them hits. The Backstreet Boys, at that time, thought of themselves as R&B (Rhythm and Blues) not pop artists. But the future was in pop music, and Calder’s search for songwriters led him to Sweden and to Denniz PoP’s Cheiron Studios. And the rest is history.

This man gave the world a great gift with his innovations in music production: Dag Krister Volle, also known as Denniz PoP and “Dagge”, born 26 April 1963, in Tullinge, Sweden. Died 30 August 1998 (aged 35), in Solna, Sweden – much too young. “The Denniz Pop Awards is a collection of music prizes awarded annually to the new talents, unsung heroes, and big successes of the industry who are making an outstanding contribution to Sweden’s international pop music heritage and helping continue the legacy Denniz Pop once started. “

It is just one of the numerous parallel story lines that Seabrook draws in his book. If you ever wanted to find out from the horses’ mouths how famous singer-songwriters and bands like Christina Aguilera, Boyz II Men, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Dr. Alban, Ace of Base, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, and more names than I can list here, got started on their singing careers, and how their hits were made, and who – behind the scenes – created them, you should read this.

Artists, songs and music genres develop on the the back of songs that were made before, and a line can be drawn between the hits that you hear today, all the way back to those early days in Stockholm, and even earlier than that, to Tin Pan Alley in New York City in the 1940s.

The origins of famous songs

It’s more than 340 pages of namedropping: famous songs, famous people and famous song factories. It tells you a lot about the music industry and how it works, who gets the money, who does what, what makes a success, and what does not. I think that if the average kid who messes around on an electric guitar in their parents’ garage reads this, they will think twice about becoming a professional musician. It’s a hard, hard slog, and success is rare. In exceptional cases, a song factory became a hit factory due to the genius of the writers and producers working in the studio, and the talents of the artists signed to the label.

“True hit factories have occurred only rarely in the history of the record business, and they don’t last very long, for a variety of reasons. The hits stop coming, or competitors copy the factory’s sound, or listeners’ tastes change. Throughout the rock era, critical opinion and popular taste have turned against ‘manufactured music’ at regular intervals. It happened in the mid-’60s with the Beatles and the Stones, and again in the mid-’70s with the birth of punk, and it happened a third time in the early ’90s with grunge.”

The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory, by John Seabrook, pp. 67

My questions remained, if a hook cannot be defined, then what are examples of hooks, and what must I listen for? All that will be explained in the next post.

In the next blog post

Part 2 of the review of The Song Machine, by John Seabrook – hits, musical math, examples to demonstrate, and the Swedes who started it all.

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