by C.K. Shortell
Kill your babies.
Of all the advice given to aspiring writers, this is possibly the best—and most difficult—to follow. Why? Because every word on the page is like a child—especially if you’ve been staring at a blank page for a long, long time. You can’t possibly just delete something that you’ve labored over, can you? What good would that do?
Imagine that you’ve actually written a huge chunk of a story, poem or blog. The concept is sound—or so you think. There are parts of it that work well; perhaps other parts—characters, specific stanzas, ideas—aren’t as good. You read it over and over. Overall, something just isn’t right. Maybe the plot is taking too long to unfold, or the meter is off, or it’s just too unfocused. Whatever the problem is, and however much you like specific aspects of it, the fact is that it’s not working.
Scrap it. Start over. Kill your babies.
Doing this is hard enough for writers. It has to be far more difficult for musicians in a band committed to “democratic” song writing. We’ve all heard about Duran’s song writing process that usually involves everyone in the room jamming until someone hits on a groove or hook that the others can build upon. (I say “usually” because in watching interviews from the DVDs included with the last few albums, or specials like the Classic Albums show featuring Rio, we do hear of exceptions to the process like The Chauffeur and Before the Rain. And I think it’s safe to say from info gleaned off of interviews during the Warren era that the “democratic” song writing process was not always in force then, either, or at least it was strained as band members were trying to write while not always on the same continent!)
Some of us (okay, me) like to make fun of Duran Duran for the length of time it takes them to record a new album. But consider the process: John comes up with what he thinks is a fantastic bass line…Roger likes what he hears and adds drums…Dom stops whatever he was doing and brings in some guitar…Simon begins to hum something about “puffs of clouds, dewy raindrops and broccoli sprouts” and all’s well except for that fact that Nick is just sitting there shaking his head.
Thanks, Nick, for killing that one. Time to start over.
And maybe next time it’s John who doesn’t like the direction they’re taking (Why do I always pick on Nick? Wasn’t I the one who wrote the fawning guest blog on Arcadia?). But the fact is, in a “democratic” songwriting process, you could’ve hit upon something that you love only to have it vetoed by someone else in the room. That can’t be fun or rewarding from an artistic/creative standpoint.
Is that what happens, though? I suppose that’s where a producer like Mark Ronson could step in and either validate Nick’s doubts or overrule them, if he’s even in the room at that point in the process (remember, on AYNIN, he wasn’t involved in every track from the outset; e.g. “Runway Runaway” was written before he arrived. And let me add that the fact the band wrote that song on their own is one of the more overlooked stories of AYNIN. There’s a perception that the band was lost without Ronson and that may be partially true…but they wrote, in my opinion, one of the best songs on the album before he even arrived, ergo…they still have it…just had to be said). But let’s assume he’s not there yet; that it’s just the five guys (or four—I’m not clear on Simon’s role in the creation of the actual music vs. lyrics) in a room jamming. Surely egos clash, tempers flare…
Or do they?
In nearly every guest blog I’ve written, I’ve always included the qualifier that “I’m not a musician” when giving my descriptions of a particular song. However, in this case, I think I can relate to this process. In college, I was involved in a live comedy show. We wrote and directed an hour-long show of live comedy sketches that ran over the course of five nights. Several of us wrote individual skits that were then brought and read before the larger group (there were about ten of us total). The majority of the show ended up being comprised of these skits that each of us had individually written.
However, one night, three of us ended up hanging out after our rehearsal and started throwing around ideas. As we talked and laughed, we began to realize we might have something serviceable. I began typing and in about 20 frenetic minutes—with the three of us suggesting lines and stage directions and basically laughing and shouting at each other—we had come up with a hilarious skit. When we brought it to the rest of the group, they liked it too, and we ended up placing it second in the show. We ended up writing several other skits via this same process.
In a vacuum, the thought of trying to write in a group like that would seem to be infuriating at best, and impossible to complete anything worthwhile. And yet it was one of the most exhilarating creative experiences I’ve had and I remember it vividly, nearly 20 years later. It helped that it happened late at night among some college kids who had nothing better to do—but it was as fulfilling to me as the skits that I wrote individually which also made it into the show.
“We believe the sum is greater than the parts,” John and the band like to say in describing the motivation behind Duran’s writing process. Sometimes it may take longer, and sometimes it may frustrate some or all of the band members. But judging from the finished product that we fans get to hear, there clearly is a method to Duran’s madness. For as many “babies” that drop to the cutting room floor…there are diamonds in the rough—er, mind– that make the final cut.
C.K. Shortell is a lifelong Duran Duran fan who lives in the northeast with his wife and two sons, both of whom love watching concert footage of the band. When he’s not struggling to explain to a three year old why the guitarist always looks different or just exactly what Nick is doing, C.K. is constantly reminding co-workers and friends that the band never broke up.