45 pop music hits, in the words of their creators

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ANATOMY OF A SONG
The oral history of 45 iconic hits that changed rock, R&B and pop
By Marc Myers
Illustrated. 323 pages. GrovePress. $26.

I once asked Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora if, after hundreds, if not thousands of performances, he ever got tired of playing the band’s much-loved hit “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

“Are you tired of getting laid already?” he has answered.

Besides being a spectacular comeback, the Sambora joke shows how rewarding it can be to create a song that people respond to wholeheartedly night after night, year after year. That same spirit informs Marc Myers’ Anatomy of a Song, a collection of 45 excerpts from the popular column of the same name he writes for The Wall Street Journal. In these tracks, many of which have been developed from their original versions, the songwriters and performers speak in their own voices, edited from interviews with Myers, about one of their signature songs. Due to Myers’ skills as an interviewer, their pride and enthusiasm shows. Each story is a pleasure to read and will deepen your listening experience.

Which means something. If you’re a huge music fan, who else will read this book? — you might first wonder what else you have to learn about such chestnuts as the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” or Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” It turns out there’s a lot – not so much in terms of stunning new information (although there is some), but in the depth and feeling of art-inspired stories. Even though, like all subtitles these days, the one in this book exceeds its claims, Myers insists on these songs and the artists rise to the level he sets.

Each of the book’s chapters begins with a brief introductory essay that provides context for the songs. These are more devoted than revealing; Still, they serve as effective opening acts for the headliners. The magic happens when the artists themselves speak, and they skillfully – and emotionally – cover a range of issues, from the technical to the emotional. For Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” for example, engineers Eddie Kramer and George Chkiantz explain how microphone placement helped create the song’s booming sound, while guitarist Jimmy Page describes its irresistible riff as “addictive, like a forbidden thing”. Joni Mitchell recalls the intense romance in Crete that spawned her song “Carey,” but in a brilliant shot, Myers tracks down the real Cary (Mitchell misspelled his name) for his side of the story. The “mean old dad” describes Mitchell loses his defensiveness and admits, “The truth is, I was in love with Joni and missed her.”

It’s thrilling when the artist’s experience mirrors ours so closely, like when Stevie Wonder talks about the joy he felt finishing his beautiful “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” “But hearing the song in the studio also hurt,” he says, “because it was so emotional. It’s still emotional for me. You can also imagine REM guitarist Peter Buck rolling his eyes when he mentions the band’s excitement that Prince could stop by while the band mixed their ‘Out of Time’ album, including the single ‘Losing My Religion’, at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios. was informed that “if Prince showed up, we were not to look at him or talk to him”.

“Losing My Religion,” which came out in 1991, is the last entry in the book; Lloyd Price’s delightful “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” from 1952 was his first. More contemporary selections would have added texture to this book, but that’s just a thought for Myers’ ongoing column – or, perhaps, what would be a welcome second collection.

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