Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Songwriting: Persuasion

Tim Finn: Persuasion


Richard and Teddy Thompson: Persuasion


In my first entry for this week's theme, I looked at an example of song creation in which found poetry was adapted into song, both through minor textual change and, more significantly, through setting that material to original music. Today's song is the reverse: an adaptation of a borrowed instrumental into a narrative song through the addition of original lyrics.

Songwriting credit is usually a pretty straightforward phenomenon; it has to be, in a world where attribution is economically relevant. When multiple authors are listed on the record label (or, more recently, in the metadata that appears in the iTunes "composer" field), those little slashes that separate their names are generally understood as a signifier that the song was written through one of two methods of collaboration:

In both of those cases, the collaboration is generally considered part of the creation of the song - that is, the song is not considered finished until the partnership has produced a product. And, though historical synchronicity is implied in such collaboration, there is nothing inherent about this. The Grammy-winning Wilco and Billy Bragg sessions which brought forth Mermaid Avenue Vol. I and II are generally accepted as collaborative works despite posthumous contribution: Woody Guthrie wrote a bunch of lyrics, but until they were set to music by Bragg and his alt-country co-horts, the works were not considered finished song.

The case of Persuasion, then, is somewhat of an anomaly.

Originally, Persuasion was a Richard Thompson/Peter Filleul instrumental written for the movie Sweet Talker. Collaborating with composer Filleul was not new for Thompson -- previously, the two had worked together on soundtracks for some TV shows you've never heard of either -- but constantly rewriting the music to fit the movie as it evolved in editing was a painful process for Thompson, an artist known for careful attention to his song craft, and he swore he would never do another soundtrack.

Persuasion was released with little fanfare in 1991 on a soundtrack album which, like the movie itself, is generally considered to be a dud. The song is pretty cheesy, with typical late-eighties soundtrack production -- too cheesy, really, to be worth including here, though you're welcome to sample it. But New Zealander pop/New Wave musician and singer-songwriter Tim Finn (Crowded House, Split Enz) heard it somewhere, and thought the song could be salvaged. He added lyrics, and began playing the song in concert; eventually, it was recorded and released on Together in Concert, a live 2000 trio album with fellow Enzed artists Bic Runga and Dave Dobbyn. The following year, Richard and Teddy Thompson cut their own version of the now fully-realized song, releasing it as one of two new songs on his excellent Capitol Records retrospective album Action Packed, credited to Finn/Thompson/Filleul.

For a study in songwriting, then, the differences between posthumous collaboration and the case of Persuasion are subtle, but significant.

First, this is not a case of taking raw materials and turning them into song -- where Bragg and co. truly finished what Guthrie had started, what Finn did was to take something which had already been released as a finished product and used it to make a song which is quite literally about something, in ways which an instrumental cannot be. This, itself, would make the case of Persuasion notable enough to merit inclusion in any discussion of pastiche songwriting.

And second, the existence of two versions of the "finished" song -- one by the original author of those lyrics, and one, much later, by the original composer of what he thought at the time was an instrumental -- begs a whole series of questions, from "what is a song?" to "which is the original version of this song?"

No philosopher, I; I'd never deign to tackle the fundamental question of what a song is. But as a cover blogger, it is that last question which keeps me up at night. Technically, because he wrote the "song", Richard Thompson's recording of his own original theme with Tim Finn's lyric cannot qualify as a cover of someone else's music. But just as certainly, Tim Finn's version is not "the" original, either, because Thompson wrote and performed the music a decade earlier.

I think Finn's product is easier to explain -- it is, I suppose, a lyrical adaptation of an instrumental. But I have struggled with nomenclature to describe Thompson's 2001 recording, because I think his original work as composer makes his later recording more than just a performance of Finn's adaptation. Rather, I think it qualifies as something new and namable.

Because Thompson clearly appreciates Finn's lyrics enough to record his own take on them, I think it qualifies as a "re/cover". It's a bit postmodern, but that mid-word slash also recalls the mark which signifies co-writing credit on those record labels; as such, it seems especially fitting. If anyone can think of ANY other examples of a Re/cover, I'd love to hear them. And if someone wants to write the wikipedia entry for re/cover, you can start here. Just make sure to cite me on it.

PS: Just to complicate matters further, here's a Youtube version of the two songwriters performing the song together in 1993, years before Thompson recorded himself singing lead on the song. Notably, each plays his own piece of the song, and supports the other as well: Finn sings the lyrics he wrote, and strums the basic chords, while Thompson plays the melodic theme he originally penned as an instrumental on his signature electric guitar, and does back-up vocals. I have no idea what to call this one, either. But call it what you will: it's a great song in all incarnations.


Divinyl said...

Oh my WORD!

I just typed out the longest response and then bloody Blogger said "Uh-uh, we're screwing up and deleting it all"...guh!

Anyway, it went something like this...

And excellent post, as always, BH. I can't stand Richard Thompson, but I am willing to accept that that may well be a personal failing.

I am taking a week off from posting at SMM this week, in an effort to try to catch up with my own blog (no luck yet!), but one of the things I would have written about if I had the time would be All Along The Watchtower.

I mention that here because, along the lines of your in-post description, I think that could qualify as a "re/cover"...that is that Dylan, later on in his career, often would perform the song in the style of the Jimi Hendrix cover.

Indeed, Hendrix' version is almost thought of as the definitive one...I would be willing to bet money (if I had any) that far more people are familiar with that than the original (wonderful) Dylan track.

Had I been contributing, and the time and brain power to work on such well-thought-out posts, I was also thinking of writing about Nirvana's 'Teen Spirit' and how Kurt Cobain admitted that they were trying to emulate the sound of the Pixies. And how Yesterday started out as "Scrambled eggs" and One Vision "Fried chicken".

I digress...but this comment is about as much as I'll be posting here this week...although I'm thoroughly enjoying reading people's fabulous posts and opinions! :o)

boyhowdy said...

Some great thoughts here, D...I'd write more, but I just lost several hours worth of a post due to poor planning and user error, so I'll just point out that these entires are getting kind of long (guilty as charged!), and a short post on one of the above would be welcome, too, if you change your mind.

Also: I'm still on the fence about Richard Thompson as a performer -- that voice is an acquired taste I haven't yet acquired, I think. But the song is beautiful, and Teddy's voice makes me swoon.

Anonymous said...

Tim Finn has a studio version of this on Before and After - it's very good.

I wasn't aware of the history of the song - so thank you.


boyhowdy said...

Thanks, anonymous "s" -- I was reasonably sure I had heard this on the radio at some long-ago point, but the album you mention wasn't released in the states -- no wonder I couldn't find it!

Anyone got the produced version and wanna slide me a copy? I bet it's stellar...

boyhowdy said...

Never mind! Got it, and it's GREAT:

Tim Finn: Persuasion (produced album version)

Anonymous said...

I'm commenting long after the original post in that I just came across it. Thanks for posting the various versions of Persuasion, esp. the early one. I think the original post about it is a little overworked though -- I'm not sure the nature of this collaboration raises so many questions. A number of songwriters (Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell for two) are known for writing their melodies first and lyrics second, as they've said so in interviews. In this case that's really all that happened; it's just that the melody for Persuasion -- in a fairly traditional folk-song structure -- was written by one songwriter, and another wrote the lyrics. It wasn't what R. Thompson might have had in mind when he wrote the music but that's the only somewhat unusual aspect of it.

I don't think it's quite what W. Guthrie and B. Bragg and Wilco did in reverse -- as I understood it, Guthrie actually did write the lyrics for (most of) those songs as songs, but the melodies weren't distinctive or appealing so they were discarded in favor of the new ones. Paul Simon took an old Bach melody as the basis of his song "American Tune." A few early Dylan songs were based on old sea chanties or other old folk-style melodies. Simon later did an entire album -- actually, perhaps two (Graceland and the one after) by writing lyrics to fit melodies of African songs or songs from other ethnic origins. And Joni was given six instrumental "songs" by Charles Mingus so she could set lyrics to them. So the only big variable here is whether the intent of the original melody writer was fulfilled or recast by the lyric writer.

I'd hope that Thompson would write another great melody and ask Finn to set lyrics to it.

Anonymous said...

Just want to add one thing -- that in retrospect an amazing aspect of this eventual collaboration on music and lyrics is that Thompson named the song Persuasion in its instrumental form, and Finn made that work when he wrote the lyrics. There's the real magic, or art, of it. Said another way, Thompson actually did contribute to the lyrics of the song, having given it that key term/concept/ title, which is what gives the lyrics a center, a resolution.

Unknown said...

It may be interesting to note that the words leave alot of detail about what is believed and what happened in the past to be filled in by the listener and puts them in a state of rapport and trance which combined with the melody and harmony of the song brings about a creative experience in the mind of each listener, especially the mature experienced person (at least a teenager). Thaughtful listening to all, and thanks to the creators and their broadcasts.