If you need a little inspiration, you might find some in the working methods of the big dogs of rock 'n' roll. It's not all sex and drugs you know: it's pencils and pianos and cups of tea most days.
Top-flight rock stars are some of the most creative people who ever lived. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain loved sculpting, John Lennon wrote comedy books – and the likes of Jack White and Johnny Marr pump out so many riffs they need to be in two or three bands at a time, to accommodate their prolific output.
Here are some tips on getting creative from some of the biggest names in rock.
Top Tip: Genius steals, just don’t let your sticky fingers show.
All creative work starts somewhere; even the mighty Beatles were not above nicking things. In the case of ‘Come Together’, the whole song was built on a chassis of a slowed-down Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’.
Which is fine, but John Lennon forgot to change everything, and accidentally left some of Chuck’s lyrics in – and he couldn’t have chosen a worse place – the opening line: ‘Here come ‘ol flat top’...
This was enough to get him sued by Morris Levy, who owned the publishing rights to Chuck Berry’s back catalogue. John settled out of court, a cash deal, plus a promise to record three more songs owned by Levy. But to engineer a way to market them, he needed to record ‘Rock n Roll' – a full solo album of similar covers, which, due to various complications – e.g. theft of the master tapes by the producer Phil Spector – it took him a whole year. It got Lennon sued again, but that’s another story.
Top Tip: Value your humanity to drive authenticity.
In his published lyrics collection, Mother, Brother, Lover, Pulp frontman and British national treasure Jarvis Cocker talks about the need for art to be personal.
“I would subscribe to Leonard Cohen's view, 'Art is just the ash left if your life is burning well'. Life is the important bit and detail is key – only a true eyewitness would notice apparently insignificant minutiae. When you put such details into songs, they bestow authenticity. I think that you don't really have much control over what does and does not stick in your mind: it's the haphazard nature of memory that gives you an original voice, provided that you can learn to recognise it and use it.
“The worst thing you can do is to make a conscious effort to ignore all that stuff and write 'properly', to try to do it 'how it's supposed to be'. That happens a lot – or maybe people don't value their own experience enough to deem it worthy of being written down.”
The early monkey catches the ear-worm
Top Tip: Challenge yourself first thing in the morning.
Speaking to Uncut Magazine about writing his whimsy ballad, Cornerstone – which is all about chasing girls in an attempt to forget about one – Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner revealed he wrote it:
“One morning, quite quickly… There's something to be said for writing in the morning. At other points in the day, you're a bit more defensive. I saw it as a challenge to write something in a major key, but that wasn't cheesy."
Think Inside the Box
Top Tip: Inspiration and work ethic ride right next to each other.
Jack White is probably the most skilled guitarist of his generation, and a whirlwind of creativity who can conceive, write, record and release an album in a fortnight. Speaking in his movie, The White Stripes Under Great Northern Lights, Jack talks about making things difficult for himself by working under strict constraints, as he puts it: "working inside the box".
“Deadlines make you creative, but opportunity, and telling yourself, 'Oh you've got all the time in the world, and all the money, and all the colours in the palette and anything you want', that kills creativity.
"When I was an upholsterer, you know sometimes you're not inspired to reupholster an old chair... Not every day of your life are you gonna wake up, and the clouds are gonna part, and the rays from heaven are gonna come down, and you'll write a song from it. Sometimes you just get in there and force yourself to work and maybe something good will come out of it... Book only 4 or 5 days in the studio and force yourself to try and record an album in that time.”
Take a Journalistic Approach
Top Tip: Get to grips with emotions and cut ‘em up bite-size.
According to Charles R Cross’ biography, Heavier Than Heaven, one of Kurt Cobain’s main creative devices was to write letters and never send them. Instead, he kept a journal of these unsent missives – a regular target was his ex-girlfriend, Tobi Vail – and employed a technique of cutting sentences up and rearranging them until he got the inspiration for a song (a tactic he’d heard that David Bowie used).
Kurt would channel his anger about relationships, breakups and the pressure of being the leader of the biggest band in the world, as well as broader global issues, and chop them up into more enigmatic, elusive offerings that juxtaposed his various feelings for maximum effect.
In his own words:
“A big pile of contradictions. They’re split down the middle between very sincere opinions that I have, and sarcastic opinions and feelings that I have – and sarcastic and hopeful, humorous rebuttals toward cliché bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years.”
Always be Riffing
Top Tip: Stay inspired & know when to walk away.
Johhny Marr was the melodic creative force behind The Smiths, one of the most influential bands of all time – and he was recently voted NME’s Ultimate Guitarist (ahead of Jimi Hendrix).
The Smiths’ creative process was unusual – Marr would write the music, record it on cassette and post it through Morrissey’s front door, who would compose a lyric and make a new cassette, now topped off with the vocals. Often the finished song came out completely different to how Marr imagined, but he was always impressed.
“I'm a collaborator really. What I do is try to get inspired 100%, hope that happens. Then hopefully you are working with someone else who is equally inspired, and then out of that comes something which is 300% because the combination of the two is something special.
"I'm into experimentation, but that only feels good once you know you've got a really good song cooking. I don't believe in doodling around, waiting for inspiration to drop through the ceiling. If I'm not hearing anything, I'll go for a walk for 15 minutes. Actually, I come up with my best melodies away from the guitar, like when I'm in a taxi, or making tea in the studio, hearing the track from down the corridor. The ones I sing before I play them are always my favourites."
There are many other inspirational songwriters I would have loved to include. But I’ll leave the final word to Johnny Marr: “Don't give up, don't be put off. They are not all going to be great, no matter who you are – it's hard.”