Do the write thing
SONGWRITING WEEK: Singers and bands may come and go, but a great song can stick around forever. It’ll be played endlessly on the radio, covered by different artists and in all manner of styles, and murdered by fame-hungry TV talent show contestants.
We should celebrate, then, the people who craft these songs - the writers who spend hours honing their skills and coming up with the hooks, melodies, chord progressions and lyrics that stick in our heads. They’re motivated by all manner of different things - love, hate or maybe just cold, hard cash - but they all have the ability to take an idea and turn it into a great tune that resonates with its audience.
We asked MusicRadar users to nominate the greatest rock and pop songwriters of all time and then put these nominations to the vote. The result is the massive gallery of great songwriters that follows - let’s dive in.
Nick Ashford/Valerie Simpson
You may know Ashford & Simpson as a recording duo (they had a big hit with Solid (As a Rock) in 1985) but it was as a songwriting partnership that they made their name.
The dream Motown duet team of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were fortunate enough to be able to interpret Ain't No Mountain High Enough, You're All I Need To Get By and Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing, while Chaka Khan has them to thank for I’m Every Woman.
The Modfather’s songs have a way of grabbing you by the lapels and shaking you around the room – perhaps a hangover from his early years as the voice of suburban angst with The Jam, but more likely because he writes with such unbridled passion.
A relentless experimenter in sound and style, while he’s best known for his embrace of foot-stomping Brit rock, his back catalogue reveals a songwriter capable of a much more. He’s written off as the king of Dad Rock by some, but there are few musicians of his vintage that can boast the razor sharp songwriting chops of Woking’s finest.
You know Jolene, you know 9-5, but did you know that Dolly wrote I Will Always Love You, which proved to be something of a minor hit for Whitney Houston? OK, you probably did.
Nevertheless, the philanthropic blonde bombshell has written more than 3,000 songs and is one of the best-selling artists of all time.
Chris Difford/Glenn Tilbrook
Regularly touted as the Lennon and McCartney of their generation, Squeeze’s songwriting partnership is responsible for some of the hookiest bittersweet pop songs of the late ‘70s.
A phenomenal run of singles including Take Me, I’m Yours, Cool For Cats, Up The Junctions and Pulling Mussels (From The Shell) planted Difford and Tilbrook firmly in the British national consciousness, another fine addition to the UK’s catalogue of emotionally literate pop songsmiths.
For obvious reasons, it’s probably better if we ignore the later years of Phil Spector’s career and instead focus on his heyday, throughout the ‘60s and‘70s, during which time he completely redefined pop music with his iconic, multilayered Wall Of Sound approach to arrangement.
The early girl group hits that Spector co-wrote and produced were responsible for unifying the worlds of orchestral pop and rock and roll. He wrote music for orchestras of session musicians, stacking up the sounds of strings, brass, guitars, drums and Latin percussion to create pop music that was at once both complex and direct. He’s also responsible for pretty much the only decent Christmas album ever.
Nile Rodgers/Bernard Edwards
As if yielding a string of disco classics as Chic wasn’t enough, the Rodgers/Edwards partnership also inadvertently helped to kickstart the hip-hop revolution (Good Times was sampled by The Sugarhill Gang in Rapper’s Delight) and produced massive hits for the likes of Sister Sledge and Diana Ross.
Bassist Bernard Edwards sadly passed away in 1996, but Rodgers continues to bring the funk - most recently to Daft Punk’s monster hit Get Lucky.
Isaac Hayes/David Porter
Hayes (pictured above) and Porter came together at Stax Records, writing the likes of Soul Man, Hold On I’m Comin and When Something Is Wrong with My Baby for Sam & Dave. They also gave material to Carla Thomas and Johnnie Taylor.
Both men would later find fame as artists in their own right, but the musical importance of the work they did together can’t be underestimated.
Electric Light Orchestra had the world in their hands with their 1977 album Out Of The Blue, and Beatles-channelling pop compositions such as Mr Blue Sky and Don't Bring Me Down (from follow-up Discovery), remain among Mr Lynne's biggest hits.
Then there's 1980's Xanadu, featuring Olivia Newton John, which dominated charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
The unseen force behind many a big ballad, Warren is responsible for (among many others) How Do I Live (LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood), Un-Break My Heart (Toni Braxton) and Because You Loved Me (Céline Dion).
The message is clear: if you want a hit, give her a call.
Don Henley/Glenn Frey
In 1971, the Eagles took bits and pieces of the California country-rock sound started by Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers, went one better than Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (five harmonies to their four) and became the biggest thing on wheels.
But none of those aesthetics would have mattered if the Eagles hadn’t had the songs, and with Don Henley and Glenn Frey penning vivid, dark-humoured tales of sad, lonely outcasts and inveterate hellraisers, tracks such as Witchy Woman, Desperado, Best Of My Love, One Of These Nights, Hotel California and New Kid In Town resonated with urban cowboys and cowgirls everywhere.
Motown’s premier tunesmith was so inspired during the ‘60s that, as well as writing the hits for his own band The Miracles (Tears of a Clown, The Tracks of My Tears, Second The Emotion) he also had time to pen (among others) My Guy for Mary Wells and My Girl and Get Ready for The Temptations.
This was his golden period, but the fact that he could still co-write Cruisin’ (later sublimely covered by D’Angelo) in 1979 proves that his talent continued to shine.
Punk's first and finest poet, the Clash frontman was unlike anyone who came before or since.
Passion was his stock in trade, whether railing against mass unemployment (Career Opportunities) or serenading the ghosts of the Spanish civil war (Spanish Bombs). The ideological heart of The Clash, he mixed pop and politics to devastating effect.
His post-punk years proved just as fertile as he continued on the stylistic journey he’d begun in The Clash with bands including Latino Rockabilly War and latterly The Mescaleros. Easily the greatest lyricist punk produced, and the only person on this list to have a Spanish square named after him. Viva Joe Strummer.
Marvin had hits throughout the ‘60s but never felt like he was truly able to express himself, frequently singing the songs of others.
His creative rebirth came in 1971 with the release of What’s Going On, an album on which he had a songwriting credit on every song. And so his golden ‘70s period began, with Gaye going on to have co or exclusive writing credits one the likes of Let’s Get It On, When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You and Sexual Healing.
Mr Berry's had enough comebacks to rival Madonna. Whether it was his return to Chess and the release of the suggestive My Ding-a-Ling in the '70s, Marty McFly's six-string savaging of Johnny B. Goode in Back To The Future in the '80s, or John Travolta and Uma Thurman's iconic dance sequence to You Never Can Tell in 1994's Pulp Fiction, you don't f*** with Chuck.
When Sting was writing his famous street-walker ode, Roxanne, he probably didn't realise he was inadvertently giving rise to a ruinous drinking game (Google it).
Still, it's fair to say that his legacy extends beyond boozed-up freshers. Message In A Bottle, Every Breath You Take, Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic and Fields Of Gold - Sting's been a consistent chart-botherer.
Writing with Gerry Goffin, King came up with a string of hits during the ‘60s including Will You Love Me Tomorrow (the Shirelles), Take Good Care of my Baby (Bobby Vee), Up on the Roof (The Drifters) and (You Make Me Feel Lie) A Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin).
She would sing some of these songs herself on Tapestry, her seminal 1971 album. This also featured the likes of I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away and, of course, You’ve Got a Friend, marking King out as a songwriter of rare distinction.
Their time together as a writing team may have been relatively brief, but Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland (pictured above with Berry Gordy) still managed to concoct many of Motown’s greatest hits.
In fact, the trio wrote ten out of The Supremes’ 12 US number 1 singles (Baby Love, Stop! In the Name of Love and You Keep Me Hangin’ On included) and the likes of Reach Out I’ll Be There and Standing in the Shadows of Love for the Four Tops.
Sadly, their relationship with Motown ended in legal acrimony, but for a while, Holland-Dozier-Holland were untouchable.
The quintessential introspective singer/songwriter, James Taylor's drug and mental health battles inspired some of his greatest hits, most notably Fire And Rain.
Equally, the tender lyrics and soft acoustic melodies on home-inspired songs like Sweet Baby James and Carolina In My Mind showcase the gentler side of the tumultuous Taylor.
Has any other artist made such an impact with only one album to their name? Debatable. Jeff Buckley's Grace yielded the likes of Mojo Pin, Grace, Last Goodbye and Lilac Wine, plus his stunning reinterpretation of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.
The life that he injected into the latter also showcased the broad emotional spectrum that defined Buckley's own writing.
You might argue that Prince would be even more highly regarded as a songwriter if he’d exercised a greater degree of quality control, but when he’s on form, few can live with him.
Throughout the ‘80s the hits just kept on coming; in fact, he was so prolific that he could afford to give the likes of Manic Monday and Nothing Compares 2 U away to other artists.
An over-the-top, seven-minute opus that combined rock and mystical, melodramatic pop, with a sonic bed that included a harpsichord, an orchestra and a choir, along with fanciful lyrics about somebody leaving a cake out in the rain, all sung by an actor (Richard Harris) who couldn’t really sing - a sure-fire recipe for success, right?
At first, everybody thought that writer-producer Jimmy Webb overplayed his hand with MacArthur Park, but the unconventional song became one of 1968’s biggest, most glorious smashes. There were other more mainstream-friendly hits - lots of them, in fact. By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Up, Up And Away, Witchita Lineman, The Worst That Could Happen, Galveston - the Jimmy Webb style was to have no particular style, only steadfast hooks and pathos-packed lyrics that were everlasting.
Kicking off his career with one of the greatest debut records of all time, 1977’s My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello appeared frighteningly fully formed.
Spiky power pop like (The Angels Wanna Wear) My Red Shoes rubbed shoulders with biting ballads (Alison) and cynical examinations of the TV generation (Watching The Detectives), but Costello was only getting started. He’s since covered everything from jazz to country, soul and soundtracks, a restless and ambitious talent who has yet to run out of fresh ideas.
Smasher of guitars, windmiller of arms and the driving force behind The Who - a band with four separate nuclear reactors going off at the same time - Pete Townshend has earned his place at the top table of British songwriters time and time again.
One of the most intriguing and original writers of the 60s, his relentless stream of ideas and ability to pick towering riffs out of the air at will propelled The Who to superstardom. He gave voice to a particularly British type of teenage angst with songs like Can’t Explain, Who Are You, Won’t Be Fooled Again and, of course, My Generation, which is more than enough to forgive all those smashed guitars if you ask us.
It’s said that Paul McCartney once described Finn as the best songwriter in the world, which says a lot about the Crowded House man’s ability to craft a tune.
Finn is the archetypal ‘more hits than you think’ guy, and has a way with a melody that would make many an aspiring writer green with envy.
Dire Straits soundtracked a decade, and become one of the biggest bands in the world thanks to Mark Knopfler's beautifully constructed, highly evocative songwriting, aided and abetted by his skilful guitar playing.
1978’s Sultans Of Swing set the template: lyrics loaded with rich characters, a gravelly, Dylan-esque delivery and unforgettable hooks. It was a formula that would dominate the airwaves for the next decade, and while he might not have the same profile now, Knopfler has continued to release first-rate roots-rock as a solo artist.
When they first got together in the late ‘70s, the teenaged members of U2 couldn’t play very well, so they turned their limitations into strengths and decided to play like nobody else ever had before.
This was especially true of the band’s genius guitarist The Edge, who did more with three notes, an Echoplex and his feral imagination than a whole fleet of sweep-picking shredders.
Whether dishing out punk-laced new wave, chest-beating anthems, witness-bearing Americana, futuristic dance rhythms or expansive art-rock, the group proved that anything could get on the airwaves as long as the hooks were massive. Ensuring band harmony, U2 split their songwriting equally, although singer Bono most certainly shaped the impassioned lyrical message, broad strokes that can be by turns theological, political, introspectively confessional and ironically arty.
Burt Bacharach/Hal David
What The World Needs Now, Walk On By, I Say A Little Prayer, Wishin’ And Hopin’, Do You Know The Way To San Jose?, The Look Of Love, Close To You, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, What’s New Pussycat?, Alfie, I’ll Never Fall In Love Again - honestly, we could do this all day.
Just scanning the titles can fill the senses with breezy, elegant yet eternally memorable melodies. Composer Burt Bacharach could have put “moon, June, spoon” to his songs and they would’ve worked, but with lyricist Hal David’s wry, melancholic and oftentimes aching tales of the heart playing in the souls of all of the lovesick lovers of the world, his tunes transcended AM radio fodder and became poetry.
The Bee Gees
They may be best remembered as the smiling, white-suited faces of disco, but the brothers Gibb penned hits across six decades and for a huge range of artists.
Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton are just some of the stars who benefited from Barry, Robin and Maurice’s considerable talents, singing songs that are as well-honed as they are memorable.
Stevie’s astounding playing skills and embracement of technology wouldn’t have counted for a great deal if he hadn’t had the tunes, but his back catalogue is stuffed with hits that have become modern standards.
Whether you’re looking for driving funk or soaring balladry, Stevie has a song for that.
Quite apart from writing Frank Sinatra’s favourite Lennon and McCartney song (Something, if the tale is to be believed), the quietest of the Fabs was also the Beatle songwriting secret weapon.
Wide-eyed early efforts like Don’t Bother Me quickly gave way to stone-cold classics including If I Needed Someone, Taxman, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Here Comes The Sun. As if that little lot weren’t enough, George went into songwriting overload as The Beatles imploded, releasing easily the best of the four’s early solo albums in All Things Must Pass, and generally going about the place being a bit of a dude.
There’s a reason that Dylan respected George so much, and it wasn’t just because he could grow such a phenomenal beard (although it probably helped).
While he might be best known for the rough beauty of his gravely, whiskey-soaked singing voice, Waits’ abundant skill as a songwriter should never be overlooked.
As a lyricist, he’s excellent at painting atmospheric portraits of terrifying gothic characters caught up in depraved cautionary tales. Musically, he pulls influences from the deepest roots of blues and jazz, and seamlessly blends them with his own dark, experimental tendencies. Few songwriters can conjure darkness and depravity like Waits can.
Björn Ulvaeus/Benny Andersson
ABBA's songwriting super troopers enjoyed enormous success during the band's '70s heyday before becoming spectacularly unfashionable (and therefore the ultimate guilty pleasure) in the ensuing decades.
Nowadays, ABBA fans are out and proud - and rightly so. Björn and Benny's compositions contain some of the most complex harmonies in pop history, which is probably why no one can pull-off a decent cover version.
Many of the songwriters on this list made it here because they wrote vanilla ear-candy with a wide appeal. That is not an accusation that can be levelled at Frank Zappa.
Now a byword for all things experimental, Zappa pushed rock and pop music's boundaries both lyrically and musically, at once embracing and lampooning rock's inherent silliness.
Depending on your musical persuasion Peter Gabriel's songwriting skills were either at their finest during Genesis's uninhibited 'classic era' albums like The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, or during the latter solo period that gave birth to hits such as Sledgehammer.
Whatever your preference - prog, pop or 'world' - it's hard to deny Gabriel's genre-spanning credentials.
Depeche Mode's main songwriting force helped define the sound of ‘80s synth-pop and new wave with big hitters such as Personal Jesus and Enjoy The Silence. Since then, he and the band have gone on to sell more than 100 million albums and singles and - rarest of all for an '80s act - retain critical acclaim.
Enjoy The Silence? No thank you.
Mick Jagger/Keith Richards
It's fortunate that when Andrew Loog Oldham first locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room - informing them that he wouldn't open the door until they'd written a song - the Stones songwriters managed to produce the goods.
Otherwise, well, not only would we have two corpses in a loft somewhere in West London, we'd also not have sublime blues-rock crossover classics like (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.