A new television series starts tonight looking at just what special qualities go into making a truly timeless pop song. But Swansea singer-songwriter Steve Balsamo tells Nathan Bevan that he believes one Welsh band captured that magic more than 40 years ago and are yet to be bettered
it’s London Calling by The Clash or Agadoo by Black Lace, the mark of a good pop
song is one that will sink its hooks into the listener’s brain and refuse to let
it the work of punk upstarts railing against the socio-political mores of modern
Britain or a Eurovision-begetting novelty act given to dressing up as giant
pineapples, all those songs started life in exactly the same way – as scribbled
ideas on a notepad, the back of a cigarette packet or a cocktail
precisely that journey that will be explored on the BBC from tonight as the
network launches a two-month long celebration of and investigation into the
craft of songwriting.
Secrets Of The Pop Song, the three-part series sees Guy Chambers – the man whose
starry CV includes the co-writing credit on Robbie Williams’ mega-hits – dissect
the art of penning perfect pop by collaborating with different artists to write
a new song each week, while we at home track its progress from the written page
to being performed live.
series, featuring contributions from musical heavy-hitters like Sting and Brian
May, will also see Chambers attempt to create a radio-friendly anthem with
soul-rockers The Noisettes and team up with celebrated record producer Mark
Ronson to score that elusive breakthrough single.
first episode though, Chambers will collaborate with American singer Rufus
Wainwright to produce a timeless ballad, a skill that would appear to require an
ingredient best referred to as ‘The Ex Factor’ – the ability to tap into one’s
own heartbreak and channel it to pen a bona fide tear-jerker.
something a lot of Welsh acts are more than acquainted with.
relationship with actress and society girl Sienna Miller went into very public
free fall, Ruthin-raised actor Rhys Ifans threw himself into working with his
rock band Y Peth, whose debut LP The Golden Mile included a tortured
confessional called Stonefinger.
little thing you said would break me. All of it came true. Every bit of love I
give. You mock it, yes you do,” sang Ifans, before subsequently denying it was
about Miller and adding that the lyrics had been penned before they’d even
Stereophonics’ Kelly Jones, more used to singing about the minutiae of Valleys
life, turned the spotlight on his own private affairs come album number four,
You Gotta Go There To Come Back – the gravel-throated Cwmaman vocalist writing
Rainbows And Pots Of Gold about his split from a childhood
surely the peerless pop yardstick by which all else should be measured is
Without You, the seminal effort from ill-fated Swansea band
1970 chart-topping smash has since been recorded by more than 180 artists
including Shirley Bassey, Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey and was once described
by The Beatles’ Paul McCartney as “the killer song of all time”.
Swansea star Steve Balsamo, for one, couldn’t agree more with the former Fab
Four legend’s accolade.
suppose Macca’s more than a little qualified to comment as to what makes a good
tune,” laughs the former West End Stage star-turned rocker.
You is one of my favourite tracks of all time and a prime case of someone using
a terrible heartache they’d suffered to inspire a musical moment that connects
with everyone who hears it – which is what every songwriter worth their salt
tries to achieve.”
that its poignancy was only compounded by the group’s own tragic story –
financial and legal woes led to two members of the group committing suicide
tragically young – Balsamo says that the old adage of writing about what you
know was crucial in creating something memorable.
to pour yourself, good experiences and bad, into your work because all of us
have the same feelings, wants, fears and needs; that stuff’s universal,” he
smiles, recalling how he also took tips from another master of the
last band The Storys supported Elton John we’d all stand at the side of the
stage watching him every night with our jaws on the floor.
incredible just how many brilliant tunes that man has, from ballads like I Guess
That’s Why They Call It The Blues to out-and-out pop numbers like I’m Still
Standing – it was like being given a free pass to the best songwriting school in
do his songs find life?
every other lyricist I used to jot ideas down whenever they came to me, so my
house would be crammed with bits of paper with ideas written on them,” reveals
all goes into my Blackberry so my wife shouts at me less, and if I get inspired
on the train or something I’ll lock myself in the toilet and quietly sing
melodies into my voice recorder.”
“But that’s the beauty of it – you go into a room with nothing and, hopefully,
you come out with something that’ll move people – alchemy, basically.
you can be scientific about it, and a lot of jobbing songwriters watch the
current trends and learn how to craft tunes to order for various different
artists, and Guy Chambers is a great example of that.”
Balsamo believes serendipity could have a role to play in what makes a song
of mine called Steve Booker had a huge success writing with Duffy on her first
album and that only happened because he put his London flat on the market and
she came round to view it and they got chatting,” he says.
perhaps it’s destiny that great tracks like Mercy are born, but maybe that’s
just the old romantic in me.”