Thursday, 5 July 2012

Desert Island Songwriters

A leading article in the Guardian recently made the questionable claim that Paul McCartney was the twentieth century’s greatest songwriter.  Hmm.

 Most of the Beatles’ early hits (1963-65) were genuine collaborations, but John was in large part the instigator, as Ian McDonald amply demonstrates in ‘Revolution In The Head’.  It was only from ‘Rubber Soul’ onwards (okay I know about ‘Yesterday’) that their individual identities started to show through, and certainly Paul was the sole author of quite a few masterworks – ‘Drive My Car’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Hey Jude’.

But his Beatles songs do not a canon make, and after the split, that is for the subsequent forty years, how many memorable McCartney songs can you name?  I can manage four: ‘Band On The Run,’ ‘Mull of Kintyre’, ‘The Frog Chorus’, and ‘Live And Let Die’.  Nuff said.  And now, here come the big boys.

It’s not that easy, because to qualify you need to have produced a substantial corpus of songs which are memorable both lyrically and melodically; and also, playing by the book, you have to be a soloist.  Sadly, that rules out collaborations such as the Gershwins, Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Rodgers and anyone, Kern and anyone.  There’s also a difficulty regarding length of service – it’s quite possible that Eminem will make it to the 21st century list, he’s just not old enough yet.  Anyway, here goes:

Cole Porter

Irving Berlin

Hoagy Carmichael

Bob Dylan

Smokey Robinson

Leonard Cohen

Neil Young (maybe)

Erm …

Obviously, I only know what I know.  So, any other candidates?  Please open my ears to them, before I climb aboard and sail off into the sunset towards that island.


  1. Bit male, your list Tim.

    How about Joni Mitchell.

  2. From your own list Tim, I would definitely rank Bob Dylan as a better song writer than Paul McCartney. I don't like much of Dylan's stuff, but it is still better than McCartney's. A lot of Dylan's material has been covered by other artists and I think it would be interesting to find out which out of Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney have had the most work covered by other artists.

    From the names contributed in the comments box here, I think Paul Simon is a good call.

    I can think of a lot of song writing partnerships and collaborations but like you, I cannot think of many solo writers who could be considered the best ever.

    I'm not a fan, and I'm not certain that he works solo, but Prince has written an awful lot of stuff. My other suggestion would be David Bowie, but again, I don't know if he always write alone.

  3. The idea, which I didn't articulate very well, was to prove that there were better songwriters than Paul, and that he therefore wasn't the best. It wasn't meant to be a league table. But thank you all for your intriguing suggestions.

    Elton and Lloyd Webber are disqualified as they don't write alone. But as to the others, they're all welcome into the pantheon - even Seasick Steve, though I bought his album and thought it was rubbish. And I'm adding a couple more - Noel Coward; and, guess who, Paul McCartney. He's a nice bloke, and he's just turned seventy so probably needs cheering up. And he was better once.

  4. I suppose Morrissey is ruled out because he wrote most of his best songs with Marr.

    I think Billy Bragg belongs in this list. Some of the best love songs ever written, in my opinion. Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello must be in with a shout as well.

    In terms of the 21st century, at some point Stephin Merritt might make a list of this kind. Well worth checking out.

  5. Hi, Mr L St. I have no idea what I've started here, but I'm finding it fun! I think (hope) it's gone beyond my original 'trash the Guardian's stupid Sir Paul leader' intention, and seems to be becoming an open catalogue of everyone's fave solo songwriters. I've just remembered Jimmy Webb. And Stevie Wonder?

  6. When we were away, we had a conversation about this very article and there was nearly
    some heated argument, as at first, Barney and I hadn't realised that our sister in law was a devoted Macca fan. I believe I may have used the words 'trite' and 'sentimental' (but not about his Beatles songs) and Barney was getting quite emphatic about Dylan's superior claim to greatness before we realised we were ruffling feathers.

  7. Woodie Guthrie. 100 on Saturday (30 ahead of me). He died in 1967, of course, but he's still alive.