208 Great songwriters and no playlist

I just praised an article that included its own Spotify playlist. Now it’s the other way: a very amusing and quirky polemic that nonetheless would yield a fantastic playlist: “Great Songwriters: Who Are They, And Why Haven’t There Been Any For The Last 20 Years?” by Evert Cilliers (“aka Adam Ash”).

The article is from 2011 and was just highlighted by Tyler Cowen this week.  According to the author, there are only eight truly greatest composers and just two hundred great composers… It is just a fun read, but I really like his taste in music. And the lists grows very interesting towards the end:


In fact, thinking of these special cases, one might create a third category of songwriters: the Thirty Special Mentions, who because of output — number of songs more than the three stipulated to be in the Other Two Hundred — deserve not to be buried in the Other Two Hundred.

They are: Leiber-Stoller, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Jagger-Richards, Roy Orbison, Barry and Robin Gibbs of the BeeGees, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, Pete Townsend of the Who, Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Fritz Loewe of Lerner-Loewe, Burt Bacharach, Elton John, Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, David Bowie, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and … Chris de Burgh, who is another special case. He is the greatest songwriter known by the fewest people, especially unknown in America (Lady in Red, Borderline, Carry Me Like A Fire In Your Heart, A Child Is Born, The Crusader, Diamond In The Dark, Don’t Pay The Ferryman, Five Past Dreams, Flying, Forevermore, The Head And The Heart, Here For You, High On Emotion, Hold On, I’m Not Crying Over You, It’s Me And I’m Ready To Go, Just Another Poor Boy, The Last Time I Cried, Lebanese Night, Lonely Sky, The Mirror Of The Soul, Missing You, My Father’s Eyes, Patricia The Stripper, The Road To Freedom, Rose of England, Sailor, She Means Everything To Me, Shine On, A Spaceman Came Travelling, Spanish Train, Spirit, So Beautiful, Tender Hands, When I Think Of You, When Winter Comes (instrumental), Where Peaceful Waters Flow, A Woman’s Heart, The Words I Love You). His songs are all on YouTube: google them.

De Burgh has written so many good songs, he’s closer to the Great Eight than Jagger-Richards. He is certainly the best power ballad writer ever. Maybe I should just add him to the Great Eight and rename them the Divine Nine (or add Holland-Dozier-Holland as well, for the Titanic Ten). If I have one wish for this article, it’s to turn more Americans on to the tunesmithery of Chris de Burgh. BTW, his daughter was Miss World 2003.

Much respect for including “The Flame” by Cheap Trick:


We can’t abandon the topic of songwriters without mention of a final category: the glorious one-offs. A songwriter may write mediocre malarkey by the mile and still come up with one deathless jewel of a miraculous hair-raising melody. Here’s a very short selection of these lightning-struck-but-once goodies.

Without You written by Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans; the definitive version sung by Harry Nilsson.

All By Myself by Eric Carmen.

Everything I Do (I Do It For You) by Bryan Adams.

Unchained Melody by Alex North; the definitive version sung by Bobby Hatfield of The Righteous Brothers.

Are You Lonesome Tonight? by Lou Handman, done to perfection by Elvis Presley.

Nights In White Satin by Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues.

Go Now by Larry Banks; best version by The Moody Blues.

Wild Thing and Angel Of The Morning written by Chip Taylor, two one-offs (Chip Taylor is Angelina Jolie’s uncle and Jon Voight’s brother).

Where Do You Go To My Lovely? by Peter Sarstedt. (He wrote some other nice ones, too, like I Am A Cathedral and Blagged. Check out his The Best of Peter Sarstedt.)

Ode To Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry.

I Want To Know What Love Is by Foreigner.

Louie Louie written by Richard Berry in 1955. This song has been covered hundreds of times. Berry sold the copyright cheap in 1959, and didn’t make a dime off the song till 1986 and 1993, when he got paid some guilty money.

I’m All Out Of Love by Graham Russell of Air Supply — with lyrics by, of all people, the music mogul Clive Davis.

When A Man Loves A Woman by Percy Sledge.

The Flame by Cheap Trick.

Close My Eyes Forever by Lita Ford and Ozzy Ozbourne — yep, old Oz hisself. (Lita Ford was in the teen-girl band The Runaways with Joan Jett.)

Give To Live by Sammy Hagar.

Born To Be Wild by Mars Bonfire (real name Dennis Edmonton) performed by Steppenwolf.

Sugar Sugar, the ultimate bubblegum song, written by Andy Kim and Ronald Frangipane (Andy Kim also wrote Rock Me Gently).

Only You by Buck Ram and Andre Rand, done superbly by the Platters.

Runaway by Del Shannon and Max Crook, who played that astonishing instrumental break — the best ever — on his self-invented clavioline-based electronic keyboard called a Musitron.

No Woman No Cry by Vincent Ford (though some say Bob Marley credited the song to Ford to keep Ford’s business going).

96 Tears by Rudy Martinez, the question mark of ? and the Mysterians.

Be Bop A Lula by Gene Vincent.

Israelites by Desmond Dekker.

Stagger Lee, based on a 1895 fatal shooting over a hat. Nobody knows who wrote it. We don’t know who wrote House Of The Rising Sun either (brilliant 1964 version by the Animals); it may have been written as early as the 1600s.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh) written in the 1920s by the South African singer Solomon Linda and recorded by him in 1939, when he got a small fee. In the 1950s it was popularized in the US by Pete Seeger. In 1961 a perfect version by The Tokens thundered on to the charts. Linda never got a dime for his song’s worldwide success, which earned over $15m from being licensed to Disney’s The Lion King alone. After journalist Rian Malan exposed this travesty in 2000 in Rolling Stone magazine, there was a lawsuit, and Linda’s dirt-poor descendants started getting royalties.

Feel free to suggest your own favorite one-off. Bizarrely, there are quite a number of glorious one-off power ballads by terrible rock bands, written so chicks will consent to come to the headbanging concerts that their headbanging boyfriends like to attend. There are even some pearls by the ghastly corporate-rock LA hair-metal cretins like Poison, Cinderella, and Whitesnake et al, among whose dire bottom-feeding putrid stinker ranks I like to place Guns ‘n Roses, Van Halen and Bon Jovi, just to annoy their fans.