Welcome back to Beatles Month!
Today we’re joined by Matt Blick, who is the man behind the Beatles Songwriting Academy, a website dedicated to analysing every single Beatles song to learn what makes them tick.
Since founding the site in 2009 Matt has written over 500 detailed posts on what he’s learned from studying the songs of the Beatles – and he’s written over 300 songs himself.
You see, unlike some song analysis websites you find, Matt’s site is particularly notable for being very practical in its focus. Although it’s fascinating to read his posts purely for interest, every one is written with the active songwriter in mind, to inspire and guide them to better and easier songwriting, inspired by the principles used by The Beatles themselves.
In this conversation we talk about:
- How The Beatles could obey and break the conventional rules of songwriting so expertly if they never learned music theory.
- Some specific ways The Beatles modified chord progressions to be more effective and distinctive in their songs.
- Matt also shares what actually causes writer’s block and how to fix it.
We also talk about the ways Matt has benefitted from all his Beatles studies in his own songwriting, including specific examples of songs he’s written using particular principles he learned from the Fab Four.
You’re tuned in to Beatles Month at Musical U.
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Matt. Thank you for joining us today.
Matt: Thank you for having me.
Christopher: So I am just a huge fan of your Beatles Songwriting Academy and it’s been really interesting to kind of peek behind the curtain a little bit to learn more about Matt Blick, the man behind it so I’d love if you could share that a little bit with our audience. Who are you as a musician and a songwriter? How did you get started in music?
Matt: Okay. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 14. I started in secondary school after brief flirtations with tuba, believe it or not and drums. I started playing in a band, a rock band, almost immediately, really, playing, kind of, Motley Crue hair metal kind of stuff, this was the 80’s, and continued in rock bands, largely, until the mid-90’s but along the way always seemed to get involved in lots of other, kind of, musical adventures.
When I was 16 I played in a band that played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the theater festival. The following year I was involved in writing the music for a show, went back to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I played in a big jazz orchestra as well and then in the 90’s I started attending a church and then started doing the music in church, writing music, arranging music at the church, still continued with theatre stuff, wrote for choirs while playing in heavy metal bands as well over the course of the years I got involved with helping refugees and that ended up with me playing in musical situations with refugees from Iran and Iraq.
I later went on to play in a Balkan gypsy wedding band —
Christopher: As you do.
Matt: — as you do, a chaotic, eight-piece monster that was wonderful and terrible at the same time and just been open to really any musical opportunity that’s come my way and just shaped me through that and then at the same time also in the 90’s while I was waiting for my rock career to take off I started teaching guitar and that was a very big catalyst as well for me learning a lot more because I honestly did on a, as a little bit as a scam at first.
I was on the Enterprise Allowance scheme and being an unemployed musician, not making loads of money, the choice that the government gave me was get a job or we’ll pay you 40 pound a week to start your own business and so I started my own guitar business teaching guitar and I had three pupils and as the year went on, because they only supported you for a year and then you were on your own, I started to get a few more pupils. Also, I really began to enjoy it and I began to realize that I was learning because I had to learn more, not only new things but I had to understand how I did what I already did so instinctively now I had to break it down and be able to understand what I was doing and present it in bite-sized pieces to other people.
So teaching was a big influence and then probably in the last eight or nine I really focused on songwriting kind of to the exclusion of a lot of other musical opportunities, both studying and teaching and doing it myself and that’s where I am now. I guess I’m a singer-songwriter but more songwriter than singer.
Christopher: Gotcha. That’s fascinating. What a rich and varied musical background and what jumped out at me was that you talked both about, kind of, diving into all of these incredibly varied musical projects but also about having to, kind of, pause and reflect and learn more to be able to teach and I think from the first bit people might think, “Oh it all came easily to him. He’s just one of those musicians who do anything,” but obviously that wasn’t the case, so could you talk a little bit about the learning process through that whole journey, like, how did you find learning music in general?
Matt: I was really, really motivated to learn. One of the things that I’m really grateful for in hindsight is that I went to a what I would term quite a progressive secondary school. We were allowed to call the teachers by their first names. There was no uniform and I think when you’re a kid, whatever situation you’re in, you think it’s normal so if you’ve got a horrible home life and whatever you just think that’s the way it is and I didn’t. We’re talking about education now but I just thought that was normal, as well and it’s only now as I teach in other schools I realize how completely abnormal that was but we had three music teachers and they were all, kind of, working musicians. They weren’t people that just taught, so, and I’m going to name check them because I think you have to honor where you came from soSteve Millward, Jonathan Trout and Leslie Lear.
So we used to have school plays but people in the school would write the play, they would write all the music and then the kids would perform it and I always remember one time I wrote this little chord sequence and I was one of these kids that just liked to write music down, write the dots down even though I couldn’t really read it I had a rough idea of what I was doing and this piece that I wrote just amounted to one chord sequence with some little variations happening but I showed my music teacher, Johnathan Trout, and he stopped the lesson, the music lesson that was planned and he got everybody in the class to play my composition and he arranged it on the fly, said to the flute player, you play the top notes of the chord and you do this and they played my piece of music and, again, it didn’t make a big impact on me at the time because that’s normal then, that’s what happens in a music lesson, your teacher just throws their lesson plan out the window and you all jam on your tune. Well, that was an atmosphere that I was in.
One of the other teachers, she’d, at lunchtime she’d sit at the piano and play Gradus ad Parnassum by Debussy, just jamming out, just being a musician but that all soaked into the thing so I don’t think I’m really answering your question here, but it didn’t come easy, no, but I had, I took every opportunity that I could so when my art teacher, so I’d go to this jazz orchestra kind of night class, do you want to come along. I had no ability to play that kind of music but that didn’t stop me saying, “Yes, I’ll have a go, I’ll come along. It sounds interesting,” and the same when two Kurdish refugees say, “We want to record an album. Can you find us a studio,” and I said, “Yeah, I can book you a studio,” and they said, “Why don’t you come and play on it?” and I said, “I know nothing about Kurdish music. I’ll have a go,” and so I got to experience pop music with quarter tone intervals in it and try and fit in, work with that, so [recording cuts out here, ambulance siren] I think it’s all about us being prepared to say yes and jump in the deep end and think some water up your nose and —
Christopher: (Laughs) There’s so much that I want to dive into and cover with you but I do want to just pause for a second because it’s not an easy attitude for a lot of people to take, I mean, hearing you describe it it’s kind of clear the benefit you get from it but were you nervous to say yes to everything? Were you just a fearless kid and not worried about failing, or how were you able to take such an open and ambitious or, yeah, how were you able to take that attitude?
Matt: Yeah. To be honest, it’s hard for me to put myself back in the mindset because I was quite a messed up kid and music was the only thing that I had that I really liked and I was the wort of kid that would have a hobby for two weeks and then have a completely different hobby and music was the only thing that I stuck with but in hindsight I think music or progressing in music and maybe life as well is all about failure.
You know, if you’re going to do anything, learn to do anything you are going to fail a lot of times before you succeed and so it’s not looking at failure as, this is a sign telling you to stop, it’s just almost like if you said, “Okay, to get this bar chord, the way to learn a bar chord is to fail to do a bar chord 200 times,” and then you’ll do it because actually in reality that is how you learn to do bar chords, you know. I’m just putting an arbitrary number on there, but you could say it in a different way but why not say, just, do it really badly 200 times and then you’ll be able to do it. And I think that’s certainly true of songwriting. You need to write a lot of bad songs.
Christopher: So tell us about your own journey of writing bad songs. How did you come to focus on songwriting in the last eight or nine years, the way you mentioned?
Matt: Well, the two things that happened, coincided and I don’t know which one influenced the other more. No, actually I do. So I was looking at my songwriting and I was realizing I was writing a very small amount of songs, maybe about five or six a year, I was averaging and I was laboring over them. I was revising them and revising them, rewriting them, playing them to people, getting feedback, rewriting them again.
Songs would go through three or four completely different sets of music, lyrics would be revised again and again and again and again and I just thought, “This is not working as a thing,” because I didn’t feel that songs were noticeably better once I’d finally, you know, revised them to death. I felt sick of them, mostly, because I’d spent so long writing them and I thought, “Maybe I’m not going about this the right way,” so I set myself a goal to, oh, and what happened was, as well I had an opportunity in the summer to use some office space to go and write every day so school holidays, six weeks, and there was an empty office and I’ve got a big family and it was, I could go there, have some peace and quiet for a couple of hours and try and write every day and it was really fruitful so I thought, “I’m gonna try and write every day,” and in 2011 I think it was or 2010, “I’m gonna try and do some writing every day,” and at the same time I realized that this song, I was trying to write songs that were very accessible.
They were mainly songs designed for congregations to sing in church so they needed to be the sort of songs that people could pick up instantly and yet I was very interested in music like Beethoven and very complex music and I thought, “I need to study someone who’s really accessible but still musically interesting,” and that’s where the Beatles came into the picture. So I thought, I’m going to analyze all the Beatles songs in one year and it’s going to really, you know, and also, as well I was wanting to find out, “Are they really as good as every body says?” You know, “I don’t know.” So I started that one-year project nine years ago and it’s, I think I’ve done about 90 songs out of 211 so far so I’m not even halfway.
Christopher: Gosh. Well, it’s interesting that you started with a bit of doubt, there, about the Beatles. Tell us how had you thought of them up to that point, you know, it sounds like you weren’t a lifelong devoted Beatles advocate.
Matt: I think, and I don’t know who said this, but I think the Beatles are both underrated and overrated at the same time so it’s very, because they were so culturally significant it’s very hard to get past that to what was their musical influence on, you know, their pop music, has it stood the test of time musically in songwriting and does it have any [recording cuts out here]? Are the people now doing what they did far better than they did?
You know, it’s like, nobody’s driving model T Fords now. You say, “Well done, Henry Ford, for pioneering but other people have taken what you did and expanded it and made it much better,” so I didn’t know and also I think you take them for granted. There influence is so pervasive that you don’t notice it. Everybody knows Beatles songs but then I realized when I thought about it, I haven’t even heard “Abbey Road” all the way through as an album. I think I know it because I know lots of songs from it but so I thought, “I’m going to go to the source and just find out for myself.”
Christopher: Wow. And clearly that one-year Beatles project turned into a longer project. How was the one-year writing project?
Matt: I wrote 47 songs in that year and one of the things that I did as well was I heard about this thing called February Album Writing Month Forum, FAWM.org which was a challenge in February to write 14 songs, one song every two days and that would be an album’s length of material. You didn’t actually have to actually record an album, you could just demo it or even just post the lyrics but the idea was to create an album’s worth of music solely in February so I thought, “Wow, I’ll never do that, but, I’ll never manage that,” you know, having written seven songs in twelve months I didn’t think I could write 14 in one month but I thought, “It can’t do any harm. I’ll sign up,” and it’s a massive online community and I wrote 24 songs in February and some of them were terrible but the biggest revelation was a song that I wrote and demoed from start to finish in an hour and a half and was and still probably is one of my best songs today and it was written, all I had to start with was the title of a children’s book that I had seen in a library at school which was called, “Let’s Build an Airport,” and so from that title I wrote a song from start to finish, complete and I still play it today. It’s the first track on one of my EP’s and it’s one of my best songs and so that showed me, actually, it’s not about the agonizing over the material and trying to fine-tune it.
If you keep writing good ideas will come out. You will get the skill. The skill level increases and then you can write good songs. It doesn’t mean every song’s going to be good, it doesn’t mean every song is going to be a little bit better than the one before. It’s a weird up and down chart but the overall level of your writing rises and, again, studying the Beatles, this is something that’s really clear because I’m even doing it in a chronological order.
So you have a song like “Something” by George Harrison, which is an incredible song. It’s an all-time classic in my opinion and lots of others and it breaks so many rules of songwriting but it’s an incredible song, without a doubt, and the next one that he did was “Old Brown Shoe,” which is a B side. It’s a terrible, terrible song and so it’s not like George Harrison got better at songwriting and then he was knocking it out of the park. He wrote a song. It was amazing. He wrote a song. It was terrible. He wrote another song. It was okay but the overall quality, if you think about George Harrison’s songs on the first couple of albums to George Harrison’s songs on Abbey Road to George Harrison’s songs on All Things Must Pass, his first solo album, there’s a definite improvement so, and that came from just writing.
The funny thing is, “Old Brown Shoe” breaks some of the exact same songwriting rules as “Something” does so even that plan doesn’t, sort of, you can’t nail it down to specifics but I think the general lesson is, write a lot. The only way to get good at songwriting is to write.
Christopher: Fascinating. So I believe this is one of your bealtitudes, your, sort of, not quite ten commandments. It’s the Beatitudes, but the Beatles songwriting principles which was, “Blessed are the prolific,” and another one that jumped out at me was, “Blessed are the co-writers.” So you alluded to George Harrison’s songwriting there but I think, you know, for most people it would be Lennon and McCartney that they immediately think of if you say, “Beatles songwriting,” and there’s this, such a romantic aura about that duo, you know, that that pair of names conjures up so many assumptions about the songs they wrote. What’s your own perspective on that? I mean, you had a beatitude of “Blessed are the co-writers,” so clearly it worked, but why did it work, do you think?
Matt: There are so many aspects to their partnership that made them the perfect partners for each other. I’ve often thought about, would it have worked with Lennon and Harrison or McCartney and Harrison or Lennon and McCartney and Harrison and I think there is a, I guess just like a marriage or a business partnership or anything there are good partnerships and not-so-good partnerships and so finding someone that clicks with you is important. That’s not to say that someone in our position has to wait for Mr. Right or Mrs. Right. It’s good experience to co-write anyway but what they gave to each other, I think, to start with, and maybe this is something that’s really helpful to your listeners where they are is in the early days they functioned as song finishers for each other and actually even later, much later in their career so if you think about when you try to write a song there’s the, what people call the craft and the graft or the inspiration and the perspiration so you get inspired and maybe you get a chord sequence and a bit of a melody or maybe you get the first verse and the chorus and then you get stuck.
You feel it’s flowing through you, you’re channeling something and then you get stuck and many songwriters will show you their folders of half-finished songs and so what Lennon and McCartney did a lot is they finished each other’s songs so what you say and there’s a few that everybody always gives examples to but “We Can Work It Out” is a Paul McCartney song. (sings) “Try to see it my way,” it’s very chirpy and happy and whatever and then John Lennon comes in in the minor, the relative minor key, “Life is very short and there’s” and it’s the dour kind of alternative to the chipper McCartney verse and then actually George jumped in a little bit because it was his idea to do the 3-4 “fussing and fighting my” 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3 “I have” — so that was his little contribution, which was an important part in the song or “A Day in the Life” where the bridge “And they woke up, dah, dah, dah, dah,” that was a McCartney, it was even a little bit of a song that Paul McCartney had written that they’d just moved into, there and the kind of, wordless bridge that proceeds that was a co-write so that took the pressure off them trying to, as I say, especially in the early days when they didn’t have the skill, to complete a song the other one would chip in and get it over the finish line, so that’s one thing, a song finisher.
They were also massively inspired by each other so it’s, you often hear people characterize, “Lennon was this,” “Lennon was political and McCartney was romantic” or “Lennon wrote horizontal melodies, the (sings) “I am here as you are here,” they’re all, (sings) “Picture yourself in a,” it’ doesn’t move very much where Paul McCartney is (sings) “the long and winding road.” He’s up and down, all over the place but those differences don’t hold up because anything that McCartney did that was fresh and interesting John Lennon immediately stole and copied and anything that John Lennon did Paul McCartney immediately stole and copied so all through their career you see things like John Lennon writes a song that echoes his growing up in Liverpool, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and then the very next song that Paul McCartney writes is “Penny Lane,” which is about growing up in Liverpool and you can see that happen with instruments, with chord progressions, with lyrical themes, with structures that as soon as one guy gets hold of something the other guy takes it as well. So it’s that kind of influence exchange and there’s lots of other things as well. I don’t know if there’s anything else you want to ask. Anything else you want to, going on that? I could talk all day about that topic.
Christopher: No. Very cool, I think one of the things I most like about your site is it’s highly practical, you know, there are some academic researchers who do that kind of hard core music theory analysis stuff but it’s kind of hard to think that and do anything with it whereas your site is always, I guess, because you are a songwriter yourself and you teach songwriting it’s always, you know, “Here’s what we can learn from this,” and I think what I loved about your writeup of that Bealtitude was you kind of ended it by saying, you know, “Which of these four or five roles could you do if a co-writer on?” I think one of the others that I remember was being an ideal reader where your, you know, I think it was Stephen King, you were saying, has this notion of an ideal reader who’s going to check your work and give you the most honest and useful feedback and that’s another kind of co-writing role that someone can play for you.
Matt: Yeah. And it’s important to say that ideal reader is a real person, because sometimes I think we can get derailed in our songwriting by imagining, you know, whether it’s literally an or, you know, “Oh this would be great if Beyonce heard this song and covered it,” or something like that. I think that tends to derail your writing process but if you know you’re going to show your work to a peer that you trust and like John Lennon is going to say, “That’s crap,” you know? Then you know it’s almost as you write you know, “Ah, this chord progression’s not going to get past them. They’re going to hate this,” or then it makes you, even before you get the feedback it makes you deal with the parts of your song that you know aren’t up to scratch. You fix them before you even get the feedback so that’s the way they function. They both have high standards and it worked as well because the other guy was capable of writing something better. If you brought something shoddy, they were competing for A sides later in their career, the A side of the single, Lennon wanted his song as the A side, Paul wanted his song as the A side, so they both needed to up their game to within that little competition, really.
Christopher: Interesting, and hearing you talk about that having a high standard and, you know, pausing to ask yourself if the song is good enough, how do you balance that with the being prolific and I guess another way to ask it is having written 47 songs in 2011 are you writing 47 every year or how have you found that balance?
Matt: No. I’ve written more some years, I’ve written a lot less this year because I’ve been working on my album but I think there’s a, there definitely feels like a critical mass where you have to get through all the stages of songwriting so often that none of them have any fear for you anymore so sometimes you’ll be, “I can’t finish a song,” or “I’m stuck.” I think you have to get to the point, as well where you realize writer’s block is not a thing.
There is no such thing as writer’s block, it’s fear of writing something bad or writing something stupid or writing something cliché’d or derivative, or, you know, you fill in the blanks and once you get over that fear, but, and the way to do it is by writing something stupid or cliché’d or derivative and the world not ending that you stop being afraid of it but the more important thing is that all that judging stuff has to come after you’ve written so if you try to evaluate too much while you’re writing that is what causes the paralysis as well and a lot of the writers that I work with, they’re over-analyzing. Well, they’re analyzing “Is this really any good” before they’ve even written it and there’s a quote in a song by Mike Viola which I love. It’s, like, the best songwriting advice but it’s in the lyrics of the song and it goes, “Songs, songs, songs, they pour out of me. Not all of them are worth finishing but you’ve got to finish them to see,” and you, that is what I really learned by writing that song, “Let’s build an airport,” is, it was just song number 13 or 14 in the list of things that I was trying to write but then after, when people heard this collection of songs everybody zoned in on that one. I played it at an open mike and before I got halfway through there was a drunk guy at the bar singing along with me on it so you need to evaluate stuff afterwards.
It’s — another thing, I don’t know how far I’m getting off the topic here, but another thing that I think is that if I played you one song and I said to you, “Christopher, is this song any good?” you, that is such a subjective question to ask you, whether you’re commenting on my songs or you’re commenting on the Beatles or you’re commenting on your own songs but if you write ten songs and I say, “Christopher, which one is the best?” that’s a very easy thing for you to do and also for you to articulate why it is the best because these chords work better or the lyrics are particularly good or the concept is strong but, so I think that’s why I know the reason that it’s not just being prolific because it’s good to, you know, produce songs in bulk but being prolific makes you a better songwriter and that is one of the ways it makes you a better songwriter is you can evaluate much more clearly. Is “Old Brown Shoe” a good song? People could argue but if you say, “Is Old Brown Shoe” better than “Something? ” you’ve got to be crazy to say it’s better once you compare? Yeah?
Christopher: Interesting. So as well as your bealtitudes on your site you have what you call “Tickets to Write,” which is, kind of, more fine-grained songwriting lessons that you’ve gleaned from this extensive analysis and, you know, there’s umpteen different ways this can be useful and interesting to people to dive into but I think for me I really thought of it just now when you were talking about songwriter’s block because for me, even as a non-songwriter who is just dabbled a bit in the past, as I read through that list I was, like, ‘Oh, I want to try that,” “Oh, I could write a song like that,” “Oh, that’s something interesting to try.”
Matt: Yes. Exactly.
Christopher: So I’d love if we could just share a few of those and maybe we can pick up some of the interesting musical ones and these are, you know, across the board from nitty-gritty music theory to overarching songwriting principles and I think you began, I don’t know if these were chronological but the first one on the list, anyway, is using the flat six chord in major key song.
Matt: Yeah. That, they are chronological. That’s why there is no rhyme or reason to the numbering. (strums guitar) So you have a ticket that is just, like, “Use this particular chord,” and then the next one is quite a slightly esoteric lyrical concept and then there’s something about arranging and then we’re back to chords again. It was a definitely, it was the second or third Beatles song that they ever released is where this came from, I can’t even remember what song but basically if you’re in the key of A, for example, (plays) the three major chords would be A, D, and E and so a lot of simple pop songs would use those (plays chords) something like that and then nowadays we would go to this minor six and there’s a whole industry built on the 1-5-6-4 chord sequence but what the Beatles did sometimes was, or, what the Beatles did most of the time, which grew out of their, sort of, ignorance of music theory was used chords that didn’t belong in the key so when I studied the whole collection of songs I found that out of something like 190 or songs that they’d written there were only about 11 that did not go out of key at some point so you perceive the Beatles as being very melodic and not atonal, you know, or avant garde, particularly, but out of all of those songs there was a real tiny minority that purely stayed in key and that’s quite amazing.
So one of the things they did was if you’re in A they used the F chord which is borrowed from the A minor scale and sometimes they’d just use that on its own or sometimes they combined that with the G which is the flattened seven chord so you’d have a song that’s kind of major (plays) and I always call that the Billy Shears chord because at the end of “I Get By With a Little Help from my friends” it goes, (sings) “Billy Shears,” and he sounds so happy because you’ve got that raising up which would normally go to the minor chord, like you get that progression for “Stairway to Heaven,” (plays) at the end but this goes (plays) and you just get a major lift at the end so you’d get that in (plays) “Suffragette City” by David Bowie, same thing.
That’s basically in the A “Hey, man, leave me alone” there’s the flat six “I said, ‘Hey, man, get off the phone’,” so you’ve got that switch between major and minor happening constantly because of that F chord, that flat six, so that’s, as you said, that is exactly how I, like, discovered the tickets and how I use the tickets, so I analyze the Beatles songs. I say, “Hey, this is an interesting thing they’re doing with this song. They’re using this chord. Now I’m going to try and use it,” so, for me, the big one was not the flat six but in a major key (plays) using the minor four, so in the key of A that would be D minor and they used that so many times but (sings) “Don’t take chances with romances,” but that was a cover.
That’s where, and so the interesting thing as well, is, because the Beatles recorded covers, not only can you go, “Oh, this is an interesting songwriting idea that they use,” but sometimes you can also see where they got it from so they’re playing a cover and you go, “Ah, that’s where you learned that idea,” and that’s an interesting thing, I think, perhaps, for your listeners is that they didn’t come out of the womb fully formed as musicians. Even the most avant garde and strange chord progressions and scales and ideas you can find the germs of earlier in their music and you can find the germs of in the music they grew up playing so they were influenced by Broadway musicals and stuff like that that Paul McCartney’s father and John Lennon’s mother would sing so you get in “Here, There and Everywhere” it has this strange little intro (sings) “To lead a better life I need my love to be there,” and then the song starts. That’s so bizarre. What is that? Well, it’s the same kind of verse that a jazz standard would have where you’re in a Broadway show. This person’s going to randomly start singing in a minute and it’s the lead into (sings) “Why I’m going to sing this song,” and they took that into pop music.
Christopher: Fascinating. So there was another lovely chord progression one that stuck in my head which was about taking the twelve bar blues but doing something a bit different with it.
Christopher: Could you talk about that a bit?
Matt: Yeah, because people, the Beatles played a lot of twelve bar blues music as they were, kind of, serving their apprenticeship in Hamburg but what’s really interesting is, in their own compositions they very rarely played a totally straight twelve-bar blues and but they still used the form so it’s interesting to note that something like “The Fool on the Hill,” which is not a twelve-bar blues or a blues of any description but it has a twelve-bar structure which is really unusual until you think that they grew up playing twelve-bar blues songs but a more straightforward one is “Can’t Buy Me Love, ” which is, you’re on the one chord , the C, (sings) “I’d buy you a diamond ring, my friend, if it’d make you feel all right.” So you’ve got four bars of the one chord then you go to the four chord “Give you anything my friend,” then go back to the one, “Make you feel all right.” Now, a normal twelve-bar blues would go, five chord, four chord, one chord, five. So and that would be “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.” It works okay, but they didn’t do that. They stayed on the five chord for an extra bar, no, sorry, they stayed on the four chord for an extra bar so you have, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.” So they delay going back to the one chord.
Now, you could say, “Okay, they just fiddled around with it and that’s the lesson, now, just muck around with things the sake of it but what’s the song about? It doesn’t go, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t…” so when you do it like that, when you do it the regular twelve-bar way the emphasis is on “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t…” so the emphasis is on “money can’t buy me love,” you’re arriving back home on the word, money. But what it actually is, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love,” and that’s the point, love.
So it’s, now with a lot of these ideas it was Paul McCartney thinking, “Ah, I want to emphasize love so if I delay,” but of course he wasn’t but the reason why great artists sometimes get a little bit mystical, and Paul McCartney’s definitely guilty of this, is that they’ve internalized the music so much. They’ve internalized what feels right and what feels wrong that they don’t know why they do what they do but it is for reasons like that. Why do you instinctively pick words that rhyme or words that chime that have similar vowel sounds or whatever? Because they feel better when you sing them but if you analyze it you can say, “Oh, because you’re using the same vowel sounds all the time.” So, and, that’s what I was saying to you about my journey as a teacher is that I had to work out how I was doing the things that I was doing instinctively. So, yeah.
Christopher: That’s really cool. I’m glad to hear you say that because there is this, kind of, traditional online debate about whether you need to know music theory and everyone always points to McCartney and says, “Well, he didn’t know music theory and he wrote some of the best songs,” and I don’t know, my perspective has always been, “Well, he didn’t study music theory. He didn’t know the official terminology but he knew music theory, like, he had it in his head.
Matt: Oh, yes.
Christopher: He knew how it worked and I think it can be helpful to people to understand, like, it’s not about knowing the official name for this, that, or the other. It’s about having that understanding of how it all fits together.
Matt: Yes, it’s certainly true. I mean, the Beatles, as you said, they didn’t come from nowhere. They didn’t hatch out of an egg. They were a band that was obsessive about studying music. They would go to NEMS records, they would put B sides in the little booths and listen to them over and over and over again. They played for six hours, seven hours a night in Hamburg learning songs, taking requests. They knew every detail of hundreds of songs. They were, and so they, when you say they didn’t know any music theory, you’re completely right. They knew tons and tons and tons of music theory.
They didn’t know what things were called. They didn’t know the labels but they knew exactly which chord would produce this feeling or this sound and if you stopped them maybe they couldn’t explain why they were doing what they were doing, just the same way if you stopped Picasso and said, “Why are you doing that bit green and not red?” “Well, if I sit down for an hour and I think about it maybe I could give you an answer but it just feels the right thing to do,” but the way you get there is by studying music and so I just think, you know, sites like yours and sites like the Beatles Songwriting Academy just making it a little bit easier, you know? Yes, if I locked you up in a room with all the Beatles albums and a guitar you would discover everything that I’ve figured out and anybody else has figured out but, you know, why not make it a little bit easier for yourself?
Christopher: Absolutely. Speaking of making things easy, I love that in your list are not just these slightly sophisticated songwriting ideas that connect to music theory there are also other broad things that we might overlook if we were just looking for those most distinctive and unusual things such as you have one which is repeating verse one. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Matt: Yeah. Well, I felt, as a writer, the reason any of these tickets are there is because they made an impact on me or I thought, you know, if it’s just, if it’s, like, buy a guitar and play some chords that’s not really a songwriting tip that I needed to tell myself, you know, but I felt that repeating a verse was cheating because it showed you were too lazy to write another verse, write a third verse, so when you say, repeat verse one, when the Beatles often did was that verse one, verse two, a bridge and then they repeat verse one again scale, again, which is another idea that pretty much comes from old jazz standards but I realized that although sometimes they did say, “Well, we’re running out of time so we’ll just repeat a verse one,” I realized that the Beatles, one of the contributing factors to them being so memorable is repetition and hooks and things like that so of course, if you repeat a verse it’s going to be more memorable than just having another verse and another thing that I had to get out of was the need to write a bridge for every song because not every song needs a bridge and so sometimes we sort of subconsciously picked up rules about songwriting that aren’t helpful, especially no, I would say, songwriting rule is helpful if you feel you’ve got to rigidly apply it every single time. You can break rules.
As I said, with the song, “Something,” it’s just not good to break every single rule, every single song, every single time but sometimes that little breaking of the rule can be the thing that makes the song stand out so in the song that I mentioned already, “Let’s Build an Airport,” I had verse one, verse one again, a bridge, verse two and then verse one again and that’s probably how I could finish it so quickly but also that’s what makes it so memorable and was such an unusual concept to begin with that, because they’re building an airport is a metaphor for, it’s a love song, basically, but you wouldn’t think it from the title that it bore repeating. It wasn’t, like, “I love you, you love me, let’s, you know, make a family,” so yeah, so repetition, I think, is one of the things I’ve learned from the Beatles that growing up playing very complicated heavy metal influenced by classical music and I needed to learn it’s okay to repeat yourself. The Beatles repeated the lyrics in other really creative ways, as well which I can talk about, as well, if you want to.
Christopher: Mm-hm. Please do.
Matt: So they would, sometimes repeating a verse outright doesn’t work because it, you might be in some kind of story structure where it doesn’t make sense to go back to the beginning again but they often used lyrical structures and repeated those so if you think of the song, “A Day in the Life,” which is a brilliant, brilliant song but it has no chorus, there’s no, so although it’s very memorable, there isn’t a traditional hook of a, you know, (sings) “It’s just another day in the life.” That’s not there. You can see why the Beatles are better songwriters than I am.
What he does is he has a structure so he says, “I read the news today, oh boy,” and then there’s the next part, “I saw a film today, oh boy,” and then he’s got “Woke up. Got out of bed. Tried to comb,” and there’s lots of waking up and getting going and so there’s, like, little ideas that keep repeating “Although the news was rather sad, although the film was rather,” I can’t remember exactly but these phrases that keep coming back but with different words dropped in or in the song “Because,” that John wrote, it was, “Because the wind is high it blows my mind. Because the world is round it,” you know, it’s because the the is the it makes me the, and once you use structures like that it becomes memorable and it becomes easy to finish because you just have to fit words in the slots you can mix and match them until you get something interesting so they did that all the way through their career, with lyrics.
Christopher: Very cool, so one thing I should mention is that Matt, you’re very good at, you know, just off the top of your head, coming up with song examples for each of these but I should mention that, you know, on your site, when you describe these you list out, like, “Here are all the Beatles songs I’ve found that do this,” and what I doubly love is you also list out, “Here are some other band songs we can point to where they’re doing the same thing,” which I think is just a really fascinating thing both for aspiring songwriters and music fans to just, kind of, take that on a listening journey. It’s really fun.
Matt: Yeah. Well, that’s, I think that’s important. Again, in a kind of permission way, so just like I felt like I needed permission to repeat verse one, you can get an idea from the Beatles, like, a chord progression. So, like, there’s, if I say, what people call, line cliché, where the minor chord, for instance (plays) so there’s a note going down chromatically within a chord,okay?
So that’s “Michelle” so you think, “Well, okay.” If you liked that song there would be a lot of resistance to going, well, I can’t just take that chord progression because everybody will go, “You stole that from the Beatles,” and then you’re in, you know, especially if they’re lawyers, say, but then you realize that that chord progression in “Michelle” is the same as (sings) I don’t want to leave her now, you know I believe in how,” so you’ve got “Something.” Okay? But then in the beginning of “Something” you’ve got the same thing. (sings) “Something in the way she moves attracts me like no other lover.” You’ve got it in the major key and then you go to something like (plays) so John’s using it in “Strawberry Fields Forever, ” and then, so you go, “Okay the Beatles recycled, recycled, recycled whether it was conscious or not there was chord ideas that they used,” but then you find lots, as you said, lots of the artists using that same idea then it’s almost like somebody giving you permission, saying, “And you can use it as well because if the Beatles used it and then this person used it and that person used it and that person used it then maybe it’s yours as well.”
Christopher: Absolutely. And I think that goes both for the kind of nitty-gritty unusual things like the chord substitutions we were talking about before and for these things that you might, kind of, think were too simple or to obvious to use in songwriting but if it’s good enough for the Beatles and all these other bands maybe it’s good enough for you, too.
Matt: Yeah. Because I think what’s obvious and simple in one genre is something that’s never done in another genre so it might be something that the Beatles did a billion times but in the style of music that one of your listeners might be playing it’s something that’s never done and then it’s a fresh, “Wow, where did you get that unusual concept from?’ and, again, that’s something that the Beatles were great at because they were so influenced, by, obviously Indian music and jazz music and blues and rhythm. Even Motown girl groups were a massive influence on the Beatles and so they kept sucking in all these different influences and maybe they weren’t the best at any of those styles but absorbing them made their music far richer.
Christopher: Terrific. Well, I love that you’re not finished with this project but you’ve put in a good few years and clearly it hasn’t discouraged you in any way, you know, I think some people would be nervous embarking on this to feel like, “Maybe I’ll just realize the Beatles were the best and I shouldn’t bother.” Clearly, it’s had the opposite effect on you. It’s been really inspiring so I’d love to hear where is your music now and what’s your current songwriting project?
Matt: So, I have just, I’ve finished recording an album called “55 Stories Down” and it is an album of just me singing and playing a baritone guitar tuned down to A so it’s a super low, it’s still a six-string. You still fret the chords exactly the same way as a standard guitar but it’s seven frets lower so it kind of feels sometimes like you’re playing the bass on the guitar or just the bass or, and, what I did, I deliberately decided to go that route because my songwriting is very eclectic. I write a punk song that’s got a political message and then the next thing I’ll write a Christmas song that’s very romantic but that’s got a kind of weird little twist to it and then I’ll write a very heartfelt song about losing someone that I love to Alzheimer’s and then I’ll write a, just, a stupid song that doesn’t mean anything at all, it’s just about having a good time and stylistically, as well, it’s very varied so I felt like I needed some unifying principle to bring those different things together so I decided just to limit myself on one instrument in the way I recorded it.
So it’s all, almost all live, playing the guitar and singing at the same time and just capturing the best versions that I could of that and so that was a really interesting project. I think that the whole thing (recording cuts out here) about limitations is that it’s a blessing in disguise. Again, I’ve written about that extensively on Beatles Songwriting Academy but, yeah, so that album is finished. I’m just in the last stages of post-production and it will be out in January.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I certainly can’t wait to hear that and I’m going away right after this interview to listen to “Let’s Build An Airport,” which I believe is available on iTunes and Spotify and all the other good places.
Christopher: We’ll have a direct link in the show notes for anyone who is eager to hear that song. Matt, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you. Tell the listeners where they can go to learn more about you as a musician, learn more about your songwriting, teaching and learn more about the Beatles Songwriting Academy.
Matt: Well, obviously, Beatles Songwriting Academy you can find at beatlesongwriting.com. You can find my personal website is www.mattblick.com , M-A- double T, B-L-I-C-K. It’s a lifetime of having to spell my name out for people. You can find me on Twitter as well where I’m realmattblick and, yeah, so if anybody wants to contact through those things I’d be happy to say hi. Yeah.