Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter ever, according to many. Fair enough, he probably is. But who else fits that bill? We nominate five names: Neil Young, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney. Here are some of the signature songs that made all of these songwriters so outstanding:
Neil Young – Heart of Gold
The first time the executives at Warner Brothers records heard “Heart of Gold” their minds were blown. The reaction was understandable. Here was a simple, incredibly elegant, delicately beautiful ode to man’s ever reoccurring search for love, captured entrancingly by songwriter Neil Young. With spare instrumentation and arrangement, Young’s song proves the incredibly potency of great songwriting and how essential the concept of the song is to rock and roll. When stripped down to its bare essentials, rock and roll comes down often to one man and a guitar, pouring out his soul in words and melody. Few songs embody this tradition better than Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”, the only #1 single Neil Young ever had in the United States.
Of course, the recording of “Heart of Gold” contains a larger arrangement than Young’s voice and guitar. It even carries with it a pair of very famous backup singers in Linda Ronstandt and James Taylor. It’s also been subject to a number of very cool interpretations and covers, including one by Ozzy Osbourne alumnus and metal guitar extraordinaire Zakk Wylde. It’s also interesting to note that the acoustic flavor coursing through the song was basically an accident. Because Young had hurt his back and couldn’t stand for long periods of time, he swapped his electric guitar for an acoustic and focused on his amazing singer-songwriter skills.
Roger Waters & David Gilmour – Wish You Were Here
While Roger Waters & David Gilmour are both terrific writers in their own right, their truly collaborative efforts were relatively rare. But “Wish You Were Here” is a magnificent exception and shows how remarkable it could be when these two men created music together in the truest sense. “Wish You Were Here”, of course, is one of Pink Floyd’s greatest tributes to their original frontman and founding member Syd Barrett. It’s a somber tune about Barrett’s withdrawel from reality due to his use of LSD and the pressures of the music industry. The opening riff was written by David Gilmour, and Roger Waters had heard Gilmour playing the tune in Abbey Road studios. Waters was immediately struck by the intensity of the riff, and asked Gilmour to try playing the song slower. Gilmour obliged, and the two collaborated to compose the rest of the music for the song. The lyrics were then added by Roger Waters, thinking of Barrett.
John Lennon & Paul McCartney – A Day in the Life
When The Beatles entered the later phase of their career as a band, John Lennon and Paul McCartney no longer wrote many songs with a truly collaborative, face-to-face approach. Instead, one of the two songwriters would generally compose on their own and bring it to the songwriting partner after it was largely done. While this is true for The Beatles classic closing number from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band “A Day in the Life”, both Lennon and McCartney worked heavily on the song, albeit different parts of it. The results are undeniably superb.