how to write a Randy Newman song

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The first thing to do is devise a narrator—one who in absolutely no way at all resembles Randy Newman. In the song “Rednecks,” for example, Randy assumes the role of an anti-Semitic Southerner singing about the North’s perception of The South. In “Political Science” he’s an uber-jingoistic American who wants to teach the rest of the world a lesson by blowing it up—save Australia, because he doesn’t want to hurt no kangaroos. Let’s not even go into, “Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America.”

Next, the song has to celebrate something unbelievably horrible. Going back to “Political Science,” the narrator’s cheerfully advocating nuclear holocaust; in “I Love L.A.” it’s the shattering of the American Dream; in “Happy Ending,” from Randy Newman’s Faust, it’s the mass of sins emanating from Las Vegas (and the narrator is Satan going through a mid-life crisis).

Once you’ve settled on a narrator and the horrific theme, you can begin writing. The first few lyrics have to be benign, maybe even upbeat, so they can lull the listener into a false sense of security. And even then, you want to introduce the theme gradually. Oftentimes it’s only in retrospect that you realize how dark the song truly is; other times he’ll hit you broadside by casually mentioning something horrid like it's no big deal, usually in the refrain. And sometimes, though it’s very rare, the song isn’t menacing at all—which, of course, makes it all the more menacing to Randy Newman aficionados; that’s why “He Gives Us All His Love” is such a chilling song.

Lastly, use cuss words sparingly. Randy doesn’t cuss very often, but when he does, he goes full force—no “b!tch” or “a$$hole”; he goes straight for the throat with “sh!t” or “f@ck.” But even then, he usually utters them offhand to undermine their impact.

You’ll probably want to toss in a city name, too: L.A., Birmingham, Dayton, Baltimore, Miami, New Orleans, and Cleveland, all have their own songs, but Randy’s also taken aim at Las Vegas, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, New York, St. Louis, and more. If you plan on referencing a city, though, you have to make completely sure that the reference is derogatory.

So let’s try one out. In our song, we’ll make the narrator…oh…how about a raccoon? We also want to make this a song about a city. Randy usually focuses on big cities, but we’re going to ignore that and instead make it a small town, a fictional small town we’ll call “Raccoon Sh!t, Iowa.” Notice, too, how we’ve included the cuss word, in this case “sh!t,” in the name—that’ll soften its impact because it refers to a place instead of a vulgarity.

The name “Raccoon Sh!t” will probably come as a shock to the listener the first time they hear it, but if we keep repeating it, it'll become less and less of a shock, so a good place to put it is in the refrain.

The first few lines should set the scene peacefully, and it’s best not to go over four because a long exposition can be dull.

It’s a paradise here,
A real Eden II.
There’s lots to eat,
And the skies are blue.

Simple, with a nice, lulling ABCB rhyme scheme. The second verse should hint that something’s not quite right with the narrator or the situation he’s describing, so feel free to make the lines a little longer. Our first verse emphasized food, so let’s continue with that theme and gradually pervert it.

Yessir, all the slop and garbage is piled up real high,
Enough to make Apache nation cry.
And every time you turn around your weary head,
There’s a tasty carcass of somethin’ freshly dead.

Since the listener is supposed to sense something amiss in the second verse, we used a familiar and soothing AABB rhyme scheme to cushion the blow. Now it’s time to hit them hard with the refrain:

It’s Heaven in dirt, aw lemme tell all ya,
Ain’t a place ‘roun like Raccoon Sh!t, Iowa.

The third verse can either go on twisting and perverting, or it can be disturbingly peaceful. We’ll go with peaceful. And if you’ve noticed, we haven’t yet revealed that our narrator is a raccoon, so we’ll make that a little more obvious, too.

Mr. Human get all mad when we raid his trash,
But what use he got for it now?
He say we’re bandits; we say, “Share the wealth!”
So eat up, li’l coons, here’s to your health!

The scheme of the third verse doesn’t matter much, just make sure it ends with a rhyming couplet. Then repeat the refrain about four times or so, getting a little softer each time until you fade out.

That’s about it! Now you can write your own Randy Newman songs and live a life of underappreciated surliness.


Suzie Q said...

Traverse? Might have a song there, son. I said, I said you might just have a song. But in all fairness, he's written some great music (music) Listen to I Think it's Going to Rain Today. Wonderful orchestral arrangement. It must have been popular, so many artists recorded it.

I think you're a great big baby
Selling crack along the way
Why'd you make me doubt my hero?
And I think it's going to rain today. (My version to the rain today tune) The end.....