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Music

From Bob Dylan to David Bowie: 10 masterpieces written in under 30 minutes

Sometimes it takes me an hour to record 30 minutes on a stopwatch. The other day, my instant coffee took the best part of the morning to brew. However, I take solace in the fact that I am not alone; the vast majority of the proletariat are rendered human sloths by the highwire freaks who can rattle off a quick masterpiece between the ad breaks. 

It was the songwriter Hoagy Carmichael who once proclaimed: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.”

This notion of songs simply floating in the ether has more than a grain of truth to it when you consider that the artists below were able to make history quicker than you can poach an egg. In fact, you even wonder whether the brevity of inception is the key to the brilliance here—without any time for pretence or second-guessing to creep in, these anthems are brimming with an unencumbered creative flow, all sincerity, heart, and no shadow of a doubt. 

10 masterpieces written in under 30 minutes:

‘Losing My Religion’ – R.E.M.

“If you’re only working off what you know,” Joni Mitchell once said, “then you can’t grow.” That was very much the case when Peter Buck was essentially “learning how to play mandolin”. He recorded himself strumming and riffing for a few minutes, and when he listened back to the mess the next day, the puzzle aligned in about ten minutes. 

“I started it on mandolin and came up with the riff and chorus. The verses are the kinds of things R.E.M. uses a lot, going from one minor to another, kind of like those ‘Drive 8’ chords. You can’t really say anything bad about E minor, A minor, D, and G – I mean, they’re just good chords.” Keeping it simple meant he was able to piece it together in a hot flash and within ten minutes, the iconic melody was accomplished. 

‘Mississippi Goddam’ – Nina Simone

When Simone heard of the appalling atrocities of the racially motivated murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers in Mississippi, as well as the killing of four black children in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, she set about a soulful entreaty that probed at the problem. Simone grabbed her notebook, sat at her piano and penned the song in an outpouring of grief that took no more than 20 minutes for her to write. 

Simone would go on to perform the protest anthem at the Selma marches and eventually performed it on The Steve Allen Show. Now, the record resides in the Library of Congress as a mark of its historical importance. It is testimony to the title that Simone gave herself: “I am a rebel with a cause.”

‘Yesterday’ – The Beatles

Depending on who you ask, ‘Yesterday’ was either written in about a minute, the culmination of a lifetime, or it already existed, and Paul McCartney simply stole it as opposed to writing it in the first place. However, as far as McCartney is concerned, he woke up the melody in his head, hummed ‘scrambled eggs’ for the next few days while he figured out if it was an original hook, and then set it all down properly in about a minute.

“I have no idea how I wrote that. I just woke up one morning and it was in my head. I didn’t believe it for about two weeks,” McCartney once said of the spooky process. I mean, talk about stumbling across a masterpiece, songwriting was so easy to him that he could literally do it with his eyes closed. 

‘Paranoid’ – Black Sabbath

Everything was fast-paced in Black Sabbath, even hospital visits. The same can be said for ‘Paranoid’. “The song ‘Paranoid’ was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a three-minute filler for the album, and Tony [Iommi] came up with the riff. I quickly did the lyrics, and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing,” Geezer Butler once explained. 

As Tony Iommi adds: “The song was written as a filler for the album – it was never intended on being anything else. But it became a single because it was a short song, and because it became what it did, most people knew us because of ‘Paranoid’ in them days.”

‘Life on Mars’ – David Bowie

The creative hack of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is “never start with just a blank page”. ‘Life in Mars’ might’ve come about in a frenzy, but Bowie had plenty to base it on. In 1968, David Bowie was working as a lyricist for a publishing company, writing English words for foreign songs. It was while working there that a grandiose French hit by Claud Francois arrived on his desk. He later turned it into a primitive version of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ but it was rejected and handed to Paul Anka who polished it up. 

With his tail between his legs having been trumped by Paul Anka, the Starman in waiting declared: “OK, I’ll write my own version, so it was ‘My Way on Mars’.” While harmonically, the two songs share strong chordal similarities, you can’t just blast ‘My Way’ into the stratosphere on a whim. Seemingly, however, the universe would send it back to the man who fell to Earth one velvet morning in London, and it all came together after a beautiful stroll in the park. 

‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – Bob Dylan

Whatever it was that was blowing in the wind when the track weaved its way into a young Bob Dylan’s ever-expanding consciousness back in the early summer of 1962 before its world-changing release the year later, it certainly carried along the future like an adrenalised tumbleweed trying to catch up. He was 22 years old when his mystic words were pressed onto record and the virtues he extolled with perfect melody had even escaped old Father Time. 

At this stage, he was literally writing so many epic songs that he was losing them and Joan Baez would find them down the back of the sofa and so on. Nevertheless, a masterpiece as profound as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in ten minutes is an incomparable feat. So, where did it come from Bob? “It came right out of that wellspring of creativity I would think.” Fair enough mate.

‘Seven Nation Army’ – The White Stripes

“There’s an employee here at Third Man named Ben Swank, and he was with us on tour in Australia when I wrote that song at soundcheck,” White recalled of the moment White happened upon one of the most iconic riffs of all time while merely checking whether his guitar was reaching the back of the venue. “I was playing it for Meg and he was walking by and I said, ‘Swank, check this riff out.’ And he said, ‘It’s OK.’ [White laughs]” 

White added: “I didn’t have lyrics for it until later on and I was just calling it ‘Seven Nation Army’ – that’s what I called the Salvation Army when I was a kid. So that was just a way for me to remember which one I was talking about, but it took on a new meaning with the lyrics.”

‘Rock and Roll’ – Led Zeppelin

“It took him ages to get ‘Four Sticks’,” John Paul Jones recalled regarding John Bonham’s angry struggles. “I seemed to be the only one who could actually count things in. Page would play something and [John would] say, ‘That’s great. Where’s the first beat? You know it, but you gotta tell us…’ He couldn’t actually count what he was playing. It would be a great phrase, but you couldn’t relate it to a count. If you think of ‘one’ being in the wrong place, you are completely screwed”.

Frustrated, Bonham took a 30-minute break, decided to get back to his simple roots, drummed a variation on the Little Richard track ‘Keep a Knockin’’ and half an hour later ‘Rock and Roll’ was born as Jimmy Page improved a riff over the top of it. 

‘What’d I Say’ – Ray Charles

A four-hour set requires an awful lot of songs. Fortunately, when Ray Charles ran out of tracks committed to memory during a mammoth show in Pittsburgh, he simply decided to make up a new one. He must’ve been in the zone that night because his improvisation became an absolute classic. 

When the crowd defied their weary legs and went wild, Charles thought I best commit this one to memory too (hence ‘What’d I Say’) and at the next opportunity, he raced to a studio and recorded the track. The finished piece still has that impromptu call-and-response structure to it, and this buzz ensured it became one of the most popular songs that 1959 had to offer. 

‘Hometown Glory’ – Adele

Not only was the beautiful ‘Hometown Glory’ written in ten minutes, but Adele was only 16 when she achieved that feat. In a glowing indictment of the benefits of the petulance of adolescence, Adele quickly scribbled the song in anger after her mother encouraged her to leave London and head away from home for university. 

Now, it still resides as arguably her finest song to date. As an ode to London, it is a song brimming with sincerity and the lived-in sense of sincerity. In the end, it ensured that she wouldn’t have to move away to boot. 

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