“Sell Out”. It has long been the cry of alternative or underground music fans as their beloved bands get to a certain size, and move from independent labels to major labels and greater success, with the usual accusation being that such a move sanitises the music and chips away at what made them great in the first place.
And sure: this has happened to a great many bands, but on the flip side, why aren’t artists allowed success? Why shouldn’t we be cheering them on, succeeding as they clearly wanted to do?
But, I’m only tangentially talking about that this week. I’m talking about such artists that have reached for the stars and been part of enormous success as a result, but not as frontpeople: instead, they retreated to the backrooms of pop and became songwriters for the biggest stars. In some cases, they have been involved in some of the biggest hits of recent years.
Alternative goes pop, if you will. And remarkably, if you listen closely, there’s perhaps a little stamp of their former lives in their pop work.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound me. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
To my knowledge, the only industrial artist to become a songwriting powerhouse. Oscar Holter, aged just 36, was originally part of Swedish Industrial group Necro Facility, who initially released albums worshipping at the altar of Skinny Puppy before taking an abrupt turn into outstanding, hook-laden industrial-pop on Wintermute, which turned out to be the bands’ swansong. One look at his writing credits helps explain why Necro Facility faded away, as he got rather busy writing hits for most of the biggest stars of the past decade. His biggest success? He co-wrote The Weeknd’s quite brilliant Blinding Lights, a song that clearly owes more than a little to electronic and industrial music of the past – and it has sold well beyond 15 million sales-equivalent “units” and over four billion streams (three billion of them on Spotify, another billion on YouTube, and god knows how many elsewhere).
Holter’s compatriot Max Martin has had even more success as a songwriter and producer. What I didn’t know, though, was that he used to be in a Glam-Funk Metal band called It’s Alive – just listen to Metalopolis) – which doesn’t half sound like Boston funk-metallers Extreme. The outstanding Netflix series This Is Pop has an entire episode on what came next, as “Martin White” became Max Martin under the tutelage of late producer Denniz PoP in Stockholm, and began to take over the world.
To give you an idea of just how much of an impact Martin has had on pop music over the past thirty years or so: he is third behind just McCartney and Lennon in the number of Billboard Hot 100 number ones (with twenty-five), and has had a hand in most of the epoch-defining pop songs of the age: I Want It That Way, …Baby One More Time, So What, I Kissed A Girl, Roar, Shake It Off… Oh, and Blinding Lights alongside Holter too. That’s some hit rate.
Remember Snow Patrol? Interestingly, at least two members of the band have been songwriters for others – the other being vocalist Gary Lightbody – since their own success in that post-Britpop wasteland in the wake of the Millenium. That time when beige one-time Indie balladeers seemed to take over the world for a time (Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars was reported in 2019 to be the most-played song of the 21st century on UK radio, and I can’t imagine Coldplay were far behind).
But all of that is dwarfed by the success of the songs he has been involved in writing since. In particular, he’s been a regular collaborator with Ed Sheeran, and in particular he co-wrote Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, a song that seems to be omnipotent and ever-present, on countless adverts, TV shows, PA systems in bars and elsewhere – and such promotional carpet-bombing has seen it sell over 41 million sales-equivalent “units”, as well as three billion streams on Spotify (and another six billion views on YouTube). It was also recently the subject of a closely-watched copyright case (that Sheeran won), and I’m sure McDaid – and TLC, whose No Scrubs was legitimately sampled – laughed all the way to the bank with that song alone.
Yet another Swede in this list is Peter Svensson, once the guitarist of The Cardigans, an often slight-sounding band who, as a one-time cover revealed, also loved the likes of Motörhead and other heavy metal. Their big break internationally came thanks to Lovefool, one of the lead tracks from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and after a few more albums, the band dissolved and Svensson moved into songwriting fulltime (with another impressive CV), although perhaps with not quite as many hits as some of the others in this list.
A songwriter who is something of a pop powerhouse in the US had one monstrous hit of her own back in the nineties, What’s Up? (a few million sales at the time, half-a-billion streams on Spotify and over a billion views on YouTube – now that’s an enduring hit, thirty years on). Perry left the band after their one album, which saw them disband, and while Perry had a solo career afterwards, it’s the who’s who of (mostly) US pop stars she has written hits for since that catches the eye. Such as Beautiful and Candyman (Christina Aguilera), What You Waiting For? (Gwen Stefani) and Get the Party Started (P!nk), to name just four. Not a bad hit rate…
It’s fair to say that some songwriters have some relatively obscure recording backgrounds. Like US uber-producer Butch Walker, who did time in Glam Metal bands and alt-rock also-rans Marvelous 3 (who had one hit in Freak of the Week, and is so much of it’s time it hurts). Since then, he’s settled into a life producing and co-writing songs for Avril Lavigne, P!nk, Lindsay Lohan, Ida Maria, Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Fall Out Boy, Adam Lambert and many more, as well as burnishing his alt-rock credentials with the likes of Weezer and Frank Turner.
Perhaps we should have known that the late Adam Schlesinger (who died of COVID-related complications in 2020) would become a pop-songwriter: after all, his primary band Fountains of Wayne was an excellent example of a nominal indie band who were more than familiar with nagging pop hooks that were impossible to dislodge (exhibit A: the exquisite early single Radiation Vibe; exhibit B: the equally brilliant harmonies of Survival Car), and would have remained something of an indie footnote were it not for the throwaway, risqué song and video for Stacy’s Mom, that appears to have more streams and views by a factor of two or three than the rest of their entire output, and to this day gets regular airplay on music channels.
Since then, Schlesinger wrote a host of songs for film and television, as well as scores of songs for other artists (mostly US-based hits, mind), but he’d been doing this as long as Fountains of Wayne had been releasing songs. He wrote the title track for the Tom Hanks vehicle and sixties boy-band throwback That Thing You Do!, as well as Bowling For Soup‘s High School Never Ends – a band who had a surprising number of their hits written for them – and collaborated with Rachel Bloom on many songs from Crazy ex-Girlfriend, including the theme song.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were one of the synthpop pioneers in the UK, and remain remarkable survivors in this reformation age, having returned to recording after the Millenium with a number of quite brilliant albums that haven’t tarnished their legacy at all – unlike some other bands who made similar moves. By the time of their reunion, though, the pressure was off, that was for sure.
Part of that was down to the fact that McCluskey owns a recording studio in Liverpool that has seen a number of bigger names through the door, but perhaps a bigger element to it was that he and OMD bandmate Stuart Kershaw founded – and wrote many of the songs for – girl group Atomic Kitten, who started out with modest success, before last chance single Whole Again became an absolutely enormous hit at the time, selling well beyond a million copies and even now, has been streamed over 100 million times on Spotify. As the elegant Maid of Orleans (The Waltz Joan of Arc) demonstrates, though, McCluskey was hardly a novice at swooning balladry.
The oldest person in this list is the DEVO frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, who moved on from the deeply conceptual but oddly catchy (and enormously influential) New Wave/electronic music of DEVO into the world of film scores, video games and children’s TV. This has taken him from work with Wes Anderson (scoring some of his best-loved films) to most of the score for the giant success that was The Lego Movie (with the notable exception of Everything Is Awesome, which he produced but didn’t write it). But for many of a certain age, his children’s TV work is probably best known, particularly the theme for Rugrats…
There are, let’s be honest, few artists who’ve gone the other way, from pop to alternative: and had success in both camps. In more recent years, the only example I can think of is Charlie Simpson. A member of early 2000s boy band Busted – who admittedly were always leaning towards being a pop-punk take on a boy band – and who had a few number one hits and sold well beyond five million records, he eventually got frustrated with the constraints of being in such a band, and formed a post-hardcore band Fightstar. To put it mildly, they were viewed with some suspicion by the alternative/metal press, but it turned out that Simpson knew his stuff, and they weren’t too bad. They certainly had some success, were a popular live draw, and when Busted inevitably reformed, it perhaps wasn’t especially surprising that Simpson wasn’t involved, but it only took a few more years before the temptation became too great, and he rejoined. Notably, too, Busted – unlike many other pop bands – actually wrote their own songs, at least for the most part…