The long, noble (and sometimes ignoble) history of indie bands writing songs for pop stars

The Cribs recently revealed to NME that they almost gave songs to One Direction, continuing a grand tradition. Our columnist charts the prizes and pitfalls

“A-wooo!” howled Shakira on 2009’s ‘She Wolf’, and the indie pack descended on pop’s jugular. That song, you see, was co-written with Sam Endicott of ‘00s synth-rock jawlines The Bravery and represented a surreptitious behind-the-scenes truce in the bitter, decades-long civil war between rock and pop.

Until then, most pop/rock crossovers had been little more than tokenistic PR exercises, transparent transfusions of credibility from a Manics to a Kylie, a Costello to a Wendy James or a Stephen Duffy to a Robbie. But as streaming eroded rock’s authority over the charts to the level of a fuzz-pedalled Jackie Weaver, writing songs for pop acts increasingly became a means for alt-rockers to keep themselves afloat.

Within a few years Athlete’s Joel Pott was penning major hits for George Ezra, James Bay and Shura. Aqualung’s Matt Hales was co-writing most of Lianne le Havas’s debut album. The otherwise brilliant Andy Burrows was splashing about in the writing cesspool of Tom Odell. If you could no longer beat them, the new adage went, at least try to skim off a point or two on their album.

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So impossible has it become for idiosyncratic, unorthodox, Ora-unfriendly voices to garner the billions of streams it takes to maintain a healthy Jameson addiction that even the most fiercely independent acts have considered chasing the P!nk pound. Last week The Cribs told NME that they were asked to write for One Direction back in 2015 and even earmarked ‘Burning For No One’ and ‘An Ivory Hand’ for Styles and the gang.

They weren’t the first indie heroes courted by the ‘D – in 2013 The Vaccines’ Justin Young claimed it was “old-fashioned and small-minded and tribal” to criticise his decision to write with the band. Come the finished album ‘Midnight Memories’, though, it seemed Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody had beaten him to the front of an overcrowded writer’s room, like some kind of indie Hunger Games where desperate rock singers beat each other to death with stand-up key changes for the chance to be in the singles chart one more time.

Young was right. In the week when Bruce Springsteen announced his first ever advert (yes, Bruce Springsteen – you might as well whack an iWatch on the Statue Of Liberty) we’re clearly well past the point of sneering over marginalised guitar bands scraping whatever living they can in a world where they’re basically foraging for scraps in Spotify’s 67 billion dollar recycling bin. The time has clearly come to discard the feuds of history and remould the system from within, to everyone’s benefit. The wondrous musical future that pop and alt-rock could forge together! Imagine what Little Mix might sound like if they were a touch more Gizzard

It’s a practice with a noble history. The Beatles had a healthy sideline as backroom songwriters for acts like Peter And Gordon, PJ Proby and Cilla Black, and many are the scented one-off gifts from rock to pop. Matt Bellamy and Rivers Cuomo have both written tracks for Adam Lambert, Beck penned P!nk’s ‘Feel Good Time’ and Fountain Of Wayne’s late, great Adam Schlesinger even threw a tune in the direction of The Jonas Brothers. The problem is that as a lesser-known songwriter surrendering to the machinations of the industrialised streaming machine in 2021, the facts of the modern pop industry don’t care about your ideals.

Young claimed he found the pop song-writing process “exciting”, but others have found it the creative equivalent of a chokehold in A-minor. One singer from a major indie-pop act once confided to me his experiences in writing sessions for mainstream pop acts – being presented with structure charts to stick to and youthnip buzzwords to slip in.

If it isn’t dispiriting enough to feel as though you’re writing songs in a Saw movie, the finished product is always safe, sanitised and rendered innocuous by standard gymnastic pop vocals with all the raw individuality of an oven chip. The Cribs might have missed out on a monster 1D payday, but at least the tracks themselves still rage.

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Rather than see great bands chewed up by the machine, it’s far more fascinating to watch pop stars lean to the left-field. With rock and indie no longer commanding the same cultural cache they had in previous decades, there’s a real authenticity to Taylor Swift recruiting Bon Iver and The National for her new growing-a-beard-in-a-log-cabin direction, or Miley Cyrus turning up to naked zorbing sessions with The Flaming Lips. So if you really mean it, Styles, get yourself down the Jarmans’ basement and get screaming your tonsils onto the wall. It might finally be the shake up both pop and rock need.

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