Competition as Motivation: the Curious Cases of Lou Reed, Paul McCartney, and Frank Black

Lou Reed is a notorious pain in the ass. In the late 1960’s, he fronted The Velvet Underground and wrote four albums with the band before leaving due to internal tension within the band. He would go on to release a solo album to critical and commercial apathy. His second solo album TRANSFORMER, produced by David Bowie, would be a creative success however, Reed would never be able to match these early heights. It’s a pattern that is all too uncommon in the music industry (and in several other media): artists peak early only to have their careers stall creatively. What’s missing? In many cases, creative tension within bands bring out the best, whether it being an internal or external form of competition.

Look at the Beatles.  Paul McCartney and John Lennon was two of the best songwriters of any generation — you put them together, and they create brilliant works of pop music.  Outside of the Beatles, the two never really reached the same creative highlights as they once did together in a band.  This trend isn’t exclusive to the Lennon/McCartney pairing though: we’ve seen it with Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, the Pixies, Soundgarden, Guns ‘N Roses, Stone Temple Pilots, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc…  It happens all the time.  Usually the argument reverts to a simple explanation: these songwriters are good, but once they are combined with their bandmates, they have a certain chemistry that makes them greater than the sum of their parts.  Seems reasonable enough: put two good people together and you get a great product.  Instead of the effect being additive, it seems more like an exponential increase in quality.  What I’ve always wonder is: why?  Why does this happen?

There can be two kinds of competitions in regards to bands/artists making music: outward competition and inward competition.  Outward competition, as it sounds, involves the members of the band trying to gain fans, money, a record label, success, or some combination of the above.  This form of competition serves as motivation for bands in as much as once the goal is achieved, motivation is lost.  It’s no mistake that breakthrough albums are often the best for bands: it’s probably the album that the band tried hardest on.

The other kind of competition, inward competition, is what I attribute the failure of solo projects outside of band’s normal groups.  Frank Black wrote almost all of the Pixies music, but once the band dissolved and he went off on his own, that spark that his songwriting used to carry was (very often) missing.  The only thing that changed was the group of people he wrote the music around — not his fame, success, etc.  Frank Black was notorious for his aggressive (some would say tyrranical) leadership over the band.  For Black, the Pixies was a competition — it was a way for him to assert dominance over others.  What would be the best way for Black to assert his dominance? By writing the best songs.  Sound petty, oversweeping, or too simple?

In the instance of Lennon and McCartney, the two wrote music together in the first half of the Beatles’ career, and it wasn’t until later that the two starting writing separately.  Songs began becoming “more John” or “more Paul.”  When the Beatles really hit their stride (starting with Rubber Soul and following through to Abbey Road) they were writing mostly apart from one another, only to have the other half come in after the songwriting was done to add a few details.  If these two were becoming independent songwriters, why did their talent seem to take a hit once they went solo?  Probably to the surprise of no one, the band broke up because of creative differences — Lennon and McCartney would often try to one-up the other, and sometimes, it led to disastrous results.  Abbey Road was the last album the band recorded, and its second half features an amazing medley that feels as if the two are trying to outdo the other.  It works for the music, but it didn’t work for the band, and polarizing songs (like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) proved to be their undoing.

Coming back to Lou Reed, the frontman for the heavily influential Velvet Underground, he’s an artist that released an album that actually could stand up to his previous band’s work.  His second album, Transformer, was a commercial and critical hit, succeeding his much maligned debut solo release.  Here’s the interesting thing though: after John Cale left Velvet Underground after White Light/White Heat, Reed was the sole songwriter for the band.  Without Cale, VU would go on to record to masterpiece albums: Velvet Underground and Loaded.  John Cale and Lou Reed didn’t always see eye to eye, and the result was a brand of music that was at odds with itself — Reed’s simple pop melodies would stand just at the forefront, while Cale’s psychedelic experimentation lurked just beneath.  Together, the two were able to create two of the greatest and most influential albums of all time, but it came at a price.  Cale left the band because of the turmoil between the two, so it would seem that the internal competition within the band would have dissipated.  It didn’t.  Without Cale, the Velvet Underground released two more albums that were (almost) as good as the first pair, and Reed was the only songwriter penning the tracks.

Much like Frank Black of the Pixies, Reed was an aggressive leader: he exerted his control over the band’s music with an iron fist.  After Loaded, he released his seltitled solo record, mostly with songs that were to be Velvet Underground tunes — the album passed by most consumers and critics without much fuss.  Even with ridiculously (and maybe even overqualified) session players from Yes, the album failed to make a splash.  It wasn’t until his second solo record, Transformer, that things started to really pick up.  Reed brought in David Bowie and (fellow Spider from Mars) Mick Ronson to handle production of his second solo album.  Bowie and Reed would later go on to have their own feuds and fights, but in 1972, they were able to create a career-defining album for Reed.  Transformer had what Lou Reed didn’t and what all the other Velvet Underground records had: musicians to compete with.  Against Bowie and Ronson, Reed was pushed to write “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Satellite of Love,” two commercial hits that solidified Reed’s status as a solo artist.  Before this time, it was no secret that Bowie was competitive: he and Marc Bolan of T. Rex had friendship that exemplified this kind of competitive nature, so it may come as no surprise that Bowie and Reed would develop similar tendencies.  Reed would go on to develop a similarly competitive relationship while writing his third solo album, Berlin, with Bob Ezrin.  After that?  Reed wanted to produce himself, and the world was “gifted” with such albums as the limp Sally Can’t Dance and insane Metal Machine Music.

It seems that with most bands, there’s some sort of internal frustration — some sort of friction — that goes on.  In Oasis, Noel Gallagher’s songwriting was a way of controlling his brother; whatever Noel wrote, Liam had to (in theory) sing.  In Metallica, it was a way for James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich to vent their frustrations at one another (and seemingly everyone else in the world).  When Billy Corrigan tried to democratize the songwriting process in Zwan, it came up with mixed results, and when he went solo, it was near-disastrous.

Internal competition need not only be for antagonistic relationships.  An example from recent memory of friendly competition lies in the Raconteurs and Divine Fits.  Both of these bands are “supergroups” of two or more songwriters.  The Raconteurs featured Jack White and Brendan Benson taking turns one-upping the other in the studio.  The band’s two albums are both good — the competitive spirit the band takes into the studio pays off and both songwriters are better because of it.  Divine Fits, who have only released one album to date, consists of the songwriters of Spoon (Brit Daniel) and Wolf Parade (Dan Boeckner).  Similar to the Raconteurs, the band features dueling singer/songwriters, and the result of the competition is that both members’ turn in better performances than their “main” band’s latest offering.  Internal competition as motivation isn’t a bad thing — it’s just something that has to be managed and reined for the forces of good.

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