Secondary Songwriters

I've had this theory for years and years, and it's one that I feel has mostly been proven true. It goes like this: just about every great band in rock history is ruled by dictatorship; that is, they all have primary songwriters who compose the bulk of their material and steer the group's artistic direction. This has largely been borne out when one looks at the titans of their respective eras: the Beatles (Lennon and McCartney), the Who (Townshend), the Kinks (Ray Davies), the Rolling Stones (Jagger and Richards), Blur (Albarn), Oasis (Noel Gallagher), Led Zeppelin (Page and Plant), the Smiths (Morrissey and Marr), Cream (Bruce), and CCR (John Fogerty), just to name several. There are also bands that have a very democratic split when it comes to songwriting, like R.E.M. (where all four members get credit regardless of who contributed what) or Rush (Lee and Lifeson write the music, Peart writes the lyrics), and bands where the writing duties were split fairly even between two individuals such as Grant Hart and Bob Mould in Husker Du or Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding in XTC. And of course, there are bands with different situations that fit in between all of the ones I've listed above.

However, for the purposes of this article, I'm going to focus on that first batch of bands I mentioned which are ruled by creative dictatorships. Every so often, those running the band would let one of the other members have some of their own songs on the albums, and while the results weren't always as good as those of the main songwriters, sometimes they were. In many cases, the songs by these secondary songwriters, as I'm calling them, were the highlights of the albums they were on and actually every bit as good as anything written by the main writers. I thought it would be fun to write about some of my personal favorite secondary songwriters and highlight some of my favorite songs of theirs. Ready? Let's go!

John Entwistle

Known mainly for being the bass guitarist in The Who, John is widely considered to be one of the greatest rock bass players of all time. While in the Who, he played exquisite bass, sang backing vocals, and played all of the horn parts in the studio. However, he was also a pretty damn good songwriter in his own right. The problem is that with someone as prolific, brilliant, and strong a personality as Pete Townshend in the band, there wasn't much room for John's songs; he even named his first solo album Smash Your Head Against the Wall in reference to how it felt trying to get space on Who albums. With that being said, John had some truly great moments on Who records. While he's most famous for "Boris the Spider" and "My Wife," those aren't two of my favorites of his. Both are great songs but the former is a bit of a novelty song while the latter has been overplayed to death. Instead, I prefer these John songs:

"Whiskey Man"

Released on their second album, 1966's A Quick One, "Whiskey Man" tells the story of an alcoholic who hallucinates an imaginary friend, Whiskey Man, who only "comes out when I drink." Eventually, the narrator gets taken to a psychiatric hospital, still unable to understand why no one else can see his friend. The lyrics are pretty sophisticated and moving for a 22 year old to have written, and the music is quite evocative and quintessentially mid-1960s British.

"Someone's Coming"

A B-side, and one of the few John-penned song that is sung by Roger. This song tells the poignant and humorous tale of a young man who has to sneak out to see his girlfriend because her parents don't like him. With typical wry Entwistle humor and some nice horn work, this is a perfect little vignette from 1967 that sits alongside anything his bandmate Pete Townshend and Kinks songsmith Ray Davies wrote that year.

"Heaven and Hell"

The Who's high voltage live opener during their 1969-1970 period, this song has strange chord changes and lyrics that warn the listener to about where they may end up in the afterlife depending on how they live.  In concert, it was used to warm up the band for the long set that was to come, but the studio version is pretty damn good in its own right.

"When I Was a Boy"

Another B-side, this is a pretty down and bleak look at adult life and how it compares to childhood. More nice horn work from John, but the real highlight of this song is Keith Moon's as-always incredible drumming. It's actually one of my favorite Who songs, period, based on the music, the lyrics, and the band's performance.


"Postcard' is a song from an aborted EP the Who recorded and tells of the sights, sounds, smells, and ordeals the band encountered during their ridiculously heavy touring years of 1967-1970. Besides the funny yet touching lyrics about homesickness and their various travails on the road, this song also has some humorous sound effects and nice horn, bass, and drum parts.

"Trick of the Light"

With a sound likened by Pete Townshend to a "musical Mack truck," John plays both his usual bass guitar as well as an 8-string bass during this song. Another rare John song sung by Roger (of which there are only three total), this one is about the singer's insecurity and uncertainty as to his, shall we say...performance with a lady of the night. Subtle humor even by John's standards, it's nonetheless a moody and brooding song with some nice guitar licks from Pete during the outro.

George Harrison

(due to copyright restrictions, Beatles songs aren't available on YouTube, hence no videos)

As one of the Beatles, George Harrison obviously needs no introduction. As the third songwriter in a band that happened to have Lennon and McCartney as its leaders, it was unfortunate yet inevitable that George would have a hard time getting his songs on albums. As he also pointed out in the Beatles Anthology documentary, John and Paul had been writing songs long before the Beatles started recording and had worked all of the bad songs out of their systems; George had to do his learning during the early part of their career. While this resulted in him contributing only a handful of songs in the early days (the quality of which was uneven), by the end of their career most of his songs were on par with anything John and Paul were writing.


One of George's most well-known songs, this slashing and angry rocker has some of the sharpest and most incisive lyrics of any Beatles song. That the topic is the ludicrously high taxation on top earners in 1960s Britain, and that it came from the pen of the Beatle most concerned with money make it all the better. The absolute musical highlights of this song are Paul's bass playing and his jagged and angry guitar solo.

"Don't Bother Me"

Maybe you think this is a strange choice, but hear me out. This was the first song of George's to appear on an album (1963's With the Beatles) and as he said later on, was more of an exercise into seeing if he could actually write one. Composed while he was sick in bed on tour with the Beatles, it's a typically dour and sour George song, but the reasons I like it so much have to do with the interesting chord changes and the tremolo rhythm guitar part.


Not much can be said by me about this song that hasn't been written's simply one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Besides George's exquisite guitar solo, Paul's bass playing and harmony vocals and George Martin's pretty orchestration are highlights here.

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

Probably my favorite George-penned Beatles song, this slow burning and beautiful song has fantastic performances from all four Beatles and stunning lead guitar playing from George's best friend Eric Clapton. Eric was the rare outside musician who was invited to play on a Beatles track, but he plays the perfect solo and fits right in with the band and the song. George's acoustic demo of the song has a different feel and is equally pretty, deserving consideration in its own right.

"Within You, Without You"

In my younger days I didn't think much of this fact, I usually skipped over it when I listened to Sgt. Pepper. However, once I actually gave it a chance and really listened to it, I was struck by how beautiful it is both musically and lyrically. My favorite part of the entire song is the blending of the Indian musicians with George Martin's gorgeous orchestral score.

"If I Needed Someone"

The closest the Beatles ever came to sounding like the Byrds, George's chiming electric 12-string Rickenbacker powers this song. The soaring three-part vocal harmonies really make this one for's just a nice, catchy song overall.

Dave Davies

Brothers are natural rivals with each other while growing up, and quite often this competition spills over into adulthood. Taking that natural competitiveness into consideration, it must have been even harder for Dave Davies to be in a band with an older brother as prolific and brilliant a songwriter as Ray Davies. However, Dave managed to contribute some excellent songs to the Kinks alongside his stellar lead guitar playing and harmony vocals.

"Death of a Clown"

Probably Dave's most famous song, this is a beautiful and haunting song about the drag and exhaustion of the endless touring the Kinks were doing at the time. The slightly out of tune upright piano, the melancholy lyrics, and the beautiful harmony vocals from Ray, Pete Quaife, and Ray's wife Rasa, make this is one of the great songs of the 1960s.

"Funny Face" & "Susannah's Still Alive"

Along with "Susannah's Still Alive," "Funny Face" is one of two songs written by Dave that deals with his heartbreak over the estrangement from his first girlfriend Sue. While "Susannah's Still Alive" is bouncier and catchier, "Funny Face" is my favorite of the two. It's haunting, somber, and quite melancholy. Both songs are from the same time period as "Death of a Clown" and are highlights of the Kinks' 1967 sound, fitting seamlessly into the sound of what Ray was writing at the time.

"Mindless Child of Motherhood"

I can't quite put my finger on it, but this is just a song I've always loved. I think what does it for me is the way the frantic and slightly darker sounding verses go into the brighter, jangly chorus that just sounds so...quintessentially Kinks. That it came from Dave and not Ray should end all debate over who was more important to the band's sound...they both were.

"Living on a Thin Line"

Widely considered to be one of Dave's finest songs, I'd have to agree. The music is beautiful and the lyrics are very incisive and appropriate, perhaps even more so today than they were in the early 1980s when this was written. I believe I've read that this was one of Ray's favorite songs that Dave wrote and it's not hard to see why.

I think that's a good place to stop for now. There are many other examples of secondary songwriters I'll write about, but for the time being I think this is a good showcase highlighting how just because someone isn't the dominant creative force in their band, it doesn't mean they never write songs as good as their leaders. Obviously these examples are from some of my favorite bands...those of you reading this may agree or disagree with the examples I've used, or you may have examples from other bands that you like. I'm almost certain that I'll write more articles on this topic in the future, but in the meantime let's discuss. If you have anything to add or comment on, let's talk in the comments below!


  1. Re: "Something": When released, none other than Frank Sinatra called it, "The best song Lennon and McCartney ever wrote."

    1. I know, poor George...even when he writes a classic, he gets no respect!


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