Impure Intentions: Sandi Thom & Writing To Please The Radio

After Sandi Thom had a viral YouTube wobble over Radio 2 turning its nose up at new song Earthquake, Pete Paphides looks at the uncomfortable history of pop musicians writing to please the wireless

I have an admission to make. Even though I (mostly) make a living out of expressing opinions about music, I’ve somehow managed to get to this point without having heard more than a handful of songs by Sandi Thom. In fact, to be honest, I know for sure that I’ve heard her 2006 single, ‘I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)’ – and I dimly recall playing a few well-crafted, rootsy, not-terribly-exciting songs from her 2010 album Merchants And Thieves. But that’s all I can tell you. For Sandi Thom, the indifference of people like me was part of the problem. But this week’s YouTube meltdown – "Fuck you Radio 2, fuck you Bauer" – over those organisations’ decisions not to playlist her new single ‘Earthquake’ changed all of that. 

For the first time ever, I found that I actually wanted to hear the new record by Sandi Thom. And if that was my reaction, I guess it must also have been the reaction of thousands of other people who, like me, had hitherto also remained indifferent to her oeuvre. Five minutes later, I could see why she was so upset. ‘Earthquake’ is a song tailor-made for Radio 2 playlist ubiquity. It’s the sound of someone bending over backwards to meet the perceived requirements of mainstream daytime radio: the banal lyrical imagery, the handclaps, the thudding over-reliance on a chorus which, actually, isn’t interesting enough to withstand that sort of repetition. It’s all there.

And yet, in spite of that, I understand why she’s upset. I really do. Many worse songs have been playlisted on Radio 2. If Thom had sent this to Ellie Goulding and told her it was a demo that she wrote with Goulding in mind, it’s easy to imagine Goulding not only recording a version of it but Radios 1 and 2 both playlisting it. Of course, at some point years from now, Ellie Goulding may also struggle in vain to convince the people who determine what makes it onto a playlist that she is deserving of airtime. But that time isn’t now. By contrast, Sandi Thom sees comparable songs to ‘Earthquake’ hogging the airwaves and she wonders why the song she wrote specifically for this purpose isn’t getting a piece of the action.

For over half a century, artists have weighed up their options and have, when needs must, attempted to write something whose primary raison d’être is to give them a hit. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about cravenly writing a chart smash. In fact, when it works there’s something quite glorious about it. The story of The Timelords’ ‘Doctoring The Tardis’ was, in pop terms, tantamount to a heist: a meticulously co-ordinated attempt to devise a formula for guaranteed pop success and then implement it to the letter, with spectacular results. 

Some artists actually improve beyond all recognition when they decide to sell out. Texas recorded three albums of plodding blues rock before enlisting a supporting team of co-writers and coming up with a succession of hook-festooned machine-tooled bangers: ‘Summer Son’, ‘In Our Lifetime’, ‘Inner Smile’. It would have somehow seemed pathetic if they had gone to all that trouble and, at the end of all that, still no-one cared. But the gamble paid off. Similarly, in 2009, McFly’s decision to arrest their flagging fortunes by recording with popsmith du jour Taio Cruz was inspired. ‘Shine A Light’ remains, by a stratospherically vast margin, their best single. On first listen Maroon 5’s ‘Moves Like Jagger’ came across like an unseemly stab at relevance from a group who had surely outstayed their welcome. But that’s not how its intended audience saw it. And really, that’s all that matters. Success is the only thing that can vindicate a craven bid for commercial glory.

There’s nothing wrong per se in trying to second guess the whims of the arbiters who get to decide what gets playlisted. Some of the greatest songs of all time have been written purely with the intention of getting on the radio. Sometimes it’s a plan that succeeds with rubbish songs. (U2’s ‘Get On Your Boots’; Coldplay’s ‘Sky Full Of Stars’) And sometimes it fails with good songs: after releasing a debut album whose three singles failed to chart, The Lilac Time’s A&R man suggested that they try and Americanise their sound for the second album. In the summer of 1989, the group’s frontman Stephen Duffy responded by with a single that – had it been a hit – would have also doubled up as one of the sweetest in-jokes to scale the chart. The song was called ‘American Eyes’ (you have to say it out loud). Back in 1966, Holland, Dozier and Holland fared better when Berry Gordy asked them to come up with a successor to ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ that might help perpetuate the success of The Four Tops’ breakthrough hit, by sounding as similar as possible to it. They almost literally took him at his word by penning ‘It’s The Same Old Song’. Mika’s ‘Grace Kelly’ also hits the bullseye by alchemising the concerns of the labels that rejected him into the very song that would prove them wrong. Ker-ching.

Even in more erudite hinterlands of pop, similar artistic trade-offs occur. Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’ was written at the eleventh hour after their Fiction boss Jim Chancellor asked them if they might be able to come up with something that he could take to radio and, in doing so, justify to his superiors the faith he showed in signing them. Probably the best two songs on Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, ‘For Tomorrow’ and ‘Chemical World’, were written after Food Records’ David Balfe and Andy Ross leaned on Damon Albarn to do something similar.

There’s nothing wrong with factoring in the demands of radio when writing your next song. Impure intentions can still result in great art. Perhaps the question that every songwriter has to ask themselves when playing that game is, "How much of what is recognisably mine am I prepared to forsake in exchange for this actually working?" 

Over on Twitter, artists who, in the past, have almost certainly had cause to ask themselves that question pondered Sandi Thom’s predicament with an air of hard-won wisdom. "Don’t get me wrong," wrote Alison Moyet – who has gone on to record much of her best music since casting aside the concerns of radio-friendliness. "It’s crushing having your favourite work dismissed, but that doesn’t just happen in music." Minutes later, fellow tribal elder Tracey Thorn chipped in: "Yep. And I think the least we can try to hang onto in these situations is a little dignity." 

Having since deleted the clip, Sandi Thom might have come around to feeling the same way. But she really shouldn’t beat herself up about it. We’ve seen Elton John have the same crisis in his verité documentary Tantrums & Tiaras. Status Quo have waged tabloid war on Radio 1 over the same issue. I suspect that ultimately though, Thom’s annoyance isn’t just with the BBC and Bauer. At some level, it’s also with herself. She took a punt. She thought she could deliver a song that was too good for radio to resist. And radio resisted. Take away one unfortunate YouTube upload and you’re left with a story that happens dozens of times every week.

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