All Stories, General Fiction, Short Fiction

How to Write a Hit Song by Les Bohem

Laying the Groundwork for a Hit

  1. Choose between digital or physical production.
  2. Select a theme.
  3. Draft lyrics that are timeless.
  4. Split your lyrics into syllables on staff paper.

Composing a Hit

  1. Set the tempo.
  2. Write the bass line.
  3. Design a catchy melody.

wikiHow, “How to Write a Hit Song”

It was supposed to be a song about heartbreak, but in the verse, it had taken a turn for the vengeful.  Marianne’s songs tended to go in that direction.  It had been an appropriate, an essential part of her youth.  As the singer and songwriter of the seminal Orange County punk band, Dead Puppies, she had made her mark singing songs of angry revenge. Cut Your Dick Off, Motherfucker, while it had, obviously, not gotten much radio airplay, had become something of a punk anthem.  To this day, her ASCAP statements included an impressive sum for downloads of the track.  Not Miley Cyrus Impressive, but enough to pay for maybe half of one of the kids’ private school tuitions.  So all in, somewhere between nine and $11,000 a year. With that, the occasional licensing of one of her songs to a movie or TV show looking for an aural reference to the early 90s, and the sale of memorabilia on eBay, she was bringing in about $65,000 a year.

On the one hand, that wasn’t bad money for a fifty-two year old woman with no marketable skills, a tattoo of a black widow across her neck, inked to look as if the spider were crawling up into her mouth, and a limp from a motorcycle accident that had left her with scars along the side of her face that wasn’t tattooed and a left leg that was, after the bones had been reset, two inches shorter than her right. Phillip hadn’t minded the limp, or the scars and he had loved the tattoo, but none of that had kept him from walking out on her.

He’d left just after Christmas.  “There’s no good time to do this,” he had said.  And that was the title of the song she was working on.  There’s No Good Time to Do This.  The song that was supposed to be about heartache but that was, in the verse, taking what she felt now was its inevitable turn towards vengeance.

When you’ve been in the music business for a while, even on the indie label, college radio, club tour fringes of it, the parameters disappear. There’s no punk, Americana, hip hop definition; there’s just this business where, even in the modern download and fuck the artist world, you’ve gotten through the door and are now one hit away from paradise.  Dead Puppies had recorded three albums for Frontier. The albums had sold in the tens of thousands.  “Gone copper,” as Barry, the band’s drummer, liked to say.  They’d done four college and club tours of the country, opened for Green Day twice and for Rancid a dozen times.  Their T-shirt and button sales had been respectable, and it was the surplus of those items and a more expensive push pin that Marianne now sold on eBay, along with some original vinyl and a soundboard cassette recording of one of the Rancid shows.

There’s No Good Time to Do This sounded to her like a middle of the road ballad. Something that would sit equally well as a track on a Bruno Mars album or as a single for some generically handsome country star in a hat.

“What about the girls?” She’d asked Phillip.

“They know we’re not happy.”

“Who gives a fuck about happiness?”

“I do, Marianne. It’s my business. And that world-weary punk shit isn’t wearing well.”

“How about a word-weary go fuck yourself?” she’d said then, angrier at being called out on her dated sensibilities than she was about him leaving.  “Why don’t you leave right now?”

“Why don’t I?”

And that was it.  Phillip was gone and so was the 180 thousand a year he brought in DJing and dealing molly.  It wasn’t as if she could take him to court and demand her share of his illegal income.  She could turn him in, but then there would be no income and no hope that he would at least kick in something for the girls.  And it would be a crappy thing to do to them.  Turn their father in to the cops.  The quantities he dealt; even white he’d go to prison.  And so, Marianne was going to write a hit song and change her life and the lives of her girls and Phillip could go fuck himself.

When Marianne was twelve, her mother had been hit by a City of Orange school bus.  The bus had thrown her into oncoming traffic and a pickup truck driven by an El Salvadoran gardener had done the rest.  Ramon, the gardener, had never recovered from the trauma of taking someone’s life.  He still sent her a card every year on the anniversary of the accident and had recently friended her on Facebook.  Her father had started drinking the afternoon that Ramon killed her mother and hadn’t stopped for a year and a half.  Then he’d started dating the clerk at the liquor store where he bought his Jim Beam.  Six months after they started dating he married her.  They moved to Santa Ana where Marianne finished high school and they had three children, two girls and a boy whom her father had named Randall Jr., after himself.

Nothing was permanent for Marianne.  Not love, or her bands, or anything else you wanted to throw at her.  Her kids would grow and grow to hate or at least resent her.  Phillip would move in with some girl he sold molly to at a DJ gig.  She would get old and die, unless she got one twoed by a school bus and a gardener’s pickup first.

Barry, the drummer, had been the only one in Dead Puppies who could actually play, a fact that had given them a longevity that most of the punk bands of the Orange County 90s didn’t have.  I mean the sellouts, like No Doubt, you could smell the ambition the moment you saw them, but the raw, the real; they were also almost always the talentless. Barry was the exception. A flawless musician, he played drums, piano, guitar, and saxophone as well as drums. He could fix the equipment if it broke, and, a business major at Long Beach State, he could keep the band from running too far in the red.  Barry has parlayed those skills, after Dead Puppies broke up, into a job tour managing a couple of early hip-hop acts and then into a job with Warner Brothers Records.  When Marianne had last talked to him, maybe six months ago, he was leaving Warner’s to start a management company.  “Anything I can do,” he’d said, “not that you’d ever want back into what’s left of this shithole business.”

If she could get this song right; do a simple demo, get it to Barry. That was the plan.  She had started ten minutes after Philip left.  The girls were asleep.  They were still on Winter break. Chrissie, the older, and yes, she’d named her daughter after one of her idols, never got up before two unless it was a school day. Rachel, who was named for Philip’s mother, would be up by nine.  That still gave Marianne all night and part of the morning to write.

There’s no good time to do this
It’s never the right time to say goodbye
No good time to do this
I always thought I’d be the first to cry…

That was a strange last line.  It sounded good, like one of those 60s songwriters.  Jimmy Webb maybe?  Puppies has done a thrash version of MacArthur Park.  The chords were complicated, and Barry had had to teach them, painstakingly, to the rest of the band. Towards the end of the song, the others would drop out and it would just be her and Barry.  A driving beat and her screaming her throat raw enough to bleed.

“Someone left a cake out in the rain…
Someone left a cake out in the rain…
Someone left a cake out in the motherfucking rain…”

Did Philip even like his children?  He’d slept through most of their lives.  Most mornings, he’d be coming home as she was getting them ready for school.  Motherhood had brought her into the daylight.  Fatherhood hadn’t done shit to change him.  She had met Philip the year after she left Dead Puppies. Philip was one of the first DJs to make his own beats. Marianne had just started working with a manager, Lauren. Lauren smoked a lot of pot and was very aggressive. It was Lauren who has convinced Marianne to leave the band.  “You’ve made your point, now it’s time to get paid for it,” Lauren had said.  Marianne was working on material, writing some with Barry with whom she’d remained on good terms even though the break up with the rest of the band has been harsh. For one thing Barry saw the business sense in it, and for another he was sleeping with Lauren.

“There is this motherfucker, he’s using the riff from Cut Your Dick Off as a beat.  I say we pay him a visit at the club.”  Lauren, Marianne had noticed, like to say things like, “At the club.“ Expressions she had picked up from hip-hop culture that she clearly felt made her sound hip.

“Which club?” Marianne had asked, just to fuck with her.

They had gone to the club and the motherfucker had been Philip, and one thing led to another. Lauren never delivered on her promise to make Marianne the next Gwen Stefani. She also left Barry with an apartment in Silverlake on which the rent was eight months overdue. So the only thing that came out of all of that was that Marianne and Phillip were married.  Kind of a lose, lose situation she saw herself saying to Barry as she dropped off the demo.  And she would drop it off, she wanted to look him in the eye when she asked for the favor, not email him a file with a note saying please save me I’m drowning. Maybe if she flipped the B and D lines.

There’s no good time to do this.
I always thought I’d be the first to cry.
No good time to do this.
It’s never the right time to say goodbye.

That was definitely better. A real chorus.  Start this song with the chorus. That was strong, commercial.  What would Barry be able to do for her?  Call someone’s manager?  Reach out to a publisher?  Get in touch personally with one of the producers he’d developed a relationship with over the years?  She was just a song away.  Less than that.  A verse away.  Start with the chorus, then get to it with two simple couplets.

We had a good run
We had our moment in the sunshine of our love.

That was as far as she’d gotten. She liked the internal rhyme and the longer second line.  But she was writing from Philip’s point of view. That was fucked up.  She was writing a, “Babe, I’m a rambler. I gotta hit the road,” song. She hated, “Babe. I’m a rambler, I gotta hit the road,” songs. Maybe the chorus could be him singing, and the verses could be her. Not a duet, although certainly if Bruno wanted to sing it with Taylor, she wouldn’t argue, but just as a point of view.

That’s what he said before he left me.
That’s what he said before I threw his ass out the front door.

That wasn’t going to help.  But, you know, the next lines should be, “Cut your dick off, motherfucker, then see if you can still fuck that whore.” Both spot on and self-referential.  Like Lennon in Glass Onion.  “The Walrus was Paul.” She could see the kids at Fenders, Puppies is on stage and she’s screaming those lines and the band is earsplit loud and the kids all have their fists in the air and, for just a moment, the world is hers.


Les Bohem

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4 thoughts on “How to Write a Hit Song by Les Bohem”

  1. Hi Les,
    I’m always drawn to stories about bands or singers (And pubs!).
    I loved Roddy Doyle’s trilogy. I think the film ‘The Commitments had aspects of that story and ‘The Snapper’ throughout. The image of the dads picture of Elvis being above the pope was hysterical.
    On the site we quite recently published ‘Walk On By’ by Jane Houghton which I thoroughly enjoyed.
    It was a pleasure to publish this one.
    The last section and the consideration of the working of the song lyrics tied it all in superbly well.
    Hope to see more from you very soon.


  2. Well done. Usually when something is about music, the writer only skirts the actual musical content because he or she has none to offer. But your lyrics are perfect for the character, and you show that any time can be a time gone by, thus an object corrupted by nostalgia. One thing Wiki forgot: 90% of hit songs use the I, IV, V, VI chord pattern. A warthog could learn it. It’s why there are so many law suits.


  3. I liked the idea of the punk version of MacArthur Park. The music of the song could be very cool, but the lyrics are totally absurd. Marianne’s lyrics were always inward, yet there wasn’t a lot in there, that was quite interesting the flatness of her life, seasoned with anger. The sense that nothing is permanent underlies the story.


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