Monday, 24 May 2010

Mark Altrogge: What Can Worship Songwriters Learn From The Beatles? (pt 1)

The Beatles have influenced thousands of songwriters across all kinds of genres. One such writer is Mark Altrogge.

As well as being the Pastor of Sovereign Grace Church of Indiana, PA, in the last 30 years Mark has written hundreds of songs, that are being sung in thousands of Churches. His song I Stand In Awe is still one of the 100 most played Church songs 26 years after it was written.

Today though I'm honoured to have him standing in as the first guest lecturer at The Beatles Songwriting Academy. In part one of a two part interview I asked Mark where he'd originally encountered the Beatles.

Meet The Beatles

Mark Altrogge: I first saw the Beatles for about 30 seconds on a show called The Jack Paar Show, then a couple months later in February 1964, I watched their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was electrifying - like watching fireworks for the first time - I'd never seen or heard anything like them.  As soon as I saw them, I wanted to be like them, performing to throngs of screaming girls who'd chase me down the street like they chased the Beatles in the movie "A Hard Day's Night."

Later my parents gave me a cheap record player, and my first album - Meet The Beatles (their first US album). I played it approximately 10,000 times.  Soon I was taking guitar lessons and formed a band with 3 friends called "The Blades."  My job in the band was to listen to a record, learn all the parts (guitar and bass) of a song and teach them to the other guys.  That's how I learned about chords and song structure.

My Generation - Altrogge 1972

I continued playing in bands until Jesus apprehended me at age 24 when I encountered one of my first praise choruses - "This Is The Day":

This is the day, this is the day,
That the Lord has made, that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice, we will rejoice
And be glad in it, and be glad in it.

(Repeat 300 times in a row over a 3-chord polka rhythm). 

God used the truth of that song to teach me much - he's sovereign over every day and everything - that's reason to rejoice and be glad!  But it was hard to sing for 20 minutes at a time.

In A Gadda Da Vinci

I started writing obscure "Christian" performing songs, the meaning of which could only be decifered if you analyzed them with the Da Vinci code.  Then one day God spoke to my heart to write a worship song.  I thought I'd try to write praise songs with music I'd like - like the Beatles or Traffic.  And I thought it would be easy.  Little did I know how hard it would be...

Anyway, that's how I got started.

Matt: What could someone writing Praise & Worship songs learn from the Beatles that they couldn't learn just as well (if not better) from Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman or Mark Altrogge?

Mark: Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman are great songwriters who have tons to offer. They write creative lyrics with memorable, fresh melodies.  There's much I have to learn from those guys.  But what can we learn from the Beatles?

One of the Beatles' incredible strengths was the variety of styles they wrote in - from rock songs like Get Back to vaudeville-esque songs like When I'm 64, accoustic-folk sounding songs like You've Got to Hide Your Love Away to ballads like She's Leaving Home, and classically influenced songs like Eleanor Rigby.

Escaping Your Own Musical History

One of the hardest things about songwriting is to escape the style of music you grew up with - I'm regularly accused of copying the Beatles (hey, if you're going to steal, steal from the best).  The Beatles pushed themselves creatively and branched out from their original style.  They tried different instruments like the mellotron in Strawberry Fields, the sitar in Within You Without You, and the harpsichord in In My Life.

The Beatles' creativity suggests they listened to a variety of music (and it didn't hurt that they had a great producer, George Martin).  Many Christian songwriters I know listen to very little music outside the Christian genre and thus limit themselves creatively.  Songwriters should listen to all kinds of music. Listen to jazz, movie scores, Irish music, and Broadway musicals.

Keep listening to current secular (use discernment with the lyrics) and Christian music.  However, DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT listen to country music.  HEY - JUST KIDDING!  Put down that pitchfork, cowboy.  Even the Beatles did some country-esque songs like, Act Naturally and Don't Pass Me By.  Ringo sang the country tunes - what does that tell you?

The Beatles encourage us to push ourselves creatively.  We often settle too quickly for our first draft of lyrics or for chords and rhythms we've used before.  We can learn from the Beatles to be more creative.

(If you've enjoyed this interview why not subscribe by email or RSS and join me as I ransack Lennon & McCartney's back catalogue for songwriting ideas and Beatle-tudes on a regular basis?)


  1. AWESOME!!!!!

    I think God has a really good sense of humor in all this. Lennon claimed that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus...but boy, his style of songwriting and playing is being used to glorify Jesus...who is bigger than the Beatles anyway.

    Destiny has a way of doing a flip flop on you, and I think the angels are having their belly laughs at Lennon right now.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Lauren

    You're right that God isn't threatened when people make crazy statements like John's "bigger than Jesus" quote. Sadly the response (record burnings, death threats) was less than Christ-like.

    Matt Redmond did a great post, on this a while ago.

    I'm enjoying learning all I can from two master songwriters and I'm thankful that all the dumb things I say aren't reprinted for millions to read!

    (apart from this blog of course!)