Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Let me bore you with this story, how my lover let me down..."

It is a truth universally acknowledged that once you’ve learned how to play the first six The Beatles singles you’ll be in possession of everything there is that you need to know about writing a song. Song writing, I should stress, is not the same as making a record, as John Seabrook’s excellent The Song Machine explains in detail and at length. But I digress. With the benefit of knowing how "one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches” one can all the more appreciate the “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!”'s that tend to round off those early choruses. Listen and learn, kids, listen and learn. My own personal road map on the way to song writing enlightenment on the other hand, was Neil Young’s Comes a Time. Once I'd reached the point where I could play all the way through the whole album I knew what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, and had also developed a penchant for checked shirts, the key of 'G' and battered straw hats that has withstood no little critical opprobrium even to this day.
But the intriguing thing about those Beatles singles is the stories they tell and the questions they ask. “If there’s anything that you want..?”, “You think you’ve lost your love…”. Despite any contrary claims regarding the groove, it’s story tellers whose work you have to keep coming back to. Desperado was a disappointing follow up to Eagles’ debut album sales-wise, but it’s still their best work, due in no small part to the narrative thread that runs through it. Thin Lizzy’s best song isn’t Jailbreak, or The Boys are Back in Town or even Don’t Believe a Word, but the relatively unassuming Southbound*, with its trail-weary protagonist reflecting on the good old days in the same way that Bruce Springsteen’s tough young punks from Asbury Park turned into the jaded parents of The River. Throughout these songs, I want to know what happens in the next verse, the next chapter. To reach the gloomy denouement**.
At last night’s Doghearsal we sat down with two chords and a couple of verses of lyrics, trying to make sense of the narrative and bookend the story of 'As Yet (Untitled)' as best we could.

I dug out all these old photographs

The three of us smiling on New Year’s Day

It’s almost as if it didn’t happen

 And it feels like it’s a century away starts. It’s not like our song Harrogate, which is a jolly, chirpy four verse country romp about an illicit but ultimately doomed liaison in a northern spa hotel***. That’s a straight soup to nuts Squeeze song waiting to happen. This is more opaque. Who are these people? Where have they met? What are they doing there? What are their regrets? I won’t lie to you – these are the themes I keep coming back to. There may be a hundred protagonists, a few dozen parties and a hundred miles of tarmac in the notebooks, scraps of paper, bookmarks and receipts I’ve scribbled things down on over the years, but the question is always the same. In common with The Boss, I just to know if love is real.
We worked on the arrangement. I’d come in with two chords and the lyrics, intending to workshop the thing into something bigger, but we’d decided that it didn’t need to break out into a bridge, a chorus, a middle eight – just to go circling around and around, Mr. Wendell keeping the hypnotic rhythm going - like the very best of Simon Nicol’s Sloth work - while the rest of us drift in and out according to mood and inclination. “It’s only two chords” said someone “It’s not a bit too U2, is it?”
“Fuck ‘em – they didn’t write ‘A’ and ‘D’” someone replied.
After a while I remembered where I’d heard these inversions before. Many moons ago our drummer had written a song called Love is Here through the simple expedient of positioning his hands anywhere on the guitar neck that sounded good to him, and then moving the odd finger to see what happened. The verses were based around a repetitive three chord round with lots of open strings and odd sub-tonics. I’d absorbed, assimilated and re-stumbled upon his fingering**** for two of them and here we were, some twenty five or six to four years later bringing them back out into the light of day, or at least the stygian half ten-ness of a Tuesday night in Coggeshall. Song writing, chord construction, words and bridges - all there in spades. And he couldn’t play you a Beatles song if his life depended on it.        

*And it closes with a great big fuck-off gong. Which is awesome.
*** Which in turn is not a patch on Scarborough, by Farrah, which covers pretty much the same sort of ground lyrically, but which has a better chorus.
****Easy, tiger.

Monday, September 05, 2016

"Do your Claude Monet!" "I'm sorry - I don't do impressionists..."

A chum flagged one of those memes on their Facebook page the other day – this one a product of the venerable Musician’s Union, which has a history of being very good to orchestral and session musicians and is widely ignored by the rest of us – suggesting that unless you were doing good works for charity you should not play gigs for free. A wizened old chestnut indeed. Having been on both sides of the paid/plaid* divide I can confirm that this is an emotive subject and has been discussed online many times before. The financially rewarding Star Club years went a great way toward financing the not-so-lucrative gods kitchen and SftBH epochs and yes, we did a lot of work for charity, notwithstanding the rather heated discussion we once had with some members of one bike club when we declined their invitation to spend our entire Saturday providing the PA and playing for their good cause – not because it wasn’t lucrative or that the charity wasn’t entirely worthy, it’s just that all of us had better things to do with our personal time on that occasion.
One of the online responses to my friend’s post was from a correspondent indignant about being continually told to monetise her art (I’m paraphrasing – there was a lot of text to summarise) which I can sort of see, or at least I could do clearly if I weren’t so completely mesmerised about the prospect of one day being in the position of insisting on monetising my own art. That would certainly help assuage a lot of low-level guilt about asking your friends and colleagues to spend an hour and a half driving in order to play a twenty minute ‘open’ spot when they could be more gainfully employed sewing name tags into their kids’ PE kit ready for their first day back at school. Or building furniture.

As it was, we spent two afternoons this weekend gainfully not monetising our art – firstly in Needham Market at a Fun Day where we were the starter course to a veritable banquet of open spots, a singer who was on The Voice, a bouncy castle and, later, karaoke**. Our host, who had a terrific voice of her own, made us thoroughly welcome and waited patiently while we phoned around to see if anyone in proximity of the venue had any microphone stands we could borrow, the privilege of digging them out and bringing them to the venue on our behalf they would be similarly un-monetised for. We had a good time, using it as a pre-session run through of the set for the next day’s gig, and Nicola put a clip of our performance on to the electric internet, prompting one viewer to comment that it was the best version of Love Minus Zero/No Limit he’d ever heard. So, no money, but good exposure.
It was also a useful try-out for the new instrumentation – we’d decided to eschew the familiar two acoustic guitar strumalong style in exchange for one of us going electric and the other going to California for a couple of weeks and this had been the first opportunity to see how it sounded live. A bit too long tuning between songs for my liking – Helen’s “Talk among yourselves…Um, I probably need to work on my between-songs banter a bit, don’t I?” had been merely the confirmation that I was spending a little too much time on capo-related tweakery of my guitar and so I decided that for the next day’s show I would brazenly break Robert Forster’s seventh rule of rock and roll and take another to go with the bouzouki I was using on one song. One of five, I should probably mention. Let’s face it, if you’re not being paid in items you can legally take to a superstore on the outskirts of town and exchange for goods and services you may as well indulge yourself in other ways - it’s only that we’d already decided on the set and we weren’t playing anything that demanded a capo at the fifth fret in order for me to conjure my inversions*** too that meant that I didn’t pack a third electric guitar to go with the other two.

Our Sunday host and de facto front-of-house sound engineer looked at the mountain of equipment we (I) was loading in to the cramped open mic-sized performance arena with a mixture of rising panic, fear and disbelief. “I didn’t see why I should make it easy for you!” I chirruped happily. She looked slightly less impressed than if I’d announced that there was a fortress of keyboards**** and a Mellotron still to come in, but took it all with good grace. Thankfully, she’d had a cancellation and so we had a bit more set up and pack down time than we would have otherwise allowed ourselves and also had an opportunity to drop in a couple of extra (unrehearsed) songs from our back catalogue – one of them a genuine request, which is always gratifying. With all of the history of recorded music stretching out around them as far as the ear could hear, someone wanted to listen to something we’d written
At a party recently, someone asked me what my ideal job would be. “Tim Dowling” I said. “He gets to go out at the weekend and play with his band, and then he gets to go home and write about it”.

And he gets paid for both.                                


*I tend to wear the familiar Neil Young/Rory Gallagher-inspired lumberjack shirt when performing my own works. And pretty much all the rest of the time too, if truth be told.
**That is, the singer had appeared on television’s The Voice, not that she appeared on the bouncy castle. I explained this line up to a friend, including the karaoke. “When does the fun start?” he replied, drily.

***Ooh, Matron, don’t! They can’t touch you for it.
****Thanks to @backwards7 on Twitter for that one.

Monday, July 04, 2016

After the Deluge.

“This is from a time when if your phone rang you had to pick it up and ask to find out who was calling you”. Thus Shev introduces another song from A Hard Day’s Night at Ipswich Music Day 2016. The heads of disbelieving teenagers sway sorrowfully from side to side behind the crash barriers at this fresh import, their overloaded minds still reeling from the introduction of the concept of The Album B-Side. The Star Club are reconvened, rehearsed, refreshed and ready to go again, on the (rightfully) restored BBC Radio Suffolk Stage.

Flashback: Reado has set his drum kit up, assembled sidestage in full working configuration, ready to be moved swiftly on to the boards at the culmination of The Martells’ performance. Indeed, we are tapping out the hi-hat rhythm along with their performance of Smoke on the Water when I decide that putting my fingers unnecessarily close to a pair of cymbals probably isn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done this close to going on stage (in fact it ranks right up there with eating a portion of coconut just before sound check) and I step back - at which point a gust of wind catches the stage canopy and deposits a good proportion of the overnight rain therefrom and onto a less-than impressed and now decidedly damp drummer. This, clearly, is in no way amusing to me at all. In fact, it’s only slightly less amusing than when, after he has managed to towel off the worst of it from his finely-tuned drums, I step forward to sympathise (“What are the chances..?” I begin) and the whole thing happens again. First as tragedy, then as farce, as they say.

My white shirt and tie are soaked. I am the Mop Top Mr. Darcy. Kilbey wonders if I am going to wear sunglasses on stage. He’s considering not wearing his specs, thereby making himself look even younger than - rather unfairly, all things considered - he already does. Reado is keeping his. “Without them” he explains “I can’t read the set list”.
And so, slightly damper than we would ideally have been if given the choice, we kick off with the traditional set-opening medley of A Hard Day’s Night, Ticket to Ride and Taxman - we figure that if we can’t pause for breath then the audience won’t be able to either. And what an audience! Stretching back as far as the eye can see (admittedly we’re in a park, and so there are trees in the way) there are familiar faces, family members, friends, and of course a whole bunch of people who don’t know who we are. “We have some people who’ve flown in from Newmarket to be here” announces Shev. There is the well-timed beat of the seasoned front man. “I’m sorry – my mistake – New Zealand!”

Most of our children are in the crowd – an average of two each (although Kilbey is batting slightly higher than the mean. “What can I say?” he shrugs, with a charming grin). Mine is perched on the barrier front and centre waving delightedly and giving me the double Macca thumbs-aloft. “Good to see so many kids singing along. Good parenting, people” says Shev as we pause to catch our breath. In front of my side of the stage there is a synchronised jive party going on. “Give me a ‘yeah’! Give me a ‘yeah, yeah’! Give me a ‘yeah, yeah, yeah!’” and we’re off into She Loves You. Just one more to go after this, two decades of twisting and shouting about to come to a frugtastic climax. You can meet and make a lot of people in twenty years. You can also lose a number. I’m not going to stop the party on their account, but a few of the names and faces get a couple of silent dedications, shades in the summer sun.

We’re packed up and ready to go, (fab) gear returned to sensible family saloon cars. “Keep an ear out” hints Reado. And I won’t have to pick up my phone to know it’s him!

Update - One Iain Blacklaw has put together a Flickr album from the gig. 
You can find it here; 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Possibly the most English thing I've ever done...

On Sunday we - The Neighbourhood Dogs, in our latest iteration – stood four and a half square beneath the shelter of a marquee performing our own brand of East Angliacana before a cricket match, in the rain. And when I say 'before' I mean, quite literally, in front of. The Papworth Everard Village Fete was in full swing, as were the (mostly) outclassed batsmen of the home side, caught fraught in the onslaught of nearby Yelling, who took the match - and the trophy - in a not very closely-fought annual battle of the village rivals. Put it this way – our set lasted very slightly longer than the home side’s innings, although both started with someone shouting “Catch it!”. Personally, I think they should have challenged the slightly less nearby village of Over, but that’s just so I could have included some additionl pun-ditry round about here  
But this is to dwell unnecessarily on the lamentable. Prior to our performance Sam Inglis had probably out-Englished even us with his doughty selection of traditional folk tunes, including a splendid Reynard the Fox which was obviously written, as he acerbically observed, “…by someone who has never been to Royston” (approximately fifteen miles from where he was sitting, as the crow flies). A good attempt, but despite his best efforts I don’t think we actually reached peak English until shortly after our set, when a vibrantly polka-dot be-frocked scion of the landed gentry went full jolly-hockey sticks in awarding the prizes for the Victoria Sponge competition.             

Being pretty much a scratch line-up due to prior holiday and theatrical commitments on the parts of both Producer Andy and Turny Winn, Mr. Wendell, Helen & I were bolstered by the incipient stand-in skills of gods kitchen and SftBH alumnus Mr. Gibbon, on whose behalf our promoter and sound man Steve played an old Goodies single over the PA as our intro music, which was a thoughtful gesture. We were also joined by the ‘half’ mentioned earlier, Steve’s daughter Amelie, who was to play flute on our closing number, Come On#2*.
Due to Gibbon’s familiarity with some of our further back-back catalogue, we had eschewed some of our more recent song writing efforts in favour of tunes that most of us knew all of already and were mostly in G, just to keep things doubly simple. Amelie sat rather nervously through the show and then, at her cue, steadied herself, drew a deep breath and played a lovely octave counter to Helen’s part before sitting rather relievedly back down again, graciously declining the opportunity to jam on our encore despite our entreaties and encouragement that “…it’s in G, like that one”. The twin flute attack - which I have experienced once before, in another lifetime - is something that we might have to look at again. Mellifluous, it is.

As the day’s activities drew to a close, the bouncy castles were deflated, the Pimm’s was reduced to a pound a pint to clear the dregs, the clouds cleared and happened that most English of occurrences at the culmination of any drizzly community event. The sun came out.  

*Performed on SftBH ‘Tree’ by Paul Mosley, whose folk opera album The Butcher is out now.

Monday, May 09, 2016

"So, who do you sound like..?"

At certain points over the course of my variegated musical career I’ve been lucky enough to be approached by folks who need a band for their charity event and who know that I strum a bit; to be contacted by people who need ale for a beer festival and have approached a man who coincidentally both works at a brewery and is in a band with me (the two birds/one stone approach) and have sat with a telephone handset in one paw and a printout of venues from the back of the 1989 Music Industry Yearbook in the other trying to see which back room or bar would be prepared to have us – tired and poor - pitch up for the evening and perform for their huddled masses.
Success in these endeavours mostly comes down to being able to answer the question “So what do you do?” and this in turn usually involves handing over a shiny silver disc in a cheap case and saying “That’s us”. In days gone by the agonising decision about what to put first on the cassette frequently took up more time than actually recording the thing, and so it was a blessed relief when the availability of cheap, home-made CDs meant that the pressure was off slightly, as people would now probably flick forward through the ones they didn’t like, so all you needed was a good strong intro or four.

We in Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs have got by so far on a combination of couple of old reference recordings by a group Helen and I used to be in and a rough YouTube video of us playing one song live, the full version of which essentially comprises documentary footage of one guy getting slowly pissed in a thunderstorm while a band plays in the background behind him. With this dearth of demonstrability in mind we decided that it was time to burn some wax, cut some tracks and get hip to the hep groove Daddio or, more succinctly, drop round to Producer Andy’s house where he’d start putting together some demos so we could give them away to people when they asked whether we’d done anything they might like. Also, many festivals these days insist on you filling in a web-based  application wherein you have to link to three examples of your work online and your website, neither of which we currently have (we did, however, get on to last year’s Ipswich Music Day with a Soundcloud demo of one of my songs performed by Shev on vocals, a picture of the four of us at a beer festival Wendell took on his phone, and a link to Helen’s Twitter account, so it can be done).
On the nicest day of the year so far Mr Wendell, Helen and Myself gathered at Trillstar Studios to begin committing our oeuvre to posterity, which involved us drinking tea, plugging in our guitars, and Andy recording them onto a hard drive thereby being able go about correcting our mistakes through the medium of digital technology at his leisure once we'd stopped cluttering the place up. Thankfully our unyielding adherence to the strictures imposed by modern timekeeping meant that after a couple of brace of run-throughs all parties decided that there was no point leaving the metronome on beyond the count-in as after the first two verses it became a distraction when we inevitably veered off-piste and lost where we were. In a spirit of compromise Helen kept time with hand gestures while Andy pointed out that Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is all over the place in terms of timekeeping and look what happened to that.

We have decided to go with a fairly representative five-song collection, at least three of which are newly-hewn, which means that we’re looking forward, not back (one of the others dates back to about 1986, which has tended to balance things out). The idea is to give a fairly representative idea of what we sound like when we perform - we want to record our performance rather than perform our recordings - so although the vocals might be done a number of times until we’re happy with a take, there shouldn’t be more than four of them; and although the bouzouki part will be pretty much as it is live, this time it’ll be in tune.

And, once we’ve done thatthen we’ll add the pedal steel, 10CC vocal effects,  and Welsh Male Voice Choir.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

"...and for those of you watching in black and white..."

Like swans, we musical Narcisseae generally glide serenely across the waters of this business we call show whilst underneath our little legs scurry away in a frenzy, forever reaping and posting, commenting and colluding, and trying to ensure that the machine is adequately fed and watered at all times. So many platforms to fill, so much media to refresh – and all for the fear that if we don’t keep buoyant, our online presence will sink to the bottom of a watery grave, our career floating in the starry firmament in exactly the same way that bricks don’t. Honestly – if I’m not dropping the latest Rare Candy remix on Tidal I’m generally up to here issuing Cease and Desist writs to the paps. It’s never-ending.

I’m swamped.
As it happens, there’s not a lot to report at the moment, but I like hanging out with you guys, so in a spirit of “Well, and what have you been up to recently..?” let me take you through my virtual week, since it’s mainly involved the subject of visuals and video and they’re quite fun to look through. At the last Neighbourhood Dogs get-together we were going to collaborate on a song. I came in with a couple of verses and a couple of chords and looked forward to a pleasant evening wrangling over middle eights and taking things to the bridge, but on the first run through La Mulley conjured a melody out of the ether, Mr. Wendell found a few inversions he could play with, Turny wandered up to the dusty end of the banjo, we all threw in some 10CC-esque “Aaaaahhh”s in the turnaround and Producer Andy pronounced himself satisfied with the outcome to the point where he suggested that adding any more chords in would unnecessarily complicate the whole thing. I suspect that this would have pleased the shade of Our Former Glorious Leader, who was forever trying to edit things down - preferably to the point where a song consisted of one verse (possibly repeated twice) and one chord, and that being without a major tonic*.

What with us being freed from the constraints of arguing about diminished fourths for the rest of the evening we decided to lark about with some guerrilla promo-making. Ordinarily when doing something for the interweb one would ensure that the lighting, camera angles, shooting script and sound source were all in tip-top condition and ready to be tweaked in post-production. Even Zoella makes sure not to fall over the scenery, I'm told. What we did was prop my iPad up on the breakfast bar and point it at the sofa. It’s on Facebook, which tends to annoy some people but then again, so are we.
Here it is 

In the same week that we did that, a far more professional editing job appeared over on the YouTube courtesy of Tony James Shevlin, who I did a session for the BBC with a few weeks ago. Those nice people from Unity in Music turned up with a couple of cameras, thus obviating the need for any of us to casually approach and fill the screen (an action which is a lot easier for me than it used to be these days) when we needed to cut between shots. My main job in this one was to sit quietly to the side and not fuck things up, which I think I achieved with commendable aplomb – my model for this role being Bill Bruford, who once received a writing credit on a King Crimson track for not playing anything, the reasoning being that although he was there in the studio, this was exactly what the song needed. What I will say is that that third harmony was my idea and in the absence of Dirk the Drummer on backing vocals, I was pleased to be able to dep in and perform it.
Last, but by no means peremptorily, was the astonishing discovery that MySpace is still a thing! Going back to my opening remarks, back in the day that’s all we had. I think Justin Timberlake owns it now, in which case he has the rights to this performance from The Cornbury Festival of ten years ago, wherein the single camera edit is skilfully utilised by our friend Nick Cooper who was already rather conveniently out on the weekend doing something or another with Spiers and Boden. See how crowd cutaways allow him to switch between angles. You’d probably never have known unless you were the sort of person who could instantly distinguish between a banjo and a mandolin** - keep an eye on Russ Barnes to the left of your screen. He's the, er, one in the hat - not the one in the frock.        


*The notable exception to this would have been that time he set out to write a song with a central riff containing all twelve notes in the scale. He did it, as well.  
** Unlike the guy on the desk out front doing our sound check.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Nashville State of Mind

Further to that update from a couple of weeks ago, a video from the BBC Radio session I did with Tony James Shevlin is now available for your delectation on the YouTube. It's a nice little performance, although half way through the second verse one nervous onlooker did ask "...but what are you doing with your hands..?"