Wednesday, April 25, 2012

History Is Written By The Victors

Even out here at the unfashionable end of the galaxy of stardom, where we very rarely brush the hem of the garments of greatness sported by the pantheon of stars around which we shyly orbit, I do occasionally come across the odd morsel from the high table. Last night, for example, I was in a meeting* with someone who used to be in a beat combo who you’ll probably have heard of. He, in common with many members of groups who have become ex-members not necessarily of their own volition, was still clearly narked by the nature of his departure. “There was a book about the band” he gruntled “…and I actually read it hoping that it might explain why they wanted me out. ‘It was all going well’ said the singer ‘And I don’t know why he left’ it said. I’ll tell you why I left – because your fucking manager rang me up and said ‘Howard wants you out of the band’!”

*The Pub.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"What's the difference between a BAFTA and an Oscar?"

"Nine points, if you're on a triple word score..."

I have a very good book at home by Elizabeth Cohen called 'The House on Beartown Road' which I took a shine to and bought solely on the basis of a good review I read in one of the Saturday supplements. Essentially it's the memoir of a woman who, rather than move her father into a care home upon the onset of his Alzheimer's, moves him in to live with her. Over the course of the book she describes the intertwining relationships between herself, her ailing father, her new daughter and her husband, who gives up half way through and goes to live with his mistress. It's a bit of a tearjerker on occasion, if I'm being honest.
I live round the corner from Ipswich Cemetery and on Mothering Sunday the queue for parking goes on for miles - my lovely wife Hannah was moved to comment once as we drove past that "The graveyard's always full on Mother's Day", and so when I came to write the lyrics to what had previously been an instrumental known simply as "Doobedobedo", that became the verbatim first line as I switched Elizabeth Cohen's scenario round so that it presupposed that there was a man who had made the opposite decision (i.e. entrusted his mother to the care of a supervised facility) and upon her death is to be found reflecting on the choices he has made. This isn't based on real life by the way. My Mother is currently in rude health and quite able to decide where she's going to live for herself. I did visit her mother, my grandmother, once in a retirement home where she was slowly but surely (and extremely contentedly) slipping away from us. "Did you bring this table?" she asked over tea and biscuits. In her mind she was twenty-eight again, and in love with a handsome young officer from the RAF who could crack walnuts with his fists. 'Grandpa', we called him.

When Songs from The Blue House recorded the song for our album ‘Tree’ I remember hauling my friend Wendell's enormously weighty Fender Twin amplifier all the way to Great Bardfield in order to record an authentic tremelo-heavy riff in the intro, before we ended up recreating the sound with some technology. Still, I think it enjoyed the day out. Given the contrary nature of our recording technique at the time we had also put everything down to a click track (right up until the point that we were enjoying ourselves toward the end of the song and started playing so loudly that we couldn’t hear it any more) and so it fell to our drummer du jour, Mr. Paul Read, to try and match up his fills to the slightly wavering time signature we had bequeathed him, well after the event. Then we made him go in and sing a backing vocal to it, and then we got our mate Kilbey in to sing a further harmony to that. Then, because we had a banjo, pedal steel and fiddle all soloing over the end section we had to decide what was going to stay and what was going to be muted. We ended up keeping the pedal steel at the end, which proved to have first-rate repercussions

Some time after the release of the album we received an email from Our Beloved Record Company stating that they had received an enquiry from one of their media partners in Los Angeles asking if they could use an excerpt from Beartown Road in a film that they had been tasked with licensing the music for;
Scene: Jack meets Lauren for the first time at the local diner, Hopps.
Usage: One (1) Background Vocal Use, :45
it said.
Suzie-at-the-office wasn’t sure how the deal worked precisely, but we were assured that there would be a small sum of money for the writers (Me and James) and that “…hopefully” we’d gain a great advantage from the exposure once the film was released. In the small print was the proviso that once sales of the video/DVD reached 50,000 units the deal would be renegotiated. We gladly granted our permission. The evening paper interviewed us in my local and, in the way of regional news photographers everywhere, pictured us holding a pen and paper in order to signify that we were writers. We forwarded the press on to the movie’s producers, and asked politely if they could send us a copy of the film.

They didn’t. Eventually James sought one out on Amazon and bought it, incurring in the process more expense than we’d actually seen from licensing the rights to the song. He made it through about fifteen minutes of it I think, before lending it to me one evening so that I could play RomCom bingo with the plot and characters and take a screencap of our name in the closing credits. Having been primed to listen out for us in the scene where Jack meets Lauren for the first time at the local diner, I made sure I was paying extra attention. Sure enough, there in the background, as if playing on a local country music radio station, was Nick Zala’s solo from the end of our song. The third time I rewound and played the scene I was pretty sure that was definitely it.

Here's us playing Beartown Road at a gig at High Barn, captured for posterity by our friend Keith Farnish -

...and here's the actual movie whose closing credits bear my name -

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Rolling and Tumbling

I’ve always really liked a good song title. Sometimes the nomenclature turns out to be better than the actual song itself. In a former world, where exploring music wasn’t as easy as typing the name of an artist into the right torrent site and clicking a button, titles like Blues Run the Game, or Pushed It Over the End, or Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing were just hints contained within biographies, or photocopied on cassette inserts, or listed on expensive imports in the back of weekly rock magazines. Until quite recently I deliberately saved the experience of listening to Bob Dylan’s "Thunder on the Mountain" as a special treat for this very reason, only to find that it was a pretty standard twelve bar dirge - other opinions are available.

Song titles can be hugely evocative things – I think we all pretty much know what to expect from something called “I Will Always Love You” and “It Was a Hell of a Break by Ray Reardon”, but what about “I Often Dream of Trains”, “Life During Wartime” or “The Kid and the Smoking Gun”? And if you're a writer of any stripe there’s the decision of what to call your song. Do you name it after the oft-repeated line in the chorus, after nothing at all or – and this is my favourite, if only because it throws up an amusing number of pub quiz trivia battles – the last line where it only appears once - "Virginia Plain" or "Up the Junction", say. For a while in 1987 my friend James was plagued by a rash of singles released by established bands just after he’d put the finishing touches to his version. I remember Fleetwood Mac and George Michael sparking particular ire at the time for their releases of "Big Love" and "Faith" respectively.

I liked the idea of Cream’s "Rollin’ and Tumblin’" from the point at which I first became aware of it. As far as I recall, this would have been on a cassette inlay in the footwell of my friend Joey’s Mini van as we pulled up by the Felixstowe seafront sometime in the early 1980’s. I saw some pictures from the gig we played later that day on Facebook recently, as it happens. The song itself was originally (as far as any of these things can ever be satisfactorily concluded) recorded by the splendidly-monickered Hambone Willie Newbern (according to an internet site I just typed the title into) and there are apparently hundreds of extant versions, including one by Bob Dylan, which he’s claimed a writing credit for. When, some time ago now, I came away from a SftBH songwriting session with a CD copy of a piano-heavy demo that Our Glorious Leader had recorded with Tony ‘TT’ Turrell I instinctively knew that the very first words had to be “Rolling and tumbling…” and where we went after that would work itself out. Having seen Eagle-friendly songwriter JD Souther mess up an intro at a live gig in Norwich – I think there may have been a misplaced capo involved - I had scribbled down his rueful response - “I tend to treasure my mistakes” – in my pocket notebook, where the phrase sat for quite a while. Its time was soon to come. I sketched out the rest of the lyric, mailed it to James, and waited for the pollice verso.

We have recorded "Rolling and Tumbling" for the new/next Songs from The Blue House album with a lovely introductory soundscape composed by Paul Sartin - one of The Fragrant and Charming La Mulley’s college chums - which places the song in context before he plays a beautiful adaptation of the part Fiddly has been performing at live renditions in the intro. TT does a lovely sweeping descending arpeggio that wouldn’t scare the horses in Billy Joel’s stables and James picks out a simple single string guitar figure, the naivete of which prefigures the vocal melody to come. In order to presage a suitably stirring finale Tony Winn adopts a West 23rd Street hobo persona to fill out the sound with a marvelous harmonica part which, if nothing else, often gives me the opportunity to do that joke about a mouse walking into a music shop wanting to buy a mouth organ.

I’m hardly on that version, if at all. My backing vocal got replaced by a passing Boo Hewerdine (see the George Clooney in Reverse blog from December 2011) although during a later playback he did apparently look up from his breakfast for long enough to comment approvingly on one of my lyrics, which is something I shall treasure like a mistake for some time to come. We performed the song at Helstock this year and, sans piano, fiddle, and any rehearsal in stead of these absences, there was a lovely frailty about the performance that evoked the original feeling I had, sitting in my car in the dark waiting for the (then instrumental) tune to finish and knowing, just knowing, that this song was called "Rolling and Tumbling".