Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Hit Factory

During a discussion around the art of songwriting (or craft, or pastime, or however it is you prefer to refer) at The Blue House last night, we were trying to come up with a suitable simile for the process and preferably one which didn’t involve ‘evacuation’. After a tiresome day – the highlight of which had been an innuendo-strewn thread on her Facebook page regarding how much work she had to do – I had asked if anyone wanted to try and get a song together and so Mr. Wendell, Helen and I had assembled in order to knock one out. As it were.
I’d been inspired by a ‘Dangerous Building’ sign hanging on the outside of a house of someone we used to know, and an offhand remark made by The Artist formerly known as Our Glorious Leader as a police car drove by with its siren wailing as we passed it. I made a few notes, had a scrap of a melody and anxiously mailed Helen to ask if she knew of any songs called “This Property is Condemned”#, as it seemed too good a metaphor to have remained unused so far thus in popular song. I knew that there was already Love’s The Only House, and When It Was Ours based broadly in the same post code, however she suggested that this ground may previously have been adequately covered by Shakin’ Stevens. I did a bit of digging and it turns out This Ole House is quite the death ballad when it comes down to it, and about as lyrically cheery as You Are My Sunshine. This in turn reminded me of Gregson’s first tenet of song writing; Cheery words – maudlin tune / Downbeat lyrics – happy dance chords. Having mucked about with a Neil Young chord progression* at our last rehearsal (who doesn’t?) and, ahem, borrowed a couple of turnarounds I now had a traditional structure, a big chorus (which had a tendency to morph into Meatloaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Light if I didn’t keep a close eye on it) and a middle eight. Which is where the guys came in.
As I say, we were all a bit tired, we all have inviting-looking sofas, and were of necessity making a late start on things due to domestic commitments in combination with that Helen lives about a forty minute drive away from where we do. And on a school night. On my morning commute, a chance selection of some Art Blakey (of all people) popping up in the mobile listening station had put the idea of making the song a kind of shuffle and so I gamely tuned up, ran through the structure for them and waited for the resulting opprobrium to manifest itself. “Hmm – that’s got something” I heard one of them say. Mr. Wendell attached a capo to his trusty Gibson acoustic and started transposing chord shapes. Helen hummed a harmony line. Twenty minutes later she suggested that the instrumental section not be the same as the verse, chorus or middle-eight but “…go somewhere else”. Accordingly we went somewhere else which, it turned out, meant that we’d effected an accidental key change which manifested itself when we got back to the chorus. Wendell smiled as he realised the new chords fit perfectly simply within his be-capo’d inversions. Helen hummed a solo, we counted in an ending, Wendell and I figured a little harmony intro riff which lent itself to an echo of Crazy Little Thing Called Love. All these little influences and hidden mind cupboards being opened up and rooted through in search of that elusive last ingredient to just finish off the dish before us. We played it through, then played it through again. Sated, we returned to our discussion about the process. “It’s like swimming” said Hel. “You never want to go, but afterwards you feel great”.
As Wendell drove home, we listened to XTC and talked about the writing process. Knowing I was going to post something up I wondered if there was an inspirational Andy Partridge quote I could use to illustrate and illuminate it further. And that’s where I found this.

*At least that's what I say. Wendell reckons it's from Headstart for Happiness.

# Update; Friend of the band and recording mentor Fenton Steve points out that Maria McKee was indeed way ahead of us. I should have known that as I own this album. Ironically, it's the one where she looks a bit like Helen on the cover.

Friday, March 17, 2017

"Nobody Knows Anything..."

I spend a lot of time bumbling around on the internet, me - a touch of bloggery here, a little below the line action there and - of course - this occasional record of my glittering showbiz career, which I occasionally compile into book form. One of the places I tend to hang out online is at The Afterword, which grew out of the compost left over after the untimely demise of The Word Magazine. Colin Harper - journalist, biographer of Bert Jansch (and like me a one time musical employer of Judy Dyble) - is also on the AW blog and recently wrote that he really must get round to reading some of my efforts. I'd really enjoyed his John McLaughlin book and I thought it might be a nice gesture to share mine with him, so I sent him a copy. A short while later he posted this review on The Afterword, and I enjoyed reading it almost as much as I enjoy writing the blogs. In case you don't get over there as often as you might, I've taken the liberty of reproducing his kind words here; 

As of January 2006, Skirky had been playing guitar in bands, some of which had played original music, none of which ‘made it’. As he explains in the Introduction to this warm, witty, unpretentious and entertaining diary of a year-in-the-life of the bar covers band they had become, ‘we couldn’t just knock it all on the head and retire gracefully. Retire from what, for a start?’

As well as being written by a fellow clearly comfortable in his own skin, Skirky (who has, like Dr Watson did with Conan Doyle, employed someone to be his literary agent/name-on-the-cover, in this case one Shane Kirk) has produced a valuable anthropological document. It even helps that we never find out the name of the band (unless I wasn’t paying attention on that page) and only know the members by cunning soubriquets: The Drummer, The Other Guitarist, The Singer, et al. This is thus an ‘Everyband’ memoir – a snapshot of the life and trials of a bunch of music fans who have wound up exchanging the dream of Peel sessions and the right to say ‘Hello, Wembley!’ with feet on monitors for an evening at the Dog & Duck, a few pies and pints, and a regular cache of passing characters.

‘Scratch the surface of a contentedly strumming pub rocker and you’ll surely find the soul of a burned-out singer-songwriter still bitter that they came second in the 1989 ‘Battle of the bands’ competition, and as a result never got the acclaim they so clearly deserved then, and still deserve now.’

Along the way we learn that waterskiing trips can be cancelled because it’s ‘too wet’, that ‘the hog roast man’ is not always available, that ‘the healing power of REO Speedwagon is an underrated one’ that ‘only natural predator’ of the pub-rocker is ‘the Dixieland Jazz Combo’ and that, of Skirky & his mates, ‘folk in Stowmarket still talk in hushed tones of the version of ‘Rubber Bullets’ we attempted on the back of two quick run-throughs at which no more than 60% of the band were present at any one time’.

For the pub-rocker, when push comes to shove, ‘the show-off must go on. And you have to pay for the privilege.’ Then again, ‘the clarion cry of ‘Come on! Earn your money!’ never falls more easily than from the lips of someone who hasn’t paid to get in’.

This is a terrific book – great fun, an easy read, a glimpse into a loveably middle-English world of country pubs and creative dreams that aren’t so much broken as mended and making do, and a talent worn very lightly indeed. I wouldn’t bet against Skirky – whoever that mystery man may be – having a hit song in him. But even with the royalty millions rolling in, I have a feeling he’d still be down at the ‘Dog & Duck’ playing Kenny Rogers, Radiohead and everyone in between. And yes, he *does* do Wings – especially if they’re from KFC.

Length of Read:Medium

Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Any light-hearted memoir, Rick Wakeman’s anecdotes, Brian Pern mockumentaries, pies, beer, Ipswich…

One thing you’ve learned
That Ipswich is called ‘Ippo’ by its denizens. Who knew?