Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"We'd like to do a song that's been...very kind to us..."

I get struck every so often by the thought that without that particular musical experience maybe I wouldn’t have made that left turn into balladry - perhaps I might have decided otherwise - perchance I might have got into drum n’ bass instead of picking up an acoustic guitar and trying to get people to clap at me in public while I sang at them about ex-girlfriends and imaginary slights. Sometimes it’s when I think about that Bob Dylan lyric someone pasted up on the sixth form common room notice board, obviously it happens whenever I hear a Neil Young song on the radio, definitely when Rory Gallagher’s Irish Tour movie makes it on to the late night schedule, occasionally even when I’m moved to slot that Uriah Heep compilation into the car stereo on long car journeys.  

It was probably Shev’s mention of the song he wrote for Amnesty International at last week’s Songwriter’s Night that prompted me to revisit probably the most influential album I remember from my teen years – the pair of sets of performances that seeded the idea that you could take things somewhere else. Nothing that my parents owned did the trick – I didn’t grow up listening to their Joni and Beatles albums (that came later) since they simply didn’t have any, although a bunch of singles by the likes of Elvis, Cliff and Bill Haley bequeathed by friends and neighbours must have sown some seeds. The compilation that put me on my path to a glittering career of general audience indifference woven inextricably with occasional personal triumphs were those provided by The Secret Policeman’s Balls of 1979 and 1981.

I was convinced that the performances I remember so fondly were of one year, but research tells me otherwise, nevertheless they seeped into my impressionable sponge of a teenaged mind and sat there, waiting for their moment(s) to spring forth in inspiration. That Pete Townsend could strip down Won’t Get Fooled Again, drag classical guitarist John Williams into the mix and spit out a particularly, seemingly ad-libbed and venomous “Do ya?!” is, pleasingly, as grainy on Youtube as it is in my memory. I didn't know you could just call up people with no prior relationship with your material and just get them to come along and do something like that (and one day, all of our memories will be in black and white). Similarly, that the brittle chopped chords of The Police’s Roxanne could be broken down into a chorus pedalled melancholy reflection was a revelation. I didn’t know you were allowed to leave out the bass and drums and do that. Although it was pretty much a solo effort anyway, I Don’t Like Mondays gained a whole lot more from being stripped of its orchestral cladding and Tom Robinson’s Glad To Be Gay made me think that if you had an acoustic guitar it meant that you really were a protest singer. If only I’d thought to write that down at the time.

Aside from those, the most affecting performance in the film and on the album came from the most unlikely source. These days Phil Collins is slighted principally as the all-overpowering eighties behemoth that ate Genesis but back then he was an unlikely piano player who’d tentatively released a solo album (after the other two, Rutherford and Banks, had already dipped their toes in the stream) and made his first solo live performance at the ball performing a couple of songs from Face Value, one of which was a tremendously moving character-driven ballad on which he got a former member of Jean-Luc Ponty’s band to accompany him on the banjo.  

It all sinks in.

Monday, December 09, 2013

"...apart from that, we've had a lovely evening".

Sometime in the last century my friend Tony - recently returned to the wilds of Suffolk from out of That There London - mentioned that he was thinking of starting a Songwriters’ Night at a local pub and asked if I would come along to support the venture by performing, at least until it picked up enough momentum to sustain itself and we could stop playing our songs at each other. An unsuitable venue was procured in that it had the disadvantage of being the saloon bar of a local pub. This did at least mean that we weren’t going to be stuck away in a back room where no-one ventured and it also put the onus on the performers being good enough to entertain a live audience. It wasn’t exactly going to be a Friday Night Comedy Store bear pit, or as brutal as a late show at The Glasgow Empire, but you were definitely going to get some feedback on what the punters thought of your material nonetheless. Shev had also very cleverly negotiated a deal whereby performers, at least once they’d taken the stage for at least one number, got to drink for free (within reason, depending on the cognitive processes of whoever was behind the bar that evening, open mic nights being a notoriously under-desired shift among the bar keeping community).
It built very well, as it happens – we got some great buy-in from our hosts which made running the show a whole lot easier and when landlord Ady constructed an elaborate stage prop to coincide with Shev’s traditional set-closer Robert the Bunny one night it very nearly brought the house down. On any given evening there would be the usual suspects – a nervous singer-songwriter emboldened by her peers and channeling her parents’ collection of Joni Mitchell albums (this was pre-Kate Nash, so the accents tended to be more Saskatchewan via Topanga Canyon than Camden mockney in the main), a keyboard player embellishing his bedsit-logue with some jazzy motifs, a country band slumming it for the free booze, some guy who could afford a Gibson-Martin-Fender on which to frame his rudimentary barre chords with a spidery strum, and usually a bloke who’d brought his own tightly-bound sheaves of lyrics and was aggrieved to find that we didn’t have a music stand on which to mount it (we refused on principle). Okay, maybe it got a bit cliquey at times, but folk were generally respectful enough not to talk through the work in progress, a few people were encouraged in their endeavours and relationships and friendships were forged, many of which last to this day.
Statler and I went down to the latest incarnation of the evening last week with The Charming and Fragrant Helen Mulley, with whom we’d worked up a couple of things in the collaborative spirit of the olden times. Back then we used to write a song a month to the deadline of having something new to perform, this time round we’d tweaked a couple of things we already had lying around. The spirit of the occasion was quite similar to the feel of old, even if we’d picked the evening when the banks of the nearby River Orwell were forecast to burst and engulf the venue, and so attendance was a little chary. What the hell, that at least meant that we got two goes each and I even fulfilled a request from the floor (“…if I could do most of the requests I get I’d be in a circus”). It wasn’t until the end of the night when a rambling series of jazz chords presaged a heretical version of Sweet Home Alabama that attentions wandered and smartphones were consulted. One of my companions gestured toward the illuminated screen hidden below table level. “Nelson Mandela has died” it said.      

Sunday, December 01, 2013

"...and get your bloody feet off the sofa"

 You know how those last three or four blogs went on about such seemingly disparate matters as drum damping, song writing, Kickstarter projects and, um...that other one - probably about biscuits or how the eighties were better or something, they usually are. Well, in a plot arc worthy of Russell T. Davies at his most baffling, as it turns out it's sort of all really been leading to this post. Here is a video of Songs from the Blue House performing a song called Not That Kind of Girl, which a nice man called Darran asked us to do before he'd give us any money for our last album. It was performed completely live out at The Recording Booth, and then Anthony James Shevlin moved the camera around a bit, made us do it again and then mixed the bits together. 
 Speaking of songwriting, Helen sings "White gold anklets", not "...ants" or "...antlers" in the line after "You can build me bridges", although the latter would have made a nice ad-lib if we were doing a gig over christmas anywhere. It'll make sense when you hear it.

Enjoy, contemplate, share. It's as much a mantra as anyone else lives by.