Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Don't you know who I used to be..!?"

To an evening soiree with erstwhile employer Tony James Shevlin, who is in the midst of recording some of the songs he wrote whilst on an extensive traversal of the US of States earlier this year. He is extolling the talent of some of the local musicians who are contributing to the project and suggests that I might be able to help him out with a couple of verses of a thing that he’s not quite been able to finish. Since being schooled in the Nashville co-write method during his stay there he has become quite the evangelist for collaboration, and I figure it’d be nice to sit down with a couple of guitars and shoot the breeze for a bit before adding my name to the credits of what will doubtless eventually become the main theme for a major motion picture or a recurring motif in a hugely popular Netflix-produced  detective series.
He outlines the themes he has so far, and a rough metre, and I ask if he has a pen handy. He produces a fine-tipped fountain pen and a vellum-bound notebook from his expensive-looking man satchel and I scribble a few lines down. Without my glasses, and with three pints of delicious Brewers Gold already past the low tide mark, it seems unlikely that any of these will be decipherable in daylight, but when the muse strikes, needs must.
Already this week I have workshopped a new song with The Neighbourhood Dogs and, anxious that it not sound too much like anything else, I wondered whether it bore too much resemblance to an earlier song, called Risk? Turny – formerly banjo player but now tasked in addition with harmonica and melodeon and anything else it turns out he has lying around in his shed – suggests that it’s more like The Drugs Don’t Work pointing out that there are only so many chords and that I shouldn’t worry unnecessarily. I confess that there may have been some Noel Gallagher on the television around the time of the song’s conception. Mr Wendell wonders if we know any string sections and I suggest that we layer the harmonies on the end section like those on Dr. Robert. By the time we have all chipped in, Helen’s flute is taking the hook, replacing the original Pink Floyd-y guitar riff with a call-and-response interplay with the harmonica.

Given that I have been part of such a massive restructuring of what was originally a simple I-I-V-I-V-I-I-8-outro (as Turny’s contemporaneous notes would have it) bit of acoustic strummery I’m feeling pretty confident that I can find enough words that rhyme with the ones he’s already got to complete Shev’s opus and so by this point in the evening I’m feeling fairly expansive in mood, and pretty pleased with my own abilities and my rightful place in the pantheon of Ipswich music personalities.
A gentleman approaches our table and, spotting Shev, breaks into a broad grin of recognition. “Star Club!” he exclaims enthusiastically, naming the Beatles specialist band Mr. Shevlin and I were once one half of. “You were great! Of course, that’s where they used to play – is that where you got the name from?” Shev confirms that this is indeed the case and indicates to his new friend that I, sitting across from him, was also in the band. Our visitor regards me as levelly as his uncertain state can afford and finally I am addressed directly. “Nope” he says “I don’t remember you. At all”.    

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs

"So" we thought, "Rather than have our first full band performance together on a massive stage in Papworth, we should probably try our stuff out in slightly more intimate circumstances first" and so, with the help of Blue House Music's PA, and Karen and Ady at The Dove, we pitched up in Ipswich to run through the set in front of a few of our friends, some interested strangers and some accommodating drinkers. Fortunately our friend Jim Horsfield was on hand with his camera to record events for training purposes. So, here's a new, never-before performed song we did that evening. Hope you like our new direction.

Monday, November 23, 2015

"I left my heart in Papworth General..."

“What’s the first rule of song writing?” asks La Mulley, stage front and centre, resplendent in frock coat and boots. Her rhetoric hangs heavy in the air. “No-one wants to hear about your kids” I respond. “And what’s the second rule?” I enquire by way of reply, thereby fulfilling my part in the pantomime. She leaves a beat. “Once you’ve had them, you can’t stop talking about them”.
We are on stage at Papworth Village Hall, a construction roughly comparable in dimension, design and acoustic qualities to St. Pancras Station, at the behest of charitable foundation Play Papworth and about to present Where We Are – one of a couple of numbers lifted wholesale from the repertoire of Songs from The Blue House and here presented with a degree of trepidation by scion combo Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs. Our nervousness is not so much generated by the prospect of playing a rarely-performed obscurity from our back pages insomuch as that Tony Winn, whose part in the arrangement of the song is pivotal, had caught his tie in his concertina during sound check and we were concerned it might affect his performance if it happened again.
Of such concerns are the occasional musician’s contemplations made up  - others can be considered as such examples as “Whose turn is it to drive?”, “Do you mind if I come up a tad in the monitors?” and “So where shall we have dinner after the sound check?”

The answer to the latter question turned out to be the magnificently monikered Rocky’s Pavilion one of a number of choices afforded us, and which we approached despite the sage words of my good friend Neil, who once advised me never to sit down to eat in any establishment which is showing the football. Upon entry we were ushered to the restaurant area, which looked as if bedecked for a wedding, and where soft lighting subtly ebbed and flowed in both luminescence and hue. The haunting sound of Dido wafted atop the layer of kitchen mesosphere, and we felt ourselves nodding gently off as we surveyed our menu choices. To enliven ourselves we skipped across diverse conversational subjects – whether a Portobello Mushroom constitutes a vegetarian burger or if it is just simply a big mushroom in a bap, for instance. We considered what music we, or our partners, might have played at our funerals. “Mrs K. wants that Green Day one about having the time of your life at hers” I proffered. Good Riddance?” enquired bass player Ant. “A happy coincidence”, I concurred.
Our waiter scurried back and forth in the largely empty dining room. One other couple occupied a table further along the French Windows beneath a sepia print of Muhammad Ali towering over a be-canvased Sonny Liston in the first minute of the first round of their 1965 heavyweight title rematch. “You wouldn’t want to have paid for a ticket for that” I proposed, pondering as to whether the rather extended gap betwixt decision and delivery of our supper were somehow down to there just being the one guy on duty and him having to change into chef’s whites to complete our order.

Helen responded to some mansplaining regarding the artist Norman Wilkinson with a consideration on the subject of her legwear, which was decorated with text from the works of Shakespeare. “You do tend to find it attracts people’s attention – you know, they're wondering which play is it, what font are they using - that sort of thing?” indeed, the gentleman beneath the framed photograph by table twelve appeared to have developed a keen interest in deciphering the works of The Bard whenever he thought that either we or his dinner companion weren’t looking. "I swear that was twelve point Verdana when she sat down" his rather flushed expression seemed to say.
Attentive tweenagers opened doors upon our return to the venue and solicitously wished us a good evening before we settled in to watch the openers – local band The Komodo Project, pleased to note that one effect of the cathedral-like roof canopy was that applause reverberated in a most satisfactory fashion.

We were up next, our confidence (tie-related shenanigans notwithstanding) having been bolstered by a successful run-through a few days earlier in the considerably more intimate environs of The Dove Street Inn in the heart of swinging downtown Ipswich. We’d decided to rehearse the set in as live a performance scenario as we could envisage, which essentially involved inviting as many people as we knew to the pub and doing a dress rehearsal in public - thereby getting used to the vagaries of monitoring and mic techniques, working out a few introductions, such as our “First rule of songwriting” schtick and, as it happens, staying up until much later than was sensible afterwards eating cheese and crackers with our beneficient hosts, putting the world to rights over pints of lovely Brewers Gold. In the spirit of many American establishments we put out a tips jar and were able, at the end of the evening, to at least contribute toward our pro bono sound engineer’s diesel money, still have a few Euros in loose change and not even have to break into that 100 Yuan note.

To conclude the evening, the magnificently bonkers Vienna Ditto, whose photo of our sound check is at the top of the page. I will merely repost what I wrote online about them. Wow, well that was something! Impossible to categorise, but if you put the guitarist from The Black Keys together with one of The Chemical Brothers, added in the singer from The Sundays and back projected a bunch of old OGWT films behind them while drinking mushroom tea you might be getting somewhere close.

My travelling companion – co-guitarist and singer Mr Wendell - and I packed up the car and prepared for the return home. “I think I’m going to change my stage name” he said thoughtfully. “To Papworth Everard”.       

Monday, November 02, 2015

Four Lads Who Changed* the World.

“Still playing?” is a question I get asked more often than not whenever I bump into fellow veterans of the Heavy Big Pop wars, and I am happy to say that - with a few qualifications - I can truthfully answer that yes, I am. Obviously the actual playing element is fairly constant, albeit with the slight qualification that in a public space where anyone can see us doing so is a little more on the recherché side, if truth be told. The hen’s teeth element of my public appearances was one of the drivers behind making our final pre-gig rehearsal this month a public event in a pub just so that we could remind ourselves how to interact with an audience in real time without tripping over the monitors and banging on endlessly about how various instruments were “…in tune when we bought them”.
We’ve also been offered another engagement – Bank Holiday Monday, Easter 2016 since you ask – which gives us another goal to aim at, and also enough time to bulk out the set slightly more with the aim of achieving the two hour obligation we have accepted. Since we're currently up to about forty, forty five minutes, that should give us just about enough wiggle room. It was as a result of a throwaway remark from The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley (“I’ll try anything once”) during a conversation about the gig that I went back to a bunch of songs that hadn’t seen the light of day for a while in order to see if there was anything that fitted in with our Folk Popera concept regarding the themes of deception, betrayal and fairly poor eyesight** that we could dig out, freshen up and include in the set - the phrase "I'll try almost anything once" being one of the hooks in a long-dormant chorus.

I dug out my big book of lyrics, painstakingly hand-written in black ink on good grade paper in bound notebooks*** and started looking for thematically linked opportunities. Fortunately I seemed to have been going through quite a phase of that sort of malarkey at the time and so among the eighty five or so finished songs committed to the page for posterity's benefit a good few seemed fit for purpose. I dug out one of the CDs we’d compiled and got to work trying to work out the chords, riffs and hooks , a few of which I had completely forgotten were in some of these songs in the first place, a couple of which had been subsequently rehomed and many that I was still quietly proud of. At times I could remember exactly where and when we’d come up with some of the parts and they flooded back in to my mind like old friends, James's tightly-compressed out of phase guitar sigils as fresh as the day they were minted. Another of the things that came to mind was how brilliantly presciently our de-facto Benevolent Dictator had come up with song titles which would shortly to be appropriated by platinum-selling acts on major labels. By the time I joined the band he’d already written ‘Big Love’ (not by Fleetwood Mac) and ‘Faith’ (not by George Michael) and during our time together we would go on to curate ‘I Feel for You’ (not by Chaka Khan) and ‘Better than the Rest’ (not by Bruce Springsteen) among others.               

In case you think I’m veering toward the vainglorious with reference to my formerly glittering career, by the way, I should mention that only this week someone came up to me at the bus stop and asked when The Star Club were getting back together again, and that’s a band who haven’t really fired a shot in anger since 2011. Yesterday I was at a kids’ birthday party when one of the other parents started reminiscing about As Is. “Still playing?” he asked. 


**There are too many examples of sailor boys disappearing for a couple of years off along the Spanish Main or some suchlike only to return all in disguise and not being recognised by their true loves for this to be anything less than coincidental and actually down to ongoing ophthalmic issues.
***You may laugh, but at least three electronic storing formats have become obsolete in the time since I wrote some of those down.



Thursday, October 01, 2015

Four people go into a room…

A return to traditional values this week as for the first time in about three months the lion’s share of Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs convened over ale and instruments in order to knock a couple of ideas around with a view to bolstering the running time of our folk/country concept –if you will - Popera prior to our next engagement, in November. This seems like a long time away, but once you’ve factored in school governor’s meetings, a sojourn in California and the banjo player rehearsing for and then appearing in a theatre production as Dracula* the number of your actual available days diminishes alarmingly, and this is even before you’ve dragged the bass played out of a photo session with Kelly Brook**.
The evening went very well – the sketch of an idea that I came in with was subject to rigorous examination and various arrangements attempted, rejected, tweaked and finessed while the subject matter went through a sort of Just a Minute-styled analysis to root out repetition (“You’ve used ‘dress’ in successive verses and ‘reception’ to mean ‘party’ and where you sign the register at a hotel, so…”), hesitation (“Come in on the beat and hold the ‘We’ through the bar”) and deviation (“But why would he say that if he’s already made his intentions clear in verse three?”). A minor chord was placed carefully in the coda, and a valedictory chorus added to the postscript. Then we sat round an iPad and recorded it, as if to one microphone.
One of the issues that arose during its construction was that as time moves on, the familiar idioms of song writing become less and less applicable. No-one waits patiently by the phone any more, or looks through old photographs, or sits down to write a letter, and although these things’ time may come again*** we’ve been trying to move on and avoid too many obvious anachronisms. Hence the protagonist in ‘Harrogate’ – one of a number of songs inspired by traditional English Spa towns – refreshes the browser on his phone. His paramour’s number is withheld. He doesn’t smoke.
I was talking about this with m’friend and colleague Tony James Shevlin, who had recently been co-composing in the home of country music with some ‘Mericans and we agreed that although there were certain conventions to be maintained, the times were, indeed, a-changin’. I told him about the song and canvassed his opinion on whether it was acceptable to couple ‘vol-au-vents’ with ‘what she wants’. “That’s nothing” he said. “I was throwing lines back and forth with one of my writing partners and we were working on the old one & three, two & four scansion and he ended a line with ‘Nashville’”.
“Blimey” I replied “How did you write your way out of that one?”
He at least had the good grace to look mildly sheepish. “We ended up with ‘Johnny Cash will…’”               

*We don’t think he’s accompanying himself on this occasion. It is a an instrument with a long and noble history, but announcing the entrance of the Prince of Darkness to the haunting strains of the five string banjo is probably a theatrical step too far.   
**True story.
***I’ll bet Paddy McAloon thought he was on pretty safe ground when he committed the line “As obsolete as warships in The Baltic” to paper back in the perestroika-happy mid-eighties (‘Faron Young’).





Thursday, August 13, 2015

Happenings Ten Years Ago.

There was a reunion of sorts at the weekend, wherein grizzled music veterans - alumni and alumna of the  school of hard folk which was Songs from the Blue House - reassembled at Fiddly's country gaff The Hovell to catch up with what we'd all been up to recently. We had a pretty strong line up, including the two Steve's from Too's "Then There Was Sunshine" guitar chorus and TT, who'd travelled from distant climes in order to barbecue things and get gently sun-pinked. Freed from all that having to tune guitars and play chords in the right order malarkey, there was a relaxed vibe amidst the wafting aroma of sizzling sausages and gently toasting halloumi. A couple of us couldn't resist taking the beaters to Fiddly's home-built vibraphone and improvising gently in the hazy summer heat, and besides, there were many fewer wasps inside the shed than out. 

It wasn't always as relaxed as this though, you know. We once had albums to launch, benefit gigs to play, EPs to release, message boards to moderate...if only there were some sort of time capsule we could...oh...

Monday, July 20, 2015

"You, dancing..."

Pleased, proud and privileged to be able to drop into The Steamboat this weekend for a short set in charitable support of Krissy and Friends with a bare-bones Neighbourhood Dogs line-up, of which I was the sole canine on this occasion. "You're on after the rain gutter regatta" announced Krissy. I quietly pondered a name change, or at least the possibility of that being the title of our first album.

It was here, on this very stage, that The Present Mrs. Kirk and I opened proceedings just over fifteen years ago at our marriage after-party with a sterling rendition of The Beautiful South's Don't Marry Her... (album version), the bride radiant and resplendent in the previous day's big white dress. The party ended some eight or so hours of continuous music later with our friend Zippy having assembled three drummers to back him on a version of Route 66 which involved them dividing the single kit up into easily transferable sections, taking a solo each and then shuffling around one place so that the guy who had formerly been on bass drum and snare now had responsibility for the ride cymbal and floor tom, and so on, while we danced deliriously in front of them.

Today the audience comprised friends, family, bystanders & onlookers and, in the centre of the dance floor, four-year-old Lucy, who had already expressed a fierce determination in respect of her future ambition. "That's going to be me one day" she announced firmly. "Standing on that stage, singing my own songs". Next to her, my boy Lord Barchester, all of five years old and swinging his friend around with all the enthusiasm a couple of small souls lost in the moment could garner. Pictures of the dance later sparked a flash of recognition back at Kirk Towers. Mrs. K dug through her files and folders and pulled out a snap of us in exactly the same place, the same expressions of joy in the moment on our faces.

"Daddy, Daddy! Look at what I'm doing!" yelled my little gig newbie toward the stage, all red faced and rapturous. "That's not how it works, son" I laughed. "You're supposed to look at what I'm doing..!"          


Monday, July 06, 2015

“Like an evening at Russell Brand’s house, this set has been building inexorably toward a climax…”

 “I’m really sorry guys, I can’t make it” reads the email from Ant, bass player and part of the vocal quintet who make up Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs - shortly to make our second appearance, at Ipswich Music Day, the largest free festival in the UK with an estimated forty thousand folks’ footfall expected over the course of the day. The rain is teeming down and social media reflects gloomily on the prospects for the afternoon. La Mulley, Mr Wendell, Turny Winn and I have gathered at Kirk Towers to have a quick run through the set in advance of our performance but complications and prevarication mean that we’re essentially just biding time until one of us can make a decision about what to do next. Helen takes another look out of the window and goes to put a jumper on. “I won’t feel the benefit otherwise” she explains. Wendell and I confer on appropriate headgear. “Not that one” he says. “Too Maverick”.

 By the time we’ve loaded up into Tony’s people carrier for the short journey into town the sun has emerged from behind the clouds and Helen has taken off her scarf. The Grapevine Stage is a tented arena in front of the historic Christchurch Mansion and having based our hopes of a good attendance for our sophomore set on the weather reports which predicted showers at around four o’clock we are instead greeted by a stream of people escaping the stifling heat and humidity within, lured by the big stages and the open blue skies across the rest of the park. We announce our arrival to the appropriate authorities, unpack, and fall upon the free water backstage.

 A quick line check and we’re good to go. The prospect of there being a bass player in the audience who knows our set and has rehearsed the appropriate harmonies seems remote but we enquire anyway. In the absence of volunteers we embark on our first song. Everyone comes in at the right, same time, and Helen is in fine, strong voice. Wendell steps up to contribute to the chorus and then veers away from the microphone. He looks over his shoulder, concerned. “I can’t pitch!” he hisses. As we will confirm later in conversation with Ray out of The Black Feathers, rehearsing acoustically in a nice, warm, woody environment is a whole different ball game to that of approaching a microphone which will amplify and project your sounds before feeding back the results through wires and boxes on the stage (if you’re lucky). Wendell and I are a long way from the Picturehouse days when we used to rock up at a pub, plug everything in, grab a drink from the bar and then nonchalantly kick into The Bends with nary a second thought.

 We manage to recover the measure of singing into microphones before too long though, and by the time we are half way through the set everyone is palpably more relaxed about proceedings and we are actually starting to enjoy ourselves. Judging by the reception the songs are getting, so are the audience and one feeds continually off the other until at set’s close we are buzzing. Snappers have taken the opportunity throughout the set to capture various moments (mainly involving our photogenic frontwoman, to be honest) for posterity and we are invited to pose in front of the sponsors’ backdrop for a souvenir of the day. “And maybe one without shades?” suggests the photographer.  

 Over post-match cocktails back at the ranch later that evening I receive a text from Helen It contains a picture of Ant's hospital wristband. “He really was ill” she writes.     

Friday, June 12, 2015

Run Until We Drop.

It's a bit of a call back compendium this week, as many threads from previous blogs start weaving themselves together into a whole. First up, those nice people at Unity in Music have posted an excerpt from my performance in a supporting role at Arlington’s Brasserie with the redoubtable Tony James Shevlin and the small-but-perfectly-formed Jules Shevlin. This was the occasion when I missed Fern Teather’s set and our host was contractually obligated to mention that a forthcoming showcase night would be attended by minions from the Karaoke Sauron’s empire hoping to spot victims for the next series of X-Factor. I’m not sure if anyone got the nod at that circus, but in the mean time Shev’s playing shows in the States and Fern’s organising her own album through Kickstarter. Do, or do not, as the phrase goes – there is no try.

They have uploaded/presented* Run Until We Drop, from Tony’s album Songs from The Last Chance Saloon, cleverly editing in his opening remarks (you can see me seated at the back ready to play some sterling bottleneck on Nashville State of Mind) and then skipping the lengthy intro wherein he explains the real-life scenario which inspired the song. Picture yourself in a classic American diner, maybe having a good coffee and a piece of pie. A motorcycle pulls up in the lot** outside (“I remember thinking that’s unusual – a British bike…”). The rider enters and takes seat at the counter...

I know it's considered vulgar to talk about money, but I received a PRS statement this week, which unaccountably veered into double figures for the first time - courtesy, I suspect, of the munificence of the Brazilian Songs from The Blue House audience. Dame Judy Dyble, who included one of our songs on her recent anthology, sold out the entire first run of the collection and there are reports of at least a couple of radio stations pulling our Little No-One out of the pile and playing that, which isn’t bad considering the forty or so years of collaborations which bookend it. It is a matter of some pride that La Mulley and I take our place on the sleeve notes beside such luminaries as Fripp, Thompson, and our friend Steve Mears, especially now that a second run means that they were able to clear up a couple of typo omissions...   

Speaking of La Mulley, Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs continue to rummage around under the bonnet*** of our prior compositions to see what we can fine tune, soup up or discard, with the result that as well as some new material we are able to present subtly different versions of previously well-beloved favourites based on the different approaches of our new collaborators. So far we have managed to rein in the urge to take our muse south of the border, down Mexico way, but if Mr. Wendell had had some castanets handy at that last rehearsal things might have veered away on a whole different curve. Someone at the day job asked me how things were progressing. “Artistically, we’re looking through sun-dappled leaves, warmth on our faces, bare feet in the loam our forbears trod, in union with…” “No” he said “Who do you sound like?” “Oh – probably Fairground Attraction”.    


* Or ‘dropped’ if you’re that way inclined.

** ‘Car Park’

***Or ‘hood’ if you’re reading this in Canada, the USA or somewhere where the argot of movies and TV series has overtaken everyday vernacular. I got a bit carried away myself earlier.


Monday, May 25, 2015

“Yes, there’s always been a progressive concept element to our folk-country pop music…”

After the timely demise of Songs from The Blue House I kept myself occupied musically by strumming along with the songs of Tony James Shevlin for much of last year, but as pleasant a distraction as that was I found myself still in need of a project. Over many years, ‘the project’ has taken the form of such divers articles as The Perfectly Good Guitars, Theodore, short-lived cover-wranglers Balls Deep and even an exploratory effort which involved playing Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album from soup to nuts.
These collaborative enterprises generally involve identifying an initial construct* followed by a general phone around to see who is interested in coming aboard for the trip. With The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley and I both being at the same loose end it made sense to see if there were some way we could run a few banners up a number of random flagpoles and see if anyone saluted. We threw a few ideas around with long time co-conspirator Mr Wendell before it occurred to us that very many of our original songs had a narrative structure to them - indeed they frequently employed the second-person accusatory tone so beloved of both Justin Timberlake and Arthur Hamilton. I wondered if we might put together a loose narrative involving extant compositions of ours and then, in order to keep things fresh, write some bespoke numbers where this concatenation of material displayed obvious plot holes. This would be our Babbacombe Lee, our Desperado**We didn’t necessarily have to explain to anyone what we were doing, but it might make for a satisfying performance art project, we considered - perhaps ultimately to be staged in a similar fashion to that of the PGGs, wherein the band had characters assigned to them, the script providing a lattice which allowed us to put the songs in context.
About this time the Ip-Art Festival was casting around for volunteers to perform and although being well aware of both the benefits and limitations of being selected to take part, I thought I might throw our collective hat into the ring despite not actually having a line-up, photo, web presence or biography (all of these elements seemed more important to the organisers than an actual sample of our music, the links to which weren’t required until the fourth and last page of the online application form***). Without necessarily meaning to participate in an act of Dadaist art-terrorism, I typed out a suitably pretentious**** biography, found a picture on my phone that we’d taken of a pretty hastily-assembled early version of the group at the Coggeshall Cricket Week and Beer Festival (we finished with a version of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ on that occasion) and hit ENTER.
And blow me if we didn’t get the gig.       

*”Why don’t we play all the guitars we own during the course of one show?”, “Why don’t we play a classic album all the way through?” and on one occasion “Hey – we all look good in this stag weekend photo – let’s form a band so we can use it!”
**We decided to name the nascent show after the set-opening scene setter, so it will be emblazoned on the flyers as “Helen and the Neighbourhood Dogs – Where Are They Now?” Not sure we’ve thought this through properly, tbh.
*** I’ve been doing this long enough that I remember when submissions were on cassette.
****I know - even judging by my standards...

Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Big Hands, I Know You're The One..."

To the wilds of Mid-Suffolk, where erstwhile SftBH banjo-botherer Turny Winn has decamped, all the better in order to be able to get it together in the country. He lives in some converted cottages amidst many unpacked boxes in a village with two pubs, a Co-op and a transitory weekend population – principally through choice rather than for geo-politically motivated migratory reasons. As a permanent resident he is therefore considered somewhat of a social reformer locally, not being given to arriving on a Friday in time for a late supper before packing up his Macbook again on a Sunday night and cursing the A12 road works during his enforcedly slow journey back to a glittering media career in That There London. In the village there are also, we are to discover later, street lights, which provoke a faux-Randy Crawford inspired outbreak of car singing on the way home. We don’t get out much.
At the point where you join us however, The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley has already invested in a lengthy journey from her home in Posh North Essex in order to collect myself* and Mr. Wendell from the IP postcode ‘hood, and we are engaged in quite the discussion regarding her forthcoming dinner engagement, a ‘Red, White and Blue’ affair, for which she is invited to bring a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white, and a blue joke. La Mulley is not, by nature, the most natural progenitor of bawditry and has enlisted our help in order to prepare. We suggest a short vignette of such filth that she cannot in truth bear to repeat it out loud. We wipe tears of self-generated mirth from our rheumy old eyes. As I say, we're not out a lot these days. 

Darkness falls. A sense of foreboding pervades. “It’s a good job he moved out here once we already knew we liked him” offers Helen, well into her second hour of driving. And this is just to rehearse. “Ah – here we are!” she trills. Wendell and I despatch thoughts of who we’d have to eat first in order to survive from our minds as we are ushered hospitably into the welcoming hearth and home of The Winns. There are, satisfactorily, roses around the door and a sturdy latch with which to secure it. No mobile coverage mind, but at least it has its own post code.
We are here to revamp, reboot, rewrite and reverse engineer material for a forthcoming performance under the nom-de-song Helen and the Neighbourhood Dogs – it’s not a great moniker, I know, but offers just the right amount of flexibility in that as long as there’s a nominative Helen we can make up the rest of the numbers in pretty much any fashion we prefer. After a couple of hours of capo shifting, note searching and unfolding bits of hieroglyph-ridden paper – notes written in the white hot crucibles of previous rehearsals, aides memoires from another age - or, in one case, “Come on Tony, you used to play this!” we have five songs of consistent quality which we can perform from start to finish and in mostly the right order of verse, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, outro. That’s pretty much most of what we’re going to need. “Once you start talking, that’ll fill the time up” says Tony, sanguine through experience. I demur. “I’m all about standing at the back tuning between songs these days”.

“Hey, Helen” suggests Wendell, brightly. “Why don't you tell them your joke?”


*I read somewhere on social media that use of this word rather than ‘me’ or ‘I’ was driving someone crazy. This one’s for you.    

Monday, April 27, 2015

We're making a list and we're checking it twice.

 Apologies to regular bloghounds for the radio silence recently, however I hope to be able to announce some exciting news regarding a new venture with the fragrant and charming Helen Mulley shortly - in yet another box-ticking exercise during a long and glittering career I am currently under an actual true-life press embargo regarding leakages and am fully aware that this is in the nature of being an announcement of an announcement, which I generally regard as being in the same ballpark as telling people you're going to become engaged - "When's the wedding?" I ask.
"Oh, we don't know yet"
"Essentially, you just want a toaster, don't you?"
In the mean time, here's a song we once wrote with fellow traveler, the not-so-fragrant-but-almost-equally-as-charming Mr. Wendell. I imagine things will go pretty much in this fashion. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

'Newsnight presenter's furious attack on "bloated" BBC management of "time-servers" and "biddable people"' (The New Statesman, November 2012).

There have been rumours circulating for a couple of years, but it was confirmed today that the BBC would not be sponsoring a stage at this year's Ipswich Music Day. This is a shame, because "I'll see you by the BBC stage" had become, over the years, as much a mantra for music-goers as "Meet me by Sir Alf" is for fans of the local soccerball side. The consistent quality of the output has been maintained over the years by the careful curation of local DJ, writer, promoter, presenter, compere and simply enthusiast Stephen Foster, who has had the rug badly pulled from under him by his managers (I won't say 'superiors', as that would be prevaricative).

If I'm to 'fess up my own interests then, yes, I've had my share of benefits thrown my way - a spot on the Songwriter's Showcase (all original material, and I think I even MC'd one year), a live broadcast by The Star Club (later repeated on Bank Holiday Monday with the inadvertent cuss bomb skillfully edited out by long term OB van-dweller and on-the-hoof recording engineer extraordinaire Dave Butcher), the jukebox theatre of The Perfectly Good Guitars, a storming covers set by The Picturehouse Big Band and a pre-Cornbury warm up with Songs from The Blue House. Didn't get paid a bean for any of 'em. What makes it all the more disappointing then, is that a corporate behemoth that can afford to hire a helicopter - not a car, a real, whirlybird helicopter - to get Jeremy Clarkson from his filming location back to his hotel in time for for dinner and then keep it hanging around for two hours while he finishes his pint won't spin out a few thou' to carry on with a flagship stage at the largest one day free music event in the UK, an event which has been thriving for just shy of quarter of a century.

Shame on you BBC Radio Suffolk. Shame on you.    

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tenor Lady.

And so to Arlington’s – former museum, dancehall, and now thriving brasserie (the breakfasts are a thing of wonder) and on this occasion venue for an open mic night hosted by one Charlie Law, a thoroughly good egg* who also runs a night in Woodbridge, and curated by the good people of Unity in Music who are recording and filming the event for posterity. TJS has secured us a mid-evening spot wherein we, The Chancers – on this occasion TJS, myself and Tiny Diva - will perform lovely new song Nashville State of Mind, and Run until We Drop off’ve the album.
The room is packed – admittedly it’s quite a small room – and there are a multiplicity of cameras, lights and expensive-looking microphones dotted around the place. There are also attractive young people of every stripe, many of whom bear horn-rimmed glasses, artfully-teased beards and inked arms. I feel like Michael Caine with the hordes bearing down on him. “Hipsters!” I mutter “Faarrrsands of ‘em…”. As with all of these occasions the quantity and quality of the performances vary. With our wizened old song writing heads on Shev and I subtly critique the material. Our consensus is that most people could probably afford to lose a verse and that Ed Sheeran’s got a lot to answer for. A few years ago it was all prom dresses, pianos and faux-cockney confessionals, this week it would appear that parlour guitars are in. They come, they go, but the art school dance goes on forever.

I have taken the bus into town and so am pleased to be offered a lift home by my employer** and so while composing ourselves in the lobby I am able to eavesdrop on a monologue being delivered by a gentleman who appears to have lived a life both well and full. Lemmy is mentioned, and Paul Kossoff. At one point he pauses for breath and I am able to intervene by requesting a picture of the young lady, who bears a striking resemblance in terms of style and bearing to one Judy Dyble in her pomp (see above).  “Who’s she?” enquires the rock Zelig. “Is she famous?”

Our exeunt sadly precludes watching Fern Teather, who I have recognised simply by dint of the red dress she was wearing at the last songwriter’s showcase I saw her at - which if nothing else proves the value of good branding. I apologise for having to leave but ask if she could assume that I’d watched her set, enjoyed it enormously and congratulated her afterward, since this is what had happened every other time I’d seen her. She said that she thought this was a good idea and would certainly save a lot of time in social interaction if we simply adopted it as a default position in future. “Did you play earlier?” she asked. I confirmed that I had, indeed already performed. “I’m sorry I missed it” she said. “You were great, by the way”.    

* "The X factor are coming down to take over one night soon, they asked me to mention it. Quite rudely actually. I won't be here..." he said at one point, and also "Does anyone know any jokes?", rather more frequently. 

**I am later relieved at the timing as a round of a (can of) Guinness, a Peroni and an orange juice and lemonade sets me back over a tenner, and I only brought twenty quid out with me.     

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every byway..."

I think anyone who gets even part way into this crazy business we call 'show' is necessarily ambitious to some degree. It may be a minor thing – Wouldn’t it be good if I played someone my song and they applauded? say. Then that becomes Maybe I could play a whole set in front of people and they might applaud? and before you know it you’re on tour somewhere in the Midwest and complaining that they haven’t got your guacamole recipe quite right backstage.
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky with my ambitions. Quite early on I found a group of people who were willing to play my songs (rather than, for example, ‘A’ Bomb in Wardour Street, which once you’ve got the chords of E and A mastered is pretty much your common room-led path to glory and adulation) and a while later we won an award with one of them. We went into a recording studio. We had a cassette with our songs on with a printed inlay and we even had an official rejection letter on headed notepaper from WEA. A girl at one gig cried upon hearing us play one song which she said spoke to her. We played the local ABC Cinema, then we played at The Corn Exchange. The local paper actually asked us if they could take our picture. Some time later I got to play abroad, I was on a vinyl single, I signed a publishing deal, I went to the BBC studios in Maida Vale and recorded a session, I was on a CD, and then I was on a CD released by a proper record company, with a barcode and available in HMV and everything. Then I won another award!

Well, I say that I won another award. What happened was that The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley (pictured above) and I were collaborating on a number of things, mainly through the medium of me strumming chord progressions into a cassette recorder and then handing them over to her so that she could play them in the car on her way to work over and over until by a process of virtual osmosis she had absorbed the rhythms, patterns and tones and was then in a position to write some words, a lovely melody and we’d be laughing all the way to the folk club. One of these was a song which ended up being titled Waste of Angels – the original working title, Then There Was Sunshine, as scribbled on the tape inlay, was appropriated by Our Glorious Leader, who used a very similar compositional technique (and about a third of the chords). Both of these eventually appeared on Songs from The Blue House Too and by various ways and means Waste of Angels started appearing in the nominations list for that year’s Hancock Awards on the venerable acoustic music-based forum Talkawhile, eventually coming out top in a straight tie with John Tams’ Man of Constant Sorrow. Helen, you’ll be pleased to hear, had demurred at the thought of voting for a song she had had a hand in co-composing but was nontheless delighted upon the arrival of a shiny trophy, lovingly inscribed with the winner’s name. Singular. Hers.

This is the way of stuff and although it’s nice to receive plaudits and prizes, it’s sometimes good to be reminded that this is not what we strive for. Adventure, heh. Excitement, heh – a songwriter craves not these things - besides, it wouldn’t be too long before Boo Hewerdine was singing backing vocals on one of my songs, we were opening for Robert Plant and appearing on a film soundtrack, so it was easy to become caught up with the ride we were already on without fretting unnecessarily about who got to keep the resulting hardware.
After the success of album number two we moved on to number three, buoyed by the prospect of spending someone else’s money in the studio and with the promise that it would be available on iTunes (tick!) as well as in (at that point) conventional CD form (tick!). Since we weren’t sure if we’d ever get the chance to repeat this opportunity we resolved to record as many songs as possible - things we were playing live, bespoke numbers created especially for the new album and a few older tunes which we weren’t sure if we’d ever get the chance to commit to hard drive in a professional studio again. One of these was called Little No-One.

Little No-One was originally titled Everywhere and Nowhere In Between and had been sporadically performed by my band gods kitchen during what I like to refer to as our Richard and Linda phase, wherein I had persuaded the rest of the group that what we really needed was a female singer to counterpoint my manly tenor and to occasionally step out from the shadows in order to belt out a heart-rending power ballad to pull in the punters perhaps put off by our regular raw, smouldering manly sexuality*. At one living room get-together with guitarist Steve ‘Kilbey’ Mears I started playing a seventh fret guitar figure, he joined in with a counter-harmony and before too long we had a simple recurring pattern to which I was enjoined to write some lyrics. When it came to pulling together material for what was to become Tree (I think) Helen recalled “…that thing you used to play with Paula” and so we resolved to include it on the list of things to do, the only problem being that no-one could quite remember the words. I checked my big book of poetry, various cassettes were unearthed and scanned with no result until eventually we decided that it would just be quicker for La Mulley to write her own – she, after all, would be the one performing it in the studio.
In the midst of all this we were A & R'ing furiously and someone suggested that what we really needed for the appropriate delivery of the new lyrics was someone with perfect, cut-glass, top-note intonation & inflection and since Julie Andrews was in retirement at the time why didn’t we ask someone closer to the group? With one eye on the furthering of our personal dream team-related ambitions we resolved to enquire gently whether one Judith Aileen de a Bédoyère – Dame Judy from Talkawhile to us, Judy Dyble out of Fairport Convention, Giles, Giles & Fripp, Trader Horne and The Incredible String Band to you – might be entreated to sing on it for us. Turns out she was up for the experience, and so Our Glorious Leader was despatched to darkest Oxfordshire to collect her by car in time not only for her to rehearse and record the number, but to guest with us (or us with her, depending on your perspective) during a short set at the late and lamented High Barn’s acoustic night on the evening before we had the studio booked for the Saturday. Hence I found myself under the bright lights of an Essex venue essaying the guitar solo from Fairport Convention’s version of Joni Mitchell’s I Don’t Know Where I Stand with UFO Club and Middle Earth veteran Judy Dyble, who’d sung it on the album**. Tickety, tick, tick, tick!

Anyone who owns our Junior*** effort will doubtless be aware that such a track does not however exist on the album. It is not to be found on the sleeve, is not evident as a hidden track, a bonus, an extra. So what happened? Well, we spent many a long hour debating the relative merits of all of the songs we had backed up with an eye to bringing the number down to a whole which would flow and change organically over the course of the record. Something that we’d never even (or would ever) play live**** made the cut whilst another couple of new songs didn’t. A cover version got added, one tune with a festive-related in-joke had to go and, finally, Little No-One was quietly retired from active service. One reason was that having five different vocalists on the same dozen or so songs might have been confusing, maybe it didn’t fit the overall mood, but for whatever reason it seemed doomed to obscurity and occasional availability on download sites. Maybe if we ever got round to compiling a career-spanning boxed set overview of our oeuvre we’d find a home for it?
The compilation, the anthology, the career retrospective was one thing I’d not ticked off my big list of things to do, nor had I looked likely to. Admittedly the limited edition double CD Shane Kirk’s Forty, with its jewel case, remastered hits, live tracks and rarities and including full colour booklet had been a treat and a pleasure, but had also also been a one-off birthday present and so didn’t really count,  however word had begun to waft on the wind of a bringing together of material by one Judy Dyble... There’d been a false alarm a few years ago when Universal had started in on a similar project only to get cold feet (there had even been a catalogue number assigned) but it seemed as if having taken the project on herself this time it might go through to completion and after a few hints, a number of excited tweets and, finally some Facebook photographs of the completed artwork, the triple disc, forty eight song retrospective emerged, blinking and uncertain, into the world this week. This is where I get off this crazy ride, I thought to myself. There are no more peaks to ascend, no more milestones to pass, no more certificates to frame – to paraphrase the great Boo Hewerdine, there would be my name in the brackets. I scanned the track listing proudly and there it was – half way through CD two. Little No-One (H.Mulley).             

Judy Dyble's Gathering The Threads is out now.
*That didn’t really come off, to be honest, but we did end up performing as an acoustic duo called Cover Girl which she later fired me from. I still get the occasional apologetic email. 

**The performance ended up on YouTube, where one person commented rather unkindly that viewing the clip was akin to watching half a dozen brickies with a geography teacher (IIRC). Once OGL had checked the source and it turned out to be a guy who had videoed himself pissing off his apartment’s balcony and then uploaded it to the internet we kind of brushed over his finely-nuanced critical sequitur. 

***It’s the grade that follows ‘sophomore’.

****The principally Gibbon-composed Vanilla. It turned out to be one local radio DJ’s favourite song on the album.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

"One of you should have worn a hat; that's what made me get the camera out..."

There is an idea expanded on and monetised in the popular pamphlet Freakonomics that with 10,000 hours practice you can make pretty much anything look casual. We didn't quite go that far in terms of rehearsal time but a lot of prep went into this week’s Tony James Shevlin and The Chancers gig at The Kelvedon Institute. In my adjunctory role as Stage Left Chancer I was able to contribute, suggest, advise and prompt, but the final decisions upon matters of set list, vocal arrangement and appropriate chord inversion were ultimately down to the guy whose name was on the poster - we did, however, defer to Tiny Diva (Stage Right, vocals and percussion) upon matters of wardrobe. “Not those shoes” she issued sternly. “Undo another button on that shirt” came forth sagely.

The set list had been timed, pruned, checked for lyrical subject matter, keys, tempos and instrumentation and ‘tween song intros had been buffed and burnished appropriately. We were in a listening venue, so stretching out on the lyrical exegesis was going to be okay – no danger of losing them while Shev explained, with the benefit of eight by ten glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was, how he came up with that tricky middle eight before the key change. It did not go quite that far, but the intro to Déjà Vu (a song written by TJS at the behest of Larry Page on behalf of Reg Presley, who then went on to record it with three quarters of REM – I necessarily précis here) probably took longer than it did to play the song itself.

There were a couple of new numbers in the set* which were nice for me because I had much less of the redoing the parts that were on the album to perform and more of the this is the arrangement and can you find a bit to go in here? sort of thing to play with. They are also a couple of absolutely corking songs which I really rather hope I’ll be invited in to wrangle when the time comes to record them. That's never a given, of course - only the other night we were discussing the lot of the touring band session guy for (I think it was) Chris Isaak, who I believe takes his whole band in to record an album except for the lead guitarist, who is replaced for the duration by a studio hound and who then presumably has plenty of time to nurse a deepening sense of grievance while he does all those odd jobs around the house that he has not had time to do while he’s out recreating those parts on the road.

So when the time came for my big number I made absolutely sure I was in tune, stepped back slightly so as not to intrude on either the sight lines of those in the front few rows or the raw power of the wall of sound being coaxed from my ten watt Vox and waited for my cue. As it happened, this was the point at which Shev decided to go off-roading. He went into his spiel about the infinite number of songwriters with an infinite number of typewriters. He then continued, guaranteeing that for the duration of the song every single person in the house would have their attention focused completely on his delivery at the microphone. “We did a gig a couple of weeks ago and I accidentally bent my thumb back so far it touched my wrist, so whenever I play an F sharp minor it really hurts, and F sharp minor is integral to this next song. So when you see me doing this face…” (at this point he pulls an expression worthy of Robin Trower at his grimmacitically correct best) “…I’m not doing that lead guitarist face, it means it really, really hurts. Anyway, here we go…”  

*Songwriter’s shorthand #36 – “They’re all new to you, but this is a new one for us too…” 

Photograph of The Kelvedon Institute reproduced without the express permission of Keith Farnish.