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.
***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’).