Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Word Bin.

 ‘What word would you bin (get rid of) and why? 

A 5 minute-ish podcast in which you will hear 3 people binning a word of their choice and explaining their reasons for doing so.’

I’m on this one. Listen to me channel my inner Phil Bryer as I make a wild claim about Neil Young and - as anyone who has spoken to me before about five in the afternoon in real life will be able to attest - attempt to not make it obvious how enjoyable those first three glasses of delicious New Zealand Pinot Noir were. Many thanks to Nadia Kingsley for having me, and do feel free to chip in with a word of your own!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

“I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar it meant that you were a protest singer.“

A couple of blogs ago I wrote about writing and recording with my long-term Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha Tony James Shevlin. He sidled up to me at the office. “I don’t know about the intrinsic artistic integrity of the recording in terms of fully mastered digital release - do you want to make a video?” (I’m paraphrasing). So we got together again and made a stripped-down, if you will, ‘unplugged’ version with him on the expensive acoustic guitar he bought in Nashville and me on what they call, just North of the Humber, the Durrbrurr.

We’ve decided to put it out there in the online wild partly because we feel we need to make a statement upon these crazy, unprecedented times with our crazy, unprecedented rhymes, and partly because these things otherwise tend to sit unloved in musty drawers until they’re old and irrelevant, and no-one wants that, least of all us. Not at our age. 

It’s not the longest protest song ever written - I mean, it’s got one less verse than ‘The Times They Are a-Changing’, which Bob Dylan wrote when he was only twenty two. Mind you, I could play that when I was twelve, and I think that says quite a lot. 

I showed it to my wife. “Remember” I said beforehand “They say that the camera adds ten pounds.”

“Christ” she responded. “How many cameras did he use?”

Saturday, October 10, 2020

“...and a scarecrow in my bed”

I had been away. A long way away. I had loved, lost, been an idiot about it, and even people - my people - were beginning to suggest that if things weren’t exactly rotten in the state of Shanemark, then at least a little spring clean and an airing of the furniture might be the way forward. They were right. So I went away.

A friend of mine had talked about a half-remembered film - there was a denouement involving a beach, a misunderstanding, a tragic accident; all of this filtered through my muddy head and twisted itself into a narrative wherein a therapist’s simple instruction - “Draw your family” - drew on me to the point where I focussed in so much on her narrative that I forgot to consider my own.

I’d already written a song called “I’m Sorry”, and so I figured that I couldn’t just hack over that old ground even though, once again, I truly was. 

I had borrowed a sturdy travelling guitar flight case for the trip which was the only thing I guarded (genuinely) more carefully than my life (it still holds purpose to this day - there’s a twelve-string guitar in it round at Shev’s house as I write) which I occasionally wiped the salty sea air off and strummed as if my life depended on it. To this day sometimes I still think it really did.

Anyway, I wrote a song - one of the songs - and came back and recorded it. I threw in a Byrds lick - which doesn’t come across terribly well on this recording - and Stephen Dean played the hell out of the drums, in his Pete Thomasesque way; Gibbon did some amazing bass, and I stayed up late to record the shipping forecast, which I had listened to every night for the previous two months - not as an affectation, but as a genuine tool for survival as I sailed the sea and totally missed the Crowded House gig that I had tickets for, and that all my friends had gone to. We dubbed that in, crouched over a cassette machine in a caravan in Westerfield - where the dream begins.

I heard it again tonight.

You can too.

If you like.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Well, let’s start at that end and see how far we get...

The great unpleasantness seems to have been going on for an eternity now. Gigs are off, book signings are muted, and expensive residential studios in the country are beyond some things remain constant, at least. Brooding on the state of the isle, Tony James Shevlin - songsmith of this parish - issues an edict. “Be at mine on Wednesday” he says. “And bring the dog.”

TJS has the mind to write a song about the current state of affairs, and enjoins me to contribute some of the words I have swirling about in my head as a result of many of our conversations on the subject, and a number of the chords I have at my very fingertips. This is best done in person, we feel, as recently someone has asked if they can record one of my songs and I have spent three days looking up a variant on ‘E’ so I can inform them of the dramatic change involved in the second line (it’s ‘best aside’ not ‘pesticide’ I feel it is pertinent to point out via text message) and so we consider that it’s probably appropriate if we just show each other what we mean in person, although the shorthand between Shev and myself means that I could probably just say “The ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ chord” and we’d both know what I intend.*

Hence I am reflecting on a shit show of a year, guitar in hand, and he has generously provided tea and biscuits. He’s also holding the pen, which means he has the whip hand in terms of what goes down on paper. You can read up all you like about how if you don’t remember it in the morning it wasn’t memorable enough, but we’re both of an age that sometimes we have to write down what we came into the room for, so it makes sense to the pair of us to have a method of at least jogging our memories when it comes to why there are four empty tea mugs and a packet of hobnobs on the garden table. Also, he’s got one of those new-fangled phones that record what you’ve just done, like the young people have and so if we wanted to Snapchat the session, we’re all covered. After a couple of hours we have three verses, a chorus and a banging middle eight, or at least an agreeably sentient one. At about three I make my excuses and break off for the school run. I’m collecting, not hanging out like David Crosby at the gates of Tamalpais High. 

We exchange notes. We arrange to record a reasonably proper version, and so the next week I return to Shevlin Towers. Since we’re recording, this time I don’t bring the dog. She’s terrible on barre chords anyway. Tony runs down the guide version he’s put down and I scan the wall of guitars, looking for a suitable, tool. First up is the Yamaha, which I immediately capo at the second so I can play the song in D. This is my default recording mode. Up next, the dobro. These do not lend themselves, generally, to artificial key-transposition devices and so I finger-pick - a technique first taught to me by Donovan, at that Ashram in 1967. The National guitar is shining like the Mississippi Delta, and comes off the wall completely in tune, if not a little dusty.

I like Strats but historically, they don’t like me. I pull one off the wall nevertheless and drop in a descending  line over a chorus, feeling like Stephen Stills, only without the hockey jersey and raging coke habit. There’s a custom Tele, with a tone control coil tap. That goes into the mix too. About the time I pick up a bass to try and fill in a descending line on that middle eight I was talking about earlier the lap top is set to ‘save’ and I am quietly reassured that nothing will go to waste. 

The dog needs walking anyway. 

*Turns out it was an Emajor7

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Strange Days Indeed...

The great unpleasantness of 2020 has touched us all in different ways. Mr. Wendell messages to say that he had a dream in which Eric Clapton had moved to Felixstowe and was invited out for a slightly glum drink with Picturehouse (“Everyone just wants to talk about George...”) whilst I myself am recently awoken from a fever dream in which cardboard cut-outs of the band were included in a press conference conducted by a producer friend of ours, wearing a balaclava and menacingly reading a list of demands (“More reverb in the monitors” most likely being top of the list). I mean, I’ve had the Les Paul out and attempted to annoy the neighbours by widdly-widdling at top volume but that wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been, principally because they’d moved out the week before, so it’s not really the same as pulling the full Pete Townsend in a pub in Stowmarket. But then again – what is?.

In other off-CV engagements I was recently involved in a responsibly-distanced garden gig, wherein the list of T&Cs quite respectably outpaced Van Halen’s notorious M&M-centric rider by a good few pages. Notably, audience members were to use wipes to clean the facilities after use and then discard them in a conveniently placed bin, a measure which festival promoters might want to take a good long look at for the 2021 season, assuming this wasn’t just a ploy on behalf of the hosts to get people to clean their bathroom for them for free - something which can’t of course be entirely discounted.

I enjoyed the show, especially given that these days I rarely get to play to any more than thirty or so socially-distanced people anyway, so it wasn’t too out of the ordinary an experience for me, despite my being the designated driver for the evening inevitably taking the edge off my finely-honed and expansive performance style, but it was also a sobering reminder of what we have (hopefully only temporarily) left behind. One of my co-performers reflected sadly on his entire year of work disappearing into the ether within a single forty eight hour period, and of the curious virus that swept through the tour bus in early February.

For those of us slightly more on the periphery of the business of show of course, the impact has been softer in terms of actual able-to-pay-the-rentiness, but similarly dispiriting in terms of bring Key of G-based folk/country/blues/rock/pop to the masses. I speak, naturally, of Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs, whose occasional sojourns into the fetes, festivals and provincial theatres of East Angular were also brought to a summary stop by the impact of the lockdown. We’ve had a couple of get-togethers in the country since then, utilising the space afforded by Fiddly’s English country garden on one occasion and a freshly broom-swept workshop on another. “Don’t worry about the mice” he said reassuringly as Helen attempted to retrieve a half-consumed brownie during a tea break. “They don’t affect the three second rule...”

I also had a one-to-one with banjoista Tony at his recently re-finished country cottage (painted in ‘Red Stallion’, I’m told. It’s also a film) remembering chords to recently-forgotten songs and finessing our first-ever co-write! There’s one song in the set where we swap roles, and he gets to play guitar (and do the “Can you hear the banjo?” quip) and I suggested that I might refamiliarise myself with the chords of G (natch), C and D in order to best perform my supporting role. He retrieved the five-stringed instrument of joy from its case, ony to find that after months in isolation it was perfectly – and I mean electronically tested by specially calibrated instruments – in tune. This never happens. We sighed at each other. “No-one will ever believe us...” #fakenews

All of this set-list remembering malarkey is not entirely of an altruistic mindfulness-restoring nature, of course. We have an unusual show – a good two hours betwixt breakfast and lunch - so we’ve had to remember even the ones that weren’t in the festival set. In another box ticking first, we’re playing in a churchyard. My suggestion that we knock out a quick version of Bob Dylan’s Tombstone Blues has been quietly paddled to the side of the suggestion pool, but nevertheless we approach the event with all the accumulated professionalism, decorum and gravitas for which we are rightly respected withn the tight-knit world of East Angliacana. “Where’s the venue?” someone asks.

You can’t miss it – it’s the dead centre of the village.”

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Throwback Thursday

In these uncertain times many of us – not all, by any means – have found time for reflection, for casting our minds back, for remembering*. As the title of one Suffolk-based compilation once had it Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits or, as Gil Scott-Heron more prosaically put it;

"The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia.
They want to go back as far as they can.
Even if it's only as far as last week."

Many of my reflections are prompted by whatever comes on in the mobile listening station on my way to work. That I can listen to pretty much any one of the albums in my collection merely by flicking a switch on the steering wheel is still tantamount to witch craft in my opinion, but I’m happy to let the random selection throw up whatever it feels like, safe in the knowledge that if I don’t feel like listening to this particular song for whatever reason, there’ll be another one that I definitely do like in a minute. Or nine or ten minutes if something from that Yes compilation comes up.

Regular readers will know that I’m not averse in any way, shape or form to revisiting past glories – I wallow in nostalgia in the same way that C-list celebrities wallow in the attention of the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame, but this isn’t about what I wore to work this week, or what I was flaunting while I was doing it, it’s about – in the words of Goffin and/or King – Goin’ Back**. This has been quite the week for throwing up my back pages – there was the live recording from Denmark on which my friend and compadre Ross manfully attempted to replicate some rather complex three part harmonies on his own, shortly after which having listened to***, he started posting updates on the social media about his new home in Denmark. Spooky.

Last night it was the turn of Songs from The Blue House, for whom I used to contribute comments very similar to these, regarding what we’d done, where we’d been and who we’d done it to, with or for. Even now I occasionally whack up something from this blog from the (fairly) recent past that some of the participants have no recollection of enjoying. I had a good listen to the first album we did together, and had kind of forgotten how good it sounded then, and consequently how proud I am of it now.

There are a few genuinely stunning songs on there that even back in the day we had quietly dropped from the set once we had moved on to beer festivals and parties in the park. Gathering band members, exploring the highways and byways of Posh North Essex, a pregnant La Mulley expanding in all sorts of interesting directions. The band is gone, the website domain returned to the wild, only the recordings preserved in aspic. I missed those days. I went to bed nostalgic and slightly rueful.

And then when I woke up, I remembered The Wayback Machine.

*I believe that the good folk who work in those drive-through testing centres they have nowadays are reminded periodically of festivals they’ve been to in the past, their day consisting as it does of getting up ridiculously early, shitting in a portaloo and then standing around in a wide open space in the rain, eating terrible food and waiting for something to happen.

**Yes, I did watch Echo in the Canyon last night, why do you ask?

***Grammar police, please check.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

"......and Stig sued himself accidentally."

During the current unpleasantness, many things have been put on hold. The Neighbourhood Dogs, for example, should have been entering the final phases of tweaking our next single for release, but instead we find ourselves antisocially distanced – flung to the five corners of the unfashionable end of East Angular and bereft of one to one (or two, or three, or six) interaction.

Another consequence of the lockdown has been that dreams are, apparently, more realistic to us than before as our minds take advantage of the extra space they’ve been afforded to stretch their legs, settle down into a comfy armchair, and explore their surroundings. Some of these metaphorical devices may not work togeher quite as one might hope, but at least there’s hope. And so it was with no little anxiety that I awoke from a fevered dream – not the one in which The Present Mrs. Kirk had only clipped one leg of the labradoodle, so everyone thought she was a pirate* - but to the realisation that in my sleep I had been finessing our new song, but had woken up with another running through my head. I was literally in a Nashville State of Mind state of mind.

To explain further, we - Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs - have been working on a lovely ballad, to which I have contributed a simple slide guitar motif, much as one might find on the more tasteful end of the East Angliacana thirty second taster intro scene but which, importantly, I suddenly thought that I might have lifted wholesale from the exquisite Nashville State of Mind by one Tony James Shevlin which – even more crucially – I had played on at a session for the BBC and which was currently doing the rounds of social media again after it had popped up in both of our timeline ‘memories’. Rightly so – it’s a wonderful song, one of Shev’s best, and I love it dearly both for its sentiment and its lack of sentimentality. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to focus on the chord sequences of two apparently unrelated songs before you’ve even switched off the alarm and let the dog out in the morning, but it’s a disconcerting process.

Firstly I had to ascertain whether the chords were related, in the same ballpark, or even playing the same sport. I imagine that George Harrison went through a very similar process off the back of that whole My Sweet Lord malarkey before he released This Song, which dealt with that exact process and although sounding like something he might have knocked off in his sleep (and probably did, to be honest). I saw an old video from Saturday Night Live recently in which he and his chums seemed to be having a whale of a time, but that doesn’t make the track any more memorable. Maybe that was the idea. At the time he was hanging out with Eric Idle, whose whole Rutles gig was built around making something similar-to-but-not-quite, and so when songwriter-in-residence Neil Innes found that Johnny and the Moondogs-come-lately Oasis had been third-guessing his work with their Whatever, it must have come as a pleasant, and financially rewarding, surprise.

I remembered that at an early rehearsal of our song someone had commented that it may have shared some songwriterly DNA with a previous effort that many of the group had been involved with, called Risk. I comforted myself with the thought that at least I’d co-written that, although anyone who remembers the case of Jarndyce, Jarndyce and Zaentz vs. Fogerty will be aware that this is a tricky defence to mount in the face of a determined legal team with dollar signs in their sights. Also, that was me playing del Amitri’s Driving With The Brakes On really badly, so that was never going to help.
 Eventually, I worked out in my head that although the initial chords shared some of the songwriterly essence to which we all aspire (the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift – we’ve all done it), Shev’s intro - which I had dutifully transcribed and learned – was more complex, melodically more satisfying, tonally appropriate, and well beyond a legal matter.

No. It was from Torn, by Natalie Imbruglia.

*Sylvie, not Mrs. K. 

Monday, March 16, 2020


I have been recorded many times in the past. In fact the other day I was trying to work out how many tapes and CDs we have amassed between us in Helen and The Neighbourhood Dogs, but it started getting over-complicated when I couldn’t decide whether The World Service five-song demo that Me, Wendell and Gibbon did at Spaceward counted as one example or three. Nevertheless, between us we’ve been in church halls, sports halls, Baptist chapels, converted pig pens, garden sheds, cellars, caravans, twenty four track custom built digital facilities, radio stations, and – that one time – the BBC Studios at (in?) Maida Vale and come out with some sort of reproduction of our – or at least ‘a’ - performance.

We made a decision at the start of the latest cycle of the seasons to write and record something from scratch, thereby avoiding all of that tedious “Well that’s not what you did live...” entrenchment that can sometimes occur when you’re trying to recreate a performance in the studio and it turns out you've been playing an A minor  against a C major root. You might be able to get away with that sort of shizzle on a Friday night at The Coggeshall Beer Festival, but the pristine digital modern studio will highlight that missing relative major as clear as the nose on your face. Happy is the producer who can work up a track all on his own, fly in a vocal recorded in a hotel room and held somewhere in the ether, whack on a bit of autotune and have it on the kids’ iPhones before their parents even realise what Grimmeh thinks of it on a Friday teatime. Yes, I have been listening to Radio One in the car, how could you tell?

Our de Facto producer – Fiddly – has been patiently recording various contributions to the sum of our parts over the past few weeks, building from a simple guitar and vocal demo which I put down to create a canvas which if not entirely blank*, certainly left room for everyone else to do a bit of colouring in without having to worry about going over the lines. It’s not like we had to rewind the tape over and over again in order to get down the perfect take – we’re not in the eighties, for goodness’ sake – but we thought we might make it slightly easier for the rest of the group by ensuring that it was at least in time.

You may or may not be familiar with the idea of The Click Track. This is the metronomic beat which was initially put on recordings to make sure the drummer played in time without speeding up or slowing down** before industrious recording engineers with one eye on the clock (and the other on the attendant studio bill) decided to largely replace the latter with the former, thereby coincidentally saving a fortune on vacuuming fragments of Vic Firth 5As off the studio carpet. I’ve never been very good with click tracks, and after a couple of run throughs with the default Cubase metronome fighting against my uniquely rhythmic stress and weave approach to strumming the backing track, we decided that alternate methods of keeping in good order were required. Cutting the odd extra beat out of the two inch tape with a razor was no longer an option, and neither was slowing down the tapes by judicious application of the tape brake.

This is where Fiddly’s approach to accomodating studio kit came in extraordinarily handy. There is a long and noble tradition of repurposing surfeit gear at The Hovel – essentially anything which fellow recording folk believe is obsolete, surplus, outmoded, outdated or just overly complicated to operate will be gratefully hoovered up and stored until required with the result that he has accumulated quite the collection of equipment which, with the cycle that these things inevitably follow, has become highly desirable. It’s a strange combination of classic tech and Heath Robinson invention at the business end of the studio complex, which is where we now found ourselves.
One reasonably modern thing he had acquired was one of these new-fangled*** loop pedal thingies they’re filling Chantry Park with these days and after a flash of inspiration he scuttled off to the main house to track it down and one extravagant unboxing and a crash course in stomping in time later, we had a chunka-chunka**** rhythm perfectly suited to the syncopation required for a succesful take.

Later we added a guide vocal, a few tracks of backing vocal - building, building, gently building. “I’ve got a proper pop shield” said Fiddly from behind the control room glass as I sang into another vintage mic through some indeterminate gauze stretched across a coat hanger “...but this works, and so much better.”
You don’t want to know how long those tights have been on there” he chuckled in my headphones.
How long?” I asked good-humouredly.
What did I just say?”

*One of my favourite jokes from the eighties was that the real name of the bass player in Linx – nicknamed ‘Sketch’ - was ‘Preliminary Drawing’. Obviously the only correct response to this was to reply “You’re lying.”

**You don’t find classic album bands like Bucks Fizz wang on about this sort of thing, do you? [checks earpiece] Oh...

***Circa 2004.

****Technical term.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Print The Legend...

I've, ahem, dropped a new compilation of the blog (to buy, click in the links section) - I believe that's what the modern media folk say. this is the introduction, written by m'learned colleague Shev, who appears in the book almost as much as I do.

 I first met Shane Kirk in 1997 when I auditioned for his Beatles specialist band The Star Club. I was feeling very pleased with myself until he dryly informed me that I was the only applicant.
In the intervening years we have shared many stages together. When I have a harebrained musical idea, he is most often the first person I call. “Do you want to help me start a songwriters' night?” “Shall we start a band where we pretend to be an American family playing Country songs?” The answer is always yes.
There have been many books written about the goings on and antics of rock stars. This is not one of them. However, this is one in a series of books that you may enjoy if you want to know both the struggle of writing, recording and performing your own songs with very little prospect of retiring on the proceeds of these endeavours, as well as spending your weekends working in a covers band, playing songs you wished you'd written, in pubs you wished you weren't in.
Someone had to write this book; I'm glad it's Shane Kirk.
My name crops up in a few of these stories. I look forward to more musical mayhem with the author. And then reading about them...

He also very kindly supplied me some notes. In the immortal and probably entirely fictional words of Salieri...