Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Let me bore you with this story, how my lover let me down..."

It is a truth universally acknowledged that once you’ve learned how to play the first six The Beatles singles you’ll be in possession of everything there is that you need to know about writing a song. Song writing, I should stress, is not the same as making a record, as John Seabrook’s excellent The Song Machine explains in detail and at length. But I digress. With the benefit of knowing how "one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches” one can all the more appreciate the “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!”'s that tend to round off those early choruses. Listen and learn, kids, listen and learn. My own personal road map on the way to song writing enlightenment on the other hand, was Neil Young’s Comes a Time. Once I'd reached the point where I could play all the way through the whole album I knew what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, and had also developed a penchant for checked shirts, the key of 'G' and battered straw hats that has withstood no little critical opprobrium even to this day.
But the intriguing thing about those Beatles singles is the stories they tell and the questions they ask. “If there’s anything that you want..?”, “You think you’ve lost your love…”. Despite any contrary claims regarding the groove, it’s story tellers whose work you have to keep coming back to. Desperado was a disappointing follow up to Eagles’ debut album sales-wise, but it’s still their best work, due in no small part to the narrative thread that runs through it. Thin Lizzy’s best song isn’t Jailbreak, or The Boys are Back in Town or even Don’t Believe a Word, but the relatively unassuming Southbound*, with its trail-weary protagonist reflecting on the good old days in the same way that Bruce Springsteen’s tough young punks from Asbury Park turned into the jaded parents of The River. Throughout these songs, I want to know what happens in the next verse, the next chapter. To reach the gloomy denouement**.
At last night’s Doghearsal we sat down with two chords and a couple of verses of lyrics, trying to make sense of the narrative and bookend the story of 'As Yet (Untitled)' as best we could.

I dug out all these old photographs

The three of us smiling on New Year’s Day

It’s almost as if it didn’t happen

 And it feels like it’s a century away starts. It’s not like our song Harrogate, which is a jolly, chirpy four verse country romp about an illicit but ultimately doomed liaison in a northern spa hotel***. That’s a straight soup to nuts Squeeze song waiting to happen. This is more opaque. Who are these people? Where have they met? What are they doing there? What are their regrets? I won’t lie to you – these are the themes I keep coming back to. There may be a hundred protagonists, a few dozen parties and a hundred miles of tarmac in the notebooks, scraps of paper, bookmarks and receipts I’ve scribbled things down on over the years, but the question is always the same. In common with The Boss, I just want to know if love is real.
We worked on the arrangement. I’d come in with two chords and the lyrics, intending to workshop the thing into something bigger, but we’d decided that it didn’t need to break out into a bridge, a chorus, a middle eight – just to go circling around and around, Mr. Wendell keeping the hypnotic rhythm going - like the very best of Simon Nicol’s Sloth work - while the rest of us drift in and out according to mood and inclination. “It’s only two chords” said someone “It’s not a bit too U2, is it?”
“Fuck ‘em – they didn’t write ‘A’ and ‘D’” someone replied.
After a while I remembered where I’d heard these inversions before. Many moons ago our drummer had written a song called Love is Here through the simple expedient of positioning his hands anywhere on the guitar neck that sounded good to him, and then moving the odd finger to see what happened. The verses were based around a repetitive three chord round with lots of open strings and odd sub-tonics. I’d absorbed, assimilated and re-stumbled upon his fingering**** for two of them and here we were, some twenty five or six to four years later bringing them back out into the light of day, or at least the stygian half ten-ness of a Tuesday night in Coggeshall. Song writing, chord construction, words and bridges - all there in spades. And he couldn’t play you a Beatles song if his life depended on it.        

*And it closes with a great big fuck-off gong. Which is awesome.
*** Which in turn is not a patch on Scarborough, by Farrah, which covers pretty much the same sort of ground lyrically, but which has a better chorus.
****Easy, tiger.

Monday, September 05, 2016

"Do your Claude Monet!" "I'm sorry - I don't do impressionists..."

A chum flagged one of those memes on their Facebook page the other day – this one a product of the venerable Musician’s Union, which has a history of being very good to orchestral and session musicians and is widely ignored by the rest of us – suggesting that unless you were doing good works for charity you should not play gigs for free. A wizened old chestnut indeed. Having been on both sides of the paid/plaid* divide I can confirm that this is an emotive subject and has been discussed online many times before. The financially rewarding Star Club years went a great way toward financing the not-so-lucrative gods kitchen and SftBH epochs and yes, we did a lot of work for charity, notwithstanding the rather heated discussion we once had with some members of one bike club when we declined their invitation to spend our entire Saturday providing the PA and playing for their good cause – not because it wasn’t lucrative or that the charity wasn’t entirely worthy, it’s just that all of us had better things to do with our personal time on that occasion.
One of the online responses to my friend’s post was from a correspondent indignant about being continually told to monetise her art (I’m paraphrasing – there was a lot of text to summarise) which I can sort of see, or at least I could do clearly if I weren’t so completely mesmerised about the prospect of one day being in the position of insisting on monetising my own art. That would certainly help assuage a lot of low-level guilt about asking your friends and colleagues to spend an hour and a half driving in order to play a twenty minute ‘open’ spot when they could be more gainfully employed sewing name tags into their kids’ PE kit ready for their first day back at school. Or building furniture.

As it was, we spent two afternoons this weekend gainfully not monetising our art – firstly in Needham Market at a Fun Day where we were the starter course to a veritable banquet of open spots, a singer who was on The Voice, a bouncy castle and, later, karaoke**. Our host, who had a terrific voice of her own, made us thoroughly welcome and waited patiently while we phoned around to see if anyone in proximity of the venue had any microphone stands we could borrow, the privilege of digging them out and bringing them to the venue on our behalf they would be similarly un-monetised for. We had a good time, using it as a pre-session run through of the set for the next day’s gig, and Nicola put a clip of our performance on to the electric internet, prompting one viewer to comment that it was the best version of Love Minus Zero/No Limit he’d ever heard. So, no money, but good exposure.
It was also a useful try-out for the new instrumentation – we’d decided to eschew the familiar two acoustic guitar strumalong style in exchange for one of us going electric and the other going to California for a couple of weeks and this had been the first opportunity to see how it sounded live. A bit too long tuning between songs for my liking – Helen’s “Talk among yourselves…Um, I probably need to work on my between-songs banter a bit, don’t I?” had been merely the confirmation that I was spending a little too much time on capo-related tweakery of my guitar and so I decided that for the next day’s show I would brazenly break Robert Forster’s seventh rule of rock and roll and take another to go with the bouzouki I was using on one song. One of five, I should probably mention. Let’s face it, if you’re not being paid in items you can legally take to a superstore on the outskirts of town and exchange for goods and services you may as well indulge yourself in other ways - it’s only that we’d already decided on the set and we weren’t playing anything that demanded a capo at the fifth fret in order for me to conjure my inversions*** too that meant that I didn’t pack a third electric guitar to go with the other two.

Our Sunday host and de facto front-of-house sound engineer looked at the mountain of equipment we (I) was loading in to the cramped open mic-sized performance arena with a mixture of rising panic, fear and disbelief. “I didn’t see why I should make it easy for you!” I chirruped happily. She looked slightly less impressed than if I’d announced that there was a fortress of keyboards**** and a Mellotron still to come in, but took it all with good grace. Thankfully, she’d had a cancellation and so we had a bit more set up and pack down time than we would have otherwise allowed ourselves and also had an opportunity to drop in a couple of extra (unrehearsed) songs from our back catalogue – one of them a genuine request, which is always gratifying. With all of the history of recorded music stretching out around them as far as the ear could hear, someone wanted to listen to something we’d written
At a party recently, someone asked me what my ideal job would be. “Tim Dowling” I said. “He gets to go out at the weekend and play with his band, and then he gets to go home and write about it”.

And he gets paid for both.                                


*I tend to wear the familiar Neil Young/Rory Gallagher-inspired lumberjack shirt when performing my own works. And pretty much all the rest of the time too, if truth be told.
**That is, the singer had appeared on television’s The Voice, not that she appeared on the bouncy castle. I explained this line up to a friend, including the karaoke. “When does the fun start?” he replied, drily.

***Ooh, Matron, don’t! They can’t touch you for it.
****Thanks to @backwards7 on Twitter for that one.