Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Hit Factory


During a discussion around the art of songwriting (or craft, or pastime, or however it is you prefer to refer) at The Blue House last night, we were trying to come up with a suitable simile for the process and preferably one which didn’t involve ‘evacuation’. After a tiresome day – the highlight of which had been an innuendo-strewn thread on her Facebook page regarding how much work she had to do – I had asked if anyone wanted to try and get a song together and so Mr. Wendell, Helen and I had assembled in order to knock one out. As it were.
I’d been inspired by a ‘Dangerous Building’ sign hanging on the outside of a house of someone we used to know, and an offhand remark made by The Artist formerly known as Our Glorious Leader as a police car drove by with its siren wailing as we passed it. I made a few notes, had a scrap of a melody and anxiously mailed Helen to ask if she knew of any songs called “This Property is Condemned”#, as it seemed too good a metaphor to have remained unused so far thus in popular song. I knew that there was already Love’s The Only House, and When It Was Ours based broadly in the same post code, however she suggested that this ground may previously have been adequately covered by Shakin’ Stevens. I did a bit of digging and it turns out This Ole House is quite the death ballad when it comes down to it, and about as lyrically cheery as You Are My Sunshine. This in turn reminded me of Gregson’s first tenet of song writing; Cheery words – maudlin tune / Downbeat lyrics – happy dance chords. Having mucked about with a Neil Young chord progression* at our last rehearsal (who doesn’t?) and, ahem, borrowed a couple of turnarounds I now had a traditional structure, a big chorus (which had a tendency to morph into Meatloaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Light if I didn’t keep a close eye on it) and a middle eight. Which is where the guys came in.
As I say, we were all a bit tired, we all have inviting-looking sofas, and were of necessity making a late start on things due to domestic commitments in combination with that Helen lives about a forty minute drive away from where we do. And on a school night. On my morning commute, a chance selection of some Art Blakey (of all people) popping up in the mobile listening station had put the idea of making the song a kind of shuffle and so I gamely tuned up, ran through the structure for them and waited for the resulting opprobrium to manifest itself. “Hmm – that’s got something” I heard one of them say. Mr. Wendell attached a capo to his trusty Gibson acoustic and started transposing chord shapes. Helen hummed a harmony line. Twenty minutes later she suggested that the instrumental section not be the same as the verse, chorus or middle-eight but “…go somewhere else”. Accordingly we went somewhere else which, it turned out, meant that we’d effected an accidental key change which manifested itself when we got back to the chorus. Wendell smiled as he realised the new chords fit perfectly simply within his be-capo’d inversions. Helen hummed a solo, we counted in an ending, Wendell and I figured a little harmony intro riff which lent itself to an echo of Crazy Little Thing Called Love. All these little influences and hidden mind cupboards being opened up and rooted through in search of that elusive last ingredient to just finish off the dish before us. We played it through, then played it through again. Sated, we returned to our discussion about the process. “It’s like swimming” said Hel. “You never want to go, but afterwards you feel great”.
As Wendell drove home, we listened to XTC and talked about the writing process. Knowing I was going to post something up I wondered if there was an inspirational Andy Partridge quote I could use to illustrate and illuminate it further. And that’s where I found this.


*At least that's what I say. Wendell reckons it's from Headstart for Happiness.

# Update; Friend of the band and recording mentor Fenton Steve points out that Maria McKee was indeed way ahead of us. I should have known that as I own this album. Ironically, it's the one where she looks a bit like Helen on the cover.

Friday, March 17, 2017

"Nobody Knows Anything..."


I spend a lot of time bumbling around on the internet, me - a touch of bloggery here, a little below the line action there and - of course - this occasional record of my glittering showbiz career, which I occasionally compile into book form. One of the places I tend to hang out online is at The Afterword, which grew out of the compost left over after the untimely demise of The Word Magazine. Colin Harper - journalist, biographer of Bert Jansch (and like me a one time musical employer of Judy Dyble) - is also on the AW blog and recently wrote that he really must get round to reading some of my efforts. I'd really enjoyed his John McLaughlin book and I thought it might be a nice gesture to share mine with him, so I sent him a copy. A short while later he posted this review on The Afterword, and I enjoyed reading it almost as much as I enjoy writing the blogs. In case you don't get over there as often as you might, I've taken the liberty of reproducing his kind words here; 

As of January 2006, Skirky had been playing guitar in bands, some of which had played original music, none of which ‘made it’. As he explains in the Introduction to this warm, witty, unpretentious and entertaining diary of a year-in-the-life of the bar covers band they had become, ‘we couldn’t just knock it all on the head and retire gracefully. Retire from what, for a start?’

As well as being written by a fellow clearly comfortable in his own skin, Skirky (who has, like Dr Watson did with Conan Doyle, employed someone to be his literary agent/name-on-the-cover, in this case one Shane Kirk) has produced a valuable anthropological document. It even helps that we never find out the name of the band (unless I wasn’t paying attention on that page) and only know the members by cunning soubriquets: The Drummer, The Other Guitarist, The Singer, et al. This is thus an ‘Everyband’ memoir – a snapshot of the life and trials of a bunch of music fans who have wound up exchanging the dream of Peel sessions and the right to say ‘Hello, Wembley!’ with feet on monitors for an evening at the Dog & Duck, a few pies and pints, and a regular cache of passing characters.

‘Scratch the surface of a contentedly strumming pub rocker and you’ll surely find the soul of a burned-out singer-songwriter still bitter that they came second in the 1989 ‘Battle of the bands’ competition, and as a result never got the acclaim they so clearly deserved then, and still deserve now.’

Along the way we learn that waterskiing trips can be cancelled because it’s ‘too wet’, that ‘the hog roast man’ is not always available, that ‘the healing power of REO Speedwagon is an underrated one’ that ‘only natural predator’ of the pub-rocker is ‘the Dixieland Jazz Combo’ and that, of Skirky & his mates, ‘folk in Stowmarket still talk in hushed tones of the version of ‘Rubber Bullets’ we attempted on the back of two quick run-throughs at which no more than 60% of the band were present at any one time’.

For the pub-rocker, when push comes to shove, ‘the show-off must go on. And you have to pay for the privilege.’ Then again, ‘the clarion cry of ‘Come on! Earn your money!’ never falls more easily than from the lips of someone who hasn’t paid to get in’.

This is a terrific book – great fun, an easy read, a glimpse into a loveably middle-English world of country pubs and creative dreams that aren’t so much broken as mended and making do, and a talent worn very lightly indeed. I wouldn’t bet against Skirky – whoever that mystery man may be – having a hit song in him. But even with the royalty millions rolling in, I have a feeling he’d still be down at the ‘Dog & Duck’ playing Kenny Rogers, Radiohead and everyone in between. And yes, he *does* do Wings – especially if they’re from KFC.

Length of Read:Medium

Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Any light-hearted memoir, Rick Wakeman’s anecdotes, Brian Pern mockumentaries, pies, beer, Ipswich…

One thing you’ve learned
That Ipswich is called ‘Ippo’ by its denizens. Who knew?          
 

Monday, February 27, 2017

"I've marked you down two points for doing some Coldplay..."


A return to where it* all began this week, as a temporarily reconstituted Picturehouse Big Band conduct what we refer to (several times) as a Sunday afternoon ‘live rehearsal’ prior to one of our occasional forays back into the world of birthday-parties-by-request. The Singer, The Bass Player, The Drummer and The Other Guitarist are all present and correct, as is a cheerily receptive audience, thanks in no small part to our two televised support acts – The Old Farm Derby and an England rugby international, which we try very hard not to disrupt by sound checking the drums midway through.
Having originally set up an acoustic strum through a few appropriate covers, we have remembered an exponentially increasing number of things that we like to play, and so the set will eventually come in at a hefty couple of hours’ worth – and although that’s including the traditional onstage conversation and instrument swapping, it's still probably about an hour and a quarter more than we’re actually going to need on the night. Still, it’s nice to stretch out a bit, both figuratively and literally, as the big green tent at The Dove provides ample stage swagger room for all of us – not always the case in our heyday, when we would frequently be shoehorned into the last available space in the bar, whether that be by the dartboard, under the telly or – as on one occasion – tucked in next to the condiments station in the restaurant. The Other Guitarist had to stop between songs to hand out forks and mayonnaise.
After an understandably hesitant start (by our standards) – after all, some of this equipment hasn’t been out from under the stairs in half a decade – we get into our stride and as well as a few old favourite songs, some of their bespoke introductions are getting an airing too. “This is a rehearsal, after all” says The Drummer “So if there’s anything you need to practise, do feel free to join in. I’m brushing up on my drinking”. In the midst of the audience, my KS1 firstborn Lord Barchester is practising his joined up writing by noting down the song titles and marking our performance out of ten like a diminutive Len Goodman or a slightly less acerbic Craig Revel-Horwood**. He is also (naturellement!) wearing a cape, which adds dramatically to the effect of his whirling dervishness during a couple of consecutive Clash numbers in the second set. This is a set I am running behind for, and arrive onstage only just in time to hear the announcement that as well as performing at today's salon, we will also be part of a Summer free festival at Portman Road to celebrate our hosts’ twenty years in the booze and muse trade. “I’m so sorry I’m late” I explain “I was taking my son for a poo”. I consider it unlikely that Joe Strummer had occasion to present this as an excuse for not turning up on time to fight the law. It wasn’t always like this, I reflect.
Mrs K, having taken a temporary leave of absence from audience member duties is privy to a gentleman displeased with our current direction. “I told ‘em – if they play another Radiohead song I’m off!” he mutters as he takes his leave – this delivered in broadest Gyppeswyckian, which adds incalculably to the gaiety of the scene. Back inside, thankfully not everyone is as disapproving by our choice of material and at the conclusion of set two we are invited to continue our performance by an appreciative crowd, albeit one thinned slightly by childcare responsibilities and the realisation that some of them haven't had their tea yet. We use this opportunity to invite friend and former co-Picturehouser Andy Trill up to properly shred his way through My Sharona in his inimitable fleet-fingered fashion. He looks at the disappointing dearth of rack effects and flashing lights at his feet “Give me more gain than I could possibly ever need” he politely requests, before quietly and efficiently going on to tear the roof off the sucker while I look on with a cheese-eating grin of satisfaction. We attend to packing up, grateful that it’s eight o’clock in the evening as we call to carriages, rather than two in the morning - we're not as young as we used to be, you know, however much we might look it.
Back when I started writing about Picturehouse it was to capture and treasure these times for posterity – to keep alive the feel of the moment ere I forget in the fog of the morning after.

By the time I get home there are four live clips from the gig on Facebook.            

*This blog
**We scored an impressive 148 points out of a possible 150, I am told.
 
(The picture at the top of this entry is poster we used for our first gig together. The Other Guitarist got his kids to design it when they were around the age that Barch is now. The eldest of them is now a paramedic who you occasionally see tearing around town under blue lights and sirens. Time is round, and it rolls quickly). 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lazy People in Local Newspapers


I see from a report in Her Majesty’s Press that local landmark The Mulberry Tree is up for sale. Well, I say ‘report’ – what I mean is a non-subbed, non-parsed cut & paste from the selling agent’s website describing the assets of the building. This, I’m afraid, is what passes for journalism these days – this and an endless (re)cycle of former glories and nostalgic, misty mountain hop-flavoured memories of the way we were*. Still, you don’t need another reflection on the decline and fall of the local paper from me – there are many, many ex-journalists who are more than qualified to give you that, but if their modus operandi is simply to exploit the archive then surely one day they’re going to run out of history** - although I know of several bits that they won’t be able to lay their hands on, because at the end of his tenure as rock and pop correspondent (never a massive priority for the editor) Mr. Wendell*** lifted as many glossy 8x10 photographs with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was as he could cram into his briefcase. There are more mullets in there than in a Floridian haul seine net.
In a spirit of research though, here are a couple of things I found with their look up function – here’s Picturehouse letting local radio presenter Simon Talbot play guitar with us and here’s me and James looking forward to our shot at Hollywood glory. Because we’d written a song the photographer for the latter story asked us to pose holding pencils and a piece of paper, and my favourite quote from the eventual published piece is “…several other talented musicians make up the band, some of whom play occasionally”. You see – [CTRL] + C – I could do that job. We took that picture in The Dove, by the way. 
Sadly, The focus of the current 'story' is on the value of the property, and not on the vital part the venue and it’s custodians played in my rise and rise to rock stardom and notoriety during the pub’s time as the rebranded The Milestone in the latter part of the last century and the early stirrings of this. Having moved from The Olive Leaf just up the road, Karen and Ady brought along some of the house bands who had kept them entertained so royally during their tenure there and here it was also that a nascent Songs from The Blue House made our live debut, and where we then backed La Mulley at SSW as she first presented many of the songs which would go to make up our second album.
Here The Picturehouse Big Band hosted a series of themed gigs – the Football Kit Night was going well until I tried to play 2-4-6-8 Motorway in goalkeeping gloves (don’t listen to those who tell you it improved the whole experience), our Beach Party drew admiring reviews regarding the nature of then-bass player Andy’s shortie shorts (Kilbey sported a Beckham-esque sarong) and the inevitable school uniform night came with the consequence that the music respectfully stopped whenever Katinka went on a glass-collecting run. There was the night that Limehouse Lizzy cancelled up at The Railway and we threw in a couple of impromptu Thin Lizzy numbers (“It’s Em, D, C and G all the way through – I’ll do the solo…”) and Pete Radar Pawsey did a harmonica solo in Take It On The Run. The Star Club played after-park parties which pulled in almost as many folk as watched us at Ipswich Music Day, I DJ’d a vinyl-only night - hell, they even let gods kitchen play.
All this reduced to “The property comprises of a ground floor L shaped bar, 50 covers, a tap room for beers & ciders from the barrel, ladies, gent’s and disabled toilets, a walled garden with seating area for 16 covers, complete with a BBQ dining area and a beer garden to the front of the premises.” Sorry, I do beg your pardon – that’s from the Penn Commercial listing – this is from the Ipswich Star story – “The property comprises a 1,599 sq ft ground floor L-shaped bar with 50 covers, a taproom for beers and ciders from the barrel. Outside there is a 1,237 sq ft walled garden with seating for a further 16 covers, complete with a BBQ dining area.” [CTRL] + P.
And this is just from my experience – think how many stories they could spin out if someone was just prepared to get off their big fat keyboard, pick up a phone and ring a few people. What about the night David Coverdale bought a round for everyone in the pub, when Tony Hadley got turned away from a lock-in because no-one recognised him, Dave Greenfield turned up at songwriter’s night and played Golden Brown or The Levellers were in there after their encore at The Regent before the audience were?
“Upstairs is a three bedroom flat with study, and a living room, attractive fitted kitchen and separate toilet and bathroom with free standing bath. The flat has also been recently renovated and decorated to a good standard” my arse.

               
*Although not entirely unlike much of this blog, to be fair.

**We listened to an interview with an executive from Archant regarding the future of local papers on the wireless one day on our way to a festival, and if he said ‘monetise’ once, he said it twenty times, and it was only a ten minute feature. When the Ipswich Star do the inevitable self-aggrandizing history of their new offices, I hope they remember to include this.

***Following in a distinguished succession of feature writers (Rob Hadgraft, Simon Berrill, Julie Adams), Mr. Wendell employed Our Glorious Leader James and Myself as (unpaid) singles reviewers and once interviewed our band As Is for a feature which appeared under the headline “Too Lazy to Work, Too Scared to Steal”, which was a mantra we’d adopted from Green on Red’s Dan Stuart – his response to the question as to why he was a musician.

      

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Back to the Future


I had the pleasure of reading a great interview with Chris Leslie and Dave Pegg-out-of-Fairport-Convention this week, and in among the expansion and reminiscence there was the almost throwaway comment that one of the bass parts on the new album had essentially been edited together from various takes by Engineer John Gale and that he (Dave Pegg) had relearnt the whole in order to perform the song live. This, I thought, was a fascinating detail in the recording process, although not entirely unprecedented*. The exchange within the interview implies that Peggy is slightly more arm’s length in his approach to overdubbing than, say, my chum Shev, who has the traditional six-gun approach to guitars which befits a man who came of age in the glory days of two inch tapes and wearing sunglasses indoors – also alluded to by Pegg in his interview - or Simon Nicol, who back in the olden days once found himself popping round to a painfully dysphonic Linda Thompson's house with a Tascam four-track and doing a whole song line by line in order to get it right**. 
We’re currently sifting through the rough mixes of The Waterbeach Baptist Chapel sessions (there’s one here) and a more forensic, headphone-based approach than piling into the crèche at the back of the hall and running the most recent take through the Gibson Les Paul Studio Monitors has revealed a couple of glitches that we would probably not choose to incorporate in the finished versions, given the opportunity. Fortunately, Producer Sam is as adept with the right-click button as his twentieth century equivalent would have been with a razor blade and the editing block, and has already managed to replace a misplaced line of verse, an over-enthusiastically struck chord, and the word “Don’t” using what we like to refer to as The Old Take Two Switcheroo - that is to say that he has skilfully blended two (or three) takes of the same song – performed live by everyone all at the same time, remember – in order to produce a seamless whole.
Back in the Noughties, when sifting through tracks for the SftBH version of (Don’t Fear) The Reaper we found a brief snippet of Radar’s harmonica somewhere in the second verse which we were able to successfully cut, paste, autotune and compress into a completely different part of the song thanks to the wonders of digital technology (the drums went on last as well, which I understand is not exactly industry standard) but here there’s no going back and dropping something onto the clipboard and then repositioning it where you want it with all the off-notes trimmed off.
It’s an incredible skill, for which one requires application, ability, a steady hand and a firm nerve and, ears to die for. Mind you, it’s not like no-one’s gotten away with it before…  

 
*From attention to interviewer Colin Harper’s prior forensic examinations of the career of John McLaughlin I also know that the final output of Miles Davis’ seminal In A Silent Way is almost entirely a cut & shunt operation performed by producer Ted Macero.

**There are other methods.     

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Baptist Clown of Judginess.


Another splendid foray into the flatlands completed, and a reunion with FentonSteve and Sam - our recording Godparents - who it turns out aren't averse to occasionally explaining patiently to their families that they are going to be spending their Saturday spooling out cables, making coffee, rigging a Trace Elliot and attempting not to drop a microphone worth the equivalent of a small family car whilst a bunch of people they barely know emote meaningfully into the ether. We are recording once more, in a chapel in Waterbeach. Steve is so prepared that he has brought crates on which to put the amplifiers, and warns us not to place them upon the raised area in front of the pulpit, for that is where the baptismal font is secreted, which tends to make the bass boom a little. He also has Ginger Nuts. And some biscuits.

Sans Fiddly on this occasion (he has some pre-arranged wassailing to do) we have not only upgraded the main Soundfield microphone, but lessons absorbed from our last session mean that Sam has included a couple of close-mics in case we need to subsequently tweak the vocals and/or bass in the mix*. Multiple takes are run through and over - at one point an entirely different time signature is workshopped (and recorded for future reference) - and the feel is that of a group getting it together in the country, like in the olden days. Sam's production style is very hands-off - Joe Boydian by many accounts - and there's not a lot of listening back to takes going on until he suggests that we have a live one, whereupon two or three folk check into the improvised control room to confirm his gut feel (or not). Others make tea, eat cake, pootle on the piano or pop to the village shop, pausing on the way back only to admire the Mediaeval swordsmanship being played out on the green. There is an easy, relaxed air to proceedings, probably helped considerably by our new-found familiarity with the process, and that this time we don't have to worry about cars splooshing through the rain-swept streets outside bleeding into the mix. We do have to halt one take to let a plane fly over, and as we look upwards the full majesty of the plaster ceiling rose reveals itself. From a certain angle, it appears that we are being watched over by a particularly malevolent circus performer.

There is a song where we are arranged around a single mic singing a five-part harmony. In another I board the DADGAD bus with Mr. Wendell's booming Gibson acoustic** while he channels Tonight's the Night-era Neil Young on my electric guitar. It's not until I'm listening back to some rapid-turnaround rough mixes a day later that the full, flawless beauty of Helen's vocals shine out, Turny's intricate weaving banjo parts, Gibbon's sinuous bass lines (he's one of the people constantly listening to the playbacks - always looking to refine his part in service of the song).

"Blimey" I mail the group "I didn't realize we were that good".

Sam replies almost instantly.

"Just wait 'til I put the kazoo orchestra on..." 
      




*Which we do. 
**You know - the one that all the Americana singer-songwriters have.  
 

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

"Let's make some quiet..."


A missive pings into the Neighbourhood inbox informing us that Sam-out-of-Cambridgeshire has some shiny new interfaces he wants to play with and, although still awaiting confirmation of a delivery of the world’s most expensive microphone, has a window of opportunity in which we are invited to showcase our wares. Regular subscribers will be know that we have form with Sam and his trusted accomplice Fenton Steve, and we have been mulling over the initial (‘rough’ seems too recherché a term to employ in this respect) mixes from last year’s session with a view to thinking about how to move onward and upwards.I’ve played the demos to a couple of people and had some not-so surprising feedback. That vocal could have been better, the tuning’s a bit out, a specific performance stiffens up towards the end – that sort of thing. I have found - maybe surprisingly - that I’m genuinely not bothered by either the criticisms (in their purest sense) or the revelation of the supposed shortcomings they confirm.

Because here’s a thing – we do speed up noticeably toward the end of one song; we had to choose between a bum note and a misplaced consonant on another; and everyone’s performance gets a wee bit tenuous towards the end of Love Minus Zero/No Limit because we’re all painfully aware that La Mulley pulled off a great acapella first verse about four minutes ago* and no-one wants to be the one to fuck up and make her have to do it again. And here’s another thing. That’s absolutely fine. Because that’s what we sound like. If we were maybe in a position to be able to charge money for people to keep these recordings  - and there aren’t that many groups around these days who are – perhaps we’d insist on being able to go back and, ahem, ‘fix’ a few things.

One correspondent suggested that we wouldn’t be able to send these songs out anywhere as we wouldn’t be able to explain the inherent technical issues away merely by explaining that they consisted of six people gathered around one microphone** and that’s not what they would be expecting. But, oh man - you can hear the room, I say. I know exactly what he means though. Then again, I also know of a promoter who would instantly bin any demo which came in with a picture of any band member holding a Cajon. One used to divide every jiffy bag he received into two piles and immediately dispose of one of them without opening a single envelope on the basis that he only wanted to book ‘lucky’ bands. It’s not exactly payola, but you had no chance of appearing at one particular festival unless you’d paid your subs to a certain focus interest group and another wouldn’t give you house space until you’d reciprocally booked their house band back. Given of all this, the phrase (and I quote) “…we do not normally pay a fee to musicians etc as we do get along of offers to play at our shows, as depending on the show, they use our shows as a platform to promote themselves due to the expected footfall our shows attract”*** (sic) comes as almost laughable relief.

I’m not saying it’s not a game worth playing, I’m just saying that I was never very good at it in the first place, and so given the opportunity to make a recording that transports me back into the room where I made it, rain on the windows and dogs in the street and all, I’ll take it. I mean, people should be envying us, you know. I envy us. Yeah. I do.


*There’s a great section in Bill Bruford’s autobiography about recording with his big jazz band Earthworks and wondering whether the slight fret slur made by the bass player early on is worth calling a halt to the whole take for.

**We are going to also close-mic everything on the next session just to make it a bit more flexible in terms of the tweakability, as it happens.
***We took that one.