Follow by Email

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Making an album, part 9: Does your granny always tell you that the old songs are the best?

When I was a lad, it was quite the thing for people to sing at family gatherings. I had relatives who would regularly ‘do a turn’ and entertain the company with a song or two. At the time, I was too young and self-conscious or, later, too cool for school to appreciate any of this. I didn’t really know much at the time and had a slightly patronising view of folk who could (and would) get up and do a song at parties; it all seemed a bit passé to me. Now that I can usually tell the difference between my arse and a hole in the ground, I know that singing is a fun thing to do and that it is also good for you. I’m sure there have been studies carried out which can prove this scientifically (or at least pseudo-scientifically) but all I can present is anecdotal evidence, carried out by a sample of one, i.e. me. I feel better when I’m singing. I believe that when I’m singing, it’s not just my vocal chords that are being exercised; I believe that I’m taking my soul for a walk.

I wish I had known all this back then; I wish I could have been relaxed and confident enough to join in with all that singing. I get the impression that not as many folk sing at parties these days, although it’s possibly just the case that I don’t get invited to the parties at which people sing (although, come to think of it, I don’t get invited to parties, full stop).

The generation that sang at social gatherings was, in at least one respect, richer than their children and grand-children. They didn’t have the gadgets, the disposable income, the satellite TV or the foreign holidays, but they were familiar with songs that could be sung from start to finish without embarrassment or, indeed, embellishment. And that lack of any need for embellishment was a testament to the quality of the words and melodies of songs that were written to be sung. The wonder of the popular song resides, as Clive James put it, in “the way a colloquial phrase can be multiplied in its energy by how it sits on a row of musical notes.” Some may think these examples a bit cheesy, but old songs like ‘And I love you so’, ‘Spanish Eyes’ or ‘The way we were’ can be sung from start to finish by anyone. The melodies are simple and memorable, the lyrics evocative and universal; these are songs which do not rely on elaborate musical backdrops to sound convincing. Their energy and pathos are, indeed, generated by the skilful placement of colloquial phrases on rows of musical notes. We might not know exactly how this magic works, but when we listen to a piece of recorded music we make an unconscious assessment of at least one (and probably more) of these components: melody, chords, words, rhythm, sound and context. Our unique responses to these stimuli lead us to subjective conclusions about the ‘quality’ of the song. 

If it is true that there is not as much unembellished singing going on today, then perhaps it’s the case that there are simply fewer contemporary songs that are fit to be sung (beyond the realms of karaoke). I’d suggest that advances in recording technology have altered the balance between form and content within the popular song, to the extent that the sound of the recording has usurped melody as the defining characteristic. Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’ is a really dynamic piece of music, but it’s not exactly rich in melody. And try singing along with these number one hits without karaoke accompaniment: ‘Professional Widow’ by Tori Amos, ‘Firestarter’ by The Prodigy or ‘Two Tribes’ by Frankie goes to Hollywood. 

If the sound of recorded music has improved (and not everyone would agree that it has), has that improvement been matched by improvements in song-writing? I generally don’t listen to chart radio, so I’m not aware of how much rubbish and how much good stuff is around just now, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s more or less the same amount of rubbish and good stuff as has always been in the charts; every era has its share of great songs, good songs, mediocre songs and bad songs. But how can we tell what is rubbish and what is good? Without some objective measurement of quality, all we can really offer is opinion. We know that if a song is popular it must be liked by large numbers of people, but we could all name examples of terrible songs that were big hits and great songs that never made the charts. 

Longevity, I’d suggest, is a reasonable indicator of quality.

To take one example, Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’ was a top ten hit in the UK in August 1969, yet that song is still sung (and is still familiar) in a way that other successful tunes from that era are not. These songs were all in the top ten at the same time: ‘Baby make it soon’ by Marmalade, ‘Early in the morning’ by Vanity Fare, 'Goodnight Midnight' by Clodah Rodgers, 'Wet Dream' by Maz Romeo, ‘Make me an island’ by Joe Dolan and ‘Conversations’ by Cilla Black. These songs all performed well in the charts, they probably got played many times on the radio and were bought by lots of people, but how many of them would be recognised or sung by anyone today?
(Mind you, looking at that same chart, I’d imagine that lots of folk could probably sing along with ‘Give peace a chance’ by the Plastic Ono Band, despite it being a dreadful song).

Although that chart from 1969 was probably typical with regard to quality, I’d be willing to come off the relativistic fence for a moment to suggest that, if we took an average pop chart from the mid-to-late sixties and compared it to an average pop chart from the 21st century, we’d observe that the popular song is now painted from a somewhat diminished palette. By that, I mean that it has lost some of its rhythmic variation (the 4/4 rhythm now seems more or less ubiquitous), it has fewer chords (and fewer interesting chords; yes, that’s a judgement), the structures have simplified and the subject matter (indeed, the vocabulary of pop) has narrowed. Songs used to be written to be sung, but -with less of a focus on melody and words- it seems that many of them are now made to be listened to. This is partly about who is making music, partly about why they are making it and partly about the tools they use, but it’s also a socio-cultural development and one that someone else should write up for their PhD.

In suggesting that the songs of forty to fifty years ago might have been generally ‘better’ because they had more emphasis on melody, I’m perfectly aware that I’m:

a) Stating an entirely subjective viewpoint
b) Ignoring Paul Simon’s wise words about every generation throwing ‘a hero up the pop charts’
and c) Sounding like an old fart. 

But when an old fart claims that such-and-such is a great song because people are still singing it fifty years after it was recorded, he has a point. The fact that people are singing it means something. Lots of modern songs may turn out to be great and timeless pieces, but we don’t yet know if people will be singing them fifty years hence.    
All of which leads me to reflect on my own efforts.

As well as being limited by ability and imagination, my song-writing efforts are generally filtered through subjective judgement criteria for melody, chords, words, rhythm and sound which were set many years ago, when I listened to music on the radio or on the family record player. In other words, I like my stuff to sound like other stuff that I believe to be good. One of the reasons I’ve been talking about old songs is because the piece I’m linking to below is something of an homage to a certain type of old song, one that I have fond memories of.
I’ve stated in previous instalments of this ‘recording-an-album’ saga that I often find musical inspiration easier to access than lyrical inspiration. I’m more equipped to emulate than innovate, so will often have a particular feel in mind whenever I start composing; this ‘feel’ will sometimes be based on something I’ve heard and admired before. The trick is then to disguise the source material as the piece develops, but in this case I was inclined to be faithful to the germ of the idea. The song started out as a doodle on the piano and I knew, as soon as I stumbled upon the descending chord sequence of the verse, that I was about to write something which would owe a debt of gratitude to The Kinks, (by way of The Beatles and ELO).

Although I could quickly imagine how the recording would sound, I had nothing in the way of lyrical content. As the structure developed, however, it occurred to me that the ambience I wanted to create would best be served by a direct lyric, a ‘story’ as opposed to an impressionistic poem. Once I came up with the title, the story fell into place. The end result -‘Mr McIntosh has left the building’- is about a man experiencing his last day in employment. Having spent all of his working life in the same office job, he reflects upon the speed with which the whole thing seems to have passed him by. I love the sly humour of Ray Davies and the way he creates believable characters to inhabit his evocative urban vignettes. But there is also an undercurrent of melancholy in his work (in ‘Autumn Almanac’, for example) and I wanted my song to have a touch of that.

‘Forty years have come and gone; he’s been there man and boy and now he’ll leave without a fuss to catch that evening omnibus’.

Having decided upon the direction of travel, the deliberate use of the archaic ‘omnibus’ was designed to place the piece in a sixties context, as was the deployment of brass (splendidly played by Dave Webster). In the chorus, the bass sits in E under the first four chords, a device I’m much more likely to use when writing on the piano. It creates a bit of tension, which -in this case- aids the purpose of lyrical exposition. 
The character reflects that it ‘seems like two blinks of an eye’ since he started the job; he realises, with a sense of numb bewilderment, that decades of graft have amounted to not very much at all.

‘All the stories he could tell: they could fill a book, but there’s one thing that is guaranteed: no-one else would want to read it’.

I don’t like songs that sneer at the ordinary lives of ordinary folk and I hope that the lyric doesn’t sound like I’ve tried to do that here. The aim was merely to say something about the fleetingness of a life spent in gainful employment and to capture the feelings of a man about to leave work for the last time.

I was talking about the process of song-writing to a friend recently (now you know why I don’t get invited to parties) and he related a lovely quote from Leonard Cohen concerning the elusive and frustrating nature of inspiration. The old boy said: “If I knew where the songs came from, I'd go there more often.” 
 How that simple observation resonates! I would happily slice off and eat my left arm to be able to write a truly popular song; by that, I mean one that lots of people would like, buy and want to sing along with.

But, if nobody wants to sing along with this song, I’ve cunningly included a bit of whistling on the final chorus. To paraphrase Robert Duvall's Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in 'Apocalypse Now':

I love the sound of whistling on a record. There’s nothing like it. It sounds like … victory.”

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Giorno del Cacciatore

One of the benefits of being a Time Lord (I can't remember if I've mentioned this before) is that you occasionally get to travel in time and, within reason, take advantage of certain situations. I tend to use my time-travelling abilities for leisure and recreational purposes. Others have grander schemes, but I've found that trying to influence history is fraught with complication and difficulty; you just never know what the consequences of your actions will be. A 'friend-of-a-friend' went back to the 1980s with the intention of cornering the mobile phone market, but ended up causing Milli Vanilli. On a recent temporal jaunt to 1982, I managed to pick up some soundtrack work on a cult Italian sci-fi film. Giorno del Cacciatore (Day of the Hunter) is directed by Alessandro Fuccili and stars Tomasso Pascal, Nicoletta Salvati and Flavio Benedetti. It is set in a post-apocalyptic European city some ten years after a virus has wiped out 99% of the world’s population. Society has broken down and, save for a few hardy or insane individuals (pazzi), the survivors live in tribes who are fiercely territorial and go to war over food, fuel, materials and women.
The story centres on the mysterious figure of Corvo (raven) who is searching for a nomadic tribe known as L’Armeria. As he follows their trail across the country, he has a number of violent encounters with pazzi and with other tribes – some of them benign, some of them murderous, cruel and insane (or a combination of all three). As he finally manages to locate and infiltrate L’Armeria’s camp, we discover the reason for Corvo’s quest: he is trying to rescue his abducted daughter. At the bloody climax of the film, Corvo executes the tribe's leader Barba Rossa (Red Beard), only to discover that his daughter has been impregnated by him. Father and daughter escape the camp and head for the mountains in the north, with the intention of finding the peaceful tribe known as the Pellegrino Fratellanza (Pilgrim Brotherhood).

The film achieved cult status and was belatedly nominated for a ‘Golden Lion’ award at the Venice Film Festival in 1985. This prompted rumours of a follow-up and, in an article in ‘Bianco e Nero’ film magazine in 1987, it was claimed that the famously reclusive Mr Fuccili had drafted a script for Clima del Cacciatore (Climate of Hunter) but, sadly, nothing ever materialised.

I did enjoy working with him, though. Here's a link to the main theme:
Giorno del Cacciatore

Friday, 1 April 2016

High Rise: plenty of surface

Whenever anyone asks me about my favourite opening line from a book, (yes, that happens all the time), I invariably quote JG Ballard’s introduction to 'High Rise':
 “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”


Nobody does dystopian fiction quite like Ballard and 'High Rise' is one of his best novels, so I was really looking forward to seeing Ben Wheatley’s filmic adaptation. The story is set in an exclusive high-facility tower block in London sometime in the mid-70s (or, as the director would have it, in a future that could have been imagined sometime in the 1970s). The upper-middle classes occupy the top floors, with the lower-middle classes down below. In the Ballardian world, there is always tension just beneath the surface and order soon begins to break down, allowing the brutal subconscious desires of the well-to-do residents to emerge. The factions start to engage in a territorial war, during which they drown pets in the swimming pool, rape women and, eventually, carry out ritualistic murders.  

For all that it tries to be faithful to the spirit of the book, Wheatley’s 'High Rise' is something of a disappointment. Ballard’s work is never focused on the dialogue between characters, but this never feels like an issue in his largely allegorical fiction. Banal dialogue, however, is a problem for the film, compounding the impression that it lacks any sense of narrative drive. Some of the set-pieces pull too much towards farce and it is hard to care about any of the characters; it feels, at times, like a surreal sitcom inhabited by class-warfare caricatures. The transition from order to chaos, skilfully chronicled in the minatory detail of the novel, is clumsily handled; in fact, it is barely ‘handled’ at all. We are asked to believe that a few power-cuts would lead these dentists, advertising executives, accountants and neuro-surgeons to embrace the rapid descent from posh dinner parties to ‘Lord of the Flies’ savagery.

The peremptory use of a Margaret Thatcher speech at the end of the film is heavy-handed, to say the least; it’s as if the director suspected that he hadn’t quite made the point about whose ‘fault’ it was that the residents of the tower block had been so eager to immerse themselves in lawlessness.    

The film looks good but it feels self-consciously arty, to the extent that it reminded me of the kind of thing that Peter Greenaway used to do: plenty of surface, but little in the way of substance.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Clever dogs.

A friend has recently brought to my attention a TV show about rescue dogs being taught to fly planes. It has inspired me to dust off this idea which I've had for a while and which I'm convinced will be a smash hit TV series.
The plot goes like this:

There is a crack squad of rescue dogs who can fly planes (and who get up to various good deeds etc.) but who are under constant attack from other 'bad' airbound dogs trying to shoot them down. After one particularly fearsome and bloody attack, some of the rescue dogs escape in parachutes and land on an island where they start a new society, based on 'civilised' dog values. But then they discover towards the end of season 2 that the island is part of a massive experiment being run by the 'evil' dogs who shot them down in the first place. After a bloody rebellion, one of the 'good' dogs manages to escape from the island, only to discover that the whole concept of the 'civilised' dog world was merely an idea that was planted within the dream of one of the rescue dogs by a dissident scientist dog, who believes that the leader of the 'evil' dog cult has gone insane and needs to be overthrown by the 'chosen one' i.e. one of the original rescue dogs. 
He (the dissident scientist dog) believes this dog to be the 'chosen one' because of a strange formation of bones that he finds buried in his garden (he's a dog - what else would you expect?), so he invents a machine that allows him to plant the idea of a 'civilised' dog world within a dream being had by the 'chosen' dog, hoping that -when he awakes- he will start the movement that will eventually overthrow the 'evil' dog leader.

The box set will have all sorts of extras, like a map of the island, back stories of the major characters, deleted scenes etc. I just need to come up with a good title.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Making an album, part 8: Taking the scenic route

Like many music lovers of my vintage, I've spent the last six weeks or so listening to David Bowie CDs and trawling youtube for clips, interviews and rarities. There is plenty I could say about how important Bowie was to me, but plenty of other folk have pontificated on that topic and I’m not in the mood to add to it. All I will say -for now- is that Bowie, an inspirational figure in life, has become an even more inspirational figure in death. The fact that he could produce interesting work as his life was ebbing away seems to be entirely in keeping with his status for my generation. If he can do all of the things that he did while knowing what he knew, then perhaps those of us who undertake artistic pursuits purely for pleasure should get our fingers out and get on with writing that book, painting that picture, making that film, or –in my case- recording that album.


A few months ago, having pulled together more than enough material for an album and having pretty much decided which tracks were going to make the final cut, I started to labour a bit over the lyrics for the four final songs. It was not so much a case of writer’s block, more a demonstration of the power of laziness to facilitate an extended pause for reflection. I had most of the instrumentation recorded for these tracks and had even put down some guide vocals, but I just felt that somehow I wasn’t in the right place to write the words or, indeed, finish the album. Needing to take a break from the task I had set myself, I embarked upon what I thought was a little detour. As a way of avoiding (or postponing) finishing off those last few songs, I started to record some instrumental pieces and, before too long, found myself absorbed in the process. This diversion into the instrumental domain extended to my listening habits and I wallowed once more in the beautiful lush soundscapes of artists like Jean-Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk, John Barry and Angelo Badalamenti. The touchstone, as ever, was Bowie’s ‘Low’ which –even 40 years on- still sounds like a work of art.

Compared with writing a song, working on an instrumental can be quite liberating. As I’ve stated previously, the songs on my album are all quite tastefully arranged and have all the building blocks of what a certain kind of music bore might call ‘proper’ song-writing. The instrumental, however, pays no mind to many of the rules that apply to the song and will often rely almost entirely on atmosphere and ambience. One piece, for instance, started with me finding a weird sound on a synthesiser and playing a constant distorted drone in A flat minor. No rhythm was involved and I didn’t move from the chord, because I had no sense that it had to go anywhere; the sheer noise of it just felt good. I added a simple string melody and saved it as ‘Not The Thing’, because the feel of the basic demo reminded me of Ennio Morricone’s superb, eerie, minimalist soundtrack for John Carpenter’s classic movie. A couple of months down the line, that piece, based on little more than a crunchy, distorted tone, has turned into something quite powerful and evocative, a really fun piece of music to work on. Over several sessions with producer and engineer extraordinaire Eddie Macarthur, I’ve added various layers, melodies, synth parts and bits of treated electric guitar which, if you asked me to play again, would have me utterly flummoxed. I’d be unable to reproduce any of it, because I had no idea what I was playing and have no intention of ever trying to perform these pieces live. Morphing and squeezing the guitar through a variety of effects, I played by ear, riding the effect –as opposed to playing the part and adding effects later in the mix- and trying to respond instinctively to what the mood of the piece required.  

This is not something I normally do when I’m writing a song. Aware that the vocal is king and that a solid foundation must be in place, I will already have worked out the chords on acoustic guitar or piano. In ‘song-writing’ mode, I’ll avoid jarring or clunky chord transitions, because I’m always thinking about what the vocal melody is going to be doing and what the lyrics is going to say; I’ll usually want to tell a story or make some observation on the human condition. When I’m recording an instrumental, all I want to do is make something that sounds good; this may seem like a banal observation, but I would regard it as a liberating statement of intent. The instrumental makes no statement other than: I’m here, I exist, I’m making this noise, while a song always has to have something to say, even if it’s just "I love you, baby" or "I’ve got a brand new combine harvester". My album of ‘proper’ songs requires a degree of personal exposition, but these mute atmospheric pieces allowed me to revel in the lack of any requirement to write lyrics. It is, I believe, this absence of ‘self’ that has made the instrumental music so liberating to work on; in that sense, it feels like a purer art form. 

As I developed more and more of these new pieces, unencumbered by any obligation to tell a story or make any particular statement, I soon found that I had accumulated enough material to produce at least another album. So successful and fulfilling has been this detour (although you may disagree if you listen to the tunes) that I now intend to complete an instrumental album at more or less the same time as the album of 'proper' songs. The name for this project is Jügomagnat and the working title for the album is ‘An accumulation of detail’. This is because, on several of the pieces, I have started with a relatively simple theme and added layer upon layer, counterpoint upon counterpoint, until the piece has swollen, wandered and (hopefully) soared. By the time five or six minutes have passed, the listener may have lost trace of the original riff, but it will still be there, a modest little motif still somehow carrying the accumulated weight of its melodic cousins.

The track I’m linking to below (Relentless) is fairly typical of the Jügomagnat body of work. As usual, it started with me playing around at home, doodling on the keyboard. Something about the simplicity of the riff and the insistent rhythm set me off and, thereafter, the piece pretty much wrote itself; all I had to do was keep driving it in the same direction. I know that repetitive pieces aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but nothing is everyone’s cup of tea.
The point of this kind of music is to create a mood and to sit in that mood for a longer period than one might expect from a normal pop song. Working on these tracks has given me license to mess around a lot more with effects and treatments and to indulge a love for warm analogue synth sounds and atmospheric textures. Listen out for the ‘cut-up’ vocals layered across the landscape of this piece, sitting somewhere in the background like a not-so-distant memory. Later in the track, a lead vocal kicks in. The observant listener will notice that I’m not singing any particular words, but rather making sounds that -to me- felt like they would sit comfortably with the mood of the piece.  

A bit, in fact, like Bowie, on side two of ‘Low’.

Well … I can dream, can’t I?

Monday, 11 January 2016

Bowie

As I was driving to work this morning, already gloomier than the gloomy sky, there was a point at which a crazy, fleeting thought suddenly became a hope.

That hope, not yet realising that it was quite silly, somehow fed on the crazy, fleeting thought. Enchanted, then intoxicated by each other, these giddy partners, gathering courage and impetus, flicked on a few lights and rang some bells along my neural pathways until -for somewhere between a millisecond and a microsecond- the crazy thought and the silly hope almost convinced me to believe that I was about to wake up.


They almost convinced me to believe that I was not yet driving to work, but was about to wake up for the second time, about to wake into an ordinary gloomy day, a day in which I would not hear the news that my radio had already delivered. 

And, in that delirious little space between millisecond and microsecond, everything was OK.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Michel Houellebecq - 'Submission'

Depending on which reviews you read, Michel Houellebecq is either a novelist of ideas and an original thinker, or he’s a blowhard contrarian and polemicist. I know which side of the fence I’m on.

Splendidly contemptuous of current intellectual and political orthodoxies, his latest novel –Submission- got my vote for the most interesting read of 2015. It explores one of his big themes, namely that the west is in the process of committing suicide. Ostensibly outlining the process through which France will become an Islamic state, Submission argues not only that atheistic humanism is doomed, but that western liberal culture will eventually be viewed by historians as a brief experiment, an interlude between one mighty religious civilization and another.

Set in 2022, the story is told by Francois, a middle-aged professor of literature at the Sorbonne. He is an expert on the work of the 19th century novelist J. K. Huysmans, whose conversion to Catholicism transformed what had been a dissolute life. Like his hero, Francois is in a state somewhere beyond disillusionment, believing not only that he can’t teach, but that the academic study of literature is pointless anyway. Apolitical and unambitious, he daydreams about which students he might have sex with or what he’ll have for his dinner while watching TV every night.  
In the run-up to the French presidential election, people are worried and tense. There is violence on the streets, but a media black-out is preventing the mainstream outlets from reporting the extent of the troubles. This state of denial extends to polite society; Francois attends a cocktail party and, when people hear gunfire in the distance, they pretend not to notice and make various excuses to leave. Expecting an outbreak of anarchy, Francois flees Paris to spend some time at the monastery where his hero Huysmans had contemplated a return to the Catholic faith.

After a period of violence and instability, the delayed election eventually sees the socialists and the centre-right UMP form a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to prevent Marine le Pen’s National Front from taking power. The new president is Mohammed Ben Abbes, a moderate and charismatic figure who is as far removed from our notion of radical Islam as it is possible to get. An intelligent and ambitious president, he envisages an expansion of the European Union that will re-focus on the south of the continent, as well as welcoming modern North African states into the fold. He passes a series of laws to support and strengthen the traditional family unit and is content to surrender some government departments to his coalition partners in return for the appointment of Muslims to key positions in education. Ben Abbes understands that, in any battle for cultural supremacy, birth rates and education are crucial. The future -to coin Mark Steyn’s phrase- will belong to those who turn up for it. 

By the time Francois returns to Paris, the new regime at the Sorbonne -supported by Saudi money- has removed females from the staff register and is in the process of enticing the males to convert to Islam with the promise of enormous salaries and enhanced status. For all of the possible arguments about the merits and demerits of conflicting ideologies, the decision Francois makes boils down to the granting of a few perks; the offer of a well-paid job and polygamous status is enough to persuade him to convert and grab his “second chance at a new life”.

Submission does not so much describe the triumph of Islam, as outline the inevitability of the west’s decay and surrender. Houellebecq presents the transformation not as an apocalyptic event, but as an inevitable and gradual movement, one which finds favour among many non-Muslim religionists and social conservatives. There is no high drama involved; in typically Houellebecqian fashion, things just happen because the tide drifts that way.

Some folk claim that he is just another purveyor of the apocalypse-du-jour, but in outlining the reasons why religious belief and socially conservative notions of societal hierarchy will outlast atheistic humanism, Houellebecq has expressed an idea that we ought to take seriously:  namely, that belief in something will generally trump belief in nothing.