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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Making an album part 4: I’m not with the band

Although I’m working with several different people on my album, I’ve chosen not to go down the route of forming a band to record it. Instead, I’m bringing in musicians as and when required. I’ve been in plenty of bands over the years and I’ve always been the main songwriter, but being a ‘one-person-does-most-of-the-writing’ kind of band is not necessarily the greatest formula for longevity.  When the songwriting is a truly collaborative process, with everyone having a more or less equal say in the composition, you’ve probably got a better chance of keeping everyone in the band happy.  But that’s not usually how I prefer to work, for reasons I’ve been exploring with a psychotherapist for the past decade or so (another three or four years, she says, and I should be almost out of the woods).    

Assuming that talent and hard work are already in place, one of the things that can keep a band going is momentum; you not only have to recognise when you have it, you need to be able to capitalise on it.  From a songwriter’s point of view, momentum –or even the illusion of momentum- can only be maintained as long as the musicians believe that the songs might be able to take them places.  With the benefit of hindsight, I can recognise the point at which various bands I’ve been in have lost momentum and belief, but failed to notice it.  When that happens, it’s possible to trundle along for months and months, a bit like that Bruce Willis character in The Sixth Sense, not knowing that he’s actually dead. 

Up until sometime around your mid-to-late twenties, it’s relatively easy to maintain the enthusiasm, energy and belief required to maintain a band.  At that stage, you are pretty resilient because, essentially, you believe that a big break might be just around the corner; but keeping a band together gets harder as you get older, particularly if the gigs you are playing aren’t bringing in much money.  As the years pass and you start to realise that you are still quite some distance from earning a crust from music, you’ll sometimes wonder why the hell you are still doing it. And, as band members start to accumulate significant life baggage, the option of suffering for their art seems somehow less attractive. 

If you’re lucky, the business side of your operation will be looked after by a manager, leaving the sensitive artists to concentrate on playing music, drinking and showing off.  I’ve had several managers over the years; most of them were nice enough people, but were often largely ineffective when it came to the main item on their job description: helping the band become much more successful.  The management continuum has ‘autocrat’ at one end and ‘best friend’ at the other, with lots of variations in between; each style has its advantages and disadvantages.  I once had a particularly autocratic manager who terminated our contract over an argument about the clothes that were to be worn in a promotional shoot.  The manager wanted me, as the vocalist, to dress in a certain way.  What he called -with a straight face- ‘his people’ had carried out some research into ‘winning’ colours and styles and had come up with what they believed was the perfect formula.  This appeared to involve me dressing as what a Victorian novelist would have described as a popinjay.   I thought that what I was being asked to wear would make me feel even more stupid than usual, so I politely demurred.  We couldn’t find a sartorial middle ground, so the manager, rather less politely, ripped up our contract.  Sometimes it isn’t just about the music.           

Autocrats can be tricky to work with, but having a friend as your manager is also not without its pitfalls.  Someone who is very close to the musicians might be unable to bring the necessary hard-headed objectivity to what should be a business relationship.   

I was once in a band that was booked to play a big student rally in a park on the south side of Glasgow.  The placard-wielding students were marching from the centre of town to the event, which was to include a number of guest speakers and some live entertainment (namely us).  As the park started to fill up, we sat backstage slugging warm beer and nibbling at the corporate hospitality crisps.  Our manager, god bless him, said: “This is it, lads!  This is going to be the turning point.  Having slogged for some time around various pubs and clubs in the West of Scotland, slowly but surely building a reputation as we clawed our way from the depths of nonentity to the giddy heights of relative obscurity, we felt that yes, indeed, we might well have been on the cusp of a breakthrough to a bigger audience.  The organisers had very kindly given us the choice of either playing our set as the students were arriving at the park (i.e. warming the audience up for the speakers) or going on after the various student leaders and politicians had worked the crowd up into an indignant frenzy.   

To a band accustomed to performing in grotty, sparsely-populated bars, the crowd that day looked to be of Woodstockian proportions and we were buzzing at the possibility of performing for them.  As bodies continued to flood into the park, the manager announced that we would go on after the speeches; this, he suggested, would give us ‘maximum impact’.  We all agreed.  Why –so our thinking went- should our unique brand of rock and roll play second fiddle to a bunch of boring old speakers?  No way, man!  Let the politicians do their bit and then we’ll rock this place!  Hell, yeah! This is the turning point!  With the benefit of hindsight, our manager’s statement was probably correct, but only if by ‘turning point’ he meant ‘career-defining clusterfuck’.  It was certainly the point at which I realised that our plans for world domination were sadly unsupported by anything approaching a coherent strategy. 

Not knowing our collective arse from a hole in the ground, we had chosen to ‘top’ the bill, having given no thought as to why hundreds of students had bothered to walk all the way from the city centre to the south side.  They were there to protest, to listen to speeches, to vent some spleen, to stamp their feet and shout ‘Tories Out!’ (although it was such a cold afternoon that I’m pretty sure that some of them must have felt like shouting ‘What do we want? Some hot chocolate, please!’)  

By the time those speeches had ended (and there were more than one or two), that Woodstockian throng had already started to dwindle; by halfway through our opening number, the crowd had shrunk in size by about 50%.  Once we were three or four songs into our blistering set, the remaining punters could comfortably have been accommodated behind the goal at a Ramsden’s Cup preliminary round tie between East Stirling and Stenhousemuir.  During our last number, what was left of what I’m now embarrassed to call the ‘crowd’ could have gathered in the average student bedsit and each of them would have had more than enough room to swing a cat.  It’s not that we were that bad a band (honest), but we were certainly stupid enough to deserve everything we got that day.  Had our manager been more than just a supportive buddy, had he been capable of strategic thought, he would surely have advised us, in the strongest possible terms, to go on before the speakers. 

So if you ever get invited to play at a political rally, kids … just remember exactly where you are in the food chain.                                 

But I digress; back to the album.  I’m playing bass on a couple of the tracks, but the majority of the songs require something a bit more sophisticated than the root note simplicity I can just about get way with. I had a great session a couple of weeks ago with the very talented Fraser Sneddon (pictured above).  I’ve played with Fraser before and know that he can be relied upon to nail some really wonderful bass lines.  Hearing the bottom end of my tracks start to take on a bit of heft and groove was a joyful experience.  I enjoy the experience of sitting face-to-face with musicians and talking about what you want to achieve with an individual piece of music.  A good player will usually give you options when it comes to specific parts.  I like to give talented people their head and let them interpret the part as they will.  I will then make one or two suggestions, with perhaps a point or two about emphasis or rhythm here or there.  I might suggest that the part needs to be more or less aggressive, or perhaps requires more or fewer passing notes.  Little alterations can sometimes really alter the feel of a piece. 

The best recording sessions occur when folk are relaxed and feel confident enough to experiment a little.  My co-producer on the album, Eddie McArthur at Stealth, has a much better ear than me for spotting little tuning fluctuations or deviations in timing.  Our preferred method is to get the player to run through the parts a couple of times to loosen up and then get a version which is more or less the part we imagined.  Then we’ll pursue the ‘what if?’ strategy, which involves letting the player wander off-piste to see what kind of unusual or interesting stuff gets thrown up.  The wonders of digital editing will often allow us to construct a part which might be a mixture of the basic idea, the loose ‘off-piste’ take and maybe a dollop of additional studio surgery.        

Another way of collaborating on recording projects is to have musician friends send you stuff through the miracle of electronic mail.  For this album, Alan Robertson –a former colleague in the band ‘Gum’- has been recording material at home and firing it off into the ether; somehow, it ends up on my laptop.  Alan’s one of those chaps who can knock out a tune on a variety of instruments, a great ideas man with a good ear for hooks and textures which can help add flavour to a piece.  Fraser and Alan both make excellent contributions to the song I've linked to here.  Since I posted the original demo (featuring just a vocal, an acoustic guitar and some rudimentary piano), they have helped me flesh it out a bit.

I said at the time that I was hoping that it would one day inhabit a lusher soundscape and, thanks to Alan’s electronic noodlings and nurdlings (and what I hope is the judicious use of some backing vocals) I think the track is now close to being complete.  Another tweak or two and it’ll almost be there.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The day we (nearly) won the World Cup

25 years ago, Scotland hosted the FIFA under-16 World Cup. I attended quite a few of the games with some football-loving friends, having been part of the small minority who appeared to give a damn about the tournament in the early stages.
During the group phase, the authorities tried to entice fans by staging ‘double-headers’ in which the paying customers got to see two games for the price of one. Even with that incentive, those early games didn’t attract much support, with attendances at some grounds barely scraping into four figures. We were among a crowd of around 6,000 at Hampden to watch Scotland open the tournament with a dismal draw 0-0 with Ghana, but public interest started to pick up as our campaign gathered momentum. Attendance at the matches had doubled by the time we played our group decider against Bahrain at Fir Park.
Bahrain, as it happens, became our second favourite team because of the stylish football they played. They had a cracking wee player (I think his name was Abdulaziz) that we particularly admired. He was ‘old school’ in the sense that he liked to run at defenders, often outwitting bigger, stronger boys with his guile and skill. He reminded us a bit of Pat Nevin, although –to his credit- he didn’t actually wear a Cocteau Twins t-shirt on the field or carry a New Order limited edition white vinyl 12-inch around with him.

As the Scots fought their way to the knock-out stages, public interest grew further still. Indeed, such was the excitement that the kick off in the semi-final at Tynecastle had to be delayed, as 30,000 punters crammed into the ground to watch our boys take on a gifted Portugese side that featured several members of their so-called ‘golden generation’, including Abel Xavier, Miguel Simao and Luis Figo (who, even then, was quite majestic on the ball). That game went as many of us had expected. The technically-gifted Portugese enjoyed most of the possession and created most of the chances, but we just knew that there was something magical in the air. Brian O’Neill scored with a header from a corner and somehow the obdurate young Scots (coached by Craig Brown and Ross Mathie) held out for a nerve-jangling, backs-to-the-wall 1-0 win. The very concept seemed difficult to absorb: a Scottish football team had qualified for the World Cup Final!

So, on the warm afternoon of 24th June 1989, 58,000 folk turned up at decrepit old Hampden to see our lads acclaimed as world champions. We travelled in hope, but also a degree of expectation. As tournament hosts, we had undoubtedly got the rub of the green a couple of times (particularly against the Portugese), but we also had a fantastic young team.
This time, surely, it was going to be our turn? Ian Downie gave us an early lead before, midway through the first half, Paul Dickov added a glorious second. I can still visualise –from my standing position on the old North Terracing- his stylish chip over the Saudi goalie. We were playing brilliantly. They might as well give us the cup now, we all thought, because this is going to end up about 5-0. Not only were we going to win this thing, but these lads were going to develop and grow and become actual world champions by 1998 or 2002. It was surely only a matter of time.

Alas, there were several things that we had failed to take into account.

There was the fact that the Saudis were dirty big cheating buggers who were all aged about 25 and were over seven feet tall. Did they feed these lads steroids with their breakfast cereal back in Saudi Arabia? There was the fact that they had already come back from two goals down earlier in the tournament and (SPOILER ALERT) had also won a penalty shoot-out.

The main thing we had overlooked, however, was a metaphysical concept that -until that point- had been way beyond our ken. As innocent lovers of the beautiful game, we had not yet come to the crushing realisation that there was an immutable law of the universe stating that Scotland fans can never, ever enjoy a triumph on the world stage. How innocent we were.

After that glorious opening spell, our lads started to wilt in the heat. In spite of the Saudis being reduced to ten men –men being the operative word- we blew that two-goal lead and ended up drawing 2-2. We even missed a penalty during the course of the game. Brian O’Neill was the player who fluffed his lines and, to rub sulphuric acid in that gaping wound, the poor lad also missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out at the end of extra-time. “Oh, how cruel a mistress is fate!” I remember the guy next to me shouting at the time. Or maybe he shouted: “Jesus fucking Christ!” My memory plays tricks on me these days.

The Saudi lads may have taken ‘our’ cup, but for a couple of weeks, the country was under the spell of a brave, dedicated and talented bunch of young footballers. The Scotland team in that final was: Will, Bain, Beattie, Marshall, McMillan, Bollan, O'Neil, Lindsay, Downie, Dickov and McGoldrick. The used substitutes were McLaren and Murray.

Some of those lads drifted out of the game, but quite a few of them went on to have successful playing careers. But whatever happened to them, whatever jobs they are doing now, I hope they are comforted by the knowledge that, for what they achieved in the summer of 1989, they will always be heroes.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Top of the Pops, 24th May 1979: Rise of the machines

Watching re-runs of old editions of Top of the Pops reminds me that the show could be exciting, tedious, brilliant and stupid, often within the space of forty infuriating minutes. Whichever week of whichever year you’d care to drop into, you’ll find that the charts were pretty mediocre, with sometimes only the occasional gem sparkling among heaps of anodyne rubbish. On a bad week, Top of the Pops could make you feel that the music business existed just to rub your nose in the futility of existence. On other occasions, the stars would align and the tastes of Joe and Josephine Public might roughly coincide with yours. Then you could allow yourself to believe that everything in the world was good and that pop music was a truly wonderful thing.

Once in a lifetime, you might win the lottery and encounter an episode that so faithfully reflects your musical worldview that you’ll be tempted to think that the producer had rifled through your record collection and opted to share your exquisite taste with the nation. This happened to me one evening, late in May 1979. An episode of Top of the Pops (shown recently on BBC4) featured Roxy Music, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Blondie, ELO, The Skids and a ‘new’ act that had already exerted a powerful grip on my musical imagination. I loved all of those named artists, but the new act that night – Tubeway Army, led by Gary Numan- somehow felt like ‘my’ discovery.

I had heard Tubeway Army for the first time a couple of months previously, while listening late one night to John Peel’s show on BBC Radio. Sitting in a corner of our living room with the headphones at ear-damaging volume, I would have been hoping that the show would throw up something interesting. John Peel played stuff you wouldn’t hear anywhere else and -if you could abide the default setting of 'indie bloke' freemasonry- you could usually expect to find some excellent music in among the (often deservedly) obscure flotsam and jetsam. Midway through what had been an average middle-of-the-week show, he played a track called Down in the Park and duly transformed my musical world. It was a menacingly atmospheric, yet hauntingly beautiful slice of electronic pop and I hadn’t heard anything quite like it.

I couldn’t quite grasp all of the detail, but I knew that the song told a story. The lyrics seemed far removed from the bog standard new wave fare, painting a nightmarish scene in which the park was not a place for the local folk to gather and enjoy the scenery; it was, instead, part of a minatory landscape in which killers, government agents and ‘rape machines’ roamed, brutalising a cowed populace. At the end of the track, Peel said something like: ‘Blimey … that sounds like a Pink Floyd for the 1980s’. He was wrong about the Pink Floyd bit, but absolutely right about the ‘blimey’. To a lonely teenager imagining himself at the centre of an alienated and hostile universe, Gary Numan really hit the sweet spot.

That weekend, I hunted down the Replicas album and quickly became absorbed in its dystopian and decadent fantasies. It appeared to be a concept album set ten minutes into a totalitarian future in which population control was maintained by government surveillance agents, people had relationships with synthetic humans and the city was patrolled by thought police and sinister assassins in trench coats. Numan’s musical schtick was part-Bowie (particularly the Low album) part Kraftwerk, part Brian Eno, with maybe a little dollop of early Ultravox thrown into the mix.
Lyrically, it was clear that he was heavily influenced by the paranoid, hallucinatory writings of Philip K Dick, William Burroughs and –to a lesser extent- JG Ballard. For a young reader who was devouring dystopian science fiction by the bucketload, this album seemed like a perfect reflection of my view that the world was on the verge of forming a strange and unsettling relationship with burgeoning technology. Whatever was going to happen, I just knew it would involve synthetic humans, sinister government conspiracies and androgynous young guys in make-up, playing synthesisers.

Utterly mesmerised, it was the first time that I was aware that an artist’s image might be almost as important as the music. Numan had perfected an androgynous robot stormtrooper look (no doubt heavily influenced by Kraftwerk) and it made him stand out a mile in an era when most new wave bands made little concession to ‘image’, beyond wearing drainpipe jeans and perhaps a skinny tie. On that iconic Replicas sleeve, Numan looks fantastic: dyed blond hair, kohl eyeliner, black nail varnish, black shirt, tie and trousers. With respect to the Replicas narrative, the cover shot is ambiguous; it’s not clear whether the guy in the room is a victim or a victimiser. Why is he dressed like that? Is he one of us, or is he one of those 'machmen'? Is he a government agent or maybe one of those synthetic humans working in the sex trade? What’s going on in the park outside his window? How come the ‘reflection’ in the window has his hands clasped together while the person in the room hasn’t?

As a growing army of teenaged Numanoids wrestled with these questions, the prosaic reality gradually emerged over the next couple of years as Gary went on to become a massive pop star. We discovered that he was actually just a shy young man (diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome) who had managed to articulate and brilliantly exploit his melancholic fantasies about alienation and androids. He was just a 21-year old kid from Slough who didn’t know much about anything. Jesus, he even admitted to voting Tory in an interview. If he’d been more worldly wise, he’d have known that that is an unforgivable sin in the right-on world of rock journalism. Needless to say, he was pilloried for years on the back of it and his relationship with the press quickly declined from ‘curious’ to ‘bad’ to ‘catastrophic’.

In spite of the various press maulings, it’s probably fair to say that Numan has had the last laugh. Two decades after it first appeared on Top of the Pops, Are ‘friends’ electric? was brilliantly re-imagined by the Sugababes for their number one hit Freak like Me. He has enjoyed a recent upturn in commercial and critical fortunes and his music has been cited as a powerful influence by the likes of Basement Jaxx, Armand Van Helden, Foo Fighters, Afrika Bambaataa, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.

By the time Are ‘friends’ electric? had made it onto that edition of Top of the Pops in May 1979, I was already boring my friends rigid with my ridiculous zeal for Gary Numan’s music. My ‘discovery’ of this weird and wonderful artist allowed me to feel quite smug as his song made its steady way to the summit of the charts over a six-week period, progress which –by today’s standards- seems positively glacial.

During that time, the synthesiser was transformed from being a 'progressive rock’ instrument played by classically-trained bearded blokes in capes into something quite sexy, sitting right at the epicentre of pop culture. And, without anything resembling a recognisable chorus, a strange song about a robot prostitute topped the charts for four incredible weeks. I’ll always love Gary Numan for that.

In the words of the song: “You see, it meant everything to me.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Content, in context

A friend told me an interesting story the other day. He was in the car with his kids, listening to a football discussion on the radio. Graham Taylor, the former England football manager, was talking about the reasons why the English national team consistently under-performs. Mr Taylor said: "the problem is that there are too many foreigners playing in the English premier League". Most folk would probably accept that there is a link between the number of indigenous players playing in a domestic league and the success, or otherwise, of that country’s national team. Because of the incredible riches on offer, the English game attracts some of the best international footballers, which makes it more difficult for young English talent to break through to the top level. The percentage of English players playing in the top flight of the English League is very low (30%) compared to other -demonstrably more successful- national teams. In Italy, 57% of the players in Serie A are eligible to play for the national team, while in Spain 65% of the players in La Liga are available for selection by the national manager. It is, therefore, factually correct to state that the English football manager has fewer options than his Italian or Spanish counterparts when it comes to picking his first eleven. So Mr Taylor has a point.

Anyway, to get back to my friend. When his teenage kids heard that ‘too many foreigners’ remark on the radio, they both exclaimed: “but he can’t say that … it’s racist!

The context of the remark was completely lost on them. This was not because they weren't bright kids, but because -I'd suggest- that is how they’ve been taught to respond to anything even remotely connected with what has become a taboo subject. They have been trained to react to certain words and phrases with a mixture of horror and revulsion (with maybe a touch of righteous indignation on the side). You might say that this is a good thing and is at least an improvement on the societal and conversational mores extant in say, 1975, but there is a disquieting element to such a Pavlovian reaction. Of course, young people should be taught that racism is a bad thing, but surely it is more important that they are taught to recognise and interpret the context of a remark?

Last week, Donald Sterling -owner of Los Angeles Clippers basketball team- was banned from the National Basketball Association for life after a recording emerged of him expressing views that were perceived to have been racist. Mr Sterling was recorded asking a woman not to associate in public with black people; he didn’t use any specific racist terminology, but the content and context of his remarks made his views perfectly clear.
Let’s shelve for the moment the question of whether or not it was right that he should have received a lifetime ban from the sport. The point is that Mr Sterling managed to reveal his deep-rooted racism without using any of those taboo words and phrases, the words and phrases we’ve taught our kids to recoil from. He was condemned by an understanding (or at least an interpretation) of his content and context.

If we train young people merely to recoil at phrases like ‘too many foreigners’, we have failed them, no matter how good we think our intentions might be. A response to words alone is almost always inadequate, because context determines the meaning of things. It is the understanding of context (and the forming of an appropriate response to it) that marks out a thinking person. If kids are taught to respond to key words and phrases without thinking about setting, nuance, tone, or any of the awkward possibilities of context, we have opened the door to something quite sinister.

It’s been said a million times, but it’s worth saying it a million times more: we shouldn’t be teaching kids what to think, we should be teaching them how to think. Mere words are only part of the story.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Thinking with the wrong head

The comedian Eddie Izzard has come out in favour of Scotland staying in the United Kingdom. He said: "I'm proud to be British but I am also proud of Britain. I love the vibrant, tolerant, diverse, confident, country we have become."
He’s entitled to his view. We shouldn’t have a problem with a British citizen expressing an opinion on the potential break-up of the UK. That sort of thing can only be an issue for those of an absolutist state of mind, like –it seems- many in the Scottish arts fraternity (witness the recent furore over David Bowie’s remarks).

The latest to wade in to the debate is the actress and comedian Elaine C Smith. In responding to Izzard’s statement, she unwittingly provided further evidence of the intellectual complacency underpinning some of the 'Yes' campaign’s rhetoric.

She said: "I know he loves Scotland and I am sure he'll be very funny, but, to be serious, I think most of the media and London-centric elite need to understand what's going on here in Scotland. It seems to me that there's a huge number … who don't have an accurate view, and have no idea what Scotland is like since devolution and the progressive country we are and how we want to live. If Eddie was living here I'm sure he'd be voting 'Yes' because the independence movement encompasses all of his progressive ideals and his desire for a better and different society."

The fact that Eddie Izzard is as bien pensant as they come led Ms Smith to tread a little gently with her criticism; his ‘progressive’ credentials spared him from the flaying that others have suffered for daring to express the wrong opinion. The emollient language, however, failed to conceal the ugly essence of Ms Smith’s message, namely that Izzard had only expressed that opinion because he happens to live in the wrong place. If he lived up here, he’d have an ‘accurate view’ and wouldn’t be labouring under this false consciousness. Needless to say, anyone who doesn’t have the same views as Ms Smith clearly doesn’t want to live in a ‘better’ society.

This is weapons-grade arrogance, although I’m not sure that even that is a pejorative enough term to describe what we’re dealing with. Imagine, if you will, how Elaine C Smith would react if, say, Jeremy Clarkson had said something like this:

"She’s very funny, but, to be serious, I think most of the Scottish chattering classes need to understand what's going on down here in the south-east. If Elaine was living here, I'm sure she'd vote Conservative because she’d understand that the best way to achieve a better and different society is to move away from the corrosive, outdated and ruinous ‘tax and spend’ economic model. If she lived here, I’m sure she’d see things like that.”

You can rest assured that, before you could type the words ‘angry mob’, a fatwa would have been issued against Mr Clarkson.

Ms Smith has made it perfectly clear that she is incapable of understanding that another person might look at a situation and form opinions that don’t correspond with hers. Sadly, she’s far from being alone in that respect. She believes that Eddie Izzard -by all accounts an intelligent man- didn’t arrive at his views on the referendum through rational, independent thought; rather, he made the wrong call because he was not looking at it from the 'correct' position. If he lived in Scotland he would surely vote ‘yes’, because he’d see the world the way she does and would, perforce, come to the same conclusions.
This kind of ‘thinking’ isn’t just stupid; it’s pernicious and wicked and it shouldn’t get a free pass from anyone who cares about intellectual diversity. In essence, it’s about the denial of another person’s right to form a coherent opinion that would be deemed worthy of respect. When you ‘think’ like this, there is no real need to argue your case. The other person is always wrong, because guess what … they’re not using your head to think.

It was a favoured tactic of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century to pathologise dissent within their citizenry. 'If our citizens can’t see the world the way that we see it', the argument went, 'they must be suffering from some kind of cognitive dissonance'. Dissenters, by definition, were ‘wrong-headed’ in their thinking and probably mad; perhaps dangerously so. Corrective work, usually by way of imprisonment, was often required.

Elaine C Smith is an actress and comedian. Her views should carry about as much weight as the average taxi driver, plumber or shop assistant, but it so happens that her chosen profession allows her significant access to some major media outlets. But it could be worse; she could be a politician and actually in charge of stuff.

What a frightening thought. I’m tempted to paraphrase that old Carlsberg TV advert:

"Scottish showbiz ‘progressive’ types don’t make political regimes. But if they did, they’d probably be the nastiest regimes in the world."

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Making an album, part 3: The tyranny of choice

One of the things I think about during the recording sessions for my album is the question of just how far I should try to push the musical envelope.  By that, I mean: how much time should I devote to experimenting with the sounds?  My songs invariably start out as chords strummed on a guitar or vamped on a piano, but the recording studio is a creative space in which basic ideas can be re-imagined and transformed, given flight by the power of imagination and a degree of technical nous. The limp little caterpillar of your home demo might become a beautiful soaring butterfly once the studio witch doctor has worked his gadget-magic, evoking the software gods of sonic sheen and sparkle.  So why spend time, one might ask, making music that sounds a bit like some other music that folk will have heard a thousand times before?  Perhaps I should set my sights on creating something unique, something so idiosyncratic and personal that only I could have made it?

While it can be tempting to embrace the unusual or the outrĂ© in the belief that one is somehow expanding the boundaries of art, there is often a fine line between the interesting and the frivolous; one man’s bold experimentation might be another man’s self-indulgence.  One of the dangers of pursuing originality for the sake of it is that you may lose sight of the more important pursuit of excellence (I’ll get around to a definition of ‘excellence’ at some point).        

Many years ago, I read a piece about the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.  It focused on his unusual and experimental approach to composition, waxing lyrical about his pioneering ‘twelve-tone’ method (don’t ask) and his use of ‘hexachordal inversional combinatoriality’ (no, really … don’t ask).  Enthused by the article, I fell for the “challenging, revolutionary and experimental, your-life-will-not-be-complete-until-you-have-embraced-this-music” baloney and bought a copy of the composer’s Piano Concerto Op. 42.  I listened to it. Then I 'listened' to it. Then I really concentrated and listened some more.  I tried to convince myself that I was getting into it: "No, wait ... this little section here is quite good. Listen ... I can almost hear a tune trying to break out."

But it was no use.  I enjoy a bit of hexachordal inversional combinatoriality as much as the next man (particularly if it has a good beat and maybe a sexy female vocalist), but I had to give up on Schoenberg’s music.  Not because it was too 'difficult', although it probably was indeed 'challenging, revolutionary, experimental' etc.  I gave up because I thought it was dreadful. 

There are plenty of examples of music disappearing up its own backside in the pursuit of grandiosity or arch quirkiness; by the same token, I’ve heard plenty of stuff that is well constructed and beautifully recorded, but manages to lack any semblance of spark, energy or wit.  I’ve nothing against difficult or challenging music, but I don’t think it should get a critical free pass just because it is difficult or challenging.  Art works best when there is balance between content and form.  By all means try to be a pioneer, but your content must be able to cash the cheque written by the radical aspects of your chosen form. 

But challenging established notions of song-writing is not on my agenda; I’m too set in my ways to be radical. My preference is for well-structured songs that express ideas or emotions or tell an interesting story, but for any musician who is in the mood to push that musical envelope, the opportunities for studio experimentation are probably greater now than they have ever been.  
Before the advent of multi-tracking (i.e. the ability to layer sounds one on top of the other), engineers and musicians had to learn their parts and record them in a single take.  If they messed up, they had to do it again.  If they got a perfect take, but there was perhaps a rogue sound on one of the microphones, they either lived with the imperfection or recorded the entire thing again.  In those days, the role of the producer was to capture a performance, or series of performances, by musicians.  Multi-tracking changed the way that music was recorded, but more importantly, it changed the way that producers and musicians heard and imagined music.  You could argue that The Beatles and the Beach Boys picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Phil Spector and redefined the relationship between music and technology.  Now that we’re in the digital age, it is probably fair to say that the technological leap in the recording process during the last fifty years is equivalent to the difference between travelling on a push bike and travelling on a jumbo jet.

With the range of options available to studio musicians heading somewhere in the direction of the infinite, every decision now competes against a bewildering range of alternatives.  There is no sound that can’t be manipulated, fixed, imagined or executed; an editing task that once might have taken days to execute can now be managed with a few clicks of a mouse.  Recorded instruments can be layered, stacked and treated to an extent that was impossible in the days of analogue tape.  But with an arsenal of gadgetry and some very smart software at your disposal, you can easily end up chasing your tail in the chimerical pursuit of aural nirvana. 

Do you need a perfect valve amp sound for your guitar?  Just run it through this plug-in and there are 150 possible options.  And what if we chopped up that guitar chord, reversed it, arpeggiated it, then used it as a texture underneath the verse piano? Maybe we could make that piano sound like it was recorded in an old abandoned church?  While we’re at it, let’s try messing that vocal up so that it sounds like a cello being attacked by a chainsaw, underwater. 

Ed McArthur at Stealth, my co-producer on this album, is currently working with another artist who has a recorded a song with somewhere around 200 vocal takes and another couple of hundred instrumental tracks. That’s on one song.  They won’t be able to use all that information in the final mix, but they’ve given themselves a hell of a lot of options (and probably some sleepless nights).   
But having a million options isn’t necessarily a good thing, as anyone who has ever tried to exercise restraint in an ‘eat all you want’ Chinese buffet will testify.  On a bad day, that bewilderment of choice can lead to indecision and even inertia.  Just because it’s possible to have 200 instrumental alternatives on a track doesn’t mean that you should do it.    

As the album begins to take some kind of shape (in my head, at least), I find –once again- that I’m gravitating towards material that, to my ear, ticks some of the key boxes to do with construction, melody, depth of feeling and pleasing-on-the-ear chord changes.  I’m quite willing to manipulate sounds and play around with unusual instrumental textures, but the shape of the song, the integrity of the composition, has to remain intact.  I’ve got pretty clear ideas of where I want each of these tracks to go and I’m hopeful that I’ll know when it’s time to experiment and when it’s time to just nail the basic arrangement.       

The astute reader may have spotted by now that this essay is a thinly-veiled attempt to head off at the pass any criticism of my music for being safe, pedestrian and middle-of-the-road.  So, having started this piece by talking about experimentation, the link below will take you to a song -called 'I like your shoes'- that I realised pretty quickly wasn’t going to be messed round with or built up into a many-layered wonder. 

A couple of years ago, I saw a picture that had been taken at a big anti-capitalist demonstration in one of the major European cities.  It featured the striking image of a man, his face obscured behind a balaclava, about to throw a missile at some policemen.  The protestor was dressed in expensive designer gear and it struck me as odd –to say the least- that he was ‘protesting’ against a lifestyle that he appeared to endorse through his expensive choice of label wear.  I wondered if the guy had actually thought the thing through.  Maybe, like others I could name in the political sphere, he was merely operating a policy of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.  Or perhaps he just liked throwing stuff at policemen.  Once the subject matter was established (with the starting point being the focus on the protestor’s expensive trainers) the lyric almost wrote itself.  I wanted to keep it simple, in the spirit of old-style protest songs, the twist being that it’s a protest song about a protest.  It also seemed somehow appropriate for me to blag and then invert Gil Scott-Herron’s line about the revolution not being televised.

There is not much to this recording apart from some double-tracked acoustic guitar and piano, with a little bit of rudimentary percussion.  And yes, if I was true to my word I would have recorded it one take, just me and my battered old acoustic. 

But it’s my party and I’ll overdub if I want to.  

I like your shoes

Saturday, 15 March 2014

About that 'democratic deficit' ...

As the protagonists in the referendum debate paddle fractiously around the shallow end of the intellectual pool, so the need becomes greater for a civilised and less strident exchange of views, one focused on the real issues.
Like most people, my criterion for placing a 'yes' vote is simple – will an independent Scotland be a better place for my children and their children to live in? For the moment, I’ll put to one side the question about what exactly would make the country a better place in which to live.

It hardly needs pointing out that some people will never, under any circumstances, vote for an independent Scotland, while others will remain committed to independence no matter which arguments are presented to them. The result, therefore, will probably be determined by people sitting in the as-yet-undecided camp. From what I hear and read, a lot of folk are going to vote on the basis of gut feeling and emotion. There is nothing wrong with that, but it can occasionally get a bit silly. I heard a news item on Radio Scotland in which a member of the public said that the recent comments by David Bowie had "helped make up her mind" to vote yes. Without wishing to be too unkind, I’d suggest that if you place your vote on the basis of a throwaway remark by a pop star, you probably shouldn't be allowed out of the house without a ‘name and address’ tag on your jacket and someone holding your hand.
I do understand the emotional pull of a Yes vote, but if we’re going to set ourselves up as an independent first world nation, with responsibilities for the economic well-being of some five million people, my preference would be to spend a bit of time focusing on the arguments, the practicalities and the numbers. Accordingly, some of the flimsier arguments should be quietly dropped. One example would be the notion being put forward by the Yes campaign that Scotland has suffered from a ‘democratic deficit’. I think a brief examination of the facts renders that an extraordinarily feeble case to present.

In addition to having our own parliament (unlike other parts of the UK), Scotland is proportionally over-represented in Westminster. We have 8% of the UK population, but account for 9% of the seats in the House of Commons. By contrast, the London metropolitan area -to take one obvious example- is home to 21% of the UK population, but represented by only 11.2% of our MPs.
Scottish MPs at Westminster can vote on issues which do not affect Scotland, while MPs representing English, Welsh or Irish constituencies do not have a say in any of the business of the Scottish Parliament. On that basis alone, how is it possible to conclude anything other than that Scottish voters are getting a bigger bang for their electoral buck than any other part of the UK?

Where does this idea of a 'democratic deficit' come from? Is it a by-product of our passionate and oft-expressed desire for independence? Well … not really. As recently as 1959, the SNP could only muster 0.5% of the votes in a general election. By the mid-eighties, when Mrs Thatcher was in her pomp, they were polling around 12%. At the last general election, as the only explicitly separatist party, they got 19.9% of the popular vote. The combined vote of the unionist parties was around 78%, so Scotland can hardly claim to have been clamouring for independence. At the most recent Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011, the victorious SNP actually gathered fewer votes in Scotland than Margaret Thatcher’s hated Conservatives got in the 1979 general election. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

The way this ‘democratic deficit’ argument is presented, you’d think that Scotland has had to endure decades under the jackboot Reich of hard line, right-wing Tory administrations, but that’s far from being the truth. Since the end of the second world war, general elections in the UK have produced 35 years of Tory rule and 30 years of Labour rule, plus 4 years under the present coalition government. In democratic terms, that seems like a fairly reasonable split between what -on paper, at least- are opposing political ideologies. And if the vast majority of Scots invariably vote for unionist parties, what gives us any more right than the residents of Yorkshire, Cornwall or Suffolk to feel aggrieved by the vicissitudes of the electoral process?

When people say, in the context of this independence referendum, that there is a 'democratic deficit', I think what they mean is: “We don't want a Tory government.” There is nothing wrong with thinking or saying that, but to break up a successful political union just because the odd election doesn't go your way seems like rather a selfish impulse.
Blair Jenkins, the Chief Executive of Yes Scotland, has gone on record as saying that independence will mean "no more Tory governments, ever." That sentiment might appeal to a lot of people, but that doesn't make it right. For those of us who think that you can hardly get a fag paper between the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives as it is, this looks like a desire to narrow even further the choice available to voters. In that sense, the 'brave new Scotland' promised by the Yes campaign is already tainted by some profoundly illiberal impulses.

This might come as news to some folk, but democracy is not about getting what you want all of the time. It is about representing, as far as is possible, the current will of the people, which means that sometimes your favoured side will win and sometimes it won’t. The make-up of post-war British governments is remarkably evenly split and that is, arguably, one of the strengths of our current system. It’s not just that you can’t win every election; it’s that you shouldn’t be able to win every election.

And this is something that people who go on and on about that ‘democratic deficit’ should consider: the only countries in which it is possible for one grouping to win every election are countries in which most of us really wouldn’t want to live.