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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.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

It's 'Virtue Signalling' Week!



This is just a quick note remind everyone that Monday 7th December is the start of 'Virtue Signalling' Week on twitter and facebook. It’s the one week in the year where you can post your thoughts /observations/ complaints about an issue of the day and demonstrate to your friends and acquaintances that you are more sensitive and caring than they are.   

The beauty about Virtue Signalling is that you don’t have to think too much about stuff. Just pick an issue, post your original thought (well … a thought anyway) and link to something you’ve read from a reliable source (well … a source anyway). Extra points are awarded if you bypass the whole ‘reading’ thing and just use a picture to sum up a complicated issue. Don’t worry about the context of the picture or anything like that, because, the more complicated the issue, the easier it is summed up by a picture with a caption.  

During Virtue Signalling Week, nobody will be criticised for having a superficial grasp of complex issues, so the simpler the message, the better. Good luck!

For further information, visit:

www.ohforfucksakestoptalkingshite.com

Sunday, 29 November 2015

It's time to ditch that immigration bargepole

Such is the degraded nature of our national discourse on the topic of immigration that I feel obliged to start this piece with a statement, or -in modern parlance- a trigger warning.

I am a free-marketeer. I believe that capitalism, while far from perfect, provides the greatest good for the greatest number. I believe this because all of the available evidence leads me to that conclusion. Further, that belief in the free market comes with a belief in the free movement of people, which means that I am in favour of immigration, including economic migration. 

Questions relating to how, when, why and in what numbers people move from one country to another ought to be considered important enough for reasoned discussion, but it has been clear for some time that ‘polite’ society has considered such questions to be out of bounds. Mainstream political parties won’t talk about it and the default liberal-left position has been: if you question immigration policy, you’re a racist. No wonder then, that rather than try to talk honestly and rationally on the subject, many folk opt to deploy the proverbial ten-foot bargepole to help them steer well clear of it. When you consider the public reaction to the refugee crisis, it’s little wonder that some choose to keep their own counsel. From the haughty tenor of some of the posts on the various social networks, you’d think that anyone not waving a ‘refugees welcome’ banner while organising a street party for the new arrivals was deserving of the kind of opprobrium normally reserved for members of the SS who have been discovered living in exile in South America. At the very least, many people appear to believe that a failure to subscribe to the ‘open our doors and let everyone in’ line is somehow morally dubious. I was intrigued by the number of people posting online statements about their willingness to take refugees into their own homes. I’m not in a position to say whether these statements were genuine, or merely tiresome examples of virtue signalling; I don’t suppose we’ll know for sure until we check back in a couple of months to see how they are all getting on with their Syrian lodgers.


During our national debate (I use that word in the loosest possible sense), we continue to use the emotive term ‘refugee’ when, under European law, someone cannot be classed as a refugee if they have crossed several ‘safe’ borders after having fled their own country. Many of the folk we are being urged to accept with open arms can, by no meaningful legal definition, be described as ‘refugees’. Accordingly, one must assume that they are economic migrants. I’ve already stated that I am in favour of economic migration and believe that it has enriched our country, but would add this caveat: nation states should have the right to make informed and rational decisions about how they manage their numbers. And, whether we like it or not, the numbers are important.      

A few weeks ago, when people started circulating an idiotic meme about Britain’s ‘shame’ in only accepting 216 refugees (which anyone could have debunked after about twenty seconds of research), they inadvertently touched upon that key question. If you are willing to state that 216 was the ‘wrong’ amount of refugees to accept, you have implicitly acknowledged that there must be a ‘right’ number of refugees to accept. Let’s discount for the moment the fact that some folk think we should have an absolute ‘open doors’ policy, in the same way we’d discount the fact that some folk believe the earth to be flat. I don’t know if the ‘right’ number of refugees is 15,000, 150,000 or 1.5million. I would expect the people we elected to govern the country to have a view based on their knowledge of the likely impact on services, infrastructure, housing, social cohesion and so on. We have to trust them to make that decision because -much as it may surprise some folk to learn- personal conscience doesn’t trump reality. Making a grand pronouncement about our moral obligations might make some people feel good about themselves, but they shouldn’t expect other human beings with other thought processes and experiences, other opinions and observations, to go along with them.   
Just as it’s idiotic to believe that all refugees are potential terrorists, it’s also idiotic to believe that there won’t be terrorists (or terrorist sympathisers) among the hundreds of thousands of folk currently entering Europe. We know there will be, because the jihadists have not only told us, they have demonstrated that they have agents and sympathisers operating in major European cities. These facts may be awkward and inconvenient for some folk to accept, but that’s the thing about facts: they don’t need you or me to feel awkward or inconvenienced about accepting them. They just are.   

As always, our interpretation of events may depend on where we get our news from, but five minutes on the google machine should make it obvious that this is a much more difficult and complicated topic than some folk believe. For every ‘feelgood’ news item featuring smiling locals welcoming trainloads of refugees with open arms, there are myriad alternative stories about a less welcoming side. These stories, among other things, reveal a growing unease among local populations about the sudden influx of huge numbers of folk (the vast majority of them young single men) from North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. We might not like to hear about hostility towards these migrants, but it is happening and there are reasons why it is happening.

I work in an educational setting on the outskirts of an average British city. Many of the students I work with come from areas which might be described as disadvantaged. Last week, I had a discussion about the refugee crisis with a group of 12 young people. What struck me was the sheer unanimity on this topic among the group; every one of them expressed views which, if aired on twitter, would probably have PC Plod at the door ready to press ‘hate crime’ charges. I’m expressing it politely when I say that these youngsters did not go along with the view that their country should welcome refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. And I’m willing to bet that, for each of those kids, there will be a set of parents or carers with the same outlook. I do not believe that this is down to wickedness; these are simply people whose perceptions of this complicated topic are viewed through the filter of their experiences within their own communities. No doubt some of you reading this will already have concluded that such folk will have been brainwashed by the ‘right wing’ press, but that, I think, is an intellectually lazy position, one which wilfully ignores the experiences of those who believe that they have most to lose from immigration; that is, the people against whom many migrants will be competing for low-paid jobs and cheap housing.

I’m fine with immigration, but I’m middle class, middle-aged and comfortably off. I’m not unemployed and I’m not on the social housing waiting list. If I was and I lived in a poor community in which social and cultural tensions already existed, I probably wouldn’t be as keen on it as the average college professor, TV journalist or MP. And I’d probably be even less keen if I lived in a place like Rotherham, where the values of the governing class are so grotesquely skewed that they can suppress information about the systematic brutalisation and rape of 2,000 girls in the name of ‘community cohesion’, but can ban a middle-aged couple from fostering children because they supported a political party that said that it would limit immigration. Not a party that said it would introduce concentration camps or outlaw any particular religion; a party that said it would limit immigration. I can’t explain why those in power acted the way they did without using words like arrogance, stupidity and cognitive dissonance. If you can think of anything more damaging to the notion of community cohesion than a willingness on the part of the authorities to interpret heinous criminal activity through the prism of ethno-religious sensitivity, please let me know; my mind can’t possibly be any more boggled than it already was by those disgraceful events. Rotherham provided the perfect illustration of a political climate in which legitimate concerns are stifled and declared off-topic, a climate in which the Untermensch are excluded from any discussion because they’re deemed to be stupid, racist and volatile. Little wonder then, that many folk, rather than talk about the issues, will reach for that bargepole.

How did we get to this point? Well, here’s a clue:

Andrew Neather, a speech writer and adviser to Tony Blair in the early 2000s, was quoted as saying that Labour’s relaxation of immigration controls were designed to "open up the UK to mass migration", although ministers were reluctant to discuss this move publicly, fearing that it would alienate its "core working class vote". In a phrase which has rightly become notorious, Mr Weather said that Labour ministers wished to change the country and "rub the Right's nose in diversity".

Who was consulted about this plan? Did it ever appear in any Labour manifesto? And whose noses were actually being rubbed in it? If those ministers were really convinced that their policies were right, shouldn’t they have talked openly about them instead of operating by stealth?
When the Amsterdam treaty of 1999 formally incorporated the Schengen agreement into European law, commentators who pointed out the obvious (i.e. that opening Europe’s doors to potentially millions of poor Africans and Eastern Europeans could have catastrophic consequences) were routinely dismissed; they usually wrote for the ‘wrong’ newspapers and had the ‘wrong’ political views. And bit by bit, we got used to the idea of having to creep gingerly across eggshells, because polite society had declared omeron the topic of immigration, hoping that it would go away.

But sooner or later, reality always puts its marker down. It doesn’t matter what polite society or mainstream political parties think, because if enough people think immigration is the big issue of the day, immigration will become the big issue of the day. And, when mainstream head-in-the-sand parties decide to keep their heads in the sand, the electorate invariably looks for alternatives. 

I sometimes wonder if it occurs to folk who use 'shaming' tactics that they are at least partly responsible for the increasing support enjoyed by so-called extremist parties. Yes, if you have ever dismissed someone as a narrow-minded bigot without listening to their concerns about immigration, I’m afraid you are culpable. It’s true that we have no shortage of narrow-minded bigots, but extremist parties didn’t invent racism; they have grown -and will continue to grow- in response to the mainstream’s unwillingness to listen to views deemed to be morally or intellectually beyond the pale. By now, it should be obvious to everyone that closing debate down by shouting ‘racist’ doesn’t solve anything; in fact, it does quite the opposite, as Europe’s political leaders are discovering. Look up what is happening in Sweden if you want a glimpse of the future.

If we were able to have an honest and rational discussion now, I suspect that a majority of the British population would go along with the following two propositions:

It would be wrong to refuse to accept any refugees.

It would be wrong to have an absolute ‘open doors’ policy towards refugees.

Somewhere in between those two extremes is a position that the majority of us will support, because most people -on some level- appreciate that Society is a compact between those who are living now, those who shaped the world in which we live and those who will follow us. Our liberal culture (and its attendant freedoms) was not won in a lottery; it was fought for over hundreds of years, paid for by the lives of millions. It has survived by creating wealth and prosperity, adapting to change, welcoming and assimilating incomers and entrenching a set of core values within a complex system of cultural, societal and political mores. No single generation, no ephemeral governing group, no cabal of keyboard warriors is empowered to change that. To put it simply: we do not have the right to give the house keys to anyone who fancies turning up. And if we put that to a vote, most people would go along with it. Because, again, most folk know (if few are prepared to say) that while we are obliged to act morally and to help refugees as much as we reasonably can, we do not owe millions of folk from other continents our standard of living.   
If you believe that we do, you should act according to your conscience. You should sell your house and car and donate the proceeds to an appropriate charity. You should take refugees into your home and share your life with them, or go and work for voluntary services overseas. What you shouldn’t do is demand that other people (and future generations) pay for policies that you think are morally upstanding. You are entitled to hold those views, but you have no right to hold other folk to those standards.

It is clear that our continued use of that intellectual bargepole has not had the desired effect. All it has done is build up resentment and open the door to folk who won’t necessarily have entirely benevolent intentions. 

There is, however, still time to adopt a mature and rational approach to the topic.

We should be discussing and debating the issues of culture, demographics, assimilation, impacts on education, housing, health services and social cohesion. Because we live in a civilised country, I believe that the economic, social, cultural and moral case for controlled immigration can be made and won.

But I suspect that some of us aren’t yet ready to have that grown-up discussion.

When the subject comes up, too many shrill voices will still cry ‘racist’ and, fearful of being called the only thing that is worse than being called a paedophile, folk will -publicly at least- reach once again for that bargepole.  

And something that is already quite ugly could get a whole lot uglier.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

What's it all about, Sandi?



The singer Sandi Thom’s much-discussed online ‘meltdown’ attested to just how upset she was that her latest single had not been play-listed by any of the big radio stations (i.e. the ones with lots of listeners). She was particularly aggrieved that Radio 2 had ignored it, because she considered it to be catchy and ‘perfect’ for their format. She exclaimed, tearfully, that: “It’s a fucking good song, OK? There is no reason why they need to do this to me!”
We must assume from this that it simply did not occur to her that the Radio 2 producers may not have liked her song, thus ensuring that “22 million people won’t get to hear it.”

You may recall that Ms Thom came to fame in 2006 on the back of what was essentially a clever social networking campaign, when reports suggested that 100,000 people were watching shows being streamed live from her ‘bedroom’. The internet is a wonderful thing, the story suggested, because it allowed unknown artists like Sandi to connect with huge numbers of fans and to be ‘discovered’ in a whole new way. Apart from the fact that the technical specifications required to handle such a massive number of live streams would have been beyond the simple ‘bedroom’ artist that she purported to be, Ms Thom was also already signed to a record company. The ‘100,000 live streams for an unknown independent artist’ story had, in the immortal words of Damon Runyon, more than a touch of the old phonus balonus about it, but whether we believed it or not, it certainly gave her career a splendid kick-start.

Since her big hit (You may remember it: 'I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair'), her sales have been on a relentless downward curve and, without wishing to be unkind, it is clear that her appeal has become rather more selective.

The online commentary on her confessional has been divided as to whether it represented:
  
a) A blubbering, pathetic illustration of an utterly bewildering sense of entitlement. She’s written a song … so what?

b) A depressingly public display of her fragile mental health. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean; it looks like there could be something more going on than ‘nobody likes my brilliant single’.  
or  
c) A tawdry marketing ploy. How many folk were talking or writing about her single last week? How many folk are talking or writing about it now? After the meltdown and attendant furore, she was invited, among other things, to appear on the Chris Moyles Radio Show (now who could have predicted that?) 

You can judge for yourself as to what her rant really means. My feeling is that options a, b and c are all, to one extent or another, probably close to the truth.
I am, however, going to make a more charitable observation and suggest that Sandi has –intentionally or not- aired a refreshingly candid snapshot of the pathetic little beast that dwells within the heart of every creative person, the needy critter that raises its voice whenever a work of art is released into the world at large.  

It’s an abject, pitiable, whimpering thing that says:
“Look. I’ve made something. It took me a long time and I’ve put a lot into it. Like it, please. Please, please, please … like it.”

Scuttling around in the dark, neglected cellar of creativity, this wretched creature nurses a devastating and little-uttered truth:

So your sense of self-worth is based on how complete strangers react to your creative endeavours. How is that working out for you? 



Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Things I’ve learned recently on social media (part 2).



1. It is entirely unacceptable to question the character and judgement of a politician (let’s call him the leader of the opposition) by mentioning things from his past, for instance: meetings he had, platforms he shared, positions he took on big issues. To point out, for instance, that said politician had consorted with murderous anti-Semites is to play the game of the ‘right-wing’ gutter press and to indulge in an outdated, adversarial brand of politics. No matter that these events are a matter of public record; by mentioning them, you are pandering to a reactionary mentality, indulging in what is little more than sordid character assassination. The ‘new’ politics isn’t meant to be about that.

2. It is, however, entirely acceptable to share, delight in and draw conclusions from an unsubstantiated accusation made by one man about another (let’s call him the prime-minister). No evidence exists to back up this accusation (which was ‘gathered’ from an anonymous third party) and there is no record of the politician concerned ever having been a member of the so-called ‘secret’ society with the allegedly bizarre initiation ceremony. In sharing this ‘news’, one can also freely infer that it constitutes irrefutable proof that the country is run by a sinister cabal of shape-shifting lizards who all went to the same public schools and all joined the same secret societies. No matter that several members of the ‘secret’ society concerned have come forward to state that nothing of the sort has ever been part of their initiation ceremony. But of course they would say that, because they’re all part of the sinister cabal of shape-shifting lizards who went to the same public schools and all joined the same secret societies.

I’m quite comfortable with politicians being criticised for stuff that we know they’ve actually done, whether that stuff is at the level of drunken student pranks or at the level of consorting with the odd terrorist; it’s all fair game as far as I’m concerned. I am, however, rather less comfortable with the notion that it’s fine to damn someone with an allegation quoted second hand from a single anonymous source just because you don’t like that person or his politics.

I’m beginning to see that, in order to really blend in with the social network commentariat, I’ll need to adapt my perspective, because a single set of standards isn’t going to be enough.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Making an album, part 7: How not to write a song for Shania Twain

A few years ago, I was asked to provide some material for an up-and-coming young female country singer. A friend in the business who was familiar with my writing style (I was going to use the phrase ‘writing prowess’ there, but that would have been a bit of an exaggeration) thought that I might have some songs which -given the right treatment- could have worked for this particular vocalist. My name was passed to the singer’s manager, who also happened to be her mother. After a perfunctory phone call (“I’ve been told you write songs. We’re looking for songs”), an appointment was made for us to meet. I packed my guitar and notebook and drove out to a big house in the country, about a mile and half from the middle of nowhere.


Upon my arrival, it was made clear that the singer’s mum /manager (let’s call her The Mumager) was the director of operations. I was led into a room that could have passed for a middle-sized function suite (complete with its own stage) and it was explained that I would be auditioning my songs to her before she decided if the enterprise was to proceed beyond first base. I’m being polite here when I say that she was not the kind of person who liked to waste time with idle chit-chat. Inasmuch as I had expected anything, I thought that I would at least have met the singer before introducing her to the songs which, in my head at least, had ‘surprise country smash’ written all over them, but the daughter was -as yet- nowhere to be seen. The Mumager, with a small hand gesture, invited me to take the stage and perform. She positioned herself on a chair a few feet from the raised platform and, from that distance, looked like the smallest and possibly the toughest audience I would ever have to play to. There was no point in trying to crack a joke to ease the tension, because the meagre conversational scraps of our opening exchanges had made it obvious that my sense of humour and hers had about as much in common as scrap metal and scrambled eggs.

Mindful of that ever-useful mnemonic beloved of all performers (TNT MAFFOY – ‘Try Not To Make a Fucking Fool of Yourself’), I had come prepared with a number of possible contenders for the surprise country hit of the year. I assumed that The Mumager’s idea of country music would have been based on songs she had heard played by proper country musicians. As I’ve stated in some previous articles, I’m not a particularly gifted musician, let alone a gifted country musician. My playing style, such as it is, could best be described as ‘tipsy welterweight’; I don’t really do finesse and, rather than tease a melody out of a guitar or piano, I’m more naturally equipped to bludgeon the instrument with some ham-fisted chords. Accordingly, I figured that each song would require an eloquent preamble; rather than let The Mumager judge my songs on what she was about to hear, I needed her to judge them on what I imagined they could be, given a bit of investment and finesse. Before essaying the first strum on each song, I tried to explain how a recorded version might sound, given the proper backing. Imagine, if you will, Woody Allen trying to talk his way out of being whacked by one of Tony Soprano’s henchmen; that is more or less how my song pitches were delivered.   
“This one could turn out to be a bit like Shania Twain, if we arrange it properly” I heard myself saying. Somewhere in the background, a clock ticked. Slowly.

There was little to glean from The Mumager’s inscrutable expression, although as the audition went on, I began to suspect that my preambles were going down about as well an attempt to get her to buy into a time-share in a beaten-up caravan in Arbroath. I introduced another song. “This one would sound a bit country if we added some pedal steel” I said, probably sounding a bit feeble. Or, now that I think about it, actually sounding feeble. In my experience, one of the biggest mistakes a songwriter can make is to let people hear something that isn’t finished; where the songwriter can hear the glorious possibilities of embellishment, imaginings of beautiful harmonies, echoes of eloquent guitars, the layperson just hears whatever is placed in front of them.      

As I ran through my various would-be country classics, The Mumager said nothing, although she did nod her head occasionally. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but, given her almost complete lack of chat, facial expression or interpretable body language, I chose to take any occasional nod as a positive sign; perhaps, inside, she was all cartwheels, laughter and pure country joy. Five songs (and five rather laboured explanations) later, the audition was over. The Mumager said “We’ll do number three”. And that was it; the first part of our business had been conducted, leaving me glad that the pool of sweat on the stage beneath me had not been deposited in vain.        

The daughter was called through from the west wing and we were finally introduced. I played the song for her and –thankfully- she seemed to like it. We ran through it a few times until we found the right key for her and, before I left, I gave her a handwritten copy of the lyric to practise with. A few weeks later, we were in the studio recording a decent version of the song but, sadly, it didn’t turn out to be a surprise country hit; this, I realise, has been a recurring theme in my musical career.   

Of the five songs I pitched that night, one had seemed to me like a stand-out candidate (and it wasn’t number three). I had the feeling at the time that they would (and should) have picked song number four: ‘Read my Lips’. 

Like the vast majority of songs that I write, this had started with some chords on a guitar or piano, before I improvised a vocal melody over the top. Only after that initial ‘brainstorming’ phase would I have considered a subject matter, a title and some words to suit the mood that had been set by the basic components I had already put in place. As I played around with the chord sequence and melody, I had not only pictured someone like Shania Twain singing it, I also had the distinct feeling that it would somehow have suited a lyric with a universal theme. With, however, no pressing need to finish it, the song was filed away in my burgeoning ‘one-day-I-might-do-something-with-this’ file. Once I had accepted the assignment to try and write a hit for someone, it seemed like an obvious choice. I drafted, tweaked and re-drafted the lyric several times until it felt just right. I imagined a tight rocking band delivering the backing with some real torch and twang, while Shania belted out an empowering lyric along the lines of my-man-gone-done-me-wrong-so-he-can-sling-his-hook-and-I’ll-be-just-fine.
I thought that the tune was catchy and that the universal theme gave it some extra hit potential, but with my modest track record I don’t suppose many folk would see the percentage in betting on that. The Mumager was unmoved by the song (and my sales pitch), so ‘Read my Lips’ was consigned to the ‘pending’ file.  

Writing a pop lyric presents a different kind of challenge and is, in some ways, harder than writing something just to please yourself (which is what I usually do). It’s quite easy to write lyrics, but it’s rather more difficult to write good lyrics and, in my experience, even harder to write good lyrics for someone else.

A few years ago, I was in a band in which I had to write for another young female vocalist. She had a lovely voice, she looked the part and she had some pretty good ideas of her own, but her lyric-writing pace could best be described as ‘sluggish’ and I often had to push matters along in order to get new material into our set. A man in his forties composing for a woman in her twenties was not necessarily a recipe for insightful writing and, in my desire to increase the band’s productivity, I tended to steer very firmly to the lyrical middle of the road, drafting lines that were, for want of a better term, generic. 

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with generic lyrics, but –sooner or later- you’ll find that you’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name and it’ll feel good to be out of the rain; or, as is more likely, nobody will have a clue what you’re talking about. I know that for some writers, this is actually something like a state of bliss. It is often the case (for a variety of reasons) that songwriters don’t particularly wish to be understood and plenty of folk have sustained entire careers on being vague and evasive in their songs.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Coldplay –to take but one example- have sold so many albums is that, in addition to the fact that their music is relatively easy on the ear, their words are usually just vague enough to have a broad appeal.

Take the lyrics to ‘Yellow’:

Look at the stars,
Look how they shine for you,
And everything you do,
Yeah, they were all yellow.

I came along,
I wrote a song for you,
And all the things you do,
And it was called "Yellow".

So then I took my turn,
Oh what a thing to have done,
And it was all yellow.

Your skin Oh yeah your skin and bones,
Turn into something beautiful,
You know, You know I love you so,
You know I love you so.

What does that even mean? I’d suggest that the answer is ‘nothing’; or maybe it’s everything. These lyrics are so vague that any notion of meaning is conferred entirely by the listener. ‘Yellow’ can mean whatever you want it to mean, which in pop music terms, probably makes it a good (that is, commercially appealing) lyric.

Take, by way of contrast, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Song for Sharon’. Here’s the opening few lines:

I went to Staten Island, Sharon.
To buy myself a mandolin
And I saw the long white dress of love
On a storefront mannequin
Big boat chuggin' back with a belly full of cars...
All for something lacy
Some girl's going to see that dress
And crave that day like crazy
On a storefront mannequin     

In addition to delineating a very personal and perceptive observation, these lines prepare the listener for the complex subject matter of the song. In exploring the idea of the path not taken, ‘Song for Sharon’ compares Joni Mitchell’s life -that of a successful musician- with that of a friend who has “a husband, a family and a farm”.
Mitchell acknowledges the powerful attraction of that “long white dress of love” (and all that it implies) then reflects on the lifestyle choices she has made in pursuing her muse. The lyric explores the tension between, on the one hand, her need to create art and, on the other, the desire for love, constancy and security.  

In the final lines, she sings:

But you still have your music
And I've still got my eyes on the land and the sky
You sing for your friends and your family
I'll walk green pastures by and by

This is open to interpretation, but not in the same way that ‘Yellow’ is open to interpretation. Where ‘Yellow’ trusts the imagination of the listener to sprinkle some fairy dust over its prosaic phrasing, ‘Song for Sharon’ probes the complexity of big life choices. In laying out the consequences, regrets and rewards of opting for the life of a musical free spirit and rejecting the role of wife and mother, Mitchell sketches her ambivalence so skilfully that, by the end the song, we’re not really sure which woman has got the best deal.

There is no right way or wrong way to compose a lyric, but ‘Song for Sharon’ is clearly the work of a poet, while ‘Yellow’ could easily have been written by someone employed to churn out greeting cards for Walmart. I’d love to sit at Joni’s end of the song-writing table, but it’s a very long table and the reality is that I’m way down at the other end, using the wrong cutlery, knocking over the condiments and trying not to slurp my soup. But at least the songs on my album will make a series of statements that I’ll be reasonably happy to make. And, although ‘Read my Lips’ may have been written with the specific aim of having a hit by putting words into someone else’s mouth, it’s still something that I’m proud of. If I hadn’t had to audition this song, I might never have gotten around to finishing it. The discipline of pulling it all together, the imagining of Shania Twain performing it, improved me as a writer.

The Mumager might not have cared much for my material, but her daughter is now doing very well for herself on the Irish country circuit; by the sounds of it, she wanted something closer to old-school country than I could provide. My recorded version of the song is very close to what I had in mind when I wrote it. The band (Les, Fraser and Peter) absolutely nailed the arrangement, with Peter’s country-tinged guitar, in particular, bang on the money for the mood I wanted to create. 

On the subject of the album, work is now moving into the closing stages. I’ve recorded around 50 pieces of music and they currently sit in three distinct piles, each of which will hopefully see the light of day pretty soon.

More will be revealed shortly, but -just to be on the safe side- I have left instructions in my will that, in the event of my sudden death, the entire body of work should be performed at Hampden Park with a 60-piece orchestra, a male voice choir and Shania Twain on lead vocals. 

And, if we can swing it with her management, I’d like her to be dressed as Catwoman.