New Song: Tell Me

Lyrics

Tell me what you want to see
And I’ll show it to you
Tell me what you want me to be
I’ll be that for you… oh

Tell me what you want me to do
I could do it to you (if you want me to)
Tell me all the secrets you keep
And who you are when you sleep

Hands up if you’re a bad girl…
…hand down if you’re a good girl

Tell me how you want to be tied
And I’ll pull down the blinds
Tell me if it hurts too much
Or you want a bit more
(Nobody’s here to keep the score)

Tell me where you want this to go
And I’ll go there with you… anywhere… oh….
Tell me with your mouth or your eyes
Try to surprise me
(I promise you that I won’t mind)

[Chorus]

Thoughts

Like a few of my recent songs, this was built from a rhythm track up – stemming largely from me pootling around on a bass to one of the preset drum loops that come with GarageBand. Quite pleased with it, I boosted the drums with a doubled-up deep electro bass drum and snare and then the basic outline of the song was there within a couple of takes.

As I’ve probably mentioned before, it’s very easy when writing a song based on a groove for it to get boring. Basically, because they tend not to stem from an independent melody or chord changes, such songs are very immediate (hence their popularity in dance-friendly formats such as funk) but can also easily outstay their welcome.

The way to mitigate against this is usually to throw in some special effects: if you listen to, say, something like a Fat Boy Slim track – or something by the Chemical Brothers – they will often have sections where bits drop out altogether (so you only have the bass playing for a while) or throw in a sonic filter (those swirling sound effects where the whole song seems to get further and further away, before leaping back to life).

Obviously, I ain’t no dance act, so I chose to chuck in layers to keep the background in a state of steady evolution. Guitars come in. Then are almost – but not quite – doubled at at the octave. Then extra cymbals, snares and shakers come and go in the rhythm track.

The verses are sparse by design, but the chorus shares the same chord change, so to make that come alive there are three guitar parts: a wah-wah riff, (which I can’t really play), a high-keening part that almost doubles the wah-wah and some chunky power chords which are quite low in the mix. Additionally, there are a few cod-gospel three-part harmonised “yeahs” in there too to emphasise the bluesy nature of the thing. I’ve got some other ideas for harmonies I want to try out if I can actually get them out of my head and into a microphone.

All of this is an attempt to stop the thing getting too boring, because if you break the melody down, it is about 4 notes, with no counter melody, bridge or middle eight to speak of.

If it sounds like I’m talking this track down a bit, I don’t mean to be: I really like it! It’s just from a pure songwriting perspective it is pretty meagre stuff, like most groove-based music. It’s all about the mood of the thing rather than the underlying song.

As you might notice from the lyrics, when I was listening back to it, it immediately brought to mind something sleazy in the crabbed, sideways, barely-there melody. A half-sung, half-whispered lyric about sex emerged, in which I guess you’d say the first-person voice was luring a partner into revealing her inner desires to him so he can act them out with her. As such, the straightforward chorus makes that implicit. If this was ever played live in the right circumstances, I could imagine hands actually going up in response to demand in the chorus.

Anyway, there is still a bit of work to be done on it: the bass is unsteady in parts, the guitar is fumbled here and there, and I’m not 100% happy with the vocal take or the harmony. All that being said, I think it achieves more or less what I set out to achieve with it, so I’m giving myself 5 housepoints and am now off for a wank.

Catch you on the flipside!

New Song: Galilee Blues

Lyrics

I was walking on the waters, just minding my own
When a crowd of sandal-wearers saw and put me on a throne
I said “Lord! Please won’t you leave me alone?”
As evening fell I scarpered and finally found my way back home

So I was cooking up some dinner for my mother and me
She’d cooked some loaves – I got some fishes from the sea of Galilee
And she said “Lord – there must be five thousand people outside!”
I did my best to feed them, then I jumped out of the window to hide

I snuck off to the garden thinking “boy what a week!”
When this man I barely knew came up and kissed me on my cheek
I said “Lord! Look I’m flattered but I’m not made that way! Oh no.”
Centurions sprang from nowhere and said that it’s a crime to be gay

I spent a week in a cell that was hotter than hell
And the less said the better about the terrible smell
And my Daddy came to visit but wouldn’t stand my bail
He said “have you never really wondered why your skin is so pale?
You’ll have to ask your mother, but I suspect another.”
You could have struck me with a feather, but I shrugged and thought “whatever” So when my mother came to see me as I hung around Golgotha
I tried my best to get an answer but I couldn’t get one off her
And if I’m being honest I was kind of sick of all the grief
So when the soldier pierced my side it was a kind of relief
And I said “Oh take me home!”

So I ascended to heaven on some magical stairs
And the guy who was up there had a beard and white hair
He said “Son… sit at my right hand on this chair.”
I cried for three days and he said “Christ – I’m sending you back down there!”

So that’s where I am now, stuck with you people
As you dangle me from walls and stick me on your steeples
I say “Lord! Don’t you people have any taste?
Besides you’ve got my eyes wrong – and really that ain’t the size of my waist”

Notes

The weirdest thing I’ve found over the years in my own writing is how little the influence of the music I love seems to be discernible in my songs. I have loved the Smiths for the last quarter of a century or more, and yet nothing I’ve ever written really sounds Smithsian.

My other musical mother lode (other than t’Beatles) are Stax Atlantic, Motown and Philadelphia soul: effectively all the great music of black America from the 60s and 70s. So often, when I sit down to pootle about with a bass, I find myself playing in that kind of groove.

Now, I should make clear that I’m not a bassist by any stretch of the imagination, but while fooling around I came up with this fairly standard 12 bar riff, and was sufficiently enamoured to lay it down as a track. Doubled up with a low piano, couple of guitars and a smattering of organ I found myself nodding my head and suddenly thinking: “hey – I actually think this is sort of fun!”

I’m also not much of a soul singer, but it was hard not to sing in that kind of vein… and before I knew it I had a melody…. and then my old nemesis: lyrics.

Well, as you might know I’ve been spending a lot of time in company of Jake Thackray recently and am smitten with his slyly satirical, wryly humourous, and very wordy lyrics, so it’s perhaps no surprise that this came out in the lyrics.

Perhaps too, it is reminiscent of something like Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream – a fun-poking rewrite of history. In it, Jesus is pestered by his followers, discovers Joseph isn’t his dad, gets to heaven and pisses God off so much that he’s sent back down after 3 days….

Nothing profound, but it’s amused me greatly during a spell of personal bleakness.

I suspect I’ll revisit the mix to even things out – I have a feeling the bass is a bit too overpowering – and tidy up some of the other parts, but for a couple of hours worth of work I’m well pleased.

In the Morning

Lyrics

In the halflight, ships sulk in the harbour,
And the sailors spit and curse the air,
And the cold waves kiss the sullen metal,
And sing the ocean’s song

The fog clings to every single surface,
Spelling morning in drops of glister dew,
Where spiders hang their crystal rigging,
To try to catch the sun

Tell me why
Show me things I don’t already know
Tell me why
There’s nowhere left for me to go
I watch the waves crash down below
In the morning, the last night turns to ashes in my mouth

A pale disk peering through the thin clouds
On the houses that tumble to the sea
Down the steep streets that cling onto the cliffsides Like people to their dreams

What happened? I piece together last night
(I remember shouting things and standing at the bar)

And I wonder what I might have said
(Then I must have wandered cos I was staring at the stars)

Turn my collar up against the morning
(I clung onto a railing and was sick into the sea)

Spit the night out on the street
(Somehow found my way back to the poky B&B)

Tell me why
Show me things I don’t already know
Tell me why
There’s nowhere left for me to go
I watch the waves crash down below
In the morning, the last night turns to ashes in my mouth

Notes

I’m not sure I’ll ever be happy with this song – which really started life as poem. I’m very uncomfortable with lyrics in general, and tend to veer off into humour and nonsense to avoid any potential personal revelations, but this doesn’t have a personal meaning as such, although it does contain echoes of a specific day in my life.

Anyway, despite my misgivings, I’m re-posting this after a third remake to take out some of the running time and add some sound effects for atmosphere. I particularly like some of it (the finger picked coda, the bass in the second verse, the general melody) but it feels like I’m at an impasse with it.

The Great, Forgotten Genius of Jake Thackray

Everything about Jake Thackray was… wrong. His timing. His influences. His viewpoint. His singing style. Everything he did was pungently and uniquely out of step with almost every fashion of the second half of the 20th century. And yet, for well over a decade he skirted around the edges of public life on stage on TV, with a mocking, satirical eye and left a body of work which – were there any justice – would be treasured alongside that of the likes of David Bowie or Ray Davies.

He sang jazz-inflected songs on a nylon-stringed guitar, in the style of the great French chansonniers, but delivered with a broad, flat Leeds accent. He arrived in the public consciousness with his rapid, clever, tumbling rhyming schemes singing about an utterly believable world that never really existed. As the world moved past psychedelia and into rock and heavy metal, he sat on flickering light-entertainment screens, accompanying only himself, singing of the absurdity of the world with a uniquely withering English eye for detail – out-Morrisseying Morrissey years before Morrissey was even a gleam in Morrissey’s eye. Certainly his claim to be a poet is far, far greater than many – like Lennon – who are lauded as such.

He found himself playing folk clubs but was never a folk singer. He had a unique gift for making the largest of venues feel intimate to the delight of the audience, yet never felt at home in such settings himself – preferring the intimacy of the pubs he sang about. A Catholic and broadly a socialist, but with an twisted view of the world that was utterly idiosyncratic and never really in keeping with any of the mainstream traditions of either faith.

I am, I will admit, a latecomer to a latter day resurrection of his reputation – but for the past couple of years I’ve been working through his back catalogue and coming to the conclusion that he is one of the great ‘lost’ gems of recent British culture. Had he perhaps presented himself more in the style of the times – setting his lyrics to a glam beat – he may well have carried all before him, but like all true greats he refused to kowtow to fads, and ploughed his own furrow heedless of the whims of contemporary fashion.

As it is, it might take a couple of listens to some of his songs to get used to his style and delivery, but I recommend a couple to you here now. For many, many examples – visit the Jake Thackray website.

The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington

This is a self-contained, three part story about the life of a feisty woman, widowed relatively young who refuses to mourn and sets about living life to its fullest: riding a motorbike, sleeping freely with the local sailors and refusing to obey the expectations of society. Eventually, society wreaks its revenge, as curtain-twitching neighbours drag her from her bed and shave her head. Undeterred, she buys a wig and decamps to “poor old bloody Scarborough” – utterly unwilling to compromise her life. The slower refrains, with their recurring motif of the blackbird are utterly compelling, and the final revelatory chord of each of these sections shows a compositional mind working at the highest levels. What a song!

Lyrics

She was a widow in Bridlington, she was, was the widow of Brid,
Small and bonny at forty-two,
With eyes of very unsettling blue,
And what she thought she ought to do
She did, she did, she did;
Whatever she thought she ought to do
She did, did the widow of Brid.

“My only darling’s dead, he is, and all my children grown;
“The house has emptied, all the love-birds flown.
“In place of widow’s weeds I’ll let my coal black hair grow long:
“As glossy as a blackbird’s wing, as cocky as his song.”

She found that she could please herself, she could, could the widow of Brid:
Swim in the sea when she felt hot,
Stay in bed when she did not.
And she began to laugh a lot,
She did, she did, she did,
To sing and dance and laugh a lot,
She did, did the widow of Brid.

And sometimes she would drop the shopping, leave the bed unmade
And sit till evening on the esplanade.
She’d sometimes go to church and call on Jesus by his name.
She fed as any blackbird would, whenever hunger came.

She learned to play the violin, she did, did the widow of Brid,
And Saturday night in a drinking shop
She jumped upon the counter top
And fiddled till the dancers dropped,
She did, she did, she did,
Stomping upon the copper top
She did, did the widow of Brid.

And she was fond of fishing boats and all their beardy crew
And partial to a salty kiss or two.
And some of them would gruffly whisper, “Marry me and stay”.
But blackbirds do their singing from a different bush each day.

She had a massive motorbike, she had, had the widow of Brid,
And so she could, when so she wished,
Ride back home early-morningish
With her hair in the air and smelling of fish,
She did, she did, she did,
And every time of a different fish,
She did, did the widow of Brid.

And though she did no harm the neighbours sniffed, as neighbours do,
And day by day a cankerous rancour grew.
And many a pair of front-room curtains twitched and shook with rage,
For she was wild as blackbirds are and they were in a cage.

They came and broke her window panes, they did, of the widow of Brid,
Spat upon her cycle shed,
Dragged her out of her Sunday bed
And cropped her hair and shaved her head,
They did, they did, they did;
They chopped the hair and shaved the head,
They did, of the widow of Brid.

And when her sobs and hiccups stopped she tidied everywhere,
She cleaned the shed, she swept up all the hair.
Some few of them came back in shame to ask her would she stay,
But if you ever startle blackbirds, blackbirds go away.

She sold up house and bought a wig, a wig, did the widow of Brid,
And unrepenting, undeterred,
She thundered off to cause a stir
In poor old bloody Scarborough,
She did, she did, she did.
“Forget the spit and the window pane.
“Bugger Brid! I’m still the same.
“My hair will always grow again.”
It did, it did, it did.
“My hair will always grow again.”
It did, it did, did, did, on the widow of Brid.

Remembrance

Much of Thackray’s ouevre is comical in nature, but he could be as direct and as brutal as any protest singer or poet – although musically not aligned with any traditional folk style. Remembrance is sung from the perspective of dead soldiers – subverting the usual trope of remembrance, when the living remember the glorious sacrifice of the dead. Thackray turns it on its head, telling the story the other way round – asking us to remember the pomp and circumstance and patriotic fervour that sends men to war, and through each verse narrows the scope: from the king on the balcony in front of cheering crowds, through to two men – who are not unalike at all – trying to kill each other face to face in no glory at all.

Remembrance

Remember the bands and the grand parades,
The flags, the banners, the fine cockades,
And how we all looked up to see the King upon the balcony:
Who told us we were young and brave,
We’d never become the foreigner’s slave –
If the foreigner comes off best, he said,
You’ll be better off dead . . .
This was a couple of weeks before we got killed in the war.

Remember the drums and the trumpets played
When we set sail on the great crusade,
And how we all looked up to see the clergyman on the quay:
Who told us we were grand and good
To fight for God, as good men should –
If the enemy comes off best, he said,
You’ll be better off dead . . .
And this was a couple of days before we got killed in the war.

Remember the night before the raid
When the guns began the cannonade,
And how we all looked up to see the captain of the company:
Who told us we were bold and strong,
Let fame and glory spur us on –
If the Enemy comes off best, he said,
You’ll be better off dead . . .
This was a couple of hours before we got killed in the war.

Remember the shock of the ambuscade,
Remember the terrible fusillade,
And how we all looked up to see the curious face of the enemy:
Who was young, and shabby, and seemed to be
About as foreign as you or me –
I never did catch what the poor sod said
When he made sure we were dead . . .
This was a couple of shakes before we got killed in the war.

Sister Josephine

Perhaps the most typical example of his style (and perhaps his most famous song) is this hilarious tale of a “big bad burglar”, on the run for fifteen years, who has spent the time living in a convent, pretending to be a nun. I find it impossible not to smile at the humour, warmth and masterful storyteller’s eye on display here. It’s a fantastical yarn, packed with whimsical detail and inventive rhyming schemes at one utterly natural and completely unique.

Lyrics

Oh, Sister Josephine,
What do all these policemen mean
By coming to the convent in a grim limousine
After Sister Josephine?
While you, Sister Josephine,
You sit with your boots up on the altar screen.
You smoke one last cigar.
What a funny nun you are!

The policemen say that Josephine’s a burglar in disguise,
Big bad Norman – fifteen years on the run.
The sisters disbelieve it: No, that can’t be Josephine;
Just think about her tenderness towards the younger nuns.

Oh, Sister Josephine,
They’re searching the chapel where you’ve been seen,
The nooks and the crannies of the nun’s canteen
After Sister Josephine.
While you, Sister Josephine,
You sip one farewell Benedictine
Before your au revoir.
A right funny nun you are!

Admittedly her hands are big and hairy
And embellished with a curious tattoo.
Admittedly her voice is on the deep side,
And she seems to shave more often than the other sisters do.

Oh, Sister Josephine,
Founder of the convent pontoon team,
They’re looking through your bundles of rare magazines
After Sister Josephine.
While you, Sister Josephine,
You give a goodbye sniff of benzedrine
To the convent budgerigar.
A bloody funny nun you are!

No longer will her snores ring through the chapel during prayers,
Nor her lustful moanings fill the stilly night.
No more empty bottles of altar wine come clunking from her cell.
No longer will the cloister toilet seat stand upright.

Oh, Sister Josephine,
Slipping through their fingers like Vaseline,
Leaving them to clutch your empty crinoline
After Sister Josephine.
While you, Sister Josephine,
Sprinting through the suburbs when last seen
Dressed only in your wimple and your rosary.
A right funny nun you seem to be!

Kensington Skies (again)

Lyrics

Kensington Skies
Orange and crimson
As the light danced
For an audience of millions
We all sat there and stared
And watched on our phones
As they died

A terrible beauty
It crawled up the walls
Glared from the windows
And blew down the halls
We stood at the bottom
Powerless like children

And they speak with forked tongues
‘Bout the millions they saved
Maybe they’ll use it
To fill up the graves
Councillors, spokesmen
A hundred lost names
They don’t even know
What to write on the graves

Kensington Skies
A pillar of blackness
That reached for the sun
And fell back as ashes
As cameramen scrambled
To capture the view
As they died

24 stories
And 10 million reasons,
No inquest, no jury,
No legal malfeasance,
And they’ll dig up a Lord,
To tell us what happened

And they speak with forked tongues
‘Bout the millions they saved
Maybe they’ll use it
To fill up the graves
Councillors, spokesmen
A hundred lost names
They don’t even know
What to write on the graves

Notes

It should be obvious where this song sprang from – and I’ve already posted my first take once without notes. I feel a bit naked performing like this, but here we are.

I wrote it in one furious hour and since then have gone back to make the second verse hang together a bit more tightly, so hopefully now it works better as a piece (and performance, as I was a bit off-key first time around, with the melody not as settled in my head).

I don’t often write in response to things that are going on in the real world – my own private world provides quite enough material – but sometimes an event resonates in a way that reveals a greater truth about the world and you can’t evade it.

I’m not much a man for folk music, but I admire its honesty, accessibility and simple directness (even now Dylan’s Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol burns, and reveals how far we’ve come and yet how little we’ve moved). As I only had an acoustic guitar and some lyrics in my head as a starting point it’s perhaps no wonder that it fell into this idiom.

Love, Love, Love

Lyrics

Somebody wise once said
“Life is short and then you’re dead”
So won’t you hand me that bottle?
I know that it’s trite to say
Tomorrow is another day
But nonetheless today will be gone by morning
I don’t think that it’ll be missed
So give me a glass and a drink
I couldn’t care less tonight what your mother might think

I’m in love, love, love
With the here and now,
And I can’t say I care
For the wheres and hows
I’m in love, love, love
And it should be enough
To be loved, loved, loved,
Forget that other stuff

Lower your cholesterol
And don’t take paracetamol
They say that you’ll be better off with wholemeal
I’m too busy contemplating
Time and space and I’m not waiting
For the chance to narrow my waistline
Give me a bassline instead
I could be straight or be gay
And I don’t give a shit what the doctor might say

Yes I guess that it’s true that it sucks to be you but it sucks to be me too
And If this is the best we can do
You can leave it to me and I’ll leave it to you
And tomorrow we’ll see if the things that they said came true

Somebody wise once said
“Give us today our daily bread”
I think that it might have been Jesus?
I don’t claim to understand
But anyway the point still stands:
Please won’t you fetch me a sandwich?
I haven’t the time
And I’m not inclined to care

Notes

Another song that’s taken a good while to get to fruition. I tend to find that if lyrical inspiration doesn’t happen quickly, the whole song gets more and more difficult to write. Annoyingly, the basic structure of the tune – melody and chords – came in a flash… almost writing itself in 5 minutes sometime in late spring – one of those glorious, effortless bouts of creativity where the thing is born as a whole in front of your own disbelieving eyes.

Hurrying off to the iPad, I found that the music came just as easily. It isn’t apparent in the mix, but there’s a thudding piano part doubling up the chunky chords and bassline, and various illustrative touches. One thing missing from this mix that I’ve only just realised isn’t there is a tampora effect under the last of chord of the middle 8… which might be a tiny bit of a cliche, but will add a brief hint of exoticism to what is an otherwise meat-and-potatoes slice of indie rock.

Anyway, having completed the tune it’s been marinating for months waiting for lyrics. So long, in fact, that I had the time to invite my mate Den – guitarist extraordinaire – to contribute some guitar licks to further up the rock ante: thus he becomes the first person other than me to contribute to these songs.

..and so, eventually, I bashed out some words. They’re nothing profound – just a general exhortation to live more for the moment, and less for imagined futures on the basis of allegedly good, healthy advice. As I am a catastrophic moron whose life has been turned to shit by that kind of action, I probably wouldn’t take it seriously as a slice of life advice.

I guess if I put my Critical Distance Hat on, I’d say you could fairly say that this song is a bit derivative of lots of things – probably late-period Oasis, based on the general sound palette. But I’ve never claimed that all my songs are left-field, or even particularly original – they’re just creative expressions, and this is the sort of field I find particularly fertile.

Kensington Skies

Kensington Skies
Orange and crimson
As the light danced
For an audience of millions
We all sat there and stared
And watched on our phones
As they died

A terrible beauty
It crawled up the walls
Glared from the windows
And blew down the halls
We stood at the bottom
Powerless like children

And they speak with forked tongues
‘Bout the millions they saved
Maybe they’ll use them
To fill up the graves
Councillors, spokesmen
A hundred lost names
They don’t even know
What to write on the graves

Kensington Skies
A pallor of blackness
That stretched to the moon
And fell back as ashes
As cameramen scrambled
To capture the view

24 stories
And 10 million reasons
An inquest, a jury,
Sedition and treason
Rumours took flight
Before the flames even died

And they speak with forked tongues
‘Bout the millions they saved
Maybe they’ll use them
To fill up the graves
Councillors, spokesmen
A hundred lost names
They don’t even know
What to write on the graves