What a Waste

Some songs stand out for having changed your life. This once changed mine in one, classy Thursday afternoon radio moment of inspiration which I shall never forget. Dave Cash, Capital Radio, London 95.8FM. Ian Dury and the Blockheads – What a Waste.

I was astonished at the music, physically entranced to the extent that I grabbed the pretty powerful mono transister set and pushed my ear up against it so as not to lose a moment of the incredible hypnotism that was pouring out of speaker and into my lug hole. He was singing in English, in my accent, or close to it, using words which spoke to me about my life – over a beautiful lilting, funky reggae beat, with a screaming chorus of sexual intensity


I adopted this band and this man instantly. I have very few heroes, but Ian Dury is one. He blended funk with punk, poetry with blasphemy, vulnerability with defiance, sympathy with the anarchy of the day. Like many a true innovator, to this day he is less celebrated than he should be. It was truly a golden cross-over moment for both pop music – punk spawning really interesting hybrids as it became new wave – and for me.

I lost my virginity to the album, New Boots and Panties; and the songs of Ian Dury became entwined with my destiny. He set many good and bad examples, which is just the way it should be. I went to art school in part because of Ian Dury, and leaving art school, went on to make music professionally, just like he did. Mr Dury died tragically young of liver cancer just as his second career as actor was taking off, but still, he was brave to the end.

Ian, old fruit, I miss your honest and wry majesty, and I salute you.

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Sexy Underwear

I wrote “Sexy Underwear” with Dan Brittain during the Rise and Shine show pilot series, with a lot of input from the French-speaking members of the community which grew up around Seesmic. France has a jealously-guarded, distinctive cultural music tradition which sets it apart, but while French chansons rarely make it in the UK charts, at 11% France represents the third largest audience for UK music after the US and Germany. So it’s not only a great thing to be able to make music for a French-speaking audience but it makes sound commercial sense.

After the song was written, to my great delight, Otir and Virginie both provided French versions of the lyric, which is about Parisian landlords exploiting poor students for sex. Virginie worked hard on making the lyric flow and sang a guide. The original contains French but is 90% English, and sang in male voice, and since the song is about exploitation of women, it’s appropriate to switch gender.

Today Jule, an American female singer is going to sing the French version. I’m fascinated to hear the results.

<a href="http://songs.riseandshine.tv/track/sexy-underwear">Sexy Underwear by The Daily Song</a>

Post script: Session went really well, and we’ve got a great female French language version recorded. I also shot some video of Jule explaining her personal connection to the issues in the song which I’ll post soon.

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The Road Home

As a songwriter I’m prone to journeys of investigation to the Galapagos Islands of my evolving mind, and the songs I find there sometimes determine a future path which has unexpected returns.

I met Mark Crook when I was 11 years old, and I met Andy Carroll when I was 21, and I have written with both of these talented musicians many times, but this song was the first time I managed to combine both forces. It was very simple. I visited Andy in his studio, he gave me three loops and phrases. I brought them back to the writing studio I shared with Mark and he played some country-tinged acoustic guitar over the groove we constructed. I had free rein to improvise the melody and lyrics.

The music seemed relaxed and open, warm and welcoming, so I provided an appropriate scenario. I pictured a traveling salesman who misses his wife and yearns to return to the comfort of her arms, making a relationship work in the day to day struggle of life. A song of love and marital fidelity could be a bit of a cliché if approached in the wrong manner, and since crass sentiment is something I tend to avoid like the plague (a serious challenge when you’re writing pop songs) I needed to be sincere and write from my own experience of playing gigs, living on the road and missing my partner.

I tried not to make it too gender-specific, and I included some thoughts I was having from reading Eckhart Tolle.

My lover caught the oblique references to our relationship and this became a favourite. She loves the line “As the evening sunlight softens…” and repeats it with a soft look in her eyes. The power of songwriting to seduce will be another post… Another friend of mine who fell in love with this song is Kate, and I was very touched when she asked to use the song in a photo DVD she made for her son’s wedding. That’s when music is at its best, embedded in real, life-defining moments.

But you have to be careful. When the people around you are aware that at any time they might become the subject of your work, it can make things uncomfortable for them, so I try not to analyse or discuss lyrics with friends – I don’t want my normal human relationships to become stilted. You can usually find a way to say things indirectly most of the time, in any case, which is usually better for poetry.

This song is deliberately long, like the landscape through which our protagonist is traveling to return to his love. I do have a shorter edit, but it doesn’t work. I like the big space in the verses, the pauses which allow the words to sink in, which are great to sing, and between you and me, I think the chorus is one of my finest, because everyone can sing along.

And even though this road goes on and on
Cold mornings, nights are weary, days are long
And though I travel far, we stay so strong
This road leads back to you, where I belong

If you want to use this song or any you find here in your music podcast, blog or broadcast, you probably can, but please ask me first.

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Am I A Voyeur?

Some collaborations are as unlikely as apple pie served with anchovies, and yet, if there is enough shared intent to bring the enterprise to fruition, the songs produced can be unexpected miracles.

In 1998 I was recovering from exhaustion, clinical depression and a long-term relationship breakup, feeling bleak, despondent and wasted. I hadn’t much to give. Enter Mick Martin, one of the most creative people I have ever met. Possessed of a profound and subtle musical sensibility, Mick had been part of the trio of Habit, the first band I wrote with that achieved commercial success, and appearing out of the blue, he somehow twisted my unwilling arm and got me involved in his music project.

Mick is a fan of pure pop, as well as artistic luminaries such as David Bowie, Tom Waits, Kraftwerk. When I first met him he was technician and a one-finger keyboard player, but that didn’t prevent him from having good musical ideas, many of which came from the time-honoured route of audio collage and sampling. Mick is also good collaboratively; with a strong sense of when a song is truly finished, he works hard to achieve his visions, but is prepared to share and include ideas, which is important. Mick was working with singer Emma Whittle, a backing vocalist in his brother Vince Clarke’s band Erasure. Our writing sessions benefited from Mick’s work ethic and the down-to-earth use of his own remarkable talent, which is conceptual and original but which doesn’t rely on being an instrumentalist, as much as his determination to write material for Emma, who he sincerely believed had what it takes.

Mick would never use his relationship to his famous brother for self-aggrandisement, or even (it sometimes seemed to me) perfectly logical advancement. If anything, having a famous brother made Mick wiser to the downside of the music business and conscious that he must tread his own path to succeed. Having brothers myself, I could understand that. But despite this caution, we did get to trade favours with Vince, and together we worked on material for Vince’s side project Family Fantastic and thus we earned studio time in Vince’s wonderful, sunken circular studio.

Emma hadn’t done a lot of writing, so the project was as much about writing songs which connected with her complex internal world as it was defining an artistic statement which we all felt could work in the hard, outer world of music business. In 18 months, we progressed from bouncy synth pop – the kind of material that Habit had been good at – to a more sophisticated, darker trip-hop tinged style which suited Emma’s voice and moods.

For me the pearl in the set has to be “Am I A Voyeur?” which is based on an infectious lounge groove in 3/4 which Mick had constructed. I was having a strong lyrics day, and working through aforesaid depression, wrote a fluent, punning lyric about the crime of looking but not having – an accurate description of my own situation – around a lazy jazz verse melody, which rose and soared plaintively in the chorus:

“Am I a voyeur on the outside looking in?
Find me a lawyer and book me for my sins
My case is hopeless, I have the wrong attitude
Guilty or blameless, the prosecution has to prove…
No judge or jury will hear my confession
Even if it’s over just won’t learn the lesson
God is my witness, and I have had enough
Release me I’m a prisoner of untouchable love…

Around you my whole world keeps turning
Inside out, so close we’re moving..”

Happily, Mick and Emma liked this idea, and the production went well. The icing on the cake was musician Sovra Wilson-Dickson who played delightful Stéphane Grappelli-esque violin for us in the middle eight.

I always thought we should translate this song into French.

This period was possibly the most important in my songwriting career. It arrived when I was spent, and showed me that I could still produce good songs, no matter the state of my emotional life. It’s not essential to be completely screwed up to write meaningful romantic songs, but it does give you a lot of material which is much better out than in, and I did need to let it out.

It also did me a lot of good to express myself through music without the strain of having to be the leader – Mick was leading the project, and Emma was the singer, which gave me a lot of freedom. The discipline of writing and producing, and the fellowship with Mick and Emma restored a level of confidence to me quite rapidly, which might otherwise have take years longer to resurface.

Some musical projects are healing to the people involved in them – for me, this was such a one.

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Music for Podcasts

I know quite a bit about music podcasting. As a writer / producer I’m in a quite a good position because when non-writers need a piece of music for podcast, which means they need to be able to provide music with the correct license applied, they have to search for it online, whereas I can sit and compose.

In 2006 myself and some friends started the UK Podcasters Association and for two and half years, I ran this small but important new media organisation. It brought me into contact with much of the music industry from the BPI to AIM to off-the-radar labels and artists, and questions which I answered on panels, in business meetings and on the telephone were consistently on the topic of music podcast licensing.

But most importantly, because of podcasting I became friends with many independent media makers from all over the world, warm-blooded mammals who are busy inheriting the new media earth from the dinosaur corporations. These people are so many steps ahead of the game. Some podcasters continue to put out quality, personal radio-style programming to large and loyal audiences, amd others have graduated into commercial activities which have transformed part-time hobbies into thriving businesses.

When in January 2007 Big Brother racism row erupted, I wanted to write about it but not to cover the same old boring ground. I couldn’t help but think about Shilpa Shetty’s accountant, and how delighted he must be with the cash windfall. That muse took me into the realms of fantasy, and so I composed and produced a track specifically for one particular podcaster, Martin Devaughan, officially the UK’s first podcaster having sparked up sometime in October 2004.

In this slow-tempo sardonic rap, the accountant of Shilpa Shetty is obsessed with the size of his manhood, having paid too much attention to spam emails, and it takes a rare moment of enlightenment and a reminder of the advice of the Kama Sutra to restore his sense of proportion – almost. Martin the cheeky sod sped it up for his podcast, but here is it restored to it’s proper languid pace.

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