Success, or Celebrity?

There is a problem with our modern definition of popular success, which positions it somewhere between the Grammies and rehab. Celebrity culture has totally erased the idea that being an artist is a vocation, not just an audition for the next series of Crap Idol.

Dean in the Daily Sport in June 2006 for writing
and producing John Cleese’s world cup song

Most importantly, isn’t this modern concoction of TV-and-tabloid celebrity rubbish, injurious to music, and don’t we all know that by now?

Confusing genuine artistic success with celebrity is a mistake which naïve artists and fans tend to make, but this banal, distorted looking-glass cult of popular fame is not anything a rational person would want.

The music business is horribly wasteful of good talent when it does appear. The media, vicariously picking over the destroyed personal lives of “stars” says that people only buy what they want, but we can’t blame the punters for the lightweight, airbrushed wallpaper that passes for contemporary pop. Devoid of real purpose, it’s not surprising that so many musicians self-destruct.

The entire media edifice is morally bankrupt, as well as in financial turmoil. Like banks, media corporations have been poisoned by bad decisions over many decades, by out-moded technical and business strategies, rampant greed, unbridled capitalism. There is very little variety at the heart of mass entertainment, and only occasional good quality surfaces, despite the millions sloshing around.

So who, apart from Cowell and his TV backers and imitators, determines who succeeds and who fails these days in a public sense? How do we measure success, if it isn’t by TV and press coverage, and consequently making enormous pots of cash from having your image in every high street?

The fashion-based music press still exists in some cocaine-drenched bloated bubble of decadence left over from the 60s and 70s and 80s, but do they really still have the power make young bands into household names, their chief ambition to be on the front cover? People love the bitching, we are told, the style wars, the egos, tribalism, sex, power, money, and adulation. Can’t we offer better options for our young talent?

Obviously, there are many better role models than Pete Docherty or Amy Winehouse, but it’s the disasters and the mess that get splashed across headlines, not the many thousands of quiet professional successes. Robbie Williams back on drugs is a story, but an engineer turned songwriter making a hit album with Robbie Williams is of far less interest to mass media.

These less well-known people are in fact the mainstay of the creative industries and it is a point that needs stressing and explaining to ambitious children. The Oscar winners we remember are ones the news media makes a fuss of, the lead actors, the directors, the stars, but it’s worth remembering that awards also go to the sound designers, script writers, editors, special effects technicians, without whom, no show.

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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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When Zappa Met Morcheeba

Recording has always been a passion for me as much as songwriting. When I was ten, my older brother Stephen brought back from Japan one of the first plastic, lightweight hand-held audio cassette recorders, which after a suitable absence of his attention, I purloined and used avidly. Hooking up with friends, inspired by psychedelia, early electronica and audio comedy (The Goons, Monty Python) I was making multi-layered overdubbed audio, using reel-to-reel and cassette tape.

After three years intensive use of audio-visual equipment at Middlesex Poly art school in the early 1980s, it was partly my knack of producing decent sounding demos which brought me my first professional writing gig. Making albums with other artists, performing with my own band, and running a small part of Beethoven Street studios, by the 1990s I was helping out on sessions with big stars, and starting to take seriously my role as producer.

Adrian Huge by Mark Holthusen 2007

Adrian Huge by Mark Holthusen 2007

Finances at the time were either feast or famine – this was the middle of a recession – and I was always on the look out for friendly studio owners with whom I could barter. I met Adrian Hughes, aka Uncle Lumpy (right) the drummer from the Tiger Lillies who hailed from Deal, Kent, on the south east coast of England. He introduced me to Dave the owner of Astra Studios near Folkestone, who gave me access to his 24 track studio. It was there I met Paul and Ross Godfrey, who went on to become Morcheeba. Paul, the 20 year old older brother was at the time, deeply suspicious and cynical, but nonetheless brimming with talent, knowledge and curiosity about music; and Ross, aged 16, was a perfectly charming musical prodigy who spent most of his time in a hippy daze, learning new instruments.

Paul did some audio engineering on a couple of my tracks, and we collaborated on several songs which came out well. I was expanding Paul’s horizons as much as he was impressing me with his Beastie Boys-inspired approach to beats and sound textures. We were working on the marvellous but temperamental mixing desk that had produced the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody”. When it worked, it sounded great.

morcheebaIt was all lots of fun and quite promising. Ross came on tour with my scratch band to Palermo, Sicily. Unfortunately, we also took his friend the snide sax player, who decided to play on Paul’s paranoia and having taken the money and enjoyed the gig, bitched on his return that I had been scornful of Paul’s lack of experience and had publicly demeaned him. I hadn’t, of course, but nonetheless, a schism ensued as intended, and thus ended a fertile period which could have gone further.

I had worked hard for our little project, even taking the demos into Capitol Records and receiving a really good response. Still, many are the fish which you do not catch and one can waste a lot of time and energy bemoaning that fact. It was already clear to me that Paul was the driver of his own project and wouldn’t have the need for someone like me around for any length of time.

zappa_16011977_01_300I don’t carry any regrets or grudges, indeed, the opposite is true. I am still proud of some of the songs, particularly those which came from my lending Paul some classic Zappa, which he loved, and promptly looped. I thought so much of it that I even took it to Los Angeles in December 1993, and set up an audience with Frank’s lawyer to license the use of his music in this song. But in this endeavour, time was against me. I was mid-deal when Frank Vincent died on December 4th. Few people knew how desperately ill he was, and it was a shock when he died tragically young, having left a huge legacy and inspired more bands and individuals than you would know.

Years later I met up with Ross and Paul at a music festival where I was working for Amnesty International, and they seemed content with their success as I chatted with them backstage, not just the level of it, but the manner of it. Paul was considerably chilled and a model of politeness – not how I remembered him – and confessed quite spontaneously that he was something of a changed man from the irascible, angry young man I had met not a decade previously. Ross was unchanged, still a beautiful player.

Writing and performance credits for this song “Not So Bad” are: Paul Godfrey, lyrics, spoken vocals, Dean Whitbread, lyrics, vocals and melody in the chorus, falsetto backing vocals, Ross Godfrey, keyboards and guitar. Overall production is by Paul – with an obvious musical debt to one Frank Zappa, RIP.

What I love about this song is the dramatic contrast between Paul’s study of decadence, indulgence and insanity, his narrative based on the death of Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones, with a marvellously laconic delivery, peppered with sudden blasts of confidence from a man convinced of his own genius. Wonderful.

The groove ain’t bad, either.

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The Subliminal Ballad

The Ballad is a kind of song essential to almost every artist’s repertoire. Most often it is a slow love song of joy or heartbreak. It is the song never heard in death metal or nosebleed techno. It is the song which cuts across generations and cultural divides. It is the song most easy to massacre, and also the song which lingers longest in the affections. It is the song you sing at 3am, drunk, when all other songs have left you.

Many years ago I wrote some great ballads with Guy Sigsworth, a now well-known writer and producer. Guy’s background was Cambridge classical, and the first music I heard of his was a rather bizarre marriage of dance music and harpsichord. Quite obsessive, Guy was capable of producing really tight arrangements imbued with his very English suppressed emotion. He could produce reams of backing tracks full of musical ideas, but what he couldn’t do easily on his own was cross the divide into lyrical, expressive territory and finished pop songs. Guy had some success with Seal, and later with Bjork.

One of my favourite songs is called Cut Me and I Bleed, and I lived with this track, which was at that stage a sketch without melody or middle eight, as I spent time in the town of Glastonbury, Somerset. The music has a hymnal quality, and Guy’s swooping bass and melancholy-sweet organ arrangement seemed to fit the frustrating romance I was experiencing, in this place centred around the majestic ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Returning to London, the song formed in my head, I added guitar and strings, completed the middle eight, and wrote the melody and lyrics in a day.

A couple of months later I returned to the town, cassette in hand, in order to make a gift of the song to the object of my affections. Walking up the high street, depressed and rather lonely, I heard the bells of St John’s in Glastonbury High Street toll. Their distinctive rising and falling melody has exactly the same form in the song I had written, every other line in each verse. I knew at once that the ever-present chimes had infiltrated my consciousness and emerged subliminally in the ballad.

Aside from having a direct connection with my history, I still feel a lot of affection for Cut Me and I Bleed, as it manages in my view to begin with a personal experience and transcend into something universal. It expresses the urge for healing via love better than anything else I have yet written. As for what happened to that particular affair, well, as the lyrics imply, it didn’t work out; but, some months later, I did meet a woman who was to become central to my life for many years, thanks to music and the Glastonbury chimes.

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Words Are All I Have

Although I love all aspects of songwriting, as a lyricist I often find myself flying the flag for vibrant, meaningful, fabulous words, especially in a pop context. As well as strong lyrics being my personal taste, there are very good commercial reasons for this desire to make the words as good as they should be.

Recorded music is awash with vanilla rhymes and hackneyed phrases, along with a glut of same chord, similar melody songs, and so the more you can do to make your song stand out, the better. Pay no attention to people who say that words are just a coat-hanger for the melody. Words are far more important than that.

Contrary to what some musicians and music business types would have you believe, people really do pay attention to words. One thing I have noticed is that women in particular with their more profound predisposition for language seem to listen more intently to words than men – this is of course a generalisation, but one born of much observation. Test it. Women are at least 50% of your audience, it doesn’t pay to ignore them. But of course plenty of men also love a good lyric, especially in less uptight cultures where verbal prowess is seen as a good thing. I recall listening to Irish men swap poetry in a pub, where English would be stuck with football scores.

Words are as much the key to unlock the soul as any other part of music. Sung music exercises both the right and left hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, and you can create astonishing structure, strength, contrast, tension, drama and meaning, by working with this knowledge.

The endless tight circle of human concern – love, loss, lust – is the mainspring for 99% of songs – but that doesn’t mean making things more complicated is the solution. Complicated can be wonderful, but simple is good.

The Big Challenge, of course, is to find something new to write about, or at least, an original angle or twist on a time-honoured theme. “Baby, I Love You” is a classic track, but there’s only so many variations of that you can hear before your ears close and you want something different. Thankfully there are as many variations on our key experiences as there are human beings. It is a lack of songcraft, the mistaken belief that words don’t really matter, and perhaps laziness that means most writers produce very few truly original songs.

There are many techniques to produce excellent lyrics and I will return to this theme in future posts. But for basic songwriting, lyrical technique is very simple. Generally avoiding clichés, unless you are artful enough to use them cleverly, is rule number one. One day I will make a fortune by selling an alarm which goes off in the presence of clichés. It will make further lucrative revenue from its use in sales and marketing, sports commentary, news reporting…

Rule number two is to try to create a description or a narrative which relates to your personal experiences, because then it has much more chance of hitting the metaphorical nail smack bang on the head, and coming across as authentic.

Rule number three (and that will be all for now) is: keep going, don’t be satisfied until you have really crafted the words and you are satisfied that they really are the best words in the best order.

The tension between what sounds good sung, and what creates the meaning you are seeking, is one of the central challenges of songwriting. If in doubt, I usually obey the priceless Sammy Cahn dictum that lyrics must first sound good, and meaning comes along afterwards. But, I also want my words to grab the listener, draw them into a narrative or the poetic space of the song, and take them on an irresistable journey.

The writing process itself is also a process of discovery. Sometimes halfway through the second verse, you’ll find out that the song is really about X when you thought it was about Y, and you’ll revise or rewrite the first verse, and maybe completely change the chorus on that basis. Sometimes, I follow the internal truth of a lyric, knowing it makes its own sense, and only months or sometimes years later do I fully understand the song myself – but that doesn’t mean I can’t judge it and know whether it’s good or bad.

Here’s an illustration of how a few well-chosen words can create a world completely of their own – Howard Devoto, ex-Buzzcocks, then Magazine – The Light Pours Out of Me.

Time flies
Time crawls
Like an insect
Up and down the walls
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me
The conspiracy
Of silence ought
To revolutionize
My thought
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me
The cold light of day
Pours out of me
Leaving me black
And so healthy
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me
It jerks out of me
Like blood
In this still life
Heart beats up love
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me

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