David Bowie’s Birthday

I still can’t believe what David Bowie did on the 8th January 2013. Take a decade off for good behaviour, then show up unexpectedly and place the question “Where are we now?” into everyone’s consciousness. After so long a silence it is quite a remarkable achievement. Shut up for ten years, record a secret album, release new song on 66th birthday suprising everyone and entering top ten charts everywhere. Classy.

It wasn’t just the audacity and the coolness of the carefully maintained anti-hype which made it such a great event. It’s a very intelligent choice, to come in quietly. A nostalgic, observational song it’s a surprising choice of comeback but a good one, which catches the seriousness of these entropic times perfectly.

That Bowie scored a hit is no surprise. An intelligent man who has known and worked with highly creative people in many fields all his life, his early success could have been a one-hit wonder – he worked hard to get the audience he has. Tony Oursler’s video is a huge part of this. But by producing a complex meditative piece, a personal retrospective with a plaintive, questioning chorus, a lyric full of Berlin place-names sung in a sometimes frail voice, he makes an artistic statement which is typical Bowie, pleases fans everywhere and adds a few million more, no doubt.

If Bowie has genius it’s as much in his reading of the times we inhabit. The new song’s observant, nostalgic mood is a perfect foil for all the noisy self-assertion out there. Bang on for this historical moment, unrest everywhere, civil wars, bullets and bombs, it’s sympathetic to the mood of now. Berlin was a city under siege when Bowie lived there, with a free and bomenian culture. In the din of the endless regurgitated pop music machine, it stands out as an original as it catches a general mood. There’s a brand new dance, but I don’t know it’s name.

Having heard the question I can’t wait for the album, which is supposed to be full of variety and quite rocky. Perhaps that’s another subterfuge. Anyway, he got everyone’s attention most beautifully.

To quote another English poet from south London, the artist William Blake,

“The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself.”

Post to Twitter Tweet this Post to Facebook Share on Facebook

Walking on Water

I learned long ago that when a song arrives, let it come, don’t worry about style (unless you are working to a tight brief, which is a subject for another post), and don’t load the song with your preconceptions about what you should or shouldn’t be writing. Every so often, without making any conscious attempt, a country song escapes from me, and after some years, I realised that I did have a country alter-ego, whom I dubbed Country Cliff. Cliff (and his band, The Cans) helps me to maintain a sense of balance in this evil, perverted world. He allows me to don a wide-brimmed hat, and use the words prairie and sundown. He’s not unpleasant, but he is dangerous, and he has to be, because survival is tough when you’re one cowboy’s drunken bullet away from death.

There is an inevitability about teenage rebellion which normally means that if they don’t follow along like clones, sons in particular strike out in the opposite direction to their fathers. Thinking about it now, the music I chose to turn up loud in the family home once puberty was well-established – Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and a slew of loud new wave, reggae and ska acts – must have sounded like the distortions from hell to my 1950s music-loving popski.

Marty Robbins Gunfighter BalladsViewing my dad’s glittering pantheon of musical stars from my protective teenage bunker, Elvis Presley I didn’t really understand at all, associating him with the middle-aged, gaudy, fat Las Vegas crooner and endlessly tedious Saturday afternoon films, rather than the lean mean hip-swiveling sexuality that got him banned below the waist. I could take him or leave him. Lonnie Donnegan’s Jack of Diamonds high-speed skiffle was fun if you were five years old. But, my dad’s country music caused my head to hurt and my ears to complain, and I would state bitterly that I was bound to fail my exams if he insisted on giving his music an airing of a Sunday evening. The pathos was completely lost on my hormone-addled teenage mind, and all I could hear was wailing, depression, tragedy, and twanging guitars.

How wonderful and how strange therefore, to find myself in later years not only appreciating country music, but realising that certain elements of country were deeply embedded in my own songs.

Harmony singing is something I have always done, and I became aware of the harmonic differences between the white folk tradition and the black blues tradition early on; also, the rhythmic differences were clear to me. I clearly recall being ten years old and explaining syncopation to a music class, being mildly astonished that some of them couldn’t hear the difference between the on and the off beat. Later, I joined the school folk club, which meant we could remain in the music room and learn songs like Frankie and Johnny. Nobody taught us the harmonies for these songs, we just knew them. It is this miraculous fusion between black and white, blues, gospel and folk which gave us most of the popular music we currently enjoy.

I am just a country boy from Croydon, kicking at the chickens in the yard…

I would sometimes launch into this country music parody at art school, but it was there that I returned wholeheartedly to the music which I had once suffered, and on a visit home, asked my dad if I could borrow his copy of Marty Robbins’ El Paso to copy onto cassette tape. Country music had snuck inside me, and there I was, recalling every word, rejoicing in the narratives, the pain, the blood, and the joyous, lilting, latin-tinged melodies.

It’s more than a nod to my heritage, this love affair with country. It’s the rawest expression of living dirt poor that white music has yet produced, and while my own background wasn’t deprived, we were just two generations on from being in servitude to the wealthy and this knowledge was burned into us. Plus, being poor is no determinant of suffering, as many a rich suicide will tell you.

I don’t try to write traditional country music, and so I imagine that purists won’t like it too much. I just try to call it as I see it, and write about my own experiences, as always.

This song, Walking on Water, is an oblique narrative about wanting someone but not liking them, experiencing mixed feelings of desire and repulsion, moving from the early stages of delight in a romance to the later stages of betrayal and loss. Perfect country material.

Post to Twitter Tweet this Post to Facebook Share on Facebook

Earth Hour

Writing for specific events is closely related to writing songs about the news, so I gladly accepted John Johnston’s suggestion that we write a song for Earth Hour.

Dan Brittain and I decided to put a couple of days into this project, and not to follow the usual Rise and Shine show format three hour deadline. That meant we could work steadily, and piece the song together with more care. Having time to revise and develop sections was great.

First, the song is deliberately based on the Earth Hour campaign’s call to action. The two verses are from the different perspectives of a poor rural subsistence fisherman in some low-lying place in the world, and in verse two, from a homeless urban beggar.

Second, we tried to make the chorus deliberately simple, almost a children’s sing-a-long, without being too toy town, or too Disney, and yet rejoice in what it is, a straightforward call to ecological action. I landed without preconception on the word GREEN. I wanted to combine an up-and-at-’em chorus with a meaningful lyric, and I think we succeeded.

And, what does it mean, to be green, to go green? To me the message is clear: we must face up to the need to reduce energy consumption now. We must make our politicians act responsibly, quickly enough to save us. We are rapidly exceeding the planet’s capacity to maintain a human population, let alone the other species we may bring down with us.

Lastly, is it really an anthem? I think a true anthem has an irresistible, hymnal chorus, which this doesn’t have, but it does have a lot of energy and a good tune, and I’m particularly pleased with the ending.

<a href="http://songs.riseandshine.tv/track/earth-hour-anthem-2">Earth Hour Anthem by The Daily Song</a>

Post to Twitter Tweet this Post to Facebook Share on Facebook

Rise and Shine Album Release

Busy times at Funk Towers. I’ve been remixing, remastering and in some cases finishing the songs which came out of the pilot series (five weeks) of the Rise and Shine songwriting show (more here about the show).

The official release is 11:44am GMT March 20th 2009, which is the exact time of the Spring Equinox.

It’s been a labour of love as well as hard work. Mostly I’m happy after a break to go back to song recordings, and bring them blinking into the light with the aid of cleverness, but in some cases – especially when you’re mixing three per day – it’s a pain. You have to regularly rest your ears, or the mixes sound bad, it’s simple as that.

Funnily enough, the song I most enjoy after all the extra production attention is one which I found difficult to write at the time (wasn’t feeling too well) – Money to Burn, which lambasts our culture of insanely excessive wealth and specifically the Forbes rich list.

The reason I found this song hard to go back to was that it’s a an angry protest song, and while I get the point of such songs, full shout mode isn’t a place I like to inhabit. But, like plenty of people, I love loud, aggressive songs in the right place and time. Rage is a part of the human experience, as is outrage.

Money to Burn is well written, the performances are good, I like the intro by @Langley and it was actually great fun to remix. It’s very much in the style of Beastie Boys hip hop, with trashy guitars, nice beats and samples, and megaphone vocals ripping the piss out of super-rich snobbery.

Now of course with taxpayers money being donated by the truckload to busted bankers, it’s become fashionable to poke the rich with a sharp stick. Back in March 2008, most people still hadn’t quite cottoned on to the appalling state of capitalism.

<a href="http://songs.riseandshine.tv/track/money-to-burn">Money to Burn by The Daily Song</a>

All the songs will be up and ready for tomorrow’s official launch, and we’ll have a party in London in April to coincide with the physical release of the album.* I’m also looking forward to hearing some remixes – Lagowski is on the case.

* CD and DVD

Post to Twitter Tweet this Post to Facebook Share on Facebook

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 clich√© 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.

Post to Twitter Tweet this Post to Facebook Share on Facebook