Breaking Up

Dana WindowsIt’s a classic theme, one of the seven songs in rock ‘n’ roll – the break up, lovers parting in glorious colour, and of course, in tragic black and white. For some reason I’ve always written these songs (!) but I wrote very my best break up song not in a space of suffering, anger, denial or sadness, but in contemplation of what happens, that recurring cycle of promises made in passion, which prove to be no more than chimeras.

“Wouldn’t Do That” has a double meaning which runs all the way through it, and while I don’t want in this blog to be my own literary critic, I’m happy to point out the obvious: Is the promise made not to leave, or once gone, not to look back? is the question I was asking, and it’s one which is poignant to this day.

I’m quite proud of this song, because the major/minor chord progression expresses the bitter-sweet idea I was trying to articulate before I even began to say it. I quite naturally fell into singing a falsetto, and played the most soulful harmonica I’ve ever managed, which you can hear in this demo.

“I promise I will never hurt you”
“I promise I will never leave”
Promises made are broken so easily
Brave words are just wind in the trees

What are these worlds we live in?
Doing our thing separately
Surely we must have forgiven each other
Wasn’t our loving for real?

Well I’ve been so long in lonely world
Living without a loving soul
And I know it won’t be long ’til I’m missing you
But I made myself a promise
That I wouldn’t do that…

And it’s a long and lonely road
Living without a loving soul
And I know it won’t be long ’til I’m missing you
But I made myself a promise
That I wouldn’t do that…

© Dean Whitbread 2006, all rights reserved

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Black and White

Black and white, the twin musical threads of our culture, with roots in slavery and church music, oppression and salvation have been my constant companions. Growing up in the melting pot of west Croydon, south London suburb stuck at the end of the line, a place rich with new arrivals gave me the best of both 1960s and 1970s worlds as the melodies and beats sowed seeds in my fertile consciousness.

Since I started to sing in tune as soon as I could speak, much to my parents’ pride, I was aware of these beautiful twin flames of our cultural heritage. Aged five, my favourite music was acoustic folk and big band jazz, mainly because my two first (donated) records were The Spinners and Glenn Miller.

While my older brothers rocked out to white music – Deep Purple, Springsteen, The Who, Bowie, I and my schoolfriends, half of whom were the sons and daughters of immigrants from the West Indies, Africa, India, Pakistan, Cyprus both Greek and Turk, mostly preferred black music – Motown pop, sweet soul, and the blissfully tuneful reggae of Bob Marley.

Mixed race fraternisation was normal in 1970s and 80s sunny Croydon, though we suffered the same institutional racism which led to the Brixton riots as well as high local membership of the BNP. I hadn’t studied the history of music at that point, but I knew my social history, including the story of Wilberforce’s fight for abolition, and it was no stretch for me to enjoy emerging militant black consciousness. But before race became truly politicised via rap, music created its regular miracle in our hearts, instilling love for blackness in our essentially white British culture. Many bands of the time were not just paying homage to black music, but were truly infused with it. Even between polarised tribal extremes, skinheads and rastas, there was an occasional coming together via the guitar – the Isley Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, very few remained unmoved by these masterly tours-des-forces.

George Clinton - Parliament, Funkadelic, etc.As we grew out of our school uniforms and into civilian clothings, we got disco and ska. Heatwave, KC and the Sunshine Band, Stevie Wonder would all be turned up on our always-on kitchen radio, along with the Specials, Madness, Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Parliament and Funkadelic weren’t on the radio – I traded album loans with the dapper Ken French to experience psychedelic funk in all its otherwordly wonder.

I know now that these outward ripples of black music, from Jazz to Soul to Pop to Rock, were echoed all throughout the developed world, Europe and America and elsewhere. A friend of mine, Ashley Slater, Canadian by birth but brought up in California joined the British Army at 16 years old, partly to afford his musical training. In the barracks, he told me, at first he was the only one playing and digging Earth Wind and Fire, to the disquiet and derision of his fellow squaddies.

It didn’t take long in this musical hothouse for the exquisite brass arrangements, beats and harmonies to win over these hardnut whites. They ignored the afro hair, the ludicrous costumes and the disco glitter – the music was too good. They even started diggin’ on James Brown, saying it loud, black and proud. By the time he bought his way out of the army, to sign a deal with Island Records, they were converted.

As colour and race has become less of an entertainment business novelty and more of an everyday marketing ploy, the cross-over tradition became less apparent, but it is still significant. My enduring love of funk, as well as much music in other traditions stems from a hybrid blending of cultures, the opening up of new avenues for exploration.

Many of my favourite artists retain some pronounced elements of blues and jazz and dance music, where it collides most beautifully with western folk or classical academic traditions – Prince, for example, and latterly Little Dragon, who are actually a Swedish band with a Japanese singer, Yukimi Nagano. She has a superb voice which seems at once both east and west, and the music lays her artfully modern, soulful, poignant melodies over stripped-back cool electronic funk. It’s as good as anything I have ever heard, and it defies pigeon-holing – just the way it should be.

I don’t believe that music will ever be contained by boundaries for very long, because it is so connected to what makes us tick on a soul level. That doesn’t mean disempowered kids in grinding poverty won’t look for music which speaks to them in a language which can be understood, disregarding all other forms in their passion; but it does mean that the rawness of oppression will still have the power to invigorate and transform the subtlety of the orchestra, and that the Devil, having the better tunes, will still find his way into church.

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Easy Virtue

It’s easier said than done, coping with rejection. Whether you sweat metaphorical blood over a song, or it comes as easily as rain in London, you feel a parental attachment. No matter how tough you are, as a writer, you want your songs to be listened to and appreciated. It may also be that the inspiration for the song is deeply personal, in which case, the rejection is more likely to sting like a lover’s scorn. You want your song to be loved and have a good life, and it hurts you when people hate your creations, or worse, are indifferent to them.

rock_chickBut in actuality, it can be far worse than simple rejection. One of the unfortunate by-products of the ludicrous marketing which corporate commerce typically creates to sell music is the public perception that artists must all be big-headed egomaniacs who therefore deserve to be put down. Articulating antipathy is one thing, but it often goes much further, encouraging the kind of personal cruelty by which music journalists make their names and sell newspapers. To put yourself on stage is to attract heckling and derision, simply on the basis of taste. I often think that musicians are no more than bus drivers – they sing a song which takes you on a journey. If you get on the wrong bus, you don’t attack the bus driver – so why character assassinate a musician, just because you don’t like his music?

My ambition before I turned 33 was to front my own band and have hits, so I gigged several times a month and spent the rest of the time writing and rehearsing. Paying your dues, they call it, and it’s tough learning to maintain this activity and at the same time deal with the rough and tumble of the business, the arseholes and the idiots and the careless comments, especially when those careless idiot arseholes are yourself. Abuse however can often teach you more than adulation, if you can learn not to take it personally. I rapidly adjusted to the reality that my audience wasn’t everyone elses, but it was nonetheless there, and that taste was highly variable even within genres, and I had enough confidence and self-belief to keep on going.

At a gig in Camden’s Dublin Castle, I met a bleached-blonde rock chick who told me she was an agent. She approached me in the golden ten minutes after we came off stage and enthused about the band and our songs. Come and see me, she said, I will get you gigs. So, I agreed to drop by her office in Tottenham Court Road with demo tape.

A few days later, I grabbed a cassette and recorded three tracks I was working on – a couple of up-tempo strummy guitar numbers, and a more experimental slow soul song, in which I sang falsetto. I was pretty pleased with the production on this 4 track demo, having dropped into a session in a professional studio and heard it over the monitors, where it sounded better than the £100 per hour track my friend was producing, to his mild embarassment.

Rock chick greeted me cordially, invited me to sit down, lit a cigarette, and we chatted about the band and the music business. I pulled the tape out of my pocket and she stuck it on the office sound system. First up was the slow song – I figured she’d seen the band, she knew the fast ones, give her something to show we had more in the bag that pub floor fillers. Within 30 seconds, she turned to me and said,

I really hate this kind of shit. It isn’t you, though, is it? Is your stuff on the other side?

To say I was surprised was an understatement. I made goldfish movements with my mouth but no words emerged. I said that it was me, and started to defend the song – but met her cold eyes and the words just dried up. As I made my excuses and left after five deeply uncomfortable minutes of pointless small talk, I had the presence of mind to take the tape with me, but my skin was burning, my child slapped, beaten, humiliated and sent home.

Over the next few days, it haunted me. Why the change? I expected her to at least listen. It was brutal, complete and utter instant rejection, so completely the opposite of her reception a few days earlier. Maybe she was out for blood – some people get their kicks from doing that kind of thing. Maybe she just genuinely hated that song, or my singing. I comforted myself that if she didn’t like it, she certainly wouldn’t like a great swathe of our material, and I soon stopped worrying about it, and found another agent – but I didn’t forget it.

Several years later, I listened once again to the song, recalled the hard-bitten woman, and I immediately knew exactly why she had hated the song. It is introverted, conceptual, eccentrically stylised. It has weird poetry in it. It’s about vulnerability, it was dealing with the romantic failure and emotional exposure of a disastrous love affair, and difficult to grasp, inconclusive personal lessons, which she certainly was not at all interested in.

She didn’t want any of that arty soul shit – she wanted unsubtle masculinity, bravado, a blast of pop rock energy, just like she’d seen us perform – no wonder she couldn’t even listen to more than a minute of it!

As the song says,

So do you think they’d adore you
If you were more organised?
Well learn this lesson now, then
This cannot be summarised…

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