Revolution Baby

These are dark times, are they not? Like the man says: our heroes are dead, and our enemies are in power. No surprise then that the boiling cloud of anger that’s been hovering over us all for the last decade or so has once again seen people take to the streets. So I did what I do: wrote a bouncy jangly pop ditty about it all!

Lyrics

Black clouds in the summer
Black blood in the gutter
Black boots on the tarmac
Black hearts behind the baton

How does it feel to see your face up on the screen
We can see you
How does it feel to see your face up on the screen
We see you

Revolution revolution revolution
Revolution revolution revolution, baby

Thoughts

This is really really spur of the moment stuff. I’ve done this kind of thing before (I wrote a song about Grenfell on the day it happened) so it lacks any kind of polish at all.

The first thing I wanted was drums. Big loud drums. And I found them from, of all places, The Beatles. Check out the isolated drums from Revolution (The Beatles, 1968). They sound massive.

Because Ringo is a man and not a machine, and the song was recorded live (IMAGINE THAT!) the tempo drifts all over the shop. Not hugely, but the bars vary from 118BPM to 121BPM which is a nightmare when you’re working on a grid-based system like GarageBand. So I found a single bar that kept an even tempo and based the loop off of that. On its own, it still sounded a little weedy, so I doubled up the bass drum and snare with some very compressed electronic drums. The kick is actually slightly out of phase (again: Ringo is a human) but I quite liked the spontaneous, rough sound it gave. Finally, I threw in some high hat and tom fills on the chorus (although you can barely hear them).

With pleasingly menacing drums, I went looking for a riff.

At first I wanted to do something atonal and clever, but as it turned out this simple riff had enough dissonance for the effect I was after. It essentially E minor pentatonic, but for a bit of extra flavour there’s an F#, over which I play a D# thrown in there.

Happy with the riff – double up on the octave on distorted guitars and also outlined with a keyboard for extra brightness I searched in vain for a melody. The chord change is E – G – F# – A which is some kind of mode (Locrian?) but as I don’t know what a mode is I just sort of chanted “Revolution” over and over again… and actually dug it. In a way it was sort of a subconscious pun – as the song is a baby of Revolution when you think about it.

To get more of the dissonance I was after I chucked in some close interval harmonies. I haven’t even thought about what notes they are – I literally sang them as they occurred to me, and the harmony tracks are first take efforts. No fucking about whatsoever.

And then… a verse. I decided to keep working on the dissonance. So the verse riff is basically vamping on an E power chord (which is an implied E minor) with an little chromatic phrase at the end of each bar – G, F#, F, E. That’s actually a fairly commonplace trick, so to make it slightly more interesting, I played the bassline against in minor thirds: so a D# over G, D over F# etc). Again, that’s all about dissonance.

Strung together, it sounded fine, but really I wanted something that would bring the song into the chorus with a bit of a bang. At first I tried a simple sudden gap of a beat. It was… OK… but not enough.

I decided I’d extend the gap a little bit (I haven’t even counted it!) and drop a big snare hit into it to propel the song into the chorus. But the snares all sounded a bit limp.

But playing around in GarageBand I found a whole bunch of filters I didn’t know existed. Whacking everything up to maximum turned a single kick/snare hit into something almost like a muffled explosion – perfect for the vibe I was after.

With a backing track in place, I moved onto a melody. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, songs that are basically one chord are inherently limited in terms of harmonic choice. At best, you can manage something like Eleanor Rigby – which has a lovely modal melody over E minor – but even that relies on a shift to C at the end of each phrase to create interest (“..picks up the rice in a church where the wedding has been“)

Normally what you do is what I did here. Sing something that is actually harmonically static. A sort of bluesy drawl that borders on a lazy chant like the chorus.

Mostly satisfied with that I quickly penned some lyrics. I toyed with the idea of “Black Summer” as a motif/title, but instead used ‘black’ as a springboard for a handful of images. Nothing subtle about it.

Finally, I hit on the phrase “we see you” because… well. We do. We see things now that previously have only ever been heard. Smartphones are a double edged sword in many ways, but images of police brutality expose reality for what it is. I posed that as a question: “how does it feel to see your face up on the screen” because that’s exactly what it is: a moral question.

Cops are in a hard place. I believe most of them get into the job because they are community minded, but it’s clear that there is a constant thread of near-militarisation: an esprit du corps borne not of being part of the community, but above it.

The founding principle of policing (in Britain anyway) was “The People are the Police, and the Police are the People.” Which rings increasingly hollow. Not that the people are blameless either – I mean if they were, we wouldn’t need cops at all, right?

So, partly, that “how does it feel…” line is aimed at those committing violence against the police. I do have some ambiguity in me about this.

Finally, with all this wrapped up, I decided to create a sort of soundscape running through the music: sirens. Helicopters. Police radio communications. Recorded footage from riots in Bristol and Germany. Overlaying one another, and sprinkled throughout the track, I hope they convey something of the chaos of these times.

And that is a lot of writing about a song where really nothing much happens. It’s an unhappy creation, coming from an unhappy place, about an unhappy time. A party song it is now.

But sometimes, all you can do it set your thoughts to music.

Why do I bother?

While I was listening back to my latest album (in all good record shops soon!) I had one of those occasional moments of “why the fuck am I bothering with this?” I mean, it’s not like I get any popular acclaim. I certainly don’t make any money – my lifetime royalties have yet to even pay for so much as a mic lead. In fact, I’m probably one third of my own streaming numbers!

But it was never about any of those things. And it still isn’t.

Mostly, it’s just some kind of need. I can’t put it any simpler than that. Ever since I first picked up my mum’s 3/4 scale, nylon-stringed acoustic guitar and the Three Chord Songbook, I’ve been writing songs.

That’s 30 years now – and hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of music.

A lot – most – of them have never really been finished. In my phone, as we speak, are no fewer than 206 rough demos of things. Some of them are nothing more than me humming a bassline. Some of them are wholly complete (except for lyrics). And most of them are somewhere in between – fragmentary sketches: ideas that came and went.

I keep a record of songs I can actually remember that were ‘finished’ in one way or another. Either I’ve recorded them myself, or one of the bands I’ve been in played them (sometimes just for one gig). I know, for instance, I wrote a sort of blues waltz called Time On The Wall, that we played at Woodkirk Valley Country Club in 2001 and I vaguely remember part of the riff, but other it has vanished into the ether.

But still, I can name 155 songs that I thought/think were/are worthy of writing lyrics for and performing or recording. That’s the tip of a pretty big iceberg considering all the ones that never made it that far, or are still waiting for their day to come. Probably another hundred are in the “could be” pile.

So what is the impulse for all that work if not self expression?

I quite often get told “you should write a book” by people. Anyone who knows me knows I’m tediously wordy, and quite often hit on a turn of phrase. I guess I have some facility for language.

But! Try as I might, I’ve never been able to finish writing The Great British Novel. And Lord knows I’ve tried! Poetry, I’ve written – but my efforts embarrass me. And while I pump out posts on three different blogs, write hundreds of tweets a day across three Twitter accounts, and basically do a fair bit of writing for a living, I’ve never been able to get a book length piece together. The best I’ve managed is 23,000 words – barely quarter of a book (chapters of which you can read on one of my other blogs).

It’s mostly down to time management. Sustained effort is incredibly hard and requires discipline.

I am not disciplined.

Nor do I think I ever will be. I’m a gadfly. A wellspring of momentary thoughts. I flit from this to that – and blog posts like this I just dump out of my head straight onto the page in a few minutes (hence typos, spelling mistakes and basically piss poor sentences!)

But! It turns out the one thing I have patience for is a song. I think there’s something about the format that suits me as a vehicle for expression. They’re fairly short for one thing, so I don’t have to try to sustain an idea for too long – and, in fact, the constraints of the medium force me to be a bit more creative.

In fact, a wise man once summed it up:

Must I remain chained to this page
Just looking for the syllables
To say things that are true or could it be

That this melody is unfillable?

In a way, a song is a bit like a sculpture. You knock pieces off or stick extra bits on until you’re satisfied with it. Quite often the results are nothing like you imagined they would be, but at least you have a result. It’s longer than writing a tweet, but much less time than writing a novel. A happy medium.

I guess part of the creative impulse is a bit of an ego trip too. Even though nobody really listens to my music, I know it exists and I’ve done things that most people haven’t – and wouldn’t know where to begin. Occasionally someone – a friend, a family member – will give an approving nod or say something like “I wish I could do that” and it’s a balm for the soul. A little reminder that you’re there and not entirely useless.

And part of me secretly hopes it will live on beyond me. As I’ve been researching my family tree, I’ve come across the names of scores of people for whom nothing remains but a name in a database and an overgrown, unvisited hunk of sandstone in some churchyard or other. As Morrissey put it: “they were born and then they lived and then they died.”

I fondly imagine that, perhaps, when I’m dead, my music will still be there – if only for my kids to listen to from time to time to remember me by. My brother died when I was around 6-7 and for many years (and probably still) my mum and dad kept a cassette recording of him singing Happy Talk – which was in the charts at the time thanks to Captain Sensible. If I close my eyes I can still hear his voice. The last physical trace of his existence beyond a handful of photographs.

Maybe one day, all that will be left of me will be a scratchy recording of me, singing one of my songs. It won’t matter to me – as I’ll be working my way through eternity, grateful to finally have some fucking peace.

I guess, in the end, “why?” is a futile question. You might as well ask why the birds sing or the grass grows. It’s just what I do.

Mind you, I also compulsively masturbate. Speaking of which….