There Used to be Planes in the Sky

Well there did, didn’t they? The thought occurred to me last week as I enjoyed a clear autumn morning – the fading stars scattered across the heavens like grains of sugar on black velvet – and all was quiet and still. Too quiet, in fact. And it took a few moments for me to realise why. Other than the distant hiss of the M1, my soundscape has always been shaped by the low rumble of aircraft flying overhead. And now? There are next to none. No contrails to catch the first blazes of the morning sun or to bisect the azure skies with dramatic slashes of white. Just empty space. Metaphorically then, a fine lens through which to view the changes that 2020 has wrought.

And so. It prompted a song. A daft song, in many ways, but with a little kernel of truth to it.

Lyrics

There used to be planes in the sky
Packed full of people
Saying goodbye
To their troubles
And nobody ever asked why

Now we’re all stuck to the ground
Watching old box sets
And no one comes round
Cos the clown on the telly
Says that’s not allowed

So what would you give
To see someone
Smiling at you from the door
Stealing a kiss on the off chance of more
Have a finger (or four)

But there’s no planes in the sky any more
Nobody ever knocks at the door
Tomorrow is just like the day before
The world is four walls and a floor
Do you remember how we filled the days before
When there were planes in the sky?

There used to be things we could do
Like touch other people
With no real excuse
Just because it was a nice thing to do

Now there’s nobody to see
Just look in the mirror
And into your eyes
There’s nothing to see there
And that’s no surprise

So what would you give
To see someone
Smiling at you from the door
Stealing a kiss on the off chance of more
Have a finger (or four)

But there’s no planes in the sky any more
Nobody ever knocks at the door
Tomorrow is just like the day before
The world is four walls and a floor
Do you remember how we filled the days before
When there were planes in the sky?

Thoughts

When I initially started on this, it was quite folky in feel – a sort of fingerpicked, mordant number in a waltzing A minor. I’ve written songs like that before in response to events, and they’re was sombre and also… kind of dull. Bored and frustrated, I starting singing the title phrase over a few different standard chord changes. And it fit very nicely over a descending run from C to A minor – a standard line cliche. Very quickly it had the same kind of vibe as Daydream by the Lovin’ Spoonful, or the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon. Something almost jazz about it, so I leaned into by not moving to the obvious chord (G) but instead playing…. err.. I’m not sure, tbh. I think it might be a kind of inversion of E7, with a G# bass? Thinking about it now as  I write, there’s something very Jake Thackray about the arrangement.

Natural an F followed, followed by D7/F# (one of my favourite chords, fact fans!) and then a chromatic run from C to A7 – which is basically what happens in jazz/blues standards like Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.

By now, the song was almost irrepressibly jaunty. In fact, it was so jaunty that I very nearly left it there as a sort of throwaway joke song (I recorded one verse of it like that for Twitter) but then… a bridge happened. And whatever else I might feel about the song, I fucking love the bridge.

It’s a A minor to that weird E/G# inversion, then to C and then a diminished chord (I don’t know which one) and when I came up with it, I instantly heard the harmony that would fit. Such a rich, beautiful chord with a very otherworldly, ambiguous feel to it. So the ‘joke’ feel of the song suddenly had a richness that I couldn’t ignore – and a genuinely plaintive overtone to it.

Then a quick trip from D minor to an unvarnished E, and then descending from A minor again down to F and a plangent F minor before the chorus – which is a fairly standard C/G/F progression, outlined with some open strings and a choppy second guitar (Even if you don’t know fuck all about music, you might be able to sense this is quite a harmonically dense song).

Suddenly, my jokey little sing a long now felt like a real song so I set to work on a full arrangement – throwing in electric guitars on the second verse, a bit of piano and a melodic bassline that more or less outlines the chords, helping it all to hang together.

I’ve often spoken on here about how I struggle with lyrics, but despite the genesis of this song being a half joke, they came pretty easily. When you think about what has happened to our lives this year, lines like “the world is just four walls and a floor” seem really easy to come up with and suddenly, my light jazz cocktail joke song had something of substance about it. There’s probably something very Madness about the chorus in particular.

It’s undeniably frothy – the sort of song that used to drive my old band to distraction (I can almost hear my bassist rolling his eyes at me from across the years) but it’s definitely a complete song, with a point of view, some musical intricacy and, let’s be honest, an annoying catchy melody.

Lightweight, but I’m pleased enough with it to give it the full treatment of a blog post and suchlike without giving myself too much shit about it. I mean don’t get me wrong: it’s definitely not going on the album because it will ruin my cred with the cool kids. But still. I wrote it, am pleased with it both as a stylistic exercise and as a cohesive song and I answer to no one. Not even you.