Work in progress: No One’s News

One thing that drives me to despair (not that’s a particularly onerous task) about most popular indie bands is their lack of breadth. It’s not that they long songwriting chops, but listening to The Vaccines, or The 1975 or Felt Foxes (or whatever the fuck everyone’s creaming their knickers about this week) they all share a common problem: lack of sonic diversity.

I hate – hate – bringing up The Beatles again, but they still represent probably the apogee of sonic adventure. OK, so obviously a Frank Zappa is going to operate without regard for any sonic boundaries at all, but for song-based, guitar bands The Beatles still represent the high water mark for experimentation within the boundaries we’ve set for ‘pop’ music.

Your typical indie band (and I know I’m making grand, hand-waving generalisations here) has a pretty routine formula. A guitar. A bass clinging to the root notes. A drum thwacking away in 4/4 with the occasional pushed note. Some kind of keyboard wash.

And you know what – that’s fine! But what I don’t understand is why these bands don’t look around the vast, teeming set of sounds and styles available to them to make their songs more colourful or interesting. Yes, a great chorus is a great chorus – but locked into a set of fairly routine parameters the overall effect is dull.

The prosecution would like to draw attention to exhibit A: The Kaiser Chiefs’ Employment. It fairly teems with catchy hooks, explosive choruses and memorable lyrics, yet simultaneously  becomes a drag five songs in. Why? Lack of adventure.

So. Back to the Beatles. In their pomp (arguably 1966 and Revolver) they too were writing songs with catchy hooks, explosive choruses and memorable lyrics. But look at what they did with those bare bones. Revolver opens with Taxman, which is a piece of James Brown funk allied to Indian classical music. Eleanor Rigby – a wintry string arrangement with massed harmonies. I’m Only Sleeping: a decadent, slouching two-step bedecked with illustrative sound effects and slowed down a half tone. Love You To: a full-on piece of classical Indian music. And so on.

At every turn, the band didn’t simply stop with “great song,” but strove to make each song interesting by exploring sonic textures, different instruments, sound effects etc. And that goes all the way back to their first recordings: mixing covers of soul music with tricks they learned from show tunes, English hymns (think of their harmonies), skiffle, rock and roll, country and western…

Of course it’s a bit unfair to compare a band scrabbling to keep a career alive today in a minefield of landfill indie with the freedom that The Beatles had (operating as they did without any kind of restrictions) but still. If you were the bassist in Fuzzy Roy, wouldn’t you be screaming for the band to try a funk arrangement, or run everything through distortion and flange just to see?

I raise this all at wearying length, because one of the side effects of being freed from the constraints of being in a live pub covers band is that I can finally do some of those things. I’m completely untutored in music and my tastes are entirely bread and butter: Beatles, Stones, Roses (you can probably guess the rest of my tedious listening habits). But! I’ve never really wanted to settle for four-square arrangements of everything.

The last couple of songs I’ve posted on here have been fairly by-the-books songs, but here is a work in progress to show you something a little different.

It arose from listening to a podcast about Medieval history. The opening music was an odd guitar piece that clearly uses scales or modes that you don’t hear very often today. Attempting (and ultimately failing!) to write something in that kind of vein led to me coming up with a chord change a little outside by usual style.

And so, I’ve been plucking away at it for a while now – trying to make a folksy, finger-picked arrangement for it and being stymied by the fact that my fingerpicking technique is just this side of dogshit. And then, last week, I started to pootle around with keyboards and string sounds and the whole piece began to transform itself into something very different.

I guess if I dug into the recesses of my memory, I’d probably say there’s some background inspiration from something like Nillson’s Without Her (Pandemonium Shadow Show, 1967).

Anyway, it’s a long way from complete – and the vocal in particular badly needs re-recording – but there it is: stumbling a little way along the road of musical adventure and freedom.

No One’s News

I think this is the house
Unless I am mistaken
Yes – there; those are the blinds
We’d close to prying eyes

I remember then
When you were young and happy
How you’d shyly look away
And drop your underwear

And things were different then
When girls were girls and men were men
And who and what and why and when
Was no-one’s news

When he was through and done
She’d stand against that window
Look down into the street
As he got back in his car

Tomorrow he’d be back
And she’d still be here waiting
Clutching at her skirts
And listening for the door

And things were different then
When girls were girls and men were men
And who and what and why and when
Was no-one’s news

Now he’s sat in a chair
And they have to mash his food up
And his eyes have clouded over
And he stains his underwear

She wonders what he feels
And she wonders when they touch him
If he remembers her
Like she remembers him

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