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!
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
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.