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Monday, 30 April 2018

Making an album, part 10: Recording with my dad.

In 2014, I started writing about the process of recording some songs with the intention of making an album. The project that I started documenting back then has grown arms and legs and morphed into a multi-headed beast (more about that some other time). I’ve taken several detours along the way, but the one that means the most is about to get a proper release on an actual record label, something I had barely even considered as a possibility when I started out.

My dad was born in 1940. In his early twenties, he was part of the Bob Dylan generation and his devotion to that cause is overwhelmingly reflected in his record collection, but he was also influenced by Scottish folk artists like Hamish Imlach and Matt McGinn. He played guitar and wrote his own songs and it’s clear that my interest and passion for music is inherited from him. He loved playing, but -apart from family parties- he never performed in public. His three kids, at some point or another, all ended up playing in bands, so I suppose we took his musical interests just a little bit further. 

Having worked into his seventies, he had often seemed weighed down in recent years by the responsibilities of looking after our ailing mum. As she became more and more reluctant (and less able) to leave the house, it started to look like dad’s health and well-being would best be served by giving him opportunities to get out and about. From a selfish point of view, that allowed me to re-connect with him through music and our getting 'out and about’ involved taking in shows by the likes of Don McLean, Joan Armatrading, Paul Carrack, Ray Davies, Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow.

One night in the spring of 2016, he handed me a CD with some of his own songs on it. It came as a bit of a surprise, because, wrapped up in my own stuff, I had somehow overlooked the possibility that this quiet and unassuming man who looked after my mum might still feel the need to express himself through the medium of song. As a self-absorbed nitwit, it hadn’t occurred to me that dad might still be writing or thinking about music in his mid-70s. I took his CD home. I really, really wanted it to be good, but there was a small, cowardly part of me that dreaded the possibility that it might not be. How could I possibly have responded to that? What could I have said? But that small cowardly part was worrying for no good reason; the rational part of me knew that dad’s stuff would be good. I had, after all, heard him around the house often enough when I was a kid. I knew that he could write songs and he could sing. And, once I started working my way through his CD, I knew that we had to record his songs. We had to make an album together.

Like all great ideas, once it was out there it seemed so obvious that I cursed myself for not thinking of it sooner. When I ran it past him, his first response, as I expected, was to shy away from the possibility of being put in the spotlight. He seemed a bit reluctant and said: “I don’t know if I could do that”. My dad had been a musician since his teenage years, but had never played gigs or made a big deal out of his talent. His public performances extended only to strumming the guitar at gatherings with family and friends and I knew that it would take a bit of persuading to get him into a recording studio. Once he had warmed to the notion, we discussed whether it was going to be a singer-songwriter album, that is, him sitting in front of a microphone strumming his guitar, or whether it was going to be something else. I pushed gently for ‘something else’ because I felt that his songs deserved to sound much bigger and better than any of the home recordings he had made. His original demos had a charm of their own, but I knew that he had material that could comfortably thrive in a grander soundscape. 

While working on the arrangements, I had to keep in mind that we had different tastes in music. I enjoy lush sounding recordings with interesting textures and love discovering hidden details and subtle layers in the mix; by contrast, my dad generally prefers things a bit simpler.  He’s an old-school songwriter and he likes recordings and songs to be about performances but, as a ‘jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none’ kind of musician, I’m almost entirely dependent on studio manipulation and clever editing techniques. I could no more play a decent guitar solo than I could build a car from cutlery, but I’m reasonably au fait with the technology that makes it sound like I am getting away with it. I learned a lot from working on his material. Although some of the songs we recorded are more than fifty years old, the themes are still relevant, perhaps even topical, in 2018: prejudice, legal injustice, the follies of war, love and regret. My dad is a better writer than me in the sense that he’s got a purer sense of what a song is. My songs are often high on artifice, coquettish little creatures that flirt with my various musical influences; by contrast, his stuff goes directly to message central with an emotional heft that I don’t think I can match.

Once the recording process was underway, my brother got involved. Although he lives in London (as does his drum kit), we usually managed to arrange our sessions to coincide with his visits to Glasgow. Other musicians were recruited to the cause as we started to pull the collection together. Two of the songs on the album feature contributions from a man who has written an actual number one hit single. Danny Mitchell wrote ‘If I was’ for Midge Ure, which topped the charts in 1986. My brother knows Danny (who now runs a studio in Glasgow) and told him that we were working on this project. He expressed an interest in getting involved and, within a couple of weeks of being sent some rough mixes, he had recorded some lovely pedal steel guitar and mandolin. Through the miracle of electronic mail, he sent us the parts and we were able to drop his tasteful and appropriate contributions into our recordings.

During the dialogue about which songs we’d be recording for the album, I got used to the idea that my visits to the family house would occasionally feature some little moment when dad would pull an old cassette tape from a drawer and say something like: “do you think we could maybe do something with this one?”

On one such occasion, as the tape hiss gave way to the opening chords of another long-neglected tune, I was instantly returned to my childhood, anticipating the words and melody of something that I hadn’t heard for many years. He had written a song about the disaster that befell the village school at Aberfan and his opening lines summarise the story far better than I could ever do.

21st October 1966
A whole mountain moved, became unfixed
A whole mountain moved, it was made by man
Moved half a mile down on the school at Aberfan.

I hadn’t heard or thought about that song for such a long time, but I knew it entirely, a song that my dad had sung as he sat and strummed his guitar while his three kids probably ran around the house creating merry hell and knocking lumps out of each other. And that’s what made me a singer and a songwriter; my dad modelled that behaviour for me. Years later, I ended up doing the same thing, sitting strumming an acoustic guitar while my own kids painted murals on the furniture, dressed the baby in drag or built an alien ship out of chairs and tables (sometimes all at once). I still write songs and I still get something spiritual and uplifting from the process of making music. That is one of the things I’ve tried to explain as I’ve been writing about recording my own albums; working on music is soul food and, when I do it, I’m doing it for me; except, in this case, that’s only part of the story.  
Towards the end of the recording process, we spoke about how we might promote the work. With typical modesty, dad insisted on not using his own name on the album cover, saying that it was “too much like blowing your own trumpet”. We eventually managed to reach a compromise by using his initials and surname. We also struggled to come up with an appropriate album title until, late in the day, while browsing through some photographs of post-war Glasgow, we came across a picture of two old ladies chatting in the street with the caption: ‘This has been me since yesterday’; we knew there and then that we had hit the jackpot. For those unfamiliar with the Glasgow vernacular, this is a phrase –once quoted in a sketch by Billy Connolly- that was formerly in common usage. It was the kind of line that might be used by two people (usually women) meeting on the street, each comparing notes on how busy they have been. “This has been me since yesterday” one might say, to be countered by “Aye, I’ve not sat down since I got up”.

The phrase tickled my dad and I think it spoke to his sense of being a proud Glaswegian.

During the time we spent recording this album, tragedy and trauma visited our family. After a long period of illness, our mother died in the summer of 2017 and so never got to hear the final fruit of our labours. I’m sure, however, that she would have been quietly pleased that -at the age of 77- dad’s music was finally getting a well-deserved public airing.
Her death had a big impact on him and, in the following weeks and months, we began to suspect that all was not well. Having devoted several years to being mum’s primary carer, it became apparent that the absence of the attendant daily routines had revealed issues with his mental health. No longer anchored by his caring duties, he became prone to lapses that appeared to signal something rather more significant than the forgetfulness one might normally expect from a man of his age. Towards the end of the recording process, it was obvious that he was adrift and that his abilities were diminished. After a number of distressing episodes, we discovered that he was succumbing to Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), a progressive brain disorder which impacts on behaviour, cognition, and movement. LBD presents itself through a range of symptoms, including problems with memory, thinking and visual hallucinations. One of its characteristics is that it can become rapidly debilitating and, just a few weeks after our last recording session in September 2017, he had deteriorated to the point where he required full-time nursing care.

After a few months concentrating on dad’s welfare and other family stuff, I started approaching record companies with a view to gauging interest in what I thought was an excellent album and a great story. How many times, after all, does someone make their recording debut at the age of 77? The fact that this story had an unfortunate sting in the tail made the prospect of an official release all the more poignant. When I told my dad that Ian Green at Greentrax Records had expressed a firm interest in releasing the album, he was chuffed. I know that when we started out, he would happily have settled for running off 30 or so copies to distribute among relatives and friends. He’s still inclined to hide his light under a bushel and I’m sure there is a part of him that can’t quite believe that anyone outside his immediate social circle could be interested in his songs.

My recording journey has been fulfilling and I hope it’s not over, but I doubt that I will find another highlight to match sitting in a recording studio with my dad, polishing up his songs, working out harmonies and considering whether that drum roll going into the second chorus is making too much of a statement.      
He might not be in the best position to enjoy whatever interest will now be generated by his recording debut, but we know at least that our dad had a great time working on his album. It may have been half a century in the making, but some things are worth taking your time over.

‘This has been me since yesterday’ is released by Greentrax Records on 1st May.

You'll find some samples from the album here:

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Burn the witch!

The comedian –a term you might choose to apply loosely- Mark Meechan, a.k.a. Count Dankula, has been fined £800 after appearing at Airdrie Sheriff Court charged with aggravating religious prejudice. His crime was to post a video on youtube, during which he trained his girlfriend’s dog to respond to the words “gas the Jews” and to perform the Sieg Heil with one of its paws.The video is not particularly funny and it would be easy to argue that it is in bad taste. That, however, is an observation which should only merit a response of ‘so what’?

At the start of the clip, Dankula announces that his aim is to transform the dog from being what his girlfriend regards as the cutest thing in the world –a little pug- into the least cute thing imaginable: a Nazi. But Sheriff Derek O'Carroll found him guilty under the Communications Act of a charge that he posted material which was grossly offensive because it was "anti-Semitic and racist in nature" and was “aggravated by religious prejudice”.

The clip wasn’t sent to anyone in particular; it was uploaded to a server and was only viewable upon demand. And, in spite of Dankula’s explanation of the joke, the context of his words were deemed to be irrelevant.
If the context provided by the comedian was irrelevant, then it must surely follow that Sheriff O'Carroll’s use of the phrase “gas the Jews” in court was also anti-Semitic. The only way those words couldn’t be interpreted as anti-Semitic would be if one acknowledged the importance of context. If context is irrelevant, shouldn’t Sheriff O’Carroll be charged too? 

One of the worst things about this case (and there are many bad things) is that other comedians have been willing to throw a fellow traveller under the bus, indifferent or oblivious to their wretched acceptance of a milieu in which the context of words can be deemed irrelevant by the authorities. Just how complacent, stupid or tribal do you have to be in order not to grasp that the creation of such conditions might one day result in your own imprisonment?

Some have observed that Dankula didn’t get sent to jail and that his fine of £800 will probably be paid by donations from his supporters. Indeed, at the time of writing, his crowd funding page has raised around £114,000 to cover the predicted legal costs of his appeal against the sentence. Such observations are facile and ignore the two main points.

1.      This shouldn't have gone to court. The fact that it did and the way that it did, should set our alarm bells ringing.

2.      The fine is irrelevant, because the process itself is the punishment. The precedent has been set; if you wish to avoid the possibility of a two-year legal battle with its attendant fees, stress and adverse publicity, you had best rein in your online comments, opinions and jokes.

Last week, a young woman from Liverpool was convicted of hate speech for posting the lyrics from Snap Dogg’s track I’m trippin’. One wonders how this can be possible when neither the author nor the publisher of those lyrics have been prosecuted. Nor has any action ever been undertaken against the many folk who sing along with the lyrics at Mr Dogg’s concerts.  

The person who made the complaint was PC Dominique Walker, who works for the Hate Crime Unit of Merseyside Police. Let’s lay that one out for inspection: A person who gets paid to spot ‘hate crime’ makes a complaint about a ‘hate crime’ incident in which a young woman has quoted lyrics from a song that has been broadcast, promoted  and performed on many occasions.

Perhaps we should acknowledge the possibility (and by that, I mean the probability) that someone who gets paid to spot ‘hate crime’ ought not to be able to bring a ‘hate crime’ complaint against a member of the public.
Perhaps we should acknowledge the possibility (and by that I mean the probability) that it is in PC Dominique Walker’s professional interests to find and prosecute examples of ‘hate crime’ in the same way that it was in the best interests of witch-finders in the 17th century to find and prosecute witches.       

Anyone who can look upon these prosecutions with equanimity should consider the possibility (and by that I mean the probability) that one day it might not be ‘reasonable’ folk who happen to share their views who will get to exercise this kind of capricious authority. Perhaps they should try and envisage a world in which the most reprehensible people imaginable have been granted the power to behave as the police and the courts have behaved in these cases.

In a mature democracy, people who make frivolous accusations of ‘hate crime’ would be ignored and considered ridiculous. Personally, I’d favour a more remedial treatment, perhaps involving them being marched through town, put in the stocks and pelted with rotten fruit.

But we can’t claim to live in a mature democracy when the actions of the authorities are edging us ever closer to an age in which that ‘stocks and rotten fruit’ option might begin to look like a quaint remnant of a golden age of progressive enlightenment.

Friday, 6 April 2018

'Listening' requires ... listening.

Further to my previous post about long-form internet TV, I thought it might be worth flagging up at least one show that the curious viewer might wish to check out. There are many people providing excellent and challenging content in long-form chat shows on the so-called ‘intellectual dark web’. Among these are Joe Rogan, Stefan Molynuex, Sam Harris, Gad Saad and Dave Rubin.  
The latter’s ‘Rubin Report’ is one of the most reliable and civilised on the market. Rubin is a charming man with an open, inquiring mind and he will often demonstrate that he’s prepared to do the old-fashioned thing of changing his mind when the facts change. 
He's a gay man  from the old liberal left whose life experiences led him to the conclusion that a number of his key assumptions were mistaken. His oft-expressed view is that he didn’t leave the left; ‘the left’ left him. He tells a nice story which illustrates why he now finds himself thoroughly embroiled in the fight for enlightenment values.  

He was invited for a drink by an old liberal friend that he hadn’t seen for several years. During their conversation, his friend expressed the view that he was somewhat alarmed, not only by Rubin’s willingness to engage with ‘objectionable’ people, but by the fact that he appeared to have changed his mind on a number of big topics. The friend implied that Rubin’s ‘conversion’ was motivated by financial concerns, because his show was obviously picking up a lot of subscribers.  
After a frustrating exchange of views, Dave decided to ask a question which he thought would at least create some kind of base from which they could start to build a reasonably constructive dialogue. I’m paraphrasing, but this is more or less what he asked his friend:

For the purposes of this discussion, are you prepared to allow that my aim is the same as yours, namely to try and make the world a better place; and further, that my positions are not only sincerely held, but have been arrived at through careful consideration of the available evidence?”

Without a second’s hesitation, the friend replied: “No, I’m sorry … I can’t.”

And there, in the shell of a nut, is an illustration that, in an age of tribalism and entrenched group identity, there can be no dialogue between opposing viewpoints.

Dave Rubin, unlike his former friend, understands that, unless you can approach political conversations with the belief that there is at least a possibility that the other person might just know something that you don’t, then -whatever else you are doing- you’re not really listening. 

Here’s a recent example of his work, a free-ranging discussion with Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University and the author of ‘Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress’. 

Sunday, 4 March 2018

I think my TV is broken

I've been talking with people recently about the increasing popularity of ‘long-form’ internet chat shows and wondering: 
a) why this is happening and 
b) why so much of the really interesting political and philosophical content is being produced in America. As far as I can tell, there are very few British equivalents (although I’d be delighted if someone pointed me towards something which would disprove that assertion).

I'm not sure why this seems to be the case, but there are, I think, a couple of ‘broad brushstroke’ observations that could be made. Perhaps because of the way the nation had to win its independence, the American psyche seems more readily tuned to notions of intellectual freedom, particularly to ideas that might, broadly speaking, be described as iconoclastic and /or libertarian (although I realise that these days that, in itself, might be seen by some as a pejorative term). Americans have a positive concept of citizenship which –generally speaking- makes them less inclined to trust centralised authority. 

By contrast, many British folk see themselves as subjects. Our psyche seems more readily tuned to deference and I think this applies as much to institutions and political parties as it does to class. Perhaps as a result of the conditions which prevailed during and after World War 2, our political discourse seems more likely to be framed within implicitly statist concepts and notions. Indeed, some of these have become such articles of faith that many folk appear to be unaware that there might be other ways of thinking about them. To take two obvious examples: Start a thread on any social network questioning the sheer wonderfulness of either the NHS and /or the BBC and you’ll soon encounter something very close to cult-like behaviour (by that, I mean an unwillingness to consider the possibility of any deviation from received views).

I only have an outsider’s superficial grasp of American mainstream media, so I won’t comment on the failings which are causing people on that side of the Atlantic to look elsewhere for nourishment. In the UK, the mainstream channels persist with the pretence of impartiality, a notion that permeates a lot of news content like a bad smell. Just occasionally, political debate ‘red in tooth and claw’ is allowed to break out, but generally speaking, the quality of discourse is dismally shallow.

It is inevitable, once consumers start noticing this, that some will decide to shop around. The popularity of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web’ has come about because people are rejecting the orthodoxies and pieties of the mainstream media, demanding instead content which treats them like adults and which recognises that every story contains degrees of nuance. They want discussion that isn’t stale and managed; they want debate which doesn’t banish some topics to the realm of the forbidden.

With the mainstream media unwilling or unable to provide such a service, some consumers will naturally flock to platforms which allow real conversations, unmediated by spin, to take place between real people. The popularity of these alternative outlets is evidence that there is, after all, an appetite for serious discussion about complicated ideas.

But don't expect mainstream journalists to do anything about it. 
They haven’t even noticed that the television might be broken.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Vinyl Diary, part 4: New Wave

In 1993, the rock press started to talk about something called ‘Britpop’. I had no idea what it meant, other than that someone had invented yet another music genre. The phenomenon went on to carry some cultural weight, although perhaps not always for the reasons celebrated by some commentators. Depending on your point of view, Noel Gallagher hanging around Downing Street with Tony Blair was either the zenith of ‘Cool Britannia’ or the precise moment at which rock music relinquished its risible claim to be the standard bearer for anything resembling a counter-cultural movement. Here’s a clue: If you’re sipping tea with the Prime Minister, you may still fancy yourself as a rebel, but you are most definitely inside the tent, pissing out. 

It is generally accepted that the first two Britpop albums were by Suede and The Auteurs. Suede had some good songs, but the production on their album was awful, spoiled by an excess of washy reverb and the vocals being too far back in the mix. The singer, Brett Anderson, wrote lyrics coyly alluding to vague homosexual encounters and once claimed in an interview that he was "a bisexual man who never had a homosexual experience". It seemed a bit lame, but at least he looked like a bona fide pop star.

By contrast, Luke Haines of The Auteurs, with his foppish hair and junk shop clothes, looked more like your well-read sixth-form mate who would sit at the back of the class making snide remarks. He sang like someone who had only previously performed in his bedroom, with the vocals all double or even treble-tracked; his weedy voice and cynical tone conveyed the impression of someone who was, perhaps, out to take some revenge upon the world. 

For all of the vocal limitations, his songs certainly had a bit of devilment and wit about them. When I heard ‘Showgirl’ on the radio for the first time, I was struck by the boldness of the opening few bars. The sudden drop after the line “I took a showgirl for my bride” sounded brave, assertive, brimming with confidence; it compelled me to shut up and listen. The songs on ‘New Wave’ appeared to explore a bohemian demi-monde of actors, musicians and dancing girls, stuck permanently between jobs and waiting for their big showbiz break. In ‘Valet Parking’, Haines sang “I’m sick of parking cars” and you got the feeling that he meant it. 
His lyrics could be acerbic, but were sometimes mysterious and allusive. On the splendidly cryptic ‘Idiot Brother’, he directed the following line at surely the only person in the world who would understand what it was about:

"And what about our fat friend
With the golden ear?"

I had no idea what was going on, but it was fun trying to guess.

'American Guitars’ was interpreted by some as a Britpop statement of intent, something along the lines of: ‘we’ve had enough of these bloody yanks influencing our pop kids’. But the lyric is clearly celebratory, with Haines -for once- expressing genuine admiration about something, perhaps in recognition of an authenticity that he felt his own work might have lacked:
"Some people are born to write, some people are born to dance
Thought I knew my place in the world, thought I knew my art.
Glad to be there, see them begin.
It was easy to see them, they were the best band to be in … American Guitars"

I really liked the sound of the group. The uncomplicated guitar and minimalistic piano always served the interests of the songs, while James Banbury’s cello added a certain je ne sais quoi to the proceedings. On ‘Bailed Out’ –which, in the wrong hands, might easily have turned out to be a bit of a plodder- Banbury’s deft lyricism lifted the track into another dimension.
Despite making a distinctive contribution to the sound, Banbury was viewed as a mercenary by the group leader. In the first volume of his memoirs (‘Bad Vibes – Britpop and my part in its downfall’ published in 2009), Haines, throughout the text, refers to him merely as ‘the cellist’. The book is bitter, bitchy and misanthropic, but there is also humour in the mix, with the author being honest about what a twat he could be at times.
Bad Vibes’ paints an illuminating picture of the thin line between failure and success, but it is even better on the thinner line between ‘modest’ and ‘massive’ success. The Auteurs famously lost out on the Mercury Music Prize by one vote to Suede; I don’t know if that made any difference to their respective trajectories, but Suede went on to be huge and The Auteurs didn’t. Haines eventually got over the disappointment and, henceforth, only felt sick about the injustice of it all once every couple of minutes.

One of the reasons I think I liked ‘New Wave’ so much was the fact that I was -at the time- in a band which, to my ears at least, ploughed a similar furrow to The Auteurs. “If this is Britpop”, I thought, “bring it on”. My hope was that my own band might get a record deal on the back of some timely zeitgeist-surfing. We also hired, at considerable expense, a cellist to play on some of our recordings and the results convinced me that we were in transition from being ‘half-decent’ (we were quite a solid unit) into something ‘quite interesting’. But finding a good cellist who would do the stuff that the rest of us were willing to do (paying for rehearsals, gigging in grotty pubs, paying for van hire etc.) was about as difficult as finding a unicorn that could cook; all the good ones wanted MU rates just to get out of bed.   

My band never managed to secure that elusive record deal. But I eventually got over the disappointment and nowadays only feel sick about the injustice of it all once every couple of minutes.