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Saturday, 4 April 2015

Making an album, part 6: Vengeance (in E minor) will be mine



Have you ever been let down by a friend or a lover? Ever been betrayed or dumped for a younger, richer or more glamorous model? At some point in our lives, most of us will get ditched or double-crossed, pulverised or put down and the chances are that some of us will harbour dark thoughts of revenge. Harbouring those thoughts can be a frustrating way to pass the time, but if you’re a songwriter you can at least even things up a little by writing a revenge song. Your revenge song won’t quite make up for any slights you have suffered, but the process of writing it will be cathartic and, if you get lucky, it might even make you a few bob.

Well-known examples of revenge songs include Carly Simon’s ‘You’re so vain’ (which I think was probably about me), and ‘How do you sleep?’ which was John Lennon’s not-so-sneaky attempt at the character assassination of a fellow Beatle (nice work, John). ‘Goodbye Earl’ by The Dixie Chicks was an otherwise jolly country-pop hit which gleefully advocated the murder of a domestic abuser, while Elvis Costello launched a lucrative career on the back of a whole bunch of songs heavily seasoned with vengeful bitterness. 

Revenge songs, by their very nature, can get a bit ugly. Alanis Morrissette’s smash hit ‘You oughta know’ is a fine piece of music, but one can’t help but suspect that it represents six months of counselling distilled into four raging minutes of bombast. Addressing an unfaithful former lover, the lyric asks:

“Every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back
I hope you feel it ... well, can you feel it?” 

The answer is ‘probably not, Alanis’, but you do get the impression that she had to either write that song or go ahead and boil the ex-boyfriend’s bunny. 

In song-writing, as in life, I’m generally the sort of person who prefers to poke gentle fun rather than put the boot in, but the song I’ve linked to below (Angry Boy) does stray somewhat into revenge song territory. It was inspired by an awkward social encounter from about a year ago, when I was out having a few drinks in mixed company. During what I thought was a civilised and interesting discussion on the topic of Scottish independence, I was threatened by a middle-aged chap (who happened to be a member of the local arts community). When I say ‘threatened’ I mean that he actually wanted to hit me. From where I had been standing, I thought we were having a good old intellectual joust as he laid out the case for independence and I –from what was at the time an undecided position- batted back a few questions and concerns. Because I’m used to the company of people who like to discuss things without hitting other people, I had not picked up on the fact that my interlocutor was not enjoying a ‘good old intellectual joust’. Rather, he imagined that he was being deliberately wound up by the provocative wittering of an intellectual gadfly or, in his words, “a fucking pub troll”. In my experience, using the t-word is often a sign that someone doesn’t wish to engage in, or has already lost, an argument. Then he got right in my face with the ‘see you, Jimmy’ stare, which, although an authentic part of the Glasgow experience, is not one I’d necessarily recommend to visiting tourists. For all his ‘sensitive artist’ bona fides, the guy had lost the plot and was ready to knock me into the middle of next week. Only the intervention of a friend prevented an ugly scene which might have ended up with a late-night visit to Accident and Emergency. What with my pretty-boy looks and all, I can’t afford to take chances like that. 

As songwriters do, I stored the incident away for future consideration. What did it all mean? What had I done to provoke this sensitive fellow? Was it something I said, or something about my manner? Might I have done more to diffuse the situation? Did I really say something to offend him, or was he merely a jerk with a drink in him who didn’t like to be crossed in an argument? The evidence of the song reveals which option I went for.

The tune was one I had been playing around with for ages, while struggling to come up with a suitable lyric. Various drafts had withered on the vine as I grasped for a topic that would sit with the feel of the piece. The music always comes first, because I believe that there is no point in having good lyrics if the tune doesn’t cut the mustard. There are many classic pop songs that have great tunes and rubbish lyrics, but I can’t think of many acknowledged classics with rubbish tunes and great lyrics. When you live what, for shorthand purposes, I’ll describe as an ordinary settled life, finding interesting subject matter can be tricky. Lyrics written to reflect my day-to-day experiences might not necessarily interest the average listener. I suspect the market would be somewhere south of sluggish for songs with titles like ‘Do we need milk?’ or ‘Go and tidy your room, madam!’ Having said that, however, perhaps some readers will identify with my heartfelt power ballad ‘Broken photocopier blues’.

It’s worth taking your time with the words, because the difference between dreary lyrics (for example, pretty much anything by Oasis) and excellent lyrics (for example, pretty much anything by Joni Mitchell) is roughly equivalent to the difference between typing and writing. Once I’ve identified a theme and a title, the hardest part is coming up with a couple of lines that I like, signature lines that will encode the lyrical DNA of the song. Once those words are in place, I can usually work around them and start to embellish things reasonably quickly. In this case, I knew that I was going to write about the motivations of that mad guy in the pub, so the key words formed the opening line of the song:

“You don’t want to hear, you just want to bend somebody’s ear.”

Everything else flowed from that point. Once I got inside the mind of the character, it was relatively easy to lay out the possible and probable reasons for his behaviour. By the time the process was finished, I had accumulated enough material to make it a matter of what to leave out, not what to force in. To score an extra bonus song-writing point, I decided to present some of his anger issues in list form during the middle eight. Lists in songs, when done well, always impress me. Apart from anything else, it shows that the writer has given the words a little bit of thought, instead of just looking for things that rhyme, although REM’s impenetrable ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)’ might just be an exception to that rule.

Perhaps the most famous example of a list song is ‘My favourite things’ by Rodgers and Hammerstein:   

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things”

‘Let’s call the whole thing off’ by George and Ira Gershwin is another refined example of the genre, while Bob Dylan’s ‘A hard rain’s gonna fall’, written -according to legend- during the Cuban missile crisis, is said to be a compilation of the first lines of all the songs he didn’t think he’d ever get to write. A less portentous list appears on ‘Hello’, the 1990 hit by The Beloved, which features a roll call of various A, B and C-list celebrities. I salute any writer with the chutzpah to include the line:

"Sir Bufton Tufton, Jean Paul Sartre, Zippy, Bungle and Jeffrey Archer"

But I digress.

The list in the middle eight of my song lays out some of the things that might grind the gears of an angry man of a certain age:  

"You’re angry if they don’t, angry if they do, angry when they don’t think the same as you. You're angry with your boss, angry with your car, angry at the queue waiting at the bar.”

I’m going to write some other time about walking in the footsteps of my musical heroes, but it’s clear from the staccato delivery of the ‘angry’ list that this track is influenced by David Bowie. This impression is emphasised by some excellent ‘Scary Monsters’-style guitar provided by my chum Alan Robertson. Alan has been contributing to the album through the miracle of digital file transfer. The way it works is that I send him a copy of the track at a relatively early stage of its development and he adds loads of stuff at his home studio before emailing it back to me. He gives me lots of options, which is how I like it. Again, I prefer the mixing process to be more about what to leave out than what to put in; when it comes to selecting guitar or keyboard parts, my indecision is usually final. Fraser Sneddon’s bass, as ever, provides fluidity and heft, reminding me how lucky I am to know such talented musicians, people with the ability to bring my basis ideas to life.  

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, but this particular dish will probably never be served; it's highly unlikely that the bloke in the pub will ever hear my song.

Now that I think about it, maybe I should have just punched him in the mouth.

Angry Boy.                                               

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