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The Art of Borrowing

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(first published here)

Music is full of references to other music, and of course, it always has been. The question is: when is a reference a steal? At what point does a composition take on a life of its own?

There are many examples of original music referring to other pieces of music, either by directly quoting in a new arrangement, or by developing an idea further, embellishing and producing variations. Mozart, Beethoven and a host of other composers took folk tunes as the starting point for symphonies. Roy Orbison (I just learned from Elvis Costello on BBC4) stole a melody from Schumann.

All this is normal, and fine, and there is certainly nothing wrong with an honest steal. But what of dishonesty? It becomes more difficult when expert musicologists are produced in court to determine legality. There are famous cases of plagiarism – Andrew Lloyd-Webber has been accused of stealing several times over the years, from Puccini (settled out of court) to Pink Floyd, and December 2008 saw a dispute between guitarist Joe Satriani and Coldplay. Whatever the various merits of the cases, it’s not surprising that big money artists attract this kind of legal battle.

An old showbusiness dictum applies:

Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ

rgreeneMusical value has been determined since the early 1900s on rules which attribute most value to melody and lyrics, but this western academic system doesn’t reflect the actual value of musical elements in contemporary pop. Post-jazz, black music has dominated and infused all music, in which rhythm is the most important, main ingredient. If pop songs were valued based upon rhythms, and royalties paid out for their usage in the same way lyrics and melodies are paid for, people like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry would be multi-billionaires from the thousands of songs which use rhythms which they invented, or at least, first recorded.

A stack of modern music – beginning with dance, but extending to all kinds of contemporary music – not only takes melodies, rhythms, riffs and sounds from music, but uses recordings made by other artists as a building block for an original composition.

This re-use of other artists’ work via audio collage is commonly called sampling. Pop music composition started to heavily use sampling in the early 1980s, as computer technology became affordable. The Fairlight CMI Series II sampler, pioneered by the likes of Peter Gabriel and Trevor Horn, cost £30,000 new, which put it beyond all but the rich and established artists and producers; just three years later, AKAI and Casio samplers were selling at around one tenth of that price and were responsible for the making of many hits.

When James Brown became aware of how many tracks were using a sample of his recording of “Funky Drummer” which features Clyde Stubblefield on drums, he engaged an entire team of lawyers to track usages and sue, a shrewd move which significantly increased his income. Stubblefield, who reasonably claims to be the inventor of that groove, gained only fame.

But it isn’t simple. Whilst these days, writers and artists are more savvy, copyright laws still differ from place to place, even within the (mostly) law-abiding developed nations. In the US the concept of “fair dealing” and the right to parody make certain re-usage permissable. It’s a widely-held but mistaken belief that such rights exist everywhere, but they don’t. In the UK, no such exception exists, although it has been suggested by the Gower Review.

Personally, I love music which uses raw sound as building blocks to make something new and find much of it delightful. But, unlike some people, I mostly dislike tracks where an old song is merely “updated” by creating a new recording, the new artist’s label paying for the right to use the sample of the original, and then producing a bass-heavy, highly compressed “modern” song, which is usually a rap, and which usually only uses the old hit’s “hook” repeated ad nauseum. All that serves to do is line the pockets of the original artists, as the young pretender basks in the shine of older artists’ talent. It often reduces the sublime to the crude.

Other times, you hear songs in the charts which have been clearly written around a loop which is no longer there in the finished mix.

This is a replacement for real music, in the same way that fast food is a replacement for nutrition.

A lot of music now includes samples, the best of it musically original in some essential way. We need an updated appreciation of this great art of borrowing, and new legal definitions, to accommodate and respect this kind of hugely popular art. Listeners can sense musical authenticity and authority, they prize this over almost everything, and they don’t really care whether an idea is stolen or not. There have been some great, almighty, inspired steals by artists like Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, Eno and Byrne, DJ Shadow, A Tribe Called Quest.

If you mix the old capriciously and unexpectedly with the new, something wonderful can emerge. I also use samples in my work. I use them consciously, aware of a history that goes back to Musique Concrète, which is as broad as it is deep. I also quote from other writers and composers, most recently a passage from Vaughan Williams 6th Symphony which I scored by ear and re-arranged to suit a title sequence.

Back in 1994 I was doing a lot of eco-campaigning, and at the same time, listening to 1950s and 1960s TV themes. I had a brief hit with a remix of Captain Scarlett theme, written by Barry Gray, but that story is for another time. One tune I had a lot of fun with was the theme from Robin Hood, written by Dick James, which spent eight weeks in the pop charts in 1956, reaching number fourteen.

My version is called Robbin’ Hood, and it tells a story which I want to put on video. The Sheriff’s men show up and cause havoc. Robin Hood’s men come and see them off, and a celebration ensues. But while everyone’s partying, the Sherriff’s men sneak off into Sherwood Forest, and start to cut down the trees where Hood and his Merry Band make their home, and they have to hightail it back to safeguard their environment.

The moral of the story is: don’t win the battle, but lose the war. Or maybe it’s: look after your trees. Or, maybe it’s don’t forget to close the door on your way out. Either way, I really enjoyed putting the tune together, which features the very talented Kevin Goldsborough on acoustic guitar, myself on guitar, jews harp, percussion, chickens, swords, horses and crickets.

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The Writing Drug

(first published here)

Songwriting is powerful. One reason I love writing in general is because it completely absorbs me. It is a drug, it takes me away, alters my state, removes thoughts of self-preservation; and songwriting with the intoxication of melody, harmony and rhythm is the most addictive drug of all.

When I’m songwriting, I’m useless for doing anything else. The song won’t leave me until I’ve finished it, and made as good a recording of it as I can. I may make a good show of being practical, but actually, I’m obsessed, and if I’m not, the song probably won’t be that good. If I get stuck on a lyric, I wash up or hoover, some mundane task to free up my subsconcious mind. Usually I abandon the task immediately the elusive phrase or the better-shaped melody comes to me.

Songwriting creates in me a somewhat disembodied and semi-pyschotic state, which is one of the reasons I do not attempt to combine songwriting with other activities, like shopping, or eating, except easy to fix food that may be in the house. I eat a lot of cheese on toast, apples and bananas.

When I’m writing emotional songs, I don’t feel the emotion, until I step back for an objective listen. I can sometimes then become confused by the sudden identification with my own lyrics, and laugh, or cry. It’s crazy – it’s like a song from somewhere else, I may as well not have written it. From being totally wrapped up in the construction of the words, chasing down rhymes and honing meanings, the impact hits me like a tidal wave.

The phone rings, I answer with a thick voice.
“Have you got a cold?”
“No, I’ve been writing a song.”
“You sound terrible!”
“It’s a good song.”

Just like a drug, I can’t sustain songwriting for too long – 24 hours maximum is best – otherwise, I’ll lose the thread and become mentally and physically exhausted – so it’s imperative that I stick with it until there are no tasks left, except to tidy up afterwards.

I write like a sculptor, working to see what lies within the block of stone. I may have a good idea, but the process will reveal all. Afterwards, like sex, I’ve often confused myself in a good way for all the right reasons. And now i’m going to make a t-shirt with that written on it, so that people understand.

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Words Are All I Have

(first published here updated 2018)

Recorded music is awash with vanilla rhymes and hackneyed phrases, along with a glut of same chord, similar melody songs, and so the more you can do to make your song stand out, the better. Pay no attention to people who say that words are just a coat-hanger for the melody. Words are far more important than that.

Although I love all aspects of songwriting, as a lyricist I often find myself flying the flag for vibrant, meaningful, fabulous words, especially in a pop context. As well as strong lyrics being my personal taste, there are very good commercial reasons for this desire to make the words as good as they should be.

Contrary to what some musicians and music business types would have you believe, people really do pay attention to words. One thing I have noticed is that women in particular with their more profound predisposition for language seem to listen more intently to words than men – this is of course a generalisation, but one born of much observation. Test it. Women are at least 50% of your audience, it doesn’t pay to ignore them. But of course plenty of men also love a good lyric, especially in less uptight cultures where verbal prowess is seen as a good thing. I recall listening to Irish men swap poetry in a pub, where English would be stuck with football scores.

Words are as much the key to unlock the soul as any other part of music. Sung music exercises both the right and left hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, and you can create astonishing structure, strength, contrast, tension, drama and meaning, by working with this knowledge.

The endless tight circle of human concern – love, loss, lust – is the mainspring for 99% of songs – but that doesn’t mean making things more complicated is the solution. Complicated can be wonderful, but simple is good.

The Big Challenge, of course, is to find something new to write about, or at least, an original angle or twist on a time-honoured theme. “Baby, I Love You” is a classic track, but there’s only so many variations of that you can hear before your ears close and you want something different. Thankfully there are as many variations on our key experiences as there are human beings. It is a lack of songcraft, the mistaken belief that words don’t really matter, and perhaps laziness that means most writers produce very few truly original songs.

There are many techniques to produce excellent lyrics and I will return to this theme in future posts. But for basic songwriting, lyrical technique is very simple. Generally avoiding clichés, unless you are artful enough to use them cleverly, is rule number one. One day I will make a fortune by selling an alarm which goes off in the presence of clichés. It will make further lucrative revenue from its use in sales and marketing, sports commentary, news reporting…

Rule number two is to try to create a description or a narrative which relates to your personal experiences, because then it has much more chance of hitting the metaphorical nail smack bang on the head, and coming across as authentic.

Rule number three (and that will be all for now) is: keep going, don’t be satisfied until you have really crafted the words and you are satisfied that they really are the best words in the best order.

The tension between what sounds good sung, and what creates the meaning you are seeking, is one of the central challenges of songwriting. If in doubt, I usually obey the priceless Sammy Cahn dictum that lyrics must first sound good, and meaning comes along afterwards. But, I also want my words to grab the listener, draw them into a narrative or the poetic space of the song, and take them on an irresistible journey.

The writing process itself is also a process of discovery. This doesn’t just apply to pure self-expression, equally when given a really good commission or brief. Regardless of the original aim, I follow the internal truth of a lyric, knowing it makes its own sense, and only months or sometimes years later do I fully understand the song.

When writing, early on I learnt to keep everything, even songs you didn’t plan to get. Come back tomorrow and try again for what you thought you were doing today.

Good songs I didn’t expect to write, those found-by-accident songs can be your most valuable.

Here’s an illustration of how a few well-chosen words can create a world completely of their own – Howard Devoto, ex-Buzzcocks, then Magazine – The Light Pours Out of Me.

Time flies
Time crawls
Like an insect
Up and down the walls
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me
The conspiracy
Of silence ought
To revolutionize
My thought
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me
The cold light of day
Pours out of me
Leaving me black
And so healthy
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me
It jerks out of me
Like blood
In this still life
Heart beats up love
The light pours out of me
The light pours out of me

My favourite version by far is this live version. Thanks, Iain, for turning me on to this album. Happiest of memories.

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An Evening’s Displacement Activity

When you sit down to finish that composition you’ve spent a month considering, researching, sketching, finessing, for that VIP audience the next day.. it’s amazing how the guitar song you’ve been doodling for a couple of days comes together.. the lyrics and the melody just sync up right, and suddenly you sound like you again instead of David Gray meeting Neil Young and discussing Lemonjelly in Beyonce’s kitchen.. then you find that email address for the lovely man who bought you that book two years ago and you start the heart-felt letter you should have written – even finish it – then the mud on the shoes in the hallway is dry, so you go outside to knock them clean.. then you’re just a little bit too hungry to continue immediately, so you make toast while you tidy up the desktop and do some of that digital filing you could have done anytime in the last 4 months.. then you have a REALLY good idea (it’s the toast) about how to finish the song at the same as realising that if you put in an extra 15 mins on the filing, you won’t lose those research files ever again.. oh shit, yes the research.

Ah-hum. Deep breath. Word up. OK. Title. It’s nearly midnight. I’ve been here since 8pm. Everything is very tidy. I haven’t washed my tea cup though.. no, that’s just A DISTRACTION. Oh I just got a text.. how interesting ! “How is it going ? I love you xxx” I am overwhelmed by the kindness, suddenly too sentimental to continue. My tired eyes are swimming. My back is aching. I blow my nose. Here we go. Maybe I’ll just go to bed and write this in the morning. Hold on: I could take it to bed, I have a laptop and a wireless network. No, that way lies madness ! Nothing good can come from this. At least get your first page completed.

First page: is rubbish. Reads like an obituary. I wish I had all the ideas I had when I didn’t need them. Come on.

OK. That’s better. 3 good lines. 15 more required. I wonder how my cactus flower is developing.. No. Concentrate.

Damn, I’m on the web ! GET OFF THE DAMN WEB ! Quit the browser. Boom. There. Good. Gone. Research. Fuck! I didn’t save that arrangement with woodwind and strings… Bugger, hope it’s in the autosave history… it is. Great. Save it. Maybe print it. No juuuuuust save it. If I print it, I can look at it and have something else on the screen. THIS IS SUCH A GOOD IDEA ! It’s 1:30am and I am looking at an introduction, some printed words, many inter-related notes, and nine and a half minutes to go.

WHO STOLE MY TIME ? Procrastination didn’t, he always gets blamed, but HE WAS NOWHERE ! It was Displacement – he stole me from myself to make sure I didn’t suffer too much by doing the work I needed to do before 2am.

3:07 am. Done most of it, ten pages of earnest repetition, unmerited assertion, spontaneous invention, and hope. It’s possibly the best I’ve ever written. Four and a half hours desperate avoidance cannot dull my gladness. We will all be fabulously rich and simultaneously save the planet. The blessed, beautiful, wonderful, precious huge planet of glorious sleep.

(first published here)