Smiling Cos He Made It

I think I liked this song for ages because it was just after I’d learnt how to play major-7 chords on guitar, one of which begins the track, and I’d decided that was all pretty advanced and special.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t developed a problem with major-7 chords, some of my best chords are major-7s, but I have developed a problem with the song.

The verses are fine, especially the second one with its percussion on the ride and hi-hat. Lyrically I quite like it, although I distinctly remember thinking it was more profound than it sounds now. When you’re 16 the subject of social group dynamics and trying to get with girls is pretty intellectually stimulating. Actually I won’t sit here typing on my high horse – I still find those subjects very worthwhile topics of conversation. But the lyrics do come across a bit juvenile now.

Am I constantly underestimating my younger self? I think I might be. Not musically, no. These songs really are quite bad. But I think I was ‘aware’, mentally. I like to think my 16 year old self was adopting a sort of ironically self-referential yet wearily and dismissively distant yet resigned and trapped yet wise and knowing approach to these themes. It’s just so difficult to tell now. The impact of the sound on my ears doesn’t make me think: ‘this guy’s got it going on. He knows what’s what and he isn’t afraid to tell us’.

The title. I still come across this issue almost daily. The word is ‘because’, we’re all aware of that. But the lyrics are definitely ’cause’, which of course is an accepted abbreviated form. But it never looks right to me. I always read it as ’cause’ like ’cause and effect’. My whole life I have used ‘cos’ cos it reads more like a colloquial abbreviated form. Which, again, is ok, many people do that. In texts, in emails, on facebook. But it doesn’t look right in a title. There is the conundrum. I have preserved it nonetheless, for the sake of historical accuracy.
(It strikes me that this whole paragraph is the sort unlikely to make it past the 1st draft of a piece of writing. It’s definitely staying.)

Anyway, that chorus is meant to be a ‘big’ chorus, but it’s too messy for that. Every instrument goes in and out of time in amounts small enough to not sound like obvious mistakes, but large enough to prevent you from enjoying the song. The repeated line ‘he’s smiling cos he made it’ is too simple for the scene the rest of the song sets up. I want some sarcasm, or anguish, or tension, or any sort of emotion besides bland smugness. And then we get that awful bit at the end where I put some ‘character’ into the line by shortening the words to ‘he’s sm-li- c- he made it’, or whatever, and then it gets more bouncy, and I don’t normally take the Lord’s name in vain, but god it just doesn’t work, especially when I try to elaborate a bit on the melody and just sing some random higher notes in a strained uncertain sort of way.

The bridge is a random blues. It’s noteworthy because the blues does feature in a lot of my songs, but it does sound a bit like a fragment of a different song has been squashed in to eat up some seconds. Maybe it was. Anyway, all in all it’s a track that gets worse as it goes on.

Second on the playlist is a remix I did a bit less than a year later. ELECTRONIC MUSIC IS COMING, is the message, and what an important message that is, looking back on everything. Electronic sounds would begin to seep in from that moment onwards, although very gradually at first.

Musically, the remix has the advantage of being a year later, benefitting from slightly more knowledge on my part. It has the disadvantage of being an act of flogging a dead horse. 4/10.

 

 

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If It Means The World To You

Picture the scene:

We’re in early 2008. ‘Now You’re Gone’ by Basshunter is no.1 in the charts, and I certainly can’t remember how that goes. People are still trying to work out what the 00s are about. I’m not sure anyone will ever know. The financial crisis is rolling.

And a 16-year-old, who cares little of the above, decides to expose a voice that shouldn’t be exposed to such an exposing degree. With consequences which, although not as severe as those caused by the financial crisis, are undesirable.

Sometimes I listen back to old songs and I wonder why I didn’t just change the key of the song a little bit to make it more within my singing range. I don’t wonder for long though because I know the answer, really. For too long, the most important thing for me was just finishing the song. I cared so much about the whole I forgot about the parts. And, with respect to the popular saying, a whole made of shit parts tends to just be a bigger shit.

Lucky then, that not every part of If It Means The World To You is bad. The strings, for example, are simple but lift the song appropriately. The lyrics, also simple, are effective. This is 10% a love song, and 90% a song about not knowing what to say when you’re meant to be comforting someone. A problem I have often encountered, especially as a teenager, due to my difficulty with seeming genuine when reacting to anything.

‘I will try my best to be as warm as you,
But if my coat’s not big enough, what will I do?’

Are a couple of good lines which convey the idea of getting everything wrong in these conversations.

And the tune as well, though sung badly, is pleasant enough.

There is a room in my parent’s house in which I spent a lot of my time growing up, because it has a television. And a big red sofa that has sunk in on itself in a comfortingly familiar way, over time. In this room is a collection of percussion instruments from around the world that my parents collected through the years. They sit in the corner of the room, near to the television, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking indirectly at them. The shaker used in the original version of this song is one of those instruments, so when I hear the song, I think of that room, and I feel the warmth you get from the most predictable, familiar settings.

 

If It Means The World To You slipped under the radar for a while. I think I decided, like any sane person would, that I had ruined it with my singing and I didn’t wish to pursue it any further. Until one day in my first year at university when I heard it again, and decided I liked the strings, and liked the basic emotion it had. So I recorded a new rough demo version on a small mic I had in my room.

It is much better than the original. I cleverly realised I had to lower the song’s pitch a bit in order to sing it. I sped it up a bit. I took out the percussion (this was probably out of necessity – I didn’t keep a large collection of world percussion instruments in my room at university), and I stopped singing ‘can’t’ in an american accent.

Someone I was in a band with at the time told me a couple of months later that he had started listening to it when he was going to sleep. Which was a bit over the top if you ask me. But this guy was one of those effortlessly cool people you instantly like and admire. So I took the compliment, and continued attempting to be more like him.

Here’s a better use of strings:

 

 

 

Song For Tuesday

While compiling this list, I have been forced to think a lot about my past. Not in a very serious way it’s true, but as I’ve listened to each song I’ve imagined myself during that time – what I was feeling, what I wanted in music and outside of it. This is the first song in the list that didn’t make me imagine a very small version of myself. I listened to this song and realised that in terms of the Trying Artist, my childhood was almost over.

That’s an inaccurate reaction of course – this song was probably written a few weeks either side of the songs next to it. But there’s something different about it. Maybe it’s the slightly increased degree of professionalism in the recording (this will undoubtedly not be consistent). Maybe it’s the lyrics, looking forward in a wistful way, that made me look backwards in the same tone. Maybe it’s that it took me longer to stop regarding this song as ‘good’, than it did with other ones. I continued listening to it a lot until I was a few years older, and so I associate it with being reasonably grown up.

Either way, I heard Song For Tuesday and immediately thought: ‘this is the start of the middle-era of my music’. To others that might sound insignificant, but for me, having these recorded moments of skill(?) and emotion, with their own memories attached, it means a lot. I break up my life into songs. I think: I was that age, I was with that girlfriend, I was recording that music. I have a terrible longterm memory, but I find I have nothing more evocative than my own music, and the music I was listening to at the time.

I think my first relationship ended shortly before the writing of this song. It was a serious relationship – at least we were adamant that it should be seen as such, and would shoot angry glances at any passers-by who we thought were being patronising (basically anyone who looked at us). It lasted over 2 years, but 13-15 is not the most serious of ages. The lyrics had nothing to do with how it ended, but I think my romantic situation (or lack of) may have contributed to the song’s yearning feel. I remember having one sustained thought for a few years afterwards: ‘She never got to hear any of my good songs.’ She of course was appropriately encouraging and admiring when she needed to be with all of the songs I showed her, but she never got to hear what they became. I guess I associated the progress of my music with my own life.

 

Song For Tuesday has nothing to do with Tuesday. I suppose I might have written it on that day of the week, but knowing me, I almost certainly wrote it on a Sunday and thought it would be funny to just pick the wrong day. Still laughing after all these years…

I think the song was a satirical tribute to the way my mind works – i.e. I find it very hard to make my mind up. The biggest clue I have is that it was saved in an album I had made on iTunes called ‘Make Up Your Fucking Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnd’. That, and the climax of the song: ‘I’m gonna make up my mind’. I’m pretty sure I was clever enough at the time to deliberately repeat the phrase in the first verse ‘I’m gonna fly’ to provoke increasing doubt. That or I just needed enough words to complete the verse.

As usual though, we get a few lyrics that simply don’t make sense. The first two lines mean absolutely nothing in the context of the song. I probably couldn’t decide what I wanted it to be about.

Wistful:

You’re Not Alone

A band song, the chords written by the guitarist and bassist, the melody and words written by me. But that’s not important right now. What is important are the lines in the second verse:

‘Now I know that you say you’re right
But let me tell you,
I’ve seen fakers lie better
Than you could tell the truth.

I know what it’s like to be alone
And I’m not going back.’

Everything about those lyrics grates on me, right down to the ‘but let me tell you’. The most immediately annoying thing is obviously the naivety/authenticity issue. Some 15 year old moaning about how he has plumbed the depths of loneliness and despair doesn’t suggest the emotional impact of Juliette waking up to find Romeo dead beside her. Let’s also not forget that the singer sings these lines to someone he is clearly in a serious relationship with now. So the loneliness could be assumed to have happened 2/3 years earlier. The memory he is alluding to might well have been when he lost his mum in the supermarket for ten minutes and was trapped in a dark forest of striding strangers’ legs.

But maybe you’re a postmodern reader and you subscribe to the Death of the Author. Maybe you don’t think the age of the writer makes any difference – it’s the words themselves that matter. Well, I mean first up, there isn’t really anything poetic about those lines is there? But no matter, lyrics don’t have to be abstract or complex, or even rhyme. Take Lorraine Ellison’s chorus:

‘Stay with me baby
Please stay with me baby
Oh, stay with me baby
I can’t go on’

These lyrics make up one of the most powerful choruses of all time, because the music and the vocal performance lifts them. This is the difference between lyrics and poetry – music has the ability to transform phrases we might class as cliché into powerful, profound statements. But I’m not fully, or even at all, convinced that the musical performance of my lyrics in ‘You’re Not Alone’ has done anything except make them just slightly worse.

Then there’s a predictable consistency issue, as with pretty much every song I’ve written about so far. On first listen, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that ‘You’re Not Alone’ contains a series of well-matched verses that all relate to a central, consolatory message.

In fact, listen again (if you can manage it), and you’ll find that there are three distinct shades to the ‘You’re Not Alone’ message, none of which makes sense together.

  1. (a) Your basic, ‘you’re not alone, I’m here with you’ message. This narrative arc features the song’s best line: ‘Turn the light on inside, you can’t see in the dark’, and it’s basically what you think the song is about if you aren’t concentrating, mainly because of its title.

(b) But even within this first narrative, there is a second strain which succinctly discredits part 1 with a couple of choice phrases:

‘I know that you aren’t used
To this kind of advice
From someone on the street’

Actually coming in the first verse, those lines tell us that the singer is a stranger to the addressee of the song, which is completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the lyrics, in particular with narrative 2:

2. These are the lyrics quoted at the top of this post. They essentially read ‘You are lying. Please don’t leave me.’ Suddenly the situation is reversed in two ways: the characters do know each other very well, and it’s actually the singer who might be alone.

3. Finally, we have a resigned message about consolatory messages in general.

‘Well you’re not what you wanted to be,
But let’s just leave that all behind.
When there’s nothing left to shout for,
People tell you: ‘At least you’ve got your health’

So, it’s a song about a person consoling someone else or being consoled or being dumped or not liking being consoled or consoling in the first place.

We in the band liked this song a lot, once upon a time. We never played it live much because we thought it was too slow/ we couldn’t play it very well. But we’d show it to people. ‘Listen to this, what do you think? It’s a song we wrote about taxis and leading a healthy lifestyle’

RABBITS IN THE RAIN

My sister’s friend heard me playing guitar once and asked me to write her a song. I said ok give me a minute, and walked off. She laughed, I laughed, we all laughed. 2 days later I came back to her with RABBITS IN THE RAIN. Title in capitals, presumably to add a bit of gravitas to a theme I was worried people might treat with too much levity.

A tragedy in bunny’s clothing, this is a song about the voracious and perverse appetite of consumerism, the desperate struggle of the oppressed against systemic oppressive forces, and rabbits dancing around having a lovely time when it’s a bit wet.

That last part of the theme is covered succinctly but repeatedly in the choruses. I obviously deemed ‘rabbits in the rain’ description enough to translate the complex, multi-layered visions I’m sure I was having at the time. And I was right. Rabbits are so heavily connotative in our society that merely mentioning them over a couple of happy chords is enough to suggest a cute scene, maybe springtime, bucolic splendour, nature running its course, a world untouched by evil. The rain is a slight spanner though. Are they happy in the rain? Is it Bambi Little April Showers, or is it a darkening foreboding storm?

Regardless, we all know what happens in Bambi.

Boom, enter the minor chord, and the verse begins. It starts off harmlessly enough:

‘The rabbit has got his lettuce
And no one will take it from him
You don’t want to fight a rabbit
When it’s got its lettuce’

But in here are the corrosive seeds of greed, the same greed that will lead to Billy the Rabbit stealing from Old Farmer Jack. The same greed that will cause Billy’s death.

What can a rabbit do? His land encroached on by the constantly increasing consumption of humanity, a modern day rabbit is forced to steal in order to survive. Do you think Billy was raised to be a thief? No, Sofia the Rabbit was a rabbit of principle and dignity. But she too had to steal, eventually. And Billy sees no moral dilemma in taking back from those who ruined his last 4 homes, killed half of his friends, and left many more starving. Old Farmer Jack deserves what he’s got coming to him, Billy believes.

Trouble:

‘Old Farmer Jack
Has come out with his gun.
Run, Rabbits, run,
You don’t want Farmer Jack to get you’

And here we get the unstoppable force of the system crashing against those who would attempt to disrupt it. What is a warren of rabbits to a single human with a gun? Lettuce crumbs dropping from their panicked hungry mouths, they scatter. What started off as an act of conscious collective rebellion, a small victory in a world of grinding losses, becomes a free-for-all of selfish chaos, as rabbits clamber over each other to save their own skin. This is how the system wins. It breaks spirits. It reduces oppressed beings to their most basic and dangerous drive: to survive. In this state, even a generous, compassionate, and cute rabbit like Billy begins to display the same pernicious qualities found in the oppressors he so loathes.

Today, Billy doesn’t even get the chance to save himself. Perhaps served on a plate, with a side of the lettuce he had wanted. Maybe just discarded with the disdain Farmer Jack reserves for beings he decides are worth less than himself.

‘The rabbits were so afraid
Nowhere to go
And Billy was taken down
He was too slow’

 

 

 

Five Years On

At first, I was pleasantly surprised by these lyrics. I thought they were maybe trying to say something. Then I inspected closer and realised that they should belong to three completely different songs.

Song 1: Teenage boy complains about how everyone just wants to be cool these days. Vague descriptions of house parties. The despondency when the high (probably induced by too many fizzy drinks) ends.

Song 2: Nondescript song about a doomed relationship. ‘Don’t ever wait for me’. I’m no good for you. I’m a lost cause. Classic gender normative fare really, cf. pop music.

Song 3: Vague motivational message song, coming in at 2.34, akin to 90s dance music that tells you to live your life, be yourself, stay real, reach the top.

Song 1 has the most potential, and could almost be quite good if the guitar riff wasn’t performed so terribly. And the singing too. The bit where that other guitar comes in at ‘Your lights are all out’ is nice. It brings an image to my mind, somehow. Lying on someone’s floor I don’t know very well, at the end of a party. Feeling that strange mixture of tension and freedom you get when around lots of people who don’t know you. You want to impress, but can do so in ways you wouldn’t feel able to when surrounded by the people who know you well enough to trap you in your own personality. At one point I was sat on a staircase, with others around me at various levels, when a very fat guy, maybe 5 years older than us, came out of his bedroom. He was the host’s older brother, and it turned out he had been there the whole time, in hiding. He moved first to the living room, where he discovered his Xbox and tv had both been stolen. Then he came to us, and started complaining. He wasn’t very confident, and the constant loud noise that had been the party seemed to have subdued him sufficiently that he couldn’t bring himself to shout at us, or blame us for what had happened. After a while he sat down at the top of the stairs, and told us he had a party trick. We judgmental 15 year olds nodded enthusiastically, sensing the opportunity to take the piss, to assert our feebly flickering egos. Cue sarcastic ‘Oh yeah?’s from all around. ‘Yes’, he said. ‘I can do an impression of Thom Yorke singing Mary Had A Little Lamb’.

That was enough to get everyone laughing before he’d even had the chance to embarrass himself. But there was something about that time of the night, everyone tired-drunk and faded, the party refuse littered across the floor, that made his claim seem kind of appropriate, maybe even significant. We all went quiet. ‘Go on then’.

What followed was honestly the most incredible 20 second vocal performance of my life. Everything about it was right. His voice was unmistakably Thom Yorke, with just enough comedy exaggeration to make it fun, but the best thing about it was the way he changed the tune of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ to make it sound exactly like a Radiohead song. It was beautiful, and we were spellbound. This was pre-smartphone era, so no-one filmed it. But I’ll aways remember watching this fat, shy boy, still suffering from stolen-Xbox bereavement, win the eternal support of ten drunk teenagers with the strangest, most ethereal 3am impersonation of my favourite singer.

This event almost definitely didn’t inspire Five Years On. But it’s the image that the lyrics in the verse bring me. I’m sorry that the song doesn’t match up to the story.

It was the first proper song I wrote based on a riff, rather than a chord sequence, and it proved to be a riff that I couldn’t stop playing when I picked up my guitar. So much so, that it will appear again in another song five years on.

Re: song 3’s theme, try this:

 

Ok, it isn’t 90s, but it is motivational in vague ways.

I especially like ‘Anything you’ve been thinking of’. It’s like ‘if there’s anything uplifting we’ve missed, just insert it here’.

Take It Apart (and Take Me With You)

Before some diehard fan I didn’t know existed calls me out on this, I’ll admit it myself: this is not the original version of Take It Apart. That version is lost in a real-life parallel universe: the world of old hard drives. Strewn inside the drawers and cupboards of people who treasure memory enough to backup all their music, photos, ideas, and pirated films in the first place is an entire Earth of lost information, never to be recovered. When I started this project I found school essays from the age of 14, poems written to exes, a play my friends and I had attempted to write when drunk, and so so many Photo Booth pictures with that effect on that makes you look like a pop art print. But having scoured my house for a few days testing every old box that looked vaguely electronic, I was unable to find Take It Apart 1. In fact, I wouldn’t have known this wasn’t the original version unless it was helpfully labelled ‘Take It Apart NEW’ on my old iTunes.

Before we continue, I’m going to use this opportunity to preserve the memory of one more song that could never be found: Take Me With You. My memory would put this as maybe my 6th song ever, so I really wanted to find it. But it had disappeared. I bring it up because it has one good memory attached to it. In science classes pre-6th form I sat next to a friend who would not allow me to talk about my music without interrupting me by singing the last chorus of Take Me With You. He especially enjoyed singing the ‘oooh’ at the end of: ‘Take me with youuuuu, oooooohh’. He has continued doing this ever since – it has been 9 years. In fact, I had completely forgotten the song even existed until one day he told me ‘I’ve always preferred your early works’ and sung it again. RIP Take Me With You.

There are a few clues that Take It Apart is actually a newer version of the original: The drumming has been redone, and is a bit more in time than I would expect from a song of this era. The piano entry may or may not have been in the original, I suspect it wasn’t. The strings seem a bit lush compared to what you’ve heard before. There’s an effect on the vocals in the bridge. The singing I’m sure was redone, although it’s still pretty poor. There’s some programmed percussion.

But the main part of the song is the same. It’s got some catchy bits. The big harmonies at the end almost work and remind me vaguely of The Lighthouse Family. The lyrics are typically non-sensical:

‘Just take it apart, just take it back home.
Bring what you want, just bring it back home’

sounds like classic Oasis to me:

‘We’re singing things that sound big, but you’re not sure why,
and the sun shiiiiiiiinnneees’.

In fact, listening to this song now I had the sudden realisation that the ‘It dies if you don’t water it’ line was literally inspired by a plant with a smiley face attached to it that a friend of mine bought me at the time.
Needless to say, it died.