Songs can come from the strangest combinations of places. All I Wanted Was To Be a Gangster, for example, was inspired equally by Kylie Minogue and Martin Scorsese. I was trying to work out how to play I Should Be So Lucky on the piano and ended up changing some of the notes and writing a new song instead. I must have recently watched Goodfellas, and so Ray Liotta’s opening line from the film became, more or less, the title of the song.
It’s a pretty throwaway song, if you can describe a song about wanting to murder people as throwaway. It was prompted by a cliché I was weary of seeing in movies – the formerly violent man (gangster, soldier, professional hitman etc) who just wants a peaceful domestic life but is drawn back into violence against his will as a result of his wife/girlfriend/children being threatened or killed. The message of such films, often, is that a violent lifestyle is a natural thing for a man because our job is essentially to be the protector of vulnerable women and children. Often the violent death of the man’s wife/girlfriend is used to justify his return to violence. Sometimes there is a brief moment when he looks in horror at his bloody hands – is this what I am? – before he accepts that yes, this is what he is, and gets on with smashing in more heads. It’s macho, sexist nonsense, for the most part, even if some of the more intelligent takes on the trope do critique it a bit (Unforgiven, A History of Violence, The Bourne Supremacy, Blade Runner 2049 etc). Goodfellas, to its credit, is a bit more honest about how much men just enjoy being powerful and frightening. And then there is Breaking Bad, in which a man spends five seasons of a TV show pretending to himself that he’s embracing a life of crime and violence to protect his wife and children before finally admitting that it was actually because he liked it and was good at it.
All I Wanted Was To Be a Gangster was a slightly frivolous attempt to critique all this. It’s about a man travelling in the opposite direction; he yearns to be violent but keeps getting drawn back into a quiet job putting library books in alphabetical order, because that’s what comes most naturally to him.
That man, if I’m honest, was partly me, vicariously enjoying all those movies about violent men while sitting at a desk editing things for a living. Hang on, though. Was I fooling myself just then when I said I was critiquing violent movies with this song? Was I actually doing something much more straightforward – expressing my own subconscious fantasy of being a gangster? Is this song my Fight Club? Do I secretly want to spend my evenings punching other men in basements in order to feel less emasculated, more alive? I don’t think so, given that I wrote it while trying to work out how to play a Kylie Minogue song, but who knows? Men are weird.