“There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.” Synecdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman.
The internet has made it loads easier to track down musicians’ demos, rarities and ‘bonus tracks’ – or B sides as old people call them. I’m not obsessive enough about any musician to bother, mostly, but I occasionally make an exception to nostalgically revisit my teenage Pet Shop Boys fandom. I loved that so many of their B sides felt like daring artistic experiments rather than leftovers, suggesting not only that they were bursting with ideas but that they were also quite canny when it came to choosing which songs to be single.
My own musical output is so obscure that it’s all rareties really. But to paraphrase Charlie Kaufman, perhaps no song is a bonus track and each one should get its moment as an A side. Also, I’ve already committed myself to an epic, song-by-song diary of my entire back catalogue and I’ve almost at the finish line, so let’s plough on.
Hear This Sing would later become The Last House on Holland Island, on the third Seafieldroad album. I’m not entirely sure what the original song is about since I didn’t write the lyrics; it’s a poem by Jennifer Williams, my flatmate at the time. It’s quite evocative though. I released it as a B-side to a single called There is no authority that we won’t argue with, and Gideon Coe, who had already played The Last House on Holland Island on his 6 Music show, played this version too instead of the A side, which suggests to me that either he really really liked the song or he just didn’t like anything else on the album. I was happy to get airplay either way.
The robbery is a song that didn’t quite make it on to the first Seafieldroad album. It’s about someone trying to convince their partner that the reason they have come home late to find everything smashed to pieces is not because they were having a jealous, paranoid tantrum but because a stranger broke in and did it. It’s clearly a lie, but as the narrator puts it, “aim for rock bottom and you might hit low”. It was supposed to be funny but in hindsight is actually a bit weird and bleak, which is probably why it didn’t make the cut.
If I’m going to be thorough, I should also mention Swimmer One’s first EP, No running, no smoking, no bombing, recorded in 2001, our first ever visit to a recording studio. The title was based on a swimming pool sign aimed at unruly teenagers, which is a bit of an obscure joke but it made me laugh. The opening of the EP was also a joke. The first thing you hear is a slow, chiming guitar, suggesting this is yet another doomy, Mogwai soundalike band from Scotland, before the same guitar part is suddenly repeated but at twice the speed with a Motown-style rhythm section. The joke doesn’t work now but I remember thinking it was hilarious at the time, and was quite looking forward to wrong-footing music journalists with it. In the end though we decided the four songs didn’t quite achieve the standards we’d set for ourselves, sounding like demos rather than a finished product. So we decided not to release it, went back to the drawing board, and a few months later came up with our debut single, We Just Make Music For Ourselves. But it’s now on Bandcamp if anyone is desperate to hear it.
We later re-recorded the EP’s second song, How Could Something Like That Be Love, for our second single. And if you’re paying very close attention, you’ll spot that part of the lyric for Here, the opening song, was later reused in Regional on our debut album, The Regional Variations. I’m still a bit sad that we never got around to re-recording the closing song, Throwing Ideas in the Air Like Bouquets, which I loved.
If I’m going to be really, really, dogmatically thorough, I should also mention the 38 hours of home recordings I made, between the ages of 14 and about 23, on an old reel to reel four track machine given to me by my German brother-in-law. Most people would call these recordings ‘demos’. Being a spotty teenage megalomaniac living in a fantasy world, I decided they were ‘albums’ – in which case I have recorded more albums than David Bowie and only slightly fewer than Cliff Richard.
Each ‘album’ was mixed, once it was finished, on to a C60 cassette, so is more or less an hour long. Each had a title (Boogie Atrocities, Boop Boop a Doop and Post Modern Ironing being three of my favourites) and its own cover artwork. Sometimes I’d enlist friends to play bass, or guitar, or to sing. But mostly I made them on my own. Each ‘album’ was quite different. Medicine was an acoustic guitar album recorded while stoned. Subtitles was weird, experimental soundtrack-style music. Others (quite a lot of them) were early attempts at synthpop. Some songs were two minutes long. Others were 12-minute epics.
The first couple of cassettes are pretty much unlistenable. The next 11 or 12 are not very good. By album number 14 or 15, though, I was starting to get somewhere. I was so pleased with my progress, in fact, that I was starting to make best of compilations, remix albums and singles too (on slightly shorter cassettes). Who listened to this stuff? My friend Martin, sometimes. My mum, who had no idea what to make of them but smiled indulgently. My art class at school, on one occasion. But mostly just me. In short, rareties do not come much more rare than this. Or perhaps they do. I made so much music during this time that my unreleased output also includes bonus tracks and rareties, in an ever-decreasing circle of obscurity.
Except that, technically, this music is not ‘unreleased’ either, because I’ve since released some of it on Bandcamp – it’s free to download if you can be bothered. As embarrassing as much of my teenage output is to me now, I thought it would be nice to document the early experimentation that led to Swimmer One and Seafieldroad before the original tapes all wore out. You can hear traces of my ‘properly’ released work in a lot of it, even in the first one I ever made, Destination Fore, recorded when I was 14 and featuring lyrics by my friend Martin. In my teenage head it sounded like the Human League. In reality it sounded like a schoolboy shouting to a tinny Yamaha keyboard backing track. Definitely a B-side.