Days 75-78: The Demented Poets EP

The Demented Poets EP is a collaborative project, a collection of songs adapted from poems about living with dementia. The idea was that each song would not only expand on the poem’s theme, it would also draw on the kind of music that’s most meaningful to each writer – songs from their childhood, or songs that make particular moments in their lives feel more vivid. It’s a project about memory, loss, and the role of music in our emotional lives.

I was keen to do this project for two reasons. Firstly, my mother had dementia; for three difficult years I watched her gradually decline from someone who was just muddled and forgetful to someone who barely left her bed and no longer recognised her children. Secondly, the offer to work on this project (from Ron Coleman, a Lewis-based mental health activist who has dementia himself) came at a time when I felt I’d run out of things to say lyrically. So the idea of writing music to other people’s words, in conversation with them, was very appealing. It now looks like I’ll be doing a lot more of this sort of thing – we’ve just got funding to create songs with another group of people who have dementia.

I’ve already written a long piece about this project for The Scotsman’s Saturday magazine, focusing on Ron and the other Demented Poets. So if you’re interested in the EP but haven’t read that, start there. This blog is a much more self-indulgent and really quite geeky piece about how each song was written. If you’re interested in that, do read on…

The EP opens with Going for a Walk by John Hole. John died before the project started so I never got to meet him, but I spent quite a bit of time talking to his family about his musical tastes (the Beatles, Elton John, The Who, rock musicals) and his life (most of which was devoted to making and producing theatre – he also wrote children’s books and a screenplay). John’s poem is a witty, whimsical snapshot of a time not long before he died, looking back on fond memories that he can’t quite place (a child he calls ‘thing’, a holiday that ‘must have been in Cyprus’ but was maybe in Capri,). ‘It’s years ago and far away but important it is not,’ he concludes. What matters is that, whoever ‘thing’ was, he knows he loved him. It’s a remarkably upbeat portrayal of dementia, not as a frightening degenerative disease but as a gentle slipping away.

It took me ages to figure out what to do with it musically. John led such a rich and creative life, and his taste in music was so broad, that I could have started anywhere. So I thought maybe I should start everywhere – could the song be a miniature stage musical, divided into three acts like a play, a tribute to a life largely lived in theatre?

This conceit involved a bit of musical cheating. The first half of the poem is John looking back on his life, the second is him coming to terms with where is now (‘my mind can be a pain’). The song adds a third, instrumental section which revisits the melody from the first section. In my head, this part takes place in the afterlife, or at least in John’s absence (there’s a tolling bell just before it to signify his passing). One image in my head when writing it was the final section of the film Titanic, when Gloria Stuart’s character takes an imaginary walk through the ship and gets a round of applause from everyone on board. John also gets a round of applause, which seemed fitting for a song celebrating his life. 

John also gets a big chorus of ‘love love love’ during this final section. This is, obviously, a homage to/blatant theft from the Beatles’ All You Need is Love. And once I’d decided to do that I thought I might as well pack in loads of other Beatles references. The opening  section is Penny Lane crossed with the Paul McCartney bit of A Day in the Life; listen closely and you’ll also hear homages to Strawberry Fields Forever and Blue Jay Wray (I even threw in a sitar for a wee George Harrison moment, while Stu Brown who did the live drums was instructed to ‘play like Ringo’). 

The middle section is 1970s Elton John. I spent quite a lot of time listening to Tiny Dancer and also Your Song, which was played at John’s funeral so felt like an appropriate reference point for a part of the song dealing with John’s decline and death. For a final 1960s flourish, we threw in a bit of the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not at all obvious (nor is it meant to be), but what I was referencing here was the film’s final scene, in which astronaut Dave Bowman is reincarnated as a star child, floating above the Earth. In other words, John has left this planet but is still with us.

I should point out that I couldn’t have done any of this without Hamish Brown, my former Swimmer One bandmate and a brilliant producer who knows me so well after almost 20 years of making music together that he can turn any mad idea I have into reality almost instantly. It took us less than a day to structure the whole song, although quite a lot longer for Hamish to mix it.

The Fighter, Ron’s song about his own dementia diagnosis, was the first track I started working on and the last one we finished. When we began discussing this project I wasn’t quite sure what Ron wanted – was it actual songs or spoken word pieces set to music? I don’t know if he was quite sure at that stage either, so I sent him two very different demos. One was an instrumental version of A Petrol Pump in the Cradle of Christianity by Swimmer One, which I thought was ambient but ominous enough to accompany a spoken version of his poem. The other was a recording of me singing The Fighter to an instrumental version of Largs Hum, doing my best to channel Phil Oakey on the Human League’s Empire State Human, which I also sent to Ron for reference. He preferred this second pitch, and the idea of doing dementia pop songs began to take shape.

On one level, The Fighter is just a rewritten version of Largs Hum. But there are lots of new ideas too. The title made me think of a boxer who keeps getting knocked down then dragging himself back to his feet, so the starting idea was a note that keeps descending and descending until a loud snare drum punches it back up half a scale, like a memory suddenly returning, a moment of clarity in the fog. In the final section – “I am the demented poet, I cannot fall!” – everything ascends again. (In short, Ron gets knocked down, then he gets up again, you’re never gonna keep him down.)

I asked Hamish to make the whole thing sound as claustrophobic as he could, to reflect the fear and frustration expressed in the poem. Bury a Friend by Billie Eilish was a key reference point, being one of the most nightmarish, migraine-inducing songs I’ve ever heard on daytime Radio One. As usual Hamish did a great job. One part just wasn’t working though – my vocal. The song needed Ron, and I’m glad I persuaded him to do it because he transformed it completely. We recorded them in one day at Wee Studio in Stornoway; he was exhausted afterwards, but he brings an anger and an energy to it that suits the song, and his poem, perfectly. The backing vocals are by his wife Karen and daughter Francesca (who did the fantastic operatic high note in the middle eight). Before we recorded these I imagined them sounding something like the harmonies on 20th Century Boy by T Rex, all 1970s glam rock. The end result sounds more like This Corrosion by Sisters of Mercy, which I like even more.

Feelings was, I think, the song I enjoyed working on most. Gerald King, who wrote the poem, is a 58-year-old from Fife who used to be in synth pop bands in the 1980s, a time when I was in my early teens and discovering pop music for the first time. When we first spoke, he reeled off a long list of bands and singers that he loves – The Primitives, The Stranglers, Transvision Vamp, Iggy Pop, Visage, Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode.  This was both exciting to hear and a bit daunting, since none of these people really sound anything like each other. Which direction should we go in? And would any of this music do justice to a poem describing the feeling of fear and dread Gerry went through when he was first diagnosed with dementia?

Luckily Hamish and I know our 1980s pop history, so what you get is half a decade of it (1981 to around 1986) in four and half minutes, with as many of Gerry’s reference points as possible plus a few more. The drums, in my head at least, are the drums from Take On Me by A-ha. The synth bassline is a throwback to Duran Duran’s first album. The middle section is Stripped (by Depeche Mode) and the finale is Enjoy the Silence, followed by the explosion at the end of the Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin (and yes, ours is an actual explosion, lifted from an archive of bomb sounds). For the vocals I did my best to channel Dave Gahan and Phil Oakey. If you’re going to sing about dark, deadly serious subjects to a 1980s pop soundtrack, after all, you need the singers that brought us Black Celebration and Being Boiled.

The part of this song I’m most proud of, though, is the part I had nothing to do with. When Gerry told us he had recordings of his 1980s band, Hotline to Moscow, I immediately wanted to hear them, and as soon as I heard them I wanted to use them. It was a neat solution to something the song lacked. In an ideal world I would have got Gerry to sing Feelings himself, but he politely declined and I wasn’t going to push it. But it wouldn’t have felt right not to have him as a musical as well as lyrical presence on this song, so a fragment of Hotline to Moscow’s best song, The Evil in You, seemed like the way to do it. When we discovered it was in the same key as the song we’d just recorded it felt like fate. And perhaps it’s more powerful and poignant this way. A few seconds after it appears, Gerry’s old song dissolves into reverb, as if it’s disappearing from his memory.

The very beginning of Feelings is also The Evil in You, but played backwards. At one point I’d planned to do something like this on all the songs on the EP, to represent memory and the past. There’s a backwards drum fill right at the start of Going for a Walk, another very Beatles-like touch, for the same reasons. In the end thought I was worried about overegging it and dropped the idea. I like this wee musical connection between Feelings and Going for a Walk though; it’s subtle enough that most people won’t even notice it, but I know it’s there.

I can claim little credit for Farewell to the Demented Poet, the EP’s final track. The music was mostly written (and played) by Laura Cameron-Lewis, my wife, who also sings it as a duet with Karen, Ron’s wife. It’s a keening song – a lament for the dead – translated into Gaelic by Laura from another poem written by Ron, and intended to be played at Ron’s funeral. Since Ron has lived on the Isle of Lewis for many years now, he wanted the EP to reference the language and culture of the Hebrides, the place where it is likely he will spend his final days. 

It is, in other words, a very different kind of track to anything else on the EP. This feels fitting, an acknowledgement that the inevitable end point of dementia is death and mourning. It’s a bleak way for the EP to end, perhaps, but it’s also an honest one. And while musically it’s nothing like Going for a Walk, it also brings the EP full circle thematically, given that both songs are farewells.

It’s been a really rewarding experience, making this EP, and I hope it finds an audience. I’m looking forward to the next stage of this project, whatever it ends up sounding like.

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