Day 29: Brian Wilson Karaoke

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Brian Wilson Karaoke was inspired by the famous saying ‘If you remember the 1960s, you really weren’t there’. I’ve spent more time thinking about this than is probably healthy. What if you don’t remember the 1960s, then? How do you know you were there?

The Brian Wilson in the song isn’t the real Brian Wilson. The giveaway is the line ‘Everyone says they’re me but I know how it felt to write Sloop John B’ – which, as any serious Beach Boys fan will know, is the only song on Pet Sounds that Wilson didn’t write. This ‘Brian Wilson’ probably was there in the 1960s, indulged in every psychedelic drug available, and is now living a mostly housebound life in LA, imagining himself as a former rock star in hiding and mistaking random visitors for fans and journalists. Does he actually believe he’s Brian Wilson or is it just a comforting fantasy? I’m not sure he knows anymore.

I saw Brian Wilson play live in Glasgow a few years ago and the experience stayed with me. Perhaps I caught him on a bad night, in the grip of stage fright – and perhaps I was also projecting my own anxieties about performing – but he seemed oddly absent, staring into space as he sat behind a keyboard that he didn’t appear to be playing very much and which looked like it was there mostly as a protective shield from the audience. His cracked, croaky voice often sounded lost and out of place among his band’s perfect harmonies. He didn’t talk much either, as I recall. I wondered whether the gig would have sounded that different had he not been there. It was like watching a really slick Beach Boys covers band, but with an actual Beach Boy sitting with them, mostly for us to stare at and think ‘wow, that’s Brian Wilson’.

I’d been really excited about the gig. Wilson had recently, finally, completed Smile, the Beach Boys’ famous lost album from the 1960s, and these shows were being celebrated as a wonderful creative rebirth. At last Wilson had conquered his demons and finished his masterpiece. But in some ways this felt like a collective act of wish fulfillment. The Smile that Wilson finally released, after all, was really a cover version of Smile, by someone so traumatised by the original recording process that he’d forgotten about a lot of it and had to be reminded of what he’d been trying to achieve by his lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and a new group of musicians who were clearly Beach Boys fans and invested in the project for their own reasons. And it wasn’t entirely clear how Wilson really felt about it all, at least judging by his behaviour in media interviews. Was it as therapeutic as his fans wanted to believe it was? Who knows?

Years before Brian Wilson Presents Smile was released, I remember friends who were obsessive Beach Boys fans talking reverentially about this lost masterpiece, like Indiana Jones discussing the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. I was happy to join these conversations, it was seductive, but to me it felt a bit like a Macguffin, like the Ark or the Grail in the movies. If I was honest with myself, what was most exciting about Smile wasn’t the possibility of actually hearing all this music, as beautiful and extraordinary and groundbreaking as it was, even as sketches, but the journey, the act of imagining an alternate universe in which Smile had been released, and the immediate cultural impact it could have had.

I wonder if any of that really matters though. In historical terms, Smile already existed in all the ways that did matter. Bootlegs that pieced together what the album might have sounded like had been widely circulated for decades, and had been a huge influence on most of the same musicians who would have been influenced by a completed version. Would the course of musical history really have been all that different had Smile been released in its finished state? Is it possible that Smile was actually more influential for not being finished, more powerful as a myth than as reality? And does it have the same power now? I realised while writing this that I’d barely listened to Brian Wilson Presents Smile in the ten years since I wrote Brian Wilson Karaoke. I hadn’t even remembered that a follow-up to Wilson’s version, a reassembled collection of original recordings called The Smile Sessions, had been released not long afterwards. By that time I must have lost interest. I’d already finally heard Smile. Box ticked. Film over.

Neil Tennant (yes him again) once joked that big celebrity fundraisers like Live Aid might be better if all the singers just walked on stage naked, stood there for a bit, and then walked off again. His point (I think) was that what we mostly want as audiences is to enjoy music on our own terms but occasionally get to gawp at the people who make it.

I wonder if that’s true. When thousands of people watch a hologram of Elvis accompanied by a real band, faithfully recreating his live shows, is it enjoyable because people who never saw him perform in life get to experience something close to the real thing? Or is the important thing about the show not the authenticity of it but the act of imagination involved, the indulgence of your own Elvis fantasies? If you watch your favourite singer on stage, in real life, isn’t that also an act of imagination, in which you project your own needs and desires, reflected in the way their music speaks to you, on to a stranger? And if so, does it ultimately matter whether that stranger is actually on stage or not? We tell ourselves that we’re making some sort of human connection with them but are we, really?

One of my favourite responses to the first Seafieldroad album was from someone in America who had been listening to it in the car every day on the way to see his mother in hospital – the journey time being about the same length of the album – and found it comforting. I remember being very touched by this but also perplexed. I couldn’t think of any song on the album that was written about anything resembling that experience. If anything it’s mostly about fatherhood and being in love. He seemed to have heard a completely different album to the one I’d made. Was that a human connection? Actually I think it was; there’s something about sharing music that is so fundamental to human experience that it’s vanity to claim any of it as your own. It just wasn’t quite the human connection I’d imagined when I wrote those songs.

A confession: I’m currently going through a bit of a crisis of self-belief as a result of a much needed reality check. This will be a good thing, in the long term, but at the moment it’s a lot to process and so perhaps all the thoughts above aren’t as coherent as I’d like them to be. I thought I remembered significant events in my life with a reasonable amount of clarity but perhaps I didn’t at all. I’m suddenly seeing some memories from a different and often unflattering perspective, like one of those films in which you watch the same scene again and again from different angles, and each time a deeper meaning emerges.

The writing of this song is one of those memories. At the time I didn’t see anything of myself in this character, it just seemed like a fun conceit. Now though I do feel a bit like my ‘Brian Wilson’. I’m in a fog, wondering how far my capacity for self-delusion goes and to what extent I am the person I thought I was. I wonder whether I was sending myself some sort of subliminal message when I wrote this song, whether I was aware of what I was doing in my life on some level but wasn’t able to articulate it consciously, and whether I was doing something similar by also writing two songs about fakesters. Perhaps the song doesn’t mean what I think it means at all, even to me.

Day 28: Hanging

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“I don’t care what people do in relation to Michael Jackson and his music. What I’m interested in is continuing the conversation of who are we worshipping and why, and making people look at the whole story. Michael Jackson was incredibly talented, there’s no questioning that. But just because someone is talented doesn’t mean they’re not a predator.” Wade Robson

Hanging is about the dangers of idolising pop musicians. The song was released in 2010, but has been on my mind a lot recently, partly because I’ve revisited/re-recorded it for the new album, partly because its subject matter is currently topical, thanks to Ryan Adams and Michael Jackson.

Last week I listened to Thriller for the first time. I hadn’t planned to, I was just driving across Lewis a couple of times and there were various CDs in the car that we’d bought in a charity shop a few months ago. I’d forgotten we even had a copy. It was strange, stumbling across this CD just as Leaving Neverland was about to be televised and everyone was talking about it. I wondered if I’d feel differently about these songs, most of which I knew from the radio, at this moment in time.

I didn’t, for the most part, although it made me think a lot about fandom. The first bands I loved as a teenager were A-ha, Prefab Sprout and the Pet Shop Boys. In each case it was partly because I felt a human connection to them. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe seemed ordinary and relatable, a music journalist and an aspiring architect. They were also from the north of England, like me (Newcastle and Blackpool). Paddy McAloon was another northerner, while A-ha were three Norwegians trying to make a life for themselves in the UK; a lot of their songs seemed quite melancholy and lonely, and the lyrics were clearly the work of people wrestling with an unfamiliar language. All three bands were funny and clever and self-deprecating in interviews, and seemed like people I might get along with if I met them. I saw a lot of myself in their songs.

On one level, then, I think I can understand why so many Michael Jackson fans are so hostile to Leaving Neverland, and are protesting his innocence even now. If I’d been told that Paddy McAloon or Neil Tennant had been abusing children, what would it be like to have to acknowledge this was true? Abusers are deeply manipulative, dishonest people. Would I feel that I’d also been manipulated and lied to for years? Would I feel somehow complicit in the abuse? Would I wonder what bad things I was capable of myself, given how much I’d related to these people and their music? Yes, yes and yes, probably. It would be a very difficult thing to accept.

On another level, though, I wonder what on earth goes through the minds of Michael Jackson fans. If you feel a strong connection to Jackson, what is the nature of that connection? What is it that you relate to in a multi-millionaire with a face systematically destroyed by cosmetic surgery, who lived alone in an estate designed like a children’s theme park, sharing his bedroom with other people’s children? How was that connection not severed in 1993, when Jackson paid $23 million to Jordy Chandler’s family after they accused him of child abuse (not the same as a guilty verdict, granted, but pretty damning)? How on earth has it not been severed now, when the evidence that he shattered the lives not just of children but of whole families is more compelling than ever?

As a teenager it would never have occurred to me to be a ‘fan’ of Michael Jackson, however much I liked some of his songs. It was partly because he was just so famous and ubiquitous – wouldn’t being a fan of Michael Jackson be like being a fan of shops, cars, or roads? But it was also the weird quasi-religiousness of it all, which always made me uncomfortable. Jackson’s public image often suggested he wanted to be seen as a kind of god, especially by the early 1990s, with songs like Heal the World and Earth Song, that ridiculous statue he floated along the Thames, the likening of himself to Jesus, the vainglorious performance at the 1996 Brit Awards, and the insistence on being referred to as the ‘King of Pop’. I’ve often wondered whether there’s a correlation between Michael Jackson fandom and religious observance. The relationship between him and his fans seemed more like a human/god dynamic than an equal exchange between kindred spirits.

A few days ago the comedian Pete Davidson made headlines by comparing the Catholic Church to R Kelly. My first reaction was that the joke would have been funnier if he’d said Michael Jackson. Catholic Church representatives sexually abused children for decades in plain sight, manipulating vulnerable boys in thrall to god-like power. The Vatican’s self-righteous demand for an apology from Davidson, ‘disgusted by the harassment by those in news and entertainment’, sounded very much like a statement from the Jackson estate.

After watching Leaving Neverland music journalist Laura Snapes wrote: “The irresistible power Jackson brought to his music is the same power he wielded to abuse children and hoodwink their families into letting him do so.” This, I’m assuming, is what Wade Robson meant when he said we should consider “who are we worshipping and why”. That said, the danger of focusing on obvious eccentrics like Michael Jackson is that it diverts attention from abusers like Ryan Adams, more outwardly ‘normal’ men who present themselves (like Jackson) as sensitive and vulnerable, but are actually calculating and exploitative.

Hanging wasn’t actually based on examples as extreme as Jackson or Adams (although a few lines in the song could apply to either of them). It was more that there were a lot of male singers around 2009 who prompted the sarcastic observation ‘he must be very sensitive to have come this far’, in other words a suspicion that, in order to succeed in their field, they couldn’t possibly be as sensitive as they made themselves out to be. The final section is about me worrying that I might be one of those singers, perhaps someone like Tucker Crowe from Nick Hornby’s book Juliet, Naked, a singer-songwriter who is admired for his sensitivity and emotional insight by a small following of mostly middle aged male music geeks, but is really a self-obsessed prick. That’s still an active concern ten years on. The lesson is that separating art from the artist is pretty much essential if you’re going to avoid disappointment.

Day 27: The Truth / Tesseract / All The Ways Of This Love

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It’s Laura’s birthday this week, which seems like a good time to be writing about The Truth, Tesseract and All The Ways Of This Love from the first Seafieldroad album, because she wrote the lyrics for all three, as well as singing on two of them (in addition to two other songs on the album, Feeble Jesus and Brian Wilson Karaoke). If it hadn’t been for Laura, in fact, there might not have been any Seafieldroad albums. She was the person who gave me the confidence and the motivation to make them; in some ways these three songs were the template for everything that followed.

Laura and I have been a couple for over ten years now, and are raising three children together. She is, in more ways than I could ever list, the most important (grown up) person in my life. Before all that, we were friends who bonded over music (theatre, art, film and books too, but mostly music). And as people who make a connection through music sometimes do, we ended up writing things for each other. The first one was Here’s Your Train, Safe Home, which I played to Laura on a train from London up to Scotland, three years before it was released. I wasn’t planning to admit it was about her, but she really liked it and I couldn’t help myself. There were obstacles to us being together at the time, is all I’ll say about that, but if you know the song you’ll know that this is the kind of confession that changes the whole dynamic of a relationship in a way that it’s difficult to go back from. The Truth was Laura’s response. I wrote some music for it and played it to her. Three years later our friend Camille sang it for the first dance at our wedding.

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Laura hasn’t released much music herself. Once I Jumped I Was Fine, from the Whatever Gets You Through The Night album, is the only available recording by her band the Tea Dance Orchestra, although they played live a few times (Jethro Collins’ photo, above, was taken at the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh in 2008). She co-wrote and sang on the Swimmer One song All The Things That Make You Want To Disappear and has been an important creative sounding board on loads of other things I’ve recorded (including the final stages of the Dead Orchestras album, for which she contributed vocal arrangement ideas to four songs).

She’s a really good writer, incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about music (her DJ sets are always excellent), and is a much more poetic lyricist than myself. The main reason you haven’t heard more of her musically is that she’s really good at lots of other things as well, surviving for much of her adult life as a multi-tasking arts freelancer (as opposed to a full-time staff journalist who was also in a band, like me). Instead of recording songs she’s been making theatre, helping other people make theatre, leading a dance organisation, doing an MPhil, founding/programming festivals, teaching, producing, mentoring, running her own company etc, as well as constantly learning countless new creative skills at a speed that frequently leaves me awe-struck. Successful or even just committed musicians are often people who neither know how to nor want to do anything else. Laura does.

The photo at the top of this page was taken on a Calmac ferry on another birthday: my own, in 2008, the first year we were together. Laura’s present to me was a surprise surfing lesson on Tiree; I had no idea where we were going until we got to Oban. It was a very happy weekend. I can’t get over how young we look.

 

Day 26: All The Hits

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All The Hits is a short song of consolation. As with We Just Make Music For Ourselves and Come On, Let’s Go!, the idea was to subvert a clichéd pop music phrase and try to find profundity in it. ‘All the hits’ here are actually ‘all the punches’ – the emotional and physical knocks you endure throughout the course of your life. My original idea for the lyric was a list of 20 forms of suffering, counting down from 20 to one, like on the Radio One Chart Show, in which descriptions of suffering would somehow become exhilarating and hopeful. I still quite like that idea.

The music for this one was entirely written by Hamish. In fact it’s pretty much his original home recording (with a melody and lyric added by me), which is why it sounds a wee bit rough in places. I think it works, though, and it was nice to do a Swimmer One song that we could finish in less than a day; sometimes the arranging and mixing process would go on for months.

I also think this is one of my best lyrics. It’s a song about the way that pain and failure can often end up being the making of you, sometimes by creating an opportunity to do something different and better. I was particularly pleased with the closing line, ‘everything will be ok, just not in the way you expected’, which has frequently been my experience.

Day 25: Ghosts in the Hotel

Ghosts in the Hotel was an attempt to create my own version of Hotellounge (Be the Death of Me) by the Belgian band dEUS. This might come as a surprise to Hamish from Swimmer One, who wrote 90% of the music. Until recently it would also have been a surprise to me. It was only while listening to dEUS again a few weeks ago that I realised what I had done. On some subconscious level, Hamish’s demo had reminded me of a dEUS song – not Hotellounge itself, but Sister Dew from their Ideal Crash album. The distorted electric guitar riff at the start was reminiscent of a few other dEUS moments, so it might also have been a general dEUS-like vibe that I subconsciously tuned into. Anyway, I immediately started writing a lyric set in a hotel.

Hotellounge was my first introduction to dEUS, and I was obsessed with it for years after I heard it by chance on the radio – Mark Radcliffe’s evening show on Radio One, I think. Who were these people? They sounded like they might be American, but there was something about some of the lyrics that suggested English was the singer’s second language – ‘as a matter of speaking’ instead of ‘in a manner of speaking’, the odd grammatical construction of the ‘take it back your analogue’ line. It reminded me of the unusual turns of phrase you’d fine on early A-ha albums (‘take on me’ ‘I dream myself alive’ etc) as a Norwegian songwriter explored the possibilities of the English language.

Hotellounge was incredibly evocative, right from the first line. ‘There’s an elevator only takes one down’ made me think of Mickey Rourke descending to hell at the end of Angel Heart. ‘It’s my daily bread but I’m unfed’ also felt Biblical. What was this hotel lounge, really? A church? The afterlife? Limbo? What was that reference to Rickie Lee Jones’ voice all about? What was the meaning of the line ‘Have another cigarette, I tend to forget’ that suggested someone haunted by regret? And the final line is just wonderful: ‘See that man in the left hand corner, see that woman, their love story’s famous’. The song then leaves your imagination hanging. What love story? Why is it famous? dEUS, come back!

I love Hotellounge partly just because I really like songs and stories about hotels. Other hotel-set favourites include Hotel World by Ali Smith, Mainstream by David Greig, and the films Up in the Air, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Lost in Translation and The Shining. If something is set in a hotel I’m pretty much always interested, so recommendations please. Hotels are soaked in symbolism. They offer physical comfort while also representing all that is fleeting and insecure about human existence. A home that is not really your home, filled with ghosts of previous inhabitants. Encounters with strangers, sometimes trivial, sometimes life-changing. Temporary romances. Loneliness. People adrift, in between places that actually mean something to them. But they also host joyful moments – wedding receptions that bring friends and families together. Decadence. Bad behaviour. Throwing televisions out of windows. Hotels – the best ones – can be weird and quirky and beautiful and spark your imagination. Places you only occupy temporarily can, after all, allow you to step outside of your usual habits and find a fresh perspective.

Being me, I mostly wrote about ghosts and loneliness. Someone – a spirit? – is waiting in a hotel lobby for someone else – a lover, a relative? – who might never show up. They have convinced themselves that because a hotel lobby is a space that people constantly pass through, then the person they’re waiting for will eventually arrive, because at some point everyone will. They might have to wait hundreds of years, mind, but it’ll happen.

There is, rarely for Swimmer One songs, a video to accompany Ghosts in the Hotel. It wasn’t actually made for the song. Our friend Daniel Warren was making a dance film, thought Ghosts in the Hotel would work as the soundtrack, and so asked the dancers he was working with, and us, if that would be ok. I couldn’t see an obvious connection to the lyrics but I certainly wasn’t going to object. It was filmed in a hotel, after all. And I like that the song itself has become a kind of ghost in this very different hotel. It doesn’t really matter what I think the song is about, anyway. Music lives longer than any of us. And so songwriters are also ghosts.

 

Day 24: The Fakester Genocide / The Fakester Resurrection

The Fakester Genocide and its sequel The Fakester Resurrection (yes I wrote a sequel song) were both inspired by an incident in 2003 when the social gaming website Friendster deleted thousands of fake identities, prompting a rebellion among computer geeks called ‘the fakester revolution’. It’s not much remembered now and Friendster was dissolved last year – if you do an internet search for ‘fakester genocide’ in 2019, most of the results are links to our song – but I did manage to find a description on a website called mxplx.com. Here’s the final section, which makes some astute observations about the way people behave on social media in general. It’s equally applicable to Facebook.

Although Fakesters had taken on a collective impression of resistance, their primary political stance concerned authenticity. In discussing Fakesters, Batty was quick to point out that there’s no such thing as an authentic performance on Friendster—“None of this is real.” Through the act of articulation and writing oneself into being, all participants are engaged in performance intended to be interpreted and convey particular impressions. While some people believed that “truth” could be perceived through photorealistic imagery and a list of tastes that reflected one’s collections, the Fakesters were invested in using more impressionistic strokes to paint their portraits. If we acknowledge that all profiles are performative, permitting users to give off a particular view of themselves, why should we judge Fakesters as more or less authentic than awkwardly performed profiles?

Being me, I wrote a sad song about it. The premise of The Fakester Genocide (from Swimmer One’s first album) was that one of these fakesters has genuinely fallen in love with someone else who has also assumed a fake identity. When his soul mate’s online profile is deleted without warning, he is bereft. How will he ever find her again, when she could be anyone, anywhere in the world (and might not even be a she)? The answer, the song ultimately suggests, is that since she only exists in his imagination, he can find her again in his imagination, ‘in the unsaid words in sentences, in the spaces between strangers on trains’, which is all very poetic but perhaps not very practical. Although, philosophically speaking, do the people we love truly exist outside of our imaginations anyway? I suspect this song was also influenced by my love of the film Solaris (both the 1972 original and the 2002 remake), in which an alien species unwittingly tortures a grieving husband by repeatedly creating physical manifestations of his dead wife; since all they have to go on is his memories of her, they end up creating a kind of monstrous distortion of her, based on his feelings of guilt, regret and sadness. It’s a great movie.

The Fakester Resurrection (from Swimmer One’s second album) expands on this theme. The fakester is now living inside Second Life, a virtual world that people from across the world can explore as avatars. Like the characters in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, he has gone there to escape the real world, which for various reasons (pollution, climate change, loneliness, too much responsibility) is less appealing.

The Fakester Resurrection was one of Swimmer One’s most ambitious songs, musically and lyrically – it was 12 minutes long, and split into four different sections, an idea that (for my part, at least) was very much inspired by Jane Siberry’s equally epic The Bird in the Gravel, which has a similar structure, as well as multiple perspectives and characters (if you’ve never listened to The Bird in the Gravel, you must; it’s amazing). Jane Siberry also wrote sequels, incidentally – a series of songs on separate albums, all very different but all called Map of the World. So I stole that idea too.

If we’d been more successful, I’d have loved to do The Fakester Resurrection live with a full band and orchestra. We did, at least, get to perform an imaginary version of that, at a spoken word night in Glasgow called Words Per Minute and then at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I sang along to a backing track while Laura held up a series of placards describing what was happening in our imagined big budget production of the song – ballet dancers, the Scottish Opera Chorus, bonkers ideas like the Statue of Liberty emerging from a pit of sand. It was a lot of fun, and I love that I can say that my band did a gig at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Day 23: You Have Fallen Way Short Of Our Expectations

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The title You Have Fallen Way Short Of Our Expectations is very much directed at myself. The lyrics were written at a time in my life when, without going into detail, I wasn’t behaving very well, largely because I wasn’t very happy.

It’s no accident that the two people I asked to sing the chorus line were Hamish and Laura. ‘You have fallen way short of our expectations’ is not something either of them ever actually said to me at the time; they were more supportive than that. It’s more that I care a lot about what both of them think of me, and so put in their voices something that I was already saying to myself.

I’m not going to say any more about the content of this song (because 1. it’s not really your business and 2. everything I want to say about it is there in the lyrics) except that listening to it sometimes makes me wonder what sort of person I would have become if I’d been as successful a musician as I thought I wanted to be.

Coincidentally, I’ve got to this song just as a series of accusations against Ryan Adams has prompted a welcome discussion about the behaviour of men in an industry where, as the writer Laura Snapes put it last week, “the concept of male genius insulates against all manner of sin”. (If you haven’t read it, I also recommend Scottish music blogger Lisa-Marie Ferla’s brave and brilliant piece on this subject, written from the perspective of a long-time Adams fan).

One problem with stories like this – about men accused of abuse by multiple women – is that they often allow other men to think they’re basically doing alright because they haven’t done anything as grotesque as, say, Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK. As the MeToo movement keeps demonstrating though, the problem is not individual, monstrous men but a complex web of male privilege, inequality, abuse of power, and institutional sexism, all across society, from which the rest of us men benefit often without noticing, and which doesn’t exactly encourage respectful behaviour from any of us. And I’ve been repeatedly shocked by how much of this I was blithely unaware of, despite the fact that most of my best friends are women, and most of those women are outspoken feminists. Was I not listening properly all those years? Did they not tell me because they assumed I wouldn’t get it? Or is it impossible to understand fully if you haven’t experienced the sharp end of it yourself? All of the above, probably.

Anyway, as a result I have a suspicion that, had I become the famous songwriter I wanted to be when I was in my twenties, I might have become a worse person, purely because I’d be a man working within the system Laura Snapes eloquently describes, and benefitting from it. I’m not suggesting I would have behaved anywhere near as badly as Ryan Adams (who was born one year after me and – according to his recently sabotaged Wikipedia page – died on February 13 2019), but the fact is that I would have been working in a business where men’s worst behaviour towards women has long been excused, underplayed, or sometimes even celebrated.

As things stand, I wrote a song that has been heard by a few people. It got something off my chest that I wanted to get off my chest, but if I’ve become a better man in the years since, then that’s because I did a year of therapy immediately afterwards, because I’ve been in a happy and faithful relationship for ten years now, with someone who calls me out when I’m being sexist or disrespectful (which, yes, all men do from time to time – how can we not when we’ve lived our entire lives in a culture that gives us preferential treatment?) and because I have just grown up a lot for various other reasons. I am, for the most part, more self-aware and more honest than I was back in early 2007 when I wrote this song. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying.

What, though, if the song had somehow been a big hit? What if it had been hailed by critics across the world as raw and painful and honest and brilliant? Would it have made me want to continue reflecting on my behaviour? Or would it have flattered me into thinking the job was basically done, that I was a genius for saying what I had said so movingly and honestly, and that I was doing not just ok as a human being and a man, but actually spectacularly well? Maybe I’d start thinking the way I was behaving wasn’t so bad if I could also write beautiful songs about it? Well, I can only speculate, but it’s another reason why I’m often quite grateful it didn’t happen.

Again I’ve mostly just written about the words here, because that was my contribution. Hamish wrote pretty much all the music for this song except the final section (‘But this isn’t how it happens at all…”), which we worked on together. The song took a long time to finish; it nearly went on Swimmer One’s first album, with a much more electronic arrangement and different words, but we both decided it was too similar to But My Heart is Broken and put it aside for a while. The final version  – rarely for us – is almost entirely synthesiser free. It has live drums, bass, and guitar, and an organ part. It actually sounds like a different band from us – a band in the traditional sense of a gang who play instruments together rather than huddling around a laptop moving things across a screen, as we mostly did.

Listening back to it now, it feels fitting that it sounds like that. It suggests the person singing this song is surrounded by people who are supporting him – literally, by playing live instruments, but emotionally as well. I had that support too, come to think of it. So perhaps famous me might not have been so bad after all, as long as he didn’t break up the band.

Day 22: Lorelei and Dorothy

Lorelei and Dorothy, as any Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell fan will know, were the two lead characters in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (as well as the 1949 stage musical it was based on). This Swimmer One song imagines them negotiating their way through a world destroyed by climate change, with a few jokey references to the film’s three most famous songs along the way – ‘Anyone here for love?’ ‘Dry land is a girl’s best friend’, ‘It’s too late for us to go back to Little Rock now’ etc). We possibly breached several copyright laws here; thankfully we never received any legal letters.

The starting point for this idea was the line from the chorus, ‘We are here to watch a cabaret show, not to dispense justice’. In the film, when Dorothy is singing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend in a Paris court room (while pretending to be Lorelei), the judge scoldingly tells her that ‘we’re here to dispense justice, not to watch a cabaret show’. I loved that, and thought it would be a fun idea to turn the line around. I think I’d been reading a lot of very dispiriting media coverage about global warming, war, and the state of the world in general, and at that moment Jane Russell causing havoc in a room full of  pompous, entitled old men was exactly what I needed to see.

There’s been much interesting discussion about whether or not Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a feminist film. It’s obviously an iconic one – the first Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend sequence has since been referenced in Madonna’s Material Girl video and the films Moulin Rouge and Burlesque, among many other places. I’m not going to get too deeply into that question here – other people have done that very well already – but I do remember thinking the film was quite subversive when I first saw it. Despite its title, the male characters aren’t that important really – it’s all about the friendship between Lorelei and Dorothy. I mention this because it’s reflected in the song, even though it’s a male voice singing it. At the end it becomes apparent that the male narrator is someone who has been tagging along with Lorelei and Dorothy, someone who they might well ditch any minute, hence the pleading, slightly pathetic line at the end (‘We could make the perfect team, girls, please take me with you, won’t you?’). I quite like the idea of Lorelei and Dorothy leaving this sad sack on an island somewhere while they sail off together into the sunset.

Musically, the song went through a few different incarnations. It began as a very electro, Euro house type affair (while discussing set lists for live shows it was often referred to as ‘the gay disco song’). It then went in a more Roxy Music sort of direction – the insistent piano that runs throughout the song was a very deliberate Roxy homage.

It could have been a hit, I reckon, particularly if we’d had the gumption / budget to make a video that homaged that court room scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Maybe I should have put on feathers and a wig (which I did sometimes do at parties) – a man dressed up as Jane Russell dressed up as Marilyn Monroe. That could have been a great video, actually. Oh well.

Day 21: Here’s Your Train, Safe Home

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Here’s Your Train, Safe Home is a song about two people almost but not quite kissing in a late night bar, after a long evening of intimate conversation, before returning home to their respective partners. As the song puts it, ‘if we both keep our heads maybe we can sleep soundly’, but they are, clearly, fooling themselves that they have nothing to feel guilty about or that either of them are going to get any sleep. The whole tone – romantic, wistful, with some lovely strings by Pete Harvey coming in towards the end – suggests that a line has already been crossed, emotionally if not physically.

If I had more time on my hands I’d compile a top 20 of pop culture moments where a blossoming romance is abruptly cut short by a train leaving. My favourite is probably the ending of Before Sunrise, where shots of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy going their separate ways, each on a different train, are poignantly intercut with footage of the streets on which they spent the previous evening falling for each other; the sun has now come up and the streets have lost their magic. I’d also want to include the scene in ER where Doctor Greene finally realises what a mistake he’s made by not telling Doctor Lewis that he loves her, and rushes to the Union Station in a fruitless attempt to stop her catching a train to a new life elsewhere. ‘I do love you. BYE!’ she shouts apologetically out of the window. Both of these scenes made me cry. Number one, though, would obviously have to be Brief Encounter – an iconic train leaving = heartbreak moment that has probably inspired countless train leaving = heartbreak moments ever since.

Here’s Your Train, Safe Home wouldn’t make it into that top 20, but it’s one of my favourite Swimmer One songs, partly because it felt like a very equal collaboration – Hamish wrote the first part, I added the second part (from where the piano comes in) and a rough version of the string arrangement, which was then fleshed out by Pete. It’s a nice, unexpected moment when the song shifts from the first section to the second. We only played this song live twice – at a Seafieldroad album launch with live strings by Pete, and later at a Whatever Gets You Through The Night show with Laura and Hamish both on guitar. I have happy memories of both shows, which is a big deal for someone who usually gets chronic stage fright.

The DJ who has most consistently supported my music is Gideon Coe. Here’s Your Train, Safe Home by Swimmer One was, I think, the first of my songs that he played on his BBC 6 Music show. I remember feeling a bit perplexed at the time – it was the last song from Dead Orchestras that I expected to get radio play, being so quiet and slow. I’ve since come to the conclusion that Gideon probably has better taste than me.

Day 20: Psychogeography

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After the raw honesty of The Erskine Bridge, with Psychogeography we’re back to me showing off and trying to be clever, with a lyric referencing Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (and, implicitly, Guy Debord).

The Jim in the first verse is Glasgow artist Jim Colquhoun. The song is partly inspired by a psychogeographical walk around Glasgow city centre with Jim, during which he encouraged our group to follow different, randomly chosen strangers for several blocks at a time. Later Jim led us into a department store, where we all stood silently in a circle, joined hands, and closed our eyes. This seemed to terrify the staff, who probably thought we were a religious cult and were about to blow ourselves up. One of them nervously – and quite angrily – demanded to know what we were doing. Jim, who enjoys being a provocateur, asked them why it wasn’t ok for a group of people just to go into a department store and hold hands; where was the harm? I can’t remember exactly what the response was but I do remember we were strongly encouraged to leave the shop as soon as possible before they called security.

Psychogeography, the song, imagines me bumping into a friend shortly after an activity like this and having to explain myself. In the song I’ve drawn a letter A on a city map and am following the lines of it, rather than following strangers and scaring shop assistants. Looking back on the lyrics, the imaginary version of me comes across as a bit of a dick, so I’m glad that conversation never happened. I am fascinated by psychogeography though, and have got a lot of enjoyment from treating cities as strange landscapes to be explored rather than places to work and consume. Now that I live in the Hebrides I have a different perspective on this; cities seem increasingly alien to me anyway, sometimes scary, sometimes magical. The last time I drove over the Forth Bridge I felt like I was in Blade Runner. I’m still figuring out how I feel about this and what to do about it.

That said, Psychogeography is a song that, like The Balance Company and National Theatre, I’m a wee bit ambivalent about. In this case it’s because I feel like I ruined a potential floor-filler with a weird and obscure lyric. Imagine this song – a big, stomping piece of dance music that was pretty much entirely written by Hamish, apart from the melancholy bit with the strings towards the end – if it was about DJs and dancing and Saturday night and falling in love and having sex, instead of strange art walks and flooded cities. It did go down quite well at our live gigs, although that might be because nobody could hear the lyrics properly.

On the plus side, the instrumental version was later used (minus the melancholy strings bit, sensibly) in another Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival trailer, where it did a fine job of making a mental health arts festival seem quite sexy and exciting – basically the opposite effect of the version with me singing on it.