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.

Day 19: The Erskine Bridge

The Erskine Bridge is the polar opposite of This Club Is For Everybody, Even You. It’s a sincere, empathetic song on a difficult subject, suicide.

My first journalism job, over 20 years ago, was in Clydebank, just a few miles from the Erskine Bridge, and I quickly learned the correct protocol for reporting bridge-related deaths; there were several in the year and a half that I worked at the local paper. I would hear a lot of awful stories, off the record, about the circumstances that led people there, and the families’ heartbreak and confusion afterwards.

In particular I got to know a Clydebank man called Alex, whose brother had been going through electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Since his brother’s death Alex had become a prominent campaigner against the use of this treatment. Families and friends often find themselves desperately searching for answers. Why did this happen? What could we have done differently? How did we not see it coming? Alex channelled his search for answers into a campaign, and in some ways this was a positive thing for him, but you could also see how painful it was.

Long after I moved on from that job, I thought of Alex’s brother, and all the others, whenever I drove over the bridge on my frequent trips from Glasgow, where I lived at the time, to my parents’ home in Helensburgh. I was in quite a dark place myself when I started writing the song, but the finished lyric was about getting through that and finding a way forward – hence the chorus line “I will be leaving but I won’t go that way.”

I’m not going to dwell on living with depression here – I’ve written about it elsewhere if you’re interested – but I was pleased that this particular piece of music was later used in a trailer for the 2015 Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. The song’s subject matter was not the reason it was chosen – the filmmaker who made the trailer just happened to choose it from a selection of instrumental mixes from Swimmer One’s first two albums; I’m not sure they’d even heard the lyrics. While Swimmer One were credited at the end of the trailer, the title of the song wasn’t mentioned; the feeling was that using the words ‘the Erskine Bridge’ out of context would be inappropriate and potentially triggering.

Sometimes I think it’s Swimmer One’s best song. Hamish did a fantastic job of producing it, turning a rough piano sketch by me (which might otherwise have ended up on the first Seafieldroad album) into something quite epic. The string arrangement by Pete Harvey is pretty great too. In fact, even reviewers who never normally liked our stuff were complimentary about this song. We should probably have released it as a single, but hey ho.

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Day 18: This Club Is For Everybody, Even You

This Club Is For Everybody, Even You – the song, and this film of Swimmer One performing it live in Edinburgh – is the perfect encapsulation of why I was never going to be a pop star, however much I thought I wanted it.

We usually played it towards the end of our set. It was supposed to be the moment where things stepped up a gear and hopefully people started dancing. Sometimes that happened, but honestly, look at what an awkward frontman I am. This is the kind of song that needs a Dave Gahan or a Michael Hutchence to get the crowd going, not someone whose eyes are either firmly closed or staring at their shoes. Laura should have been the singer, really, she looks way cooler in this footage than either me or Hamish. She’s also the only one of us who seems as if she’s actually having fun. Also, those trousers! What was I thinking? I knew we were being filmed that night as well.

The song itself is perhaps another example of my tendency towards self-sabotage. It’s a great tune, especially the final section. But what the hell is it actually about?

The answer is that it’s a bit meta, as they say these days. It is to Swimmer One what Last Action Hero is to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The verses are a series of statements, two at a time, that seem to come from completely different people (‘Now I’ve bought a place in the west end / now I’ve burned your house to the ground.’) followed by a chorus that’s so disconnected from anything that happens before or after that it’s pretty much meaningless: ‘I have waited all of my life.’ (Ok…. for what, though?)

All this was very carefully thought out. It’s a pop song about pop songs, and specifically the lack of control songwriters have over how their lyrics soundtrack other people’s lives, no matter how personal and specific they are (the classic example being Born in the USA, an anti-war song adopted by hawkish patriots). Essentially, This Club is For Everybody, Even You is a Roland Barthes inspired thought experiment, an attempt to write a song that can’t be ‘misinterpreted’ because it contains multiple and contradictory choices of how to listen to and interpret it, from the banal (it’s about dancing) to the extreme (it’s about blowing up a bus). In other words, while I may have to accept that a song is no longer mine once it’s out in the world, anyone wanting to claim this one as their own also needs to accept that it also belongs to people with completely different values and life experiences from them.

I remember thinking this was quite clever at the time, but on reflection the result might well be a song that doesn’t resonate strongly with anyone. Even the title is an obscure joke, the ‘even you’ part cruelly undercutting the club anthem sentiment of the first part.

Looking back, an awful lot of my songs have been critiques of pop music rather than actual pop music. The first Swimmer One single was called We Just Make Music For Ourselves, for heaven’s sake. And the obscure joke behind the second single, Come On, Let’s Go!, was that its apparently 1950s rock and roll style title was actually inspired by 1950s Samuel Beckett. Long before Swimmer One, I was in a student cabaret act called the Bootleg Smokin’ Blues Band (yet another obscure joke – we thought it would be funny to pretend we were a tribute act to the Smokin’ Blues Band, a local covers band we didn’t particularly like). One of our songs, Living Cliché, was a piano ballad consisting of a string of pop lyric clichés (‘I’m just waiting, anticipating, to make you see what you mean to me’ etc) climaxing in a knowingly preposterous electric guitar solo that ended with the sound of the guitar being accidentally dropped on the floor. Around the same time I recorded a song called I Don’t Care About the Environment, purely as an irritated response to pop songs about climate change.

I wonder, sometimes, whether this is the songwriting equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn’s political leadership – continual self-sabotage by someone who doesn’t actually want to achieve what they’re supposedly setting out to achieve (in his case, becoming Prime Minister) because they’re more interested in demonstrating that they’re right about something than in winning people over.

I’ve not written as many songs like this in recent years. If anything I’ve gone the other way. Most of my Seafieldroad songs were sincere declarations of love or regret (classic singer-songwriter tropes, in other words). I’d like to think I’ve found a middle way with the new album. At least four songs are, on some level, about the songwriting process; the difference, I hope, is that I’ve stopped trying to show off how clever I am. Although I still couldn’t resist namedropping Roland Barthes just then. Damn it.

Day 17: Dead Orchestras

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One of Swimmer One’s Dead Orchestras promo photos – don’t we look young? Pic: Jannica Honey

Dead Orchestras was the opening track – and the title track – of Swimmer One’s second album. The title comes from a mistranslation. I’d read, or been told, that the Japanese word karaoke meant ‘dead orchestra’. I loved this phrase, and immediately pictured a whole orchestra in cryogenic suspension, frozen and preserved for the future – which is, in a sense, what happens when you record music. I kept thinking of all those classical music recordings from the early 20th century whose musicians have long since passed away – a whole orchestra, gone – and imagining people in the future humming along to them, like karaoke singers in a graveyard. I was also thinking of the TV writer Dennis Potter’s final works, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, in which the head of a 20th century writer is frozen and revived in the 24th century, where a media mogul wants to broadcast his memories on TV.

As it turns out, the English translation of karaoke is actually ‘empty orchestra’, which isn’t quite as evocative, but by the time I found that out I’d already written the lyrics, which are about the songs, and memories, you leave behind for your children when you die. So the title stayed.

It’s a song partly inspired by guilt. I had been spending a lot of time away from my young daughter, mostly because of my day job but partly also because I’d been working on two albums simultaneously, an often time-consuming activity in a different city which was becoming more difficult to justify. The line ‘will you forgive our numerous failures and the fact that these songs were mostly about ourselves?’ was addressed directly to her.

By our second album I was also starting to wonder what the point of all this was. The Regional Variations had some lovely reviews and a bit of national radio play, but commercial success wasn’t exactly hammering on our door, and I was reaching a point in my life when I wasn’t sure I even wanted it to. After all, people I’d met who were in very popular bands didn’t seem conspicuously happier than me.

In short, I was probably having a bit of a mid-life crisis. I was even questioning the point of recording, the thing I loved doing most. I’d read that we were living in a fleeting moment in human history where recorded music was considered more important than music performed live, and that the internet’s impending destruction of major record labels, and perhaps the entire music industry, was evidence that this moment might be approaching its end. There were all sorts of other interesting ideas about the future of music floating around at that time – that the line between artist and audience would disappear completely, that music would be self-generating, that listening to exactly the same piece of recorded music twice would become a thing of the past, regarded as strange and quaint, its only function being educational archive material.

All this existential doubt fed into Dead Orchestras, the song and the album. The album contains most of the best lyrics I’ve written, I think, partly because by this time Hamish was doing the vast majority of the studio work (he was much better at it than me so I just left him to it) so I spent ages honing the words in order to feel that I was making a valuable contribution while, due to my mid-life crisis, questioning and unpicking every single creative decision we made. The result, in places, is probably an album that has had far too much thought put into it – stylistically it’s completely all over the shop – but there are a lot of layers to it.

Here’s one that no-one probably knows about apart from me. The main reason why I wanted Dead Orchestras to be the opening song was my Pet Shop Boys obsession (a bit of a recurring theme on this website, sorry). Dead Orchestras had the same rhythm, more or less, as Can You Forgive Her, the opening song on their 1993 album, Very.

Appropriately, given the theme, Dead Orchestras the song has now been brought back to life for the new album, After All Of The Days We Will Disappear. The original music was written entirely by Hamish, pretty much, and I was never sure that the lyrics I’d come up with quite gelled with it. So I’ve recorded a new version, which is slower and sadder. Because, obviously, I’d not made enough slow and sad music already. As slow and sad songs go, though, it’s a winner.

Day 16: A Petrol Pump in the Cradle of Christianity

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A Petrol Pump in the Cradle of Christianity is one of those song titles that you either think is poetic and resonant or self-indulgent and preposterous, perhaps depending on how big a fan you are of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Pink Floyd.

I can justify it. The cradle of Christianity, in this case, is Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway, which claims to be where Christianity was first established in Scotland (by St Ninian, around 390 AD). I visited Whithorn around 2006, not on any kind of religious pilgrimage, mostly just because I already happened to be on holiday in Dumfries and Galloway and had heard it was scenic. A short drive from our destination I spotted a church that had been converted into a petrol station. And as the song says, ‘I laughed until my sides hurt.’

It was hollow laughter. At the time, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – widely considered to be about oil rather than anything to do with 9/11, Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban – were already in their fourth year. The one in Afghanistan would later become the second longest war in US military history after Vietnam. George W Bush, a devoted Christian, had famously talked of a ‘war on terror’, as if America was fighting demons rather than pursuing various political and economic agendas. The longer it all dragged on, the more absurd and dishonest the whole thing seemed. A church with a petrol pump on it seemed like a potent metaphor.

A Petrol Pump in the Cradle of Christianity isn’t really about the War on Terror. I’m not sure I’d dare write a song about that; the whole thing felt far too complicated and messy and beyond my skill set. And I am emphatically not Bruce Springsteen or Billy Bragg. More to the point, I’ve never been to the Middle East so what do I really know about anything that happens there? And so instead I mostly wrote about my own relationship with Christianity.

I was raised by Christian parents (one Church of England, the other Church of Scotland) and accompanied them to church every week, partly because I hated Sunday school and refused to go. My mum always seemed more serious about it than my dad; the religious books he kept in the house were by people like David Jenkins and Richard Holloway, books about doubt rather than conviction. After I told him I was giving up on religion we would have big fights about it, in which I’d argue that he wasn’t a Christian at all because he didn’t seem to believe in any of it, and he’d argue that I was a Christian even though I claimed not to be because my sense of morality was based on a Christian upbringing. I was often furious with him at the time, and we didn’t speak for a while when I was about 19, which upset my mum a lot, but I miss those fights terribly now he’s gone. The line ‘I spit and use bad words and then dare you to forgive me’ was me baiting him.

When we reached Whithorn I walked to a rocky shoreline and stared at the sea on my own for quite a while. This was something I had done a lot as a teenager, mostly on Arran as an escape from the campsite where my family spent most summer holidays, and it was certainly a factor in my decision to give up religion. Anyone who’s stood facing an ocean knows how small and insignificant it can make you feel. A star-filled sky or a mountain – or even a photo of one by someone like Ansel Adams  – can have a similar effect. The feeling you get will either turn you towards religion or away from it.

Which way you go perhaps depends on how you feel about Edmund Burke’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime – the difference being that sublime things affect us on a more profound level than things that are simply beautiful, because they overwhelm and terrify us as well as giving us pleasure. The ideas in Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful were later taken up by the Romantic poets, all of whom approached the idea of the sublime in different ways. Coleridge preferred the idea of the ‘metaphysical sublime’, a sight that suggested infinity without necessarily inspiring terror. Personally I’ve never been able to shake the terror. At the beginning of January I watched two of my children on a Hebridean beach playing that classic children’s game – running away from crashing waves and laughing. It was beautiful and hilarious and a joy to watch, but on some level I was still fearfully imagining them being swept away and the ocean’s indifference to this. At night I look at the stars and picture meteorites the size of cities hurtling towards us.

Ultimately I gave up on Christianity because I felt like it was lying to me about how special I was, even if it was doing so with the best of intentions. I couldn’t accept its reassurances or its self-image. In particular I kept questioning Christianity’s claim to encourage humility, when nothing about the idea of a god with a human son seemed remotely humble. Why would the offspring of god be human? What’s so important about people, in a world of millions of species and a universe of billions of stars with, potentially, alien species orbiting around millions of them? Also, Christians scared me. George W Bush and Tony Blair’s certainty that they were right about their wars, in the face of overwhelming opposition, was clearly rooted in religious conviction. Was there really so much difference between that and the religious conviction of the terrorists they were ostensibly hunting down, except that one group of religious people had much bigger weapons?

So anyway, A Petrol Pump in the Cradle of Christianity is about all that. It almost wasn’t though. My first idea was that it would be called It’s Gone Out Of My Head, and would be a kind of twisted cover version of Can’t Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie Minogue, in which someone is trying to remember the hook-line of Kylie’s song while dying in a car crash. Throughout the song there would be numerous variations on the ‘la la la la la’ bit of Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, all slightly wrong (which would handily get us out of any copyright infringement scenario). I can’t remember whether Hamish vetoed this idea or whether I abandoned it because it was awful, but I’m glad we went with the other one.

A postscript – as well as the wonderfully weird backing track that Hamish made, this song is full of recordings of short wave radio noise that I made as a teenager. Somewhere I still have a whole cassette full of these noises, which Hamish very happily sampled. I was a bit obsessed with shortwave radio noise for a while, sometimes trying to make it seem more musical by tapping out little rhythms on the aerial, sometimes just leaving it to make music on its own terms. One of my favourite movies at the time was a mostly forgotten 1986 film called Static, about a crucifix factory worker convinced he’s invented a device that can broadcast television pictures of Heaven. The problem is that all anybody else can see on the screen is static. I’m not sure this was the point of the film, but I really liked the static.

Day 15: The Dark Ages

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The Dark Ages was written in response to two events – the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh on 2 July, 2005, when 200,000 people formed a human chain around the city in an attempt to persuade G8 leaders to cancel debts owed by the world’s poorest countries, and the London suicide bombings five days later. I remember the march as a hopeful, joyful experience – one of those rare days when, as the song puts it, ‘it feels like the earth could be moved if we all shoved hard’. And I remember how the horror of the bombings punctured that optimism.

This emotional response is one I questioned even at the time. On any day of the week, a horrifying event and a hopeful event are happening in the world simultaneously, and one shouldn’t negate the power of the other. But somehow the London bombings felt like a slap across the face of the march. In Edinburgh (among numerous other cities) hundreds of thousands of people had stood up to the leaders of the world’s most powerful governments and told them that the way they were treating the world’s least powerful people was unacceptable and had to change, and they actually seemed to be listening. Five days later, hundreds of ordinary British people were attacked indiscriminately on the grounds that they were “directly responsible” for the British government’s actions, purely because they lived here. You could have taken part in the G8 protest or the march against the Iraq war two years earlier, you could have gone on countless other demonstrations or spent your whole life campaigning against governments you didn’t vote for, and you’d still be a target. The 52 dead included people from Afghanistan, France, Ghana, Grenada, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Mauritius, New Zealand, Nigeria, Romania, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, which just made the whole thing even more absurd and cruel.

I kept thinking about my three-year-old daughter, my only child at the time, and wondering what sort of world she was growing up in and how she might cope. She was, obviously, far too young to understand what was going on, so The Dark Ages imagines her as a young woman, alternating, like I was, between hope and despair at the state of the world and an individual’s power to do anything significant about it. It pictures her on a similar march, feeling suspicious of protesters’ motives, concluding that “they just came here for the pop songs, they just came to feel less scared, and to feel someone else will take care of the problem”. And then it hopes that she’ll overcome that cynicism, because if she doesn’t then “the dark ages will really have got her”. It ends on an optimistic note: “She will learn to feel less hopeless at the lack of maps or torches. We gave it our best and i know that she’ll make us proud.”

The line “they just came here for the pop songs” was a reference to the Live 8 concert that happened the same day as the march. I remember feeling quite conflicted about this, thinking that while the Live 8 spectacle with its celebrity attendees was probably helping get the march more attention, it was also overshadowing and perhaps even cheapening it.

I was also questioning my own motives for attending demonstrations. The last big one I’d been on was the one against the Iraq war in February 2003, which took place in 600 cities and was later described as ‘the largest protest event in human history’. I’d actually forgotten it was that big. Three million people attended the march in Rome alone, itself the biggest anti-war rally in history. I went to the one in Glasgow; there is a photo somewhere of my one-year-old child on my shoulders outside the SECC where the Labour Party, then in power, were in conference. Soon afterwards the USA, with the UK’s support, invaded Iraq anyway. It’s often been suggested that this had a profound effect on a lot of people’s political views – if elected politicians could just ignore a protest on that scale, what was the point in trying to persuade them of anything?

For my part, one result was that I went to the Make Poverty History march with no great expectations. Mostly it was an excuse to spend the day in the park with some friends; it obviously helped that it was July, and sunny. As it turns out, there has apparently been at least some progress on quite a lot of what was asked for that day – in a 2015 article to mark ten years since the protest, the executive director of One argued that eliminating extreme poverty worldwide was now an achievable goal. “Nobody now says it cannot be done,” he wrote. “The question is whether we will choose to do it.” (That second sentence is the crucial one, of course – stopping global warming would also be achievable if only we chose the necessary steps.)

I still think The Dark Ages is one of the best songs I’ve written (unusually for a Swimmer One song, it started out as a piano song by me that Hamish gradually built up into something much more layered). It’s not a protest song or a political song (not that I have anything against those), but I think it’s a good example of songwriting as social history, recalling a historical event from an ordinary person’s perspective in the way that folk songs often do. Obsessive Pet Shop Boys fan that I am, I often find myself judging my own songs based on whether they tick a particular Pet Shop Boys box. The Dark Ages is probably the closest I’ve got to making something like Suburbia or King’s Cross, both documents of life in Thatcher’s Britain.

It also has a pretty great four-part harmony at the end of the middle eight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 14: Regional

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‘I got tired of living life as a regional variation of something I don’t even like.’

Regional, the almost title track of The Regional Variations, is about someone from the city retreating to the countryside and watching from a distance as cities fall apart; I wrote the lyrics in 2006 while living in Glasgow. It’s strange reading them now from my new home on a clifftop in the Outer Hebrides, where my daily news feed (now there’s a phrase I would never have used in 2006) alternates between Brexit, Donald Trump, and impending environmental catastrophe. This winter we’ve been stockpiling canned food and planning for power cuts (this is mainly just weather related and quite normal for Hebrideans, but still).

Actually Regional is only partly about civilisation crumbling. It’s mainly about growing up in the north of England, and how I felt about that. The title The Regional Variations, namechecked in the lyric, was an attempt to reclaim a term that had always annoyed me, ‘regional variations’, as seen in TV listings. The way the word ‘regional’ was used always seemed to imply it was less important, less interesting, than what was happening elsewhere (ie: London). Add a ‘the’, though, and it suddenly sounds like a piece of classical music, like Elgar’s The Enigma Variations (in my head, anyway).

I grew up in Houghton, a village near Carlisle. I always wanted to make art – music, theatre, books, anything I could turn my hand to – and as a teenager I remember feeling, a little resentfully, that the place where I lived had no obvious cultural identity of its own. I remember, very clearly, that there didn’t seem to be any famous writers, artists, musicians or filmmakers from Carlisle – even now, the brief ‘culture’ section on the city’s Wikipedia page doesn’t name any. According to newspapers, magazines and the TV, most of these people seemed to live in London. Even the cultural identity of ‘the north’, something I was increasingly drawn to in my search for meaning and belonging, didn’t really relate to Carlisle. The northern English writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians to whom I related were from Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle. These cities, not Carlisle, were the ‘cultural north’ of England. (Tellingly, whenever I told people I was from Carlisle they would say ‘I went through there once’ – Carlisle felt like a place you passed through on the way to somewhere else). I wanted to leave as soon as possible.

I was probably unfair in my rejection of Carlisle – if I felt it lacked a cultural voice, perhaps I should have stayed and tried to help give it one. But instead I adopted Scotland as my home, partly because my mum was from Glasgow and I spent most of my summer holidays in Scotland, but partly because it seemed to have its own distinct culture.

The irony is that I still felt like an outsider, a different kind of regional variation, because I hadn’t grown up in Scotland so didn’t quite belong. Mostly I have learned to embrace this, modelling this aspect of my life on the Scottish writer Nick Currie (aka Momus), who has spent much of his life in Japan, precisely because its culture is so alien that he knows he will always feel like an outsider there, a feeling he says he enjoys. But I also brought the chip on my shoulder with me. I soon realised that at least part of the reason I was drawn to Scottish culture was that Scots seemed as irritated by London as I was. An earlier version of Regional, called Here, is considerably more chippy about this, and even includes the line ‘If anyone here is from London, you can piss off back to London, you are not the centre of the universe.’ (For a much more nuanced take on this theme, see James Robertson’s brilliant poem The News Where You Are.)

Anyway, this formative experience has made me very interested in the complex ways in which the culture of a place defines us, and in how much control we have over how we define ourselves within a dominant culture. I later discovered that my attitude towards London as a teenager was mirrored not only by Scottish attitudes towards London but also by the north of Scotland’s perception of the ‘central belt’ (another loaded term) of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and even by the attitude of the west coast of Lewis towards Stornoway (in fact there’s a term here for people who grow up outside of ‘the town’ – you’re a ‘maw’). It turns out that you can feel like an outsider, and be annoyed about it, pretty much anywhere.

One of the things that most interests me about Uig, where I now live, is the tension between the way it is regarded elsewhere (exoticised as a remote, empty place, far from the centre of things, on the edge of the world etc – ie: exactly how I would have seen it a few years ago) and the way it is regarded by people who live there. Uig is only far from ‘the centre’ if you define the centre as London, Glasgow or Edinburgh and are travelling by land. In terms of shipping lanes, though, the Hebrides have been a gateway to the world for thousands of years – on the cultural route between Scandinavia and Ireland, in particular. One of my neighbours, Malcolm Maclean, likes to show visitors a map in which Lewis is shown as a gateway to the north Atlantic – with the ‘mainland’ (again, another loaded term) on the periphery.

Malcolm was interviewed by Madeleine Bunting for her recent book about the Hebrides, Love of Country, which I spent a lot of time buried in after I moved here. Much of the book explores the various ways in which powerful people project their own views of the world – their own fantasies about it – onto places whose inhabitants have an entirely different view of their home, their culture, and their history (it is particularly tempting to do this with islands, given how potent they are as metaphors – see Malachy Tallack’s book The Un-discovered Islands for another good analysis of this subject). A central theme of Love of Country is the role the Hebrides have been forced to play in British (or rather English) colonial identity – the Hebrides, in her analysis, have long been thought of as an outpost of the British Empire rather than a place in itself, and sentimentalised, exoticised and patronised for centuries because of this.

I thought of Madeleine’s book when reading Brexit is a collective English mental breakdown, a provocation by Nicholas Boyle in the Irish times which argues that England has never, until quite recently, had to think of itself as a nation on equal terms with other nations. As Nicholas puts it:

The EU challenged England not to give up a national identity, but to acquire one – to give up the illusions embodied in a United Kingdom that never was a nation, but was always a device to conceal England’s colonial relation to the other nations inhabiting Great Britain and Ireland. Instead the EU offered England the opportunity for equal partnership in a common endeavour, which is nowadays all that nationhood can mean. On June 23rd, 2016, the English rejected that offer and opted to continue living the fiction of splendid isolation that sustained the UK and the British empire before it, and to continue denying the Scots and the Irish a will of their own.

In hindsight, I wonder whether some of what I felt about Carlisle as a teenager was connected to my youthful unawareness of this aspect of English culture – a culture whose colonial history has left it with a tendency to think of itself as a ‘default culture’, like Grayson Perry’s ‘default men’, middle class, educated, white, heterosexual men who think of their own identity as the norm and everything else as ‘other’, and so are often blissfully unaware of their many cultural assumptions, their power and privilege, and their tendency to dominate, control and patronise. Default men are taking something of a battering at the moment, and about time too. The cultural assumptions of the most powerful people in our society should always be challenged.

I am, of course, a default man myself. How did I not realise this when I was growing up? Like a lot of alienated young men I was so busy feeling like an outsider that I didn’t notice how mainstream culture, all over the world, was overwhelmingly about people who looked like me, preoccupied with white, male concerns and full of white male protagonists and heroes. I thought I related to Luke Skywalker because he lived on a farm and longed to escape, not because he was a blue eyed white boy with a sense of entitlement. (Some men, of course, are not taking this realisation very well.)

In hindsight, perhaps this was why I was so fixated on the term ‘regional variations’ as a way of expressing how I felt about the world. It wasn’t that I felt like an outsider, exactly. It was more that, on some subconscious level, I could see that mainstream culture was my culture (white, male, heterosexual) but that I didn’t feel like I was personally benefitting from that. Which is quite embarrasing. This morning I re-read the lyrics to Regional and realised something that shocked me a bit – that, without changing a single word but simply by reading it differently to how I ever intended, it could easily be an anthem for a rural Donald Trump voter who detests middle class liberals from the city, a survivalist maybe. As a Guardian-reading, left-wing liberal, I didn’t see that coming. People aren’t so different after all, eh?

 

 

 

Day 13: Whatever You Do, Don’t Go In The Basement

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I’ve recorded two songs called Whatever You Do, Don’t Go In The Basement. The first was a pretty rough home recording from 1997, one of hundreds that I made between the ages of 14 and 23 with a Yamaha keyboard, a four track tape machine and a very basic mixing desk (can you tell? Yes you can). It’s possible that I should have spent more of this time making friends instead of alone in my bedroom experimenting with tape loops, but there we are. What’s done is done.

The second was for Swimmer One’s first album The Regional Variations – the music for that one was mainly written by Hamish, although I wrote the lyrics (which are completely different to the words in the original, I just revived the title because I liked it). I remember being especially pleased with this song title. I always was when I thought I’d come up with the kind of title that the Pet Shop Boys or Sparks might use. The Pet Shop Boys, in particular, have always been fans of the gratuitously long song title (This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave, You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk etc).

Basements, obviously, are where terrible things frequently happen in horror movies, and occasionally in real life too. Alongside attics, they’re great metaphors for dark secrets and ugly, destructive truths. The Swimmer One song is about an unwanted confession that drives two people apart. The earlier song’s narrator is less weary and more idealistic, perhaps – I think you can tell that they’re a bit younger  – and more willing to venture into an unknown, underground place with the person they’re addressing, ‘as you long as you will hold my hand’.

The Swimmer One lyric is one of my best, I think – it gives you just enough information to draw your own conclusions, but is ambiguous enough to be open to lots of interpretations. It’s also restrained – a lot of meaning packed into just a few words. I wish I’d done that more often.

There are lots more of these teenage home recordings here if you’re interested, including a really terrible one I made when I was about 14. In my head it sounded like the Human League. In reality it sounded like a weird boy shouting into a tape recorder.

Day 12: Drowning Nightmare 2

We’re now on to Drowning Nightmare 2, from side two of The Regional Variations (not that it strictly had a side two, being a CD-only album, but in my head it does).

I think songs are often at their most interesting when the narrator is a completely unsympathetic figure. It’s a challenge to one of the main conventions of songwriting, which is that songs should reflect our own emotional lives and offer some sort of comfort. If songs didn’t do this, after all, we would hardly spend whole days listening to them on the radio.

There are, of course, lots of songs in which a singer confesses to doing something awful (usually breaking someone’s heart rather than, say, committing crimes) but the point of these is usually redemption. You are supposed to like and relate to the singer more because they have been honest enough to confess to their misdeeds, just as you would (hopefully) do yourself.

And so a song that offers no comfort to the listener – or redemption for its narrator – can be quite a transgressive thing. If you don’t hear many of these, it’s probably partly because songs (more so than plays or novels) are generally assumed to reflect the personality of the singer, and few songwriters want the world to think they’re terrible people – most performers, after all, want to be liked.

Drowning Nightmare 2, though, is one such song. A man is walking into the river Clyde in Glasgow, presumably to his death. The narrator of the song is one of a group of people who, instead of intervening, are just watching this spectacle play out before going for chips and cheese. At the end the narrator expresses the hope that the whole experience will help him sleep better.

The song was inspired by a few different things. I’d been going to the National Review of Live Art, at which people like Franko B were putting their bodies through painful experiences for a paying audience in the name of art. I’d also been listening to 1. Outside by David Bowie, a dystopian concept album set in a world where a subculture of underground artists are murdering and mutilating people and presenting the results as art. So I was thinking about complicity in suffering. It’s not clear in the song whether the man walking into the Clyde is some sort of artist, drowning himself in a kind of extreme conceptual art performance (perhaps as part of NRLA, which was just a couple of streets away at the Arches), or whether the audience on the shore has just decided to treat this act as if it’s a piece of art, in which, to quote the lyric, he ‘became something more than a drowned man’. The question, I suppose, is whether one of these scenarios is any better than the other.

I haven’t written many songs like this – I prefer writing songs that are comforting, partly for the sake of my own mental health – but it can be fun to give it a go. I can’t quite remember but I suspect this one was influenced by Momus, a few of whose songs are about people doing terrible things for inexcusable reasons – like the narrator of Trust Me I’m a Doctor, who is attempting to justify the sexual abuse of his patients. I remember how shocking and compelling I found that song when I first heard it, and how I then listened to it on repeat. It’s not a song you tend to hear on the radio, for all sorts of obvious reasons.

Listening back to Swimmer One’s first album, I suspect I was a better songwriter when I wasn’t trying to write something that might get played on the radio. I also suspect we were often at our best as a band when we weren’t over-thinking things. A late addition to our first album, Drowning Nightmare 2 came together very quickly – a short guitar and drum machine sketch Hamish recorded before we had even met, to which we added very little, just a vocal and an electric piano part by me, which carried on beyond the end of the demo to create a new coda (the part that begins ‘I was so sick of all this shallowness…’). It was all it needed, really.