Day 2: Talk me down from 20,000ft

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Swimmer One: look how young we are.

Talk Me Down From 20,000ft was Swimmer One’s first B-side – something that, in the age of downloads, has become a lost art form. I grew up buying vinyl singles, and was introduced to the art of the B-side by the Pet Shop Boys and Prefab Sprout. The Pet Shop Boys, in particular, took them very seriously – this was the place where they cut loose, indulged themselves, and sometimes ended up writing their best songs, like Jack the Lad or In the Night (and also a series of funny, strange songs in which Chris Lowe read out lists of things, like Paninaro and I Want a Dog). If I had to pick a favourite, it’d probably be Your Funny Uncle, a poignant song about the funeral of a gay man who died too young (one of the missing friends in Being Boring, I think), and the awkwardness that ensues when his social circle have to mingle with relatives who were in complete denial about the life he was living. But I loved all of the Pet Shop Boys’ B-sides, often more than their album tracks, and always got incredibly excited when a new single came out, often playing the B-side first. Unlike a lot of people’s B-sides they almost never felt like leftovers, songs not quite good enough to make it onto an album. In fact I think there’s a case to be made that Alternative, the B-sides collection they put out in 1995, is one of their best albums (disc one, anyway).

Prefab Sprout wrote brilliant B-sides too, particularly in their early days, although I discovered most of these after the fact, when I’d already played Swoon, Steve Mcqueen and Protest Songs to death and was looking for something new. In particular I remember the joy of discovering a 12 inch single of When Love Breaks Down which had four great B-sides – The Yearning Loins, Spinning Belinda, He’ll Have to Go and Donna Summer. After all this it made me quite cross when a musician I loved released a single whose B-side was just an instrumental or demo version of the A-side, or a song they’d already released years ago (I’m looking at you, Madonna). How dare they be so careless?

And so when it came to releasing our first single, in 2002, it was important to me that the B-side was just as good as the A-side. In the end we possibly took that a bit too far, in that Talk Me Down From 20,000ft actually took longer to record than We Just Make Music For Ourselves. This was probably my fault; after years of making music with an old reel to reel four track machine, I had suddenly been introduced (thanks to Hamish) to Cubase and the dizzying possibility of having as many tracks going on in a song as you wanted, and I got carried away. At the time I was a bit obsessed with Steve Reich, so wanted to find out what happened if you layered the same Reich-like piano phrase on top of itself multiple times. The answer is that you end up with an unholy mess and end up spending as much time editing parts out as you did inserting them in the first place.

I’m glad we took the time though, because it’s a song I’m still very proud of. The lyric is about having a panic attack, something that used to happen to me a lot. The main reason I used a plane journey as a metaphor was that I’d recently been to Mexico, had recorded the sound of a flight attendant in Mexico City, and wanted to use it on something. Which we did.

We never spent this long on a B-side again. In fact, by the time we released our first album in 2007, 1. downloading was already becoming the norm, and 2. we couldn’t afford to put out singles on CD or vinyl anyway so didn’t bother. I think my biggest regret about never having got to be a pop star is not that I never got to be on Top of the Pops or the cover of Smash Hits (the benchmarks of success when I was growing up) but that I wasn’t successsful enough to be able to spend huge amounts of time recording B-sides when I didn’t have to.

 

 

Day 1: We just make music for ourselves

We Just Make Music For Ourselves, the first single by Swimmer One and the first music I ever properly released, emerged with minimal fanfare in the summer of 2002, on our own label Biphonic Records. We had no PR, radio plugger or promotional budget whatsoever (Daniel Warren did the video and sleeve design for free), but we must have done something right because a few days later Mark Radcliffe played the song on his afternoon show on Radio One, enthusing about it at some length and comparing it to Pulp, the Pet Shop Boys and Baba O’Riley by The Who. The same month Steve Lamacq and Vic Galloway championed it on Radio One too. Crikey, I thought, maybe this is our moment.

A few days later, a woman from a London record label – whose boss apparently masterminded the success of Believe by Cher  – flew up to Edinburgh and we went for lunch in Leith. We got on very well and talked for ages about bands we loved – the Human League came up quite a lot, as I recall. And then, at some point, she asked us if we had any other songs. Only a couple, we replied, because we’d mostly just been working on this one. Do you have a live act, she asked, or ideas about what your image should be. Again the answer was no; we’d been so focused on making the single that we hadn’t had much of a chance to think about that. And so she went back to London and we never heard from her again. It then took us five more years to get round to releasing our debut album.

Would life have turned out very differently if we’d been a bit more ready at this moment? Possibly not. But I sometimes like to imagine a parallel universe in which this leftfield, very catchy, slightly arch yet ultimately sincere song was a big hit – if not a career-launching big hit like West End Girls, then perhaps one of those quirky, unexpected one-off hits, like Brilliant Mind or I Could Never Be Your Woman.

The title – in case it’s not obvious – was a joke, a reference to one  of those excruciating cliches bands always seemed to come out with in interviews. One of my favourite reviews of the single claimed we’d missed a trick by not including the line ‘and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus’ – failing to spot that we actually had (it’s right at the end). Musically it began – like most Swimmer One songs – with a rough instrumental recording by Hamish (just guitar and drum machine, I think) which we then fleshed out together.

When Hamish did a remix for the B-side I wanted to call it There’s Always Been A Dance Element To Our Music, which was another thing bands seemed to say a lot, in a desperate attempt to ingratiate themselves with clubbers. Hamish vetoed this idea, arguing that it was a joke too far (despite my protestations that it was exactly the kind of thing Sparks would do) and it ended up being called Music For Other People instead. Sadly I don’t think it was a club hit either (not that I would have noticed if it was, although I heard we got played a bit by DJs in Spain and Italy), but we did get two really good short films out of it – by Daniel Warren (who also did the video for the original song) and Paul Cameron.

I’m very fond of all three of the videos that accompanied this single, especially the one for the original song, for which we decided – for some reason – to play squash while wearing white boiler suits. My main memory of this is that before we went to Meadowbank sports centre Hamish made us garlic soup, and that by the time we’d spent an hour chasing a ball around for the camera we both absolutely stank of garlic. Good call. The video also features some chess playing (by us), lots of sex poses (not by us) which guaranteed that it would never be shown on television (oops), and a beautiful, poignant moment towards the end with a children’s shoe.

Update, 4 October: I heard just this morning that Mark Radcliffe has cancer and is taking time off work for treatment. I really hope he’s going to be ok. I’m sure this is true for many, many musicians, but he’s someone who has had a huge impact on my musical life. I’ve lost count of the number of bands that I love who I discovered via Mark’s various shows, so for us to be one of the bands he enthused about on air is a huge privilege, and I will always be grateful to him for that.