I wanted to write a song that questioned the wisdom of the idea that the radio was the place to go to listen to, discover and ultimately appreciate music. When I wrote Forget The Radio from Hanging Out In Heaven (2000), commercial stations were enjoying world domination. In recent years there have been many internet stations, playing all kinds of styles from Glam to Classical and with playlists you really can create the radio station you want. Your own choices at your fingertips. BUT many people that go to the airwaves for their musical pleasure use the radio to simply hum along to the latest easy on the ear Pop tunes and want them picked by others and also use the radio for company, the local weather and the drama of news.
I am happy to have people tell me about, play me and direct me towards music but although it’s not mutually exclusive, commercial radio might be making or basking in an artist’s success and of course success as such isn’t the marker for quality and certainly not for taste. Plus success is relative: I just went to see First Aid Kit here in Dallas – they were amazing, the songs, the harmonies, the performance a mixture of joy and seriousness wrapped up in two highly talented sisters and a great band. It was a big place and a lot of people came out on a Wednesday night. Still, I can’t imagine they are all over commercial radio but they are still popular and at the least totally appealing to all types of people, music nerds and even the tone deaf – even they couldn’t fail to hum and tap along to their tunes.
I understand that not everyone wants to hear an emotional attack every time they hear a song, they don’t want to be pummeled into submission or be made aware of the tragedies of the universe – or do they? Country music seems to often deal with breakdowns, sadness and the pain of unrequited love. Take Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You sung by the tragic Whitney Houston, one of the biggest hits of the last few decades, hugely successful and terribly sad, but presented in a polished production that moved millions to buy it. They didn’t buy it because it was rubbish, they bought it because it affected them emotionally, they really felt like it meant something. Allegedly Celine Dion manages the same trick, clad in expensive gowns and armed with an angelic voice.
I suppose it’s hard for me to expect Amon Düül ll to be on breakfast TV, but how come This One Goes Out To The One I Love by REM was a big hit and Fall To Love by Diesel Park West wasn’t? Well, easy to explain apart from the fact that one band built their following in the US and the other in England and somehow Michael Stipe ‘talked to the kids’ and John Butler didn’t, but in the end they are both great lead singers with a catchy song, about the same age, equally good looking (even relevant on the radio), but exposure, so promo, so money didn’t get them noticed – nobody played the DPW song enough for it to catch on.
So, I decided to write a song that tried to redirect your ears and reclaim your taste as decided by you. In the late sixties music radio was vibrant, eclectic and at some point it was taken over by the bland corporations that controlled playlists and had “the tail wagging the dog”. Now one hopes with your ability to create your own musical world through playlists and recommendations from like-minded people we would be able to break the strangulating grip that has suppressed great bands that we know the public would like if they just knew they existed (don’t make me make a list, you make it).
In the meantime:
Switch on your amplifier
And put a record on
Lay back on your pillow
And hear your favourite song
Feel the music breathe
Sing the melody
Read the sleeve notes through
What the musicians do
And when you’ve found the groove
Or if the lyrics soothe
Concentrate and listen really close
Forget the radio
Send the DJ home
You’re better on your own
Forget the radio
All my favourite records
I never see or hear
And here’s the plague of zombies
For power and career
Andy Partridge, Robert Wyatt
You hear it you buy it
The tail seems to wag the dog
The music’s thick, lost in the fog
This is all we wish
Image kills the qualities below
Forget the radio
Send the DJ home
You’re better on your own
Forget the radio
In Circles was part of a batch of over 20 songs written with my Swedish friend Martin Rössel, most of which were never released. Martin and I got together sometime in the late eighties when I was living in Stockholm and we started to write songs. Our attitude to recording these songs as demos was to record quickly, but complete a song each session. Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Middle 8 if needed, words and melodies. We recorded in a damp cellar, haunted by the landlady to whom we referred as ‘The Creeping Death’ as she lurked in the shadows. Dare and I had also recorded Rhyme in this bleak place, although you’d never know from the sound of the album.
Although Martin and I had written so many songs, we never found an outlet for the style. They were on the edge of commercial Rock and at that time it wasn’t something that anyone expected from Martin or myself. Martin had a deal at the time with Sony and was releasing Pop records in Swedish, I was in a busy band plus I was signed to Rykodisc, releasing solo records and these songs just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere outside of the two of us as songwriters.
In 1992 I released the Spirit Level album but In Circles, a potential single, ended up as the B-side to Luscious Ghost. I can’t quite remember why I decided to record it in the first place but I surmise that I recognized its commercial potential but then wasn’t comfortable with it as a direction. In retrospect it doesn’t sound so out of place after all. Two songs that we recorded in this batch I wrote myself, one of them did actually find its way to America.
Respected Austin, Texas guitar player Charlie Sexton had broken through the impenetrable mystery of the American pop charts to commercial recognition with his razor sharp cheekbones – photogenic, youthful, leather clad. His song Beat’s So Lonely from his debut album Pictures For Pleasure was released in 1986 and reached Number 17 on the US charts – at this point Sexton was just 16 years old. There was a good chance that his next album would also do well on the American charts. Sexton was working on his next album with Bob Clearmountain and Tony Berg. Having worked with Bob Clearmountain, I sent him a tape of the songs Martin and I had been working on. The team picked out I Can’t Cry, a song that did make the Spirit Level album in 1992 and although I wrote it, Charlie Sexton recorded it first. His second album performed disappointingly and with no hit single floundered at number 104 in the album charts.
In Circles remains an obscurity hidden on an unpopular format, the redundant CD single. From the batch of over 20 songs that we wrote one was translated into Swedish (Just A Reflection became Spegel, Swedish for mirror) and appeared on one of Martin’s albums, the rest still haven’t found a home 30 years later, although another song of mine that we demoed, Kiss You To Death, also made it to Spirit Level. I would hate you to think that these songs were not worthy and that’s why they never made it out of the shadows. Maybe one day they will see the light of day, the next time this style comes around.
From Martin Rössel:
The landlady. Her name was Diana Strauch and just that and the fact that she was an old vicious teacher was enough to send chills down anyone’s spine.
I had definitely heard of Marty’s former band but was no religious fan. So we came from two directions and were quite free to unleash our slightly manic creativity, which we did. The songwriting was like turning on a tap of water. I think we were both a bit caucious about going into my studio with no ideas but it worked amazingly well. Maybe I churned in a bit more basic Rock ‘n’ Roll into it and Marty more melody and lyrical stuff sometimes but it was a seemless give and take thing.
As we had written the first two songs our publishers/managers got to hear it, and loved it. They said write more, so we wrote 5. They said write an album and we wrote 10. And everyone was crazy about it. Record companies were talked to, hustling and bustling, I was suddenly talking to Marc Geiger on the US west coast about The Marty & Martin tape on my huge mobile phone.
Of course one of the reasons it didn’t happen as an album or band was that Marty’s former band was on the peak of their success and popularity with Starfish and Milky Way still happening. Marty was busy as it was and American record companies were very protective about their acts, in their case Arista with Mitchell Cohen and above him Clive Davies. Apart from the couple of songs that got recorded and released another cool thing was that I wound up playing drums on the great former band track The Maven on their last Arista album, not bad for a guitarist/singer.
But the songs are great, still, some of them brilliant. It was great fun anyway and the best chance to get to know Marty who became a great friend.
Luscious Ghost appeared on Spirit Level, released on Ryko Disc in 1992 and was reissued this year on Schoolkids Records for Record Store Day. It was recorded in Stockholm and featured Anders Hernestam on drums. Anders plays with fabulously successful Swedes Weeping Willows – the same band as my partner in MOAT, Niko Röhlcke. The song also features Dare on classic chunky rhythm guitar with me playing what sounds like histrionic lead parts. In fact, the secret to the sound was me banging an Ebow (switched off) onto the strings, creating that odd sound that may be mistaken for skill. The subject matter was a lustful apparition that I may have conjured up from seeing busty Hammer Horror films in the seventies where everything was red velvet and four poster beds with protagonists swirling around on the edge of insanity whilst communicating with their long dead lover.
Since we began with Song Of the Week we have started to get requests for particular songs. So without further ado and continuing on the poppier thread, Stop Crying Your Eyes Out appeared on the second Noctorum album Offer The Light, released in 2010. A catchy tune with sprightly instrumentation redolent of The La’s meeting Nick Lowe at a Squeeze party. Lyrically darker than the tune suggests, the song deals with the fake tears of the mourners at the subject’s funeral as he condemns them from beyond the grave for only being after his money.
Dare and I always refer to High As A Kite as the hit that would have been a hit if contemporary hits were like hits used to be. The song appears on the first Noctorum album Sparks Lane, released in 2003. The whole album was written in a week with all my contributions of guitar, bass, lead vocals and anything else miraculously recorded in that time. Dare continued to work on the album after I had gone, but essentially the record was conceptualized (in its eclecticism) in a very short time – the only rule being no rules. Of course Dare later realized the project with additional overdubs and an excellent mix. The cover art was put together using techniques that blended disparate images. The scientific apparatus in the photo is an orrery – a working model of the solar system. Enjoy this slice of perfect Pop when a song like this might have dominated the charts.
As we are one week into our PledgeMusic campaign for the new Noctorum album The Afterlife, I thought that for this week’s Song Of The Week we should visit the previous album Honey Mink Forever, released in December 2011. Better Hope You’re Not Alone was the second track from that album and is a fan favourite. I play my Les Paul on this track and you can really tell, it has that classic Gibson tone. At the end of the song we launched into spontaneous jam (Dare was playing bass) and the song took off. I specially liked this stanza: “There’s a myth, that’s going ’round the world, that God can’t be a girl, black with eyes like pearls.” I suppose the song is challenging the damage that different religious faiths cause as they come into conflict with each other. Sad, considering that the fundamental philosophy within each religion preaches peace and yet lack of tolerance for other people’s views turns good intentions into toxic hate. Perhaps music can help heal those wounds although this song paints a darker picture rather than a hopeful one.
I seem to have a lot of back catalogue between solo albums, Noctorum, MOAT, collaborations and even bands I have been in. So it seemed like a good idea to slowly let the songs out one by one, some of which you will know, some of which you won’t. Ironically, old songs will be your new songs and as I have a new Noctorum album coming out in February, a new MOAT album on the cards for next year, plus hopefully some Anekdoten recording, as well as potential Record Store Day releases it might be a good time to catch up.
On a slight tangent, it’s fascinating for musicians that are constantly (hopefully) evolving to have the audience craving the old songs and not the new ones as they coincided with some alleged important part of their life. In fact all parts of your life are important in different stages, despite your age and circumstances and I feel like it’s more about keeping the passion for music rather than a taste for nostalgia – after all, the old songs were also once the new songs.
The first song in this series coincides with our good friend Derek’s YouTube release of an All About Eve gig from 2001. For those of you (mostly in America) who don’t know who All About Eve are – I joined them after two albums and made two more studio albums, two acoustic live albums and one electric live album before we parted ways. In fact Ultraviolet, the last All About Eve studio album, is pretty much the album that got me the gig with Anekdoten. AAE were pretty big in England, playing the Royal Albert Hall in London and had something like 9 songs enter the Top 40 or thereabouts. Martha’s Harbour was the biggest hit, reaching the Top 10. This week is also the 30th anniversary of the release of Martha’s Harbour.
Here we have another celebration of the song that appeared on the White Rose Transmission album Bewitched And Bewildered in 2006, originally a collaboration between The Sound’s Adrian Borland and The Convent’s Carlo Van Putten. Adrian sadly passed in 1999.
Carlo originally had the idea to do a covers album of songs sung by women. Carlo asked me to play guitar on a couple of tracks that he wanted to sing and I of course knew that tricky guitar part for Martha’s Harbour from my time in All About Eve and that song was one of his choices.
So I hope you like the idea of SONG OF THE WEEK and let me know if you would like to find a physical copy of the song and I can try and direct you to where they might be available beyond digital.