Tuesday, 16 July 2013

We could have been Duran Duran...

It's surprising how little of the musician in me goes into an album.  I've been reading John Taylor's
autobiography and he speaks of Duran Duran's band dynamic right at the beginning - how he and Roger Taylor fed off each other and they'd create grooves and play for hours. 

I've written songs with over 30 people and most of them, in fact 90% of them were guitarists.  Whether using one to strum basic chords or playing it like it was part of their own body - it was their instrument of choice when writing songs. 

I'm not a good 'jammer'.  I love that band environment, don't get me wrong - I love adding my paint to the pallate, feeling that vibe and getting in amongst it.  I've never been a showboater so when it comes to a part of the jam where everyone gets a chance to show what they can do I get the exact same feeling every time - 'this isn't going anywhere'.  It's one of my greatest frustrations with other musicians - it's because they're just that.  At one with their instrument, lost in the ether of sound, feeling their way around a chord set and being happy to wallow for a few hours in the same groove.  I get itchy, I want to change the chord set every five minutes, forcing others to while they gaze at each other with confused expressions which seem to say 'what was wrong with what we were doing?' and 'You're not in control here, we just want to dance around the same 12 notes, putting them in a random order over and over again in a kind of stress therapy.

Only very rarely has a song come out of any jam I've been involved in and even then they've been one dimensional.  It's because musicians aren't always writers - and I've been writing music for so long, I forget that.  Some musicians just want a piece of music in front of them, play their part and go home.  Some want a vibe to solo along to.  Some think structurally - I think in patterns and melodies.

I was invited to a jam session once at the house of an old school friend.  He was a drummer and a bloody good one - he had a studio, mixing desks, a saxophone - I often used to think he invited people round to show off and when he got behind the drum kit, he was a man possessed. 

However, drummers don't make good leaders. 

When I got there, Urban Fox's current Bass player was there in the corner doing what he does - a guitarist whom I'd known at school though never really connected with - he was superb.  He knew when one note was better than fifty, he knew chords, he knew rhythms, he knew effects. 

Behind the keyboard sat a guy I'd known for about a year.  He'd played guitar in Urban Fox at a gig in April 2000 although he always said his instrument was the piano.  I was the keyboard player and for lack of someone with vocal talent, the singer as well.  I could let him take over keyboards - but I'm not a front man and never will be.  We struggled on into 2001 and the collective didn't really go anywhere. That's when I saw him behind the keyboard at the drummer's house. 

They started playing a song - it was good, it sounded like they'd been playing together for years such was the talent in the room.  In reality it had been about six weeks.  I stepped up to the mike - 'Dead beat, like the rhythm of a drum and I don't know where it comes from' - the words started writing themselves - the melodies started flowing.  This is how a band should work... I thought.  It's like when Simon Le Bon first showed up to sing with Duran Duran and belted out 'Sound of Thunder' to what the band were doing. 

Hang on, the riff is just going round and round and repeating.  This could be so much better.  However good these guys think they are, they could be much much better.  We break for a rest - I can't rest - I kick the keyboard player out of his seat - he's a virtuoso, he knows jazz (a foreign language to me), he knows Cole Porter - I know Beethoven and Bach.  I'm all about fugues and cadences.  'This is the bridge', I say to the guitarist who nods in an appreciative manner and starts riffing around the six chords - 'and this is the chorus'.  He plays again.  The drummer looks annoyed.  Ian goes along with whatever's happening. The keyboard player takes his place back at the keyboard looking bemused.  The song works - intro, verse, bridge, chorus. 

'Why don't we record a few takes next week and I'll bring some polished lyrics along?', I say to the drummer.  He dismisses me and walks off.  We've known each other for twenty years.  In an hour, I've done what  they couldn't in six weeks.  Do his toes feel stepped on?  Does he think I'm trying to take his baby away?  With someone, anyone, directing these musicians - these excellent musicians who were not writers or producers, this whole situation could have been very Duran Duran if only the drive was there.  I'd need singing lessons and a make-over if I was going to go all 'Le Bon' but the potential in that room was huge.  Unfortunately, so was the drummer's ego. 

I was never invited back the following week - I knew I wasn't going to be allowed back in that studio when I saw the look on the drummer's face as I left.  I found out later he thought my lyric 'dead beat' was about him.  How can you lose what you never had?

Walking home that night in 2001, at 1am, the full moon hanging in the cloudless sky and reflecting off the damp pavement.  The still air and empty street filled my head.  I stopped and looked over at the park - a place that is usually so full of people, laughter and games - standing empty in the chilly darkness.  'I'm not a musician', I thought to myself.  They were all still back at the studio, smoking, drinking, laughing, planning their next jam. A jam that would never go anywhere.  A jam that would last hours and have nothing to show at the end. 

When I spend a few hours in a studio, I have at least three songs, a few demos, ideas to go back to later, some riffs and at least one melody.

I've spent the last couple of months developing the ideas that were written in a few days in April 2013.  Fleshing out, adding bass lines, drum patterns, synth decoration.  Using my workstation to build midi patters, electronic loops, fills and guitar decoration that makes it sound like I can play the damn thing.
It's surprising how little of the musician in me goes into an album.

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