Friday, 11 November 2016

Naming an album

I don't know Vince Clarke but he's been a hero of mine for about a thousand years.  I don't know the exact story and wouldn't want to guess but I like to believe that while he was in Depeche Mode, Vince just wanted to play jolly tunes (see 'Just can't get enough') with just a few elements.  Wallowing in the simplicity of a square wave and a percussive brass sparkle.

I'd like to think he wanted to keep on making simple pop music with his synthesizers and so found himself paired with a slightly angry post-punk singer with an identity crisis.  He wrote 'Only You' whose genius lies in its simplicity and 'Don't go' which is the older brother of  'Just can't get enough' with its catchy intro, captivating bass line and bleeping middle eight.  The album 'Upstairs at Erics' has been the inspiration behind most of Urban Fox's early albums.

Our debut album 'Fear' was produced entirely on three synths despite a lot of our early songs being written on or heavily featuring electric guitar.  Through 'Fear 2', 'Impressions' and 'Citadel', it's fair to say the spirit of 'Upstairs at Eric's' was always present.  Over the years the music became more involved, heavier, driven, deeper, pretentious, humorous, funky, rocky and a little too involved for it's own good.  I spent the entirety of the writing of the 'Six String' album trying to write something of the level of Tears for Fears' 'Songs from the big chair'.  Just listen to the sparseness of the musical accompaniment of the intro (which is actually a stripped down verse) of the song 'Shout'...

That's what makes it effective.  Urban Fox songs sometimes have 15 tracks of strings, pads, guitars, synths, three different drum machines... it all gets muddy and clogged trying to sound dramatic.  The intro to 'Shout' is where we needed to get back to.  The musical backdrop to the song 'Look of Love' by ABC is also pitched at around the level of genius.  Orchestral pop.  How did they make that work?

Finally, one of our favourite albums of all time was Tears for Fears' debut, 'The Hurting'.  To lay themselves bare like that using such stark instrumentation and production, was brave.  For me, the drumming is the stand out ingredient on the entire album, especially on 'Start of the Breakdown'.

Could we write something very stripped, jolly, fun, poppy, jaunty, bare, stark, melody rich, hooky, simple? Yes - but probably not as well as Vince, Roland or Martin.  The new album, which has a working title of 'Dark Corners' has the lyrical content close to 'The Hurting', the musicality of 'Upstairs at Eric's' and the sensibilities of an early Urban Fox album.

More on the content soon but here are a couple of the album covers we've had mocked up whilst we finish writing songs nine and ten before recording starts.




Wednesday, 1 June 2016

How to write the perfect pop song

Whilst writing our latest Urban Fox album, 'The Private World', I got to thinking...

You're probably thinking, by the title of this blog post, that I know how to write the perfect pop song. Well, if I could, I'd have had a string of hit singles and a couple of platinum selling albums. No, I can't write the perfect pop song, much as I have tried over the years. I think, even though it's quite a basic premise, songs are quite easy to write, pop songs are very easy to write but one that captures an audience is something that, as far as I can see, happens by accident.  I say this because there are plenty of perfect pop songs out there but not many of them have been written by the same person.

What usually happens is, a band or singer-songwriter writes and records lots of songs and one or two sell lots of copies whilst the rest of them are largely ignored by the mass public, becoming popular only with fans of that act.  There are songs which top the charts which are falsely deemed commercial. Justin Bieber recently had around four or five songs in the top ten at the same time. This was enthused about by various radio stations and TV music channel presenters who don't know any better.  This 'record' means nothing of course because the great bands of the past such as Queen or U2 aren't arrogant enough to release five songs at the same time to achieve such a 'feat'.  Their songs were organic, reaching whatever position in the chart they did, the quality of which deemed by how long the song stayed in the chart.  A good song will hang around and eventually seep into the public consciousness, a five-single salvo by a boy with very little talent will be forgotten about very quickly.

So, back to the 'perfect pop song'.  Music is everything you like and everything I like, so there can't be an answer to this question - can there?  Well, I used to be obsessed with 7" singles.  A single, in my opinion, is different to a song.  A song can be a single but a single doesn't have to be a song. It can be a song but I think a single is a lot different to a song in the classical sense.  A commercial single has to find that blurry part of the musical taste Venn diagram. That middle ground that appeals to the innate music fan in all of us.  For some it's something dancy and for others it's a powerful ballad.  In most cases, it's something catchy with a hook and enough to make you want to go back and have another listen - or indeed, go to Woolworths and purchase the 7" for 49p, take it back to your bedroom and listen to it over and over and over.

A song on the other hand can be anything.  Anything with a tune and lyrics or without a tune or lyrics.  I've found that those singles I bought, expecting that artist to continue in the same vein of quirky upbeat hooky music, were either accidents or written deliberately to sell enough to allow the artist to go all self indulgent and write an entire album by themselves, about themselves and for themselves. All trancy with spacey expanses of weird blank soundscapes with various existential lyrics about their pain and not a lot to identify with.  There are of course those bands whose singles are not commercial and they're revered as geniuses because their album took years to write and record and has so many levels you couldn't possibly 'get it' in one listen.  To me, Pink Floyd are the exact opposite of what I want out of an album.  I'm a pop single man through and through.  I want to be captured from the off, I want to be dragged in by the energy or the atmosphere, entertained for three minutes and then left wanting to take the 'needle' back to the start and have another go.  That for me is the first step to a perfect pop song.  How better to demonstrate my point than by nominating ten songs which fall into that category for me - each fits all of the criteria to be described as, in my opinion, perfect pop songs.  I must make clear that these are by no means my favourite songs of all time, they're merely songs I like a lot which tick all my boxes when I'm buying a single.  These, to me, were perfect singles...

1. I don't care - Shakespears Sister (#7 in 1992)

2. The fear - Lily Allen (#1 for four weeks in 2009)

3. Release me - Agnes (#3 in 2009)

4. If I could change your mind - Haim (#27 in 2014)

5. Higher love - Stevie Winwood (#13 in 1986)

6. Black coffee - All Saints (#1 in 2000)

7. The show must go on - Queen (#16 in 1991)

8. Groove is in the heart - Deee-lite (#2 in 1990)

9. Criticize - Alexander O'Neal (#4 in 1987)

10. Prayer for the dying - Seal (#14 in 1994)

So there you have it.  Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below and if you get a chance, check out some of our own songs, which are far from perfect, on Spotify, I-Tunes and various other places - details of how are here : 

Friday, 22 April 2016

Purple Pain... our history with Prince

Urban Fox's entire back catalogue is steeped in Prince's influence so Thursday 21st April 2016 was a sad day indeed.  One of my first ever conversations with Urban Fox's chief lyricist, Doug, was about Prince.  It didn't go very well to my memory as I decided to sing 'Six O'Clock already I was just in the middle of a dream, Woke up this morning couldn't have sworn it was judgement day'.  However, we got over my little indiscretion and Doug made me a mix tape which had 'Little Red Corvette' on it. '1999' with it's heavy synths resonated with what I was into at the time (1982)  because I was all about Depeche Mode, ABC, Human League et al.  'LRC' was just out of sync with my music taste at the time.  When I heard it again on Doug's mix tape in 1987 it stirred something inside.

Little Red Corvette - Prince

I'd bought Alexander O'Neal's 'Hearsay' on the back of the single 'Criticise' which was the best thing I'd heard for ages.  On Doug's tape there was a song 'Saturday Love' by Alex and Cherrelle which led to me discovering more and more Minneapolis.  The 'Purple Rain' album, Alexander O'Neal's first album and eventually, after some prompting from Doug, Morris Day and the Time.

It wasn't until 1991 that we started writing songs together but in those initial sessions when we wrote 'Neon City' and 'Without you' it was clear Prince's influence, energy and ethos would be ingrained in Urban Fox's songwriting.  We recorded versions of The Time's 'Jerk out' and 'Blondie' with a Geordie version of 'Yount' for good measure.

Jerk Out (Live)

More Prince influenced Urban Fox songs followed with 'Midnight Rain' and 'Used, abused and confused' but the most outward reference to the the Purple genius was in 'Minneapolis Blue'.  It was written in September 1995 by Doug (Words and Music) and told of a failed romance set in Minnesota.  We re-recorded it in the form it was meant to exist in last year (click below to listen)

In 1996 I started listening to a lot more Prince, namely 'The Gold Experience', 'Sign o' the times' and 'Diamonds and Pearls'.  However, I went back to 'Purple Rain' which I listened to every day for about a month whilst I was writing the first few songs on our album 'Magic'.  It's where 'One more Sunrise' and 'When the rains come down' came from.  It was the song 'Gold' which grabbed me most around that time and made me stop trying to come up with deep involved music (which I almost always failed at) and start writing uplifting, simple but joyous and mood creating music.  It's one of those where you go 'How the hell did that only get to number 10' in the chart?

Gold - Prince

The album shaped the future of Urban Fox somewhat. We stopped being so introspective (the Citadel EP and 'Chiseaux' cases in point) and started to look at what was happening around us. I tried to bring more major scales into the music and the results were positive.  'World for our Children' was one of the best songs we'd ever written and came from a place of social awareness.  Prince said that the key to longevity was to learn as much about music as possible and although I'd been trapped in a Gary Numan loving synth bubble for a few years, I started to embrace the electric guitar and started producing songs like 'Chapter IV' and 'West End (my best friend)' with our bassist/guitarist Ian.

Loads more Prince-esque lyrics followed including 'Boy meets girl', 'Last bus blues' and 'Ghetto Hope'.  Thankfully we've only ever covered one Prince song, 'When Doves Cry', something that will never be repeated!  And to this day, he's still (indirectly) influencing what we're doing as there's a track on the new album called 'What would Morris do?'.

I'm going to sign off this blog by dedicating a song to him.  It was one we wrote in tribute to Luther Vandross but it just seems so appropriate right now.  The song is called 'Lost a Friend'.  Thank you so much Prince Rogers Nelson for everything - the songs, the music, the memories, the love, the everything.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Magic - Pulling at the threads

It feels strange to pull at the threads of something that's perfect and complete.  By perfect I mean 'as I wanted it'. Even though that's not strictly true, there's loads about it I'd change.  But 'Magic' as an album worked like no other in Urban Fox's back catalogue.

Every band member had input into the creative process by means of a set of lyrics here, a guitar riff there or an idea that set a song rolling.  'Magic' was full of atmosphere but in the days of analogue (well, digital was around but we couldn't afford digital) it was more atmospheric, muddy, hissy and a bit crackly in places.  Using a four channel desk connected to a one track tape machine meant everything that could be sequenced was, and everything that couldn't be sequenced was played live.

The atmosphere behind 'Magic' (Yamaha PSR-90)
A great example of that is right at the beginning of the album where the first minute and a half of the instrumental Magic (a prelude) was played live before the sequenced part kicked off and live playing continued over the top.  Once the music was done, it was  bounced to another one track with vocals dubbed over the top. Every track was sung start to finish in one take (as was everything pre-1997), no retaking a note in the chorus or punching in to correct the awful 'sacrilege and larceny (fear) became a part of me' in 'Magic' the track.

Written in 1996, we obtained new technology in 1999 and attempted to go back and update the main tracks.  The results were cold, mechanical and empty so they never saw the light of day.  The only song from the album that we ever played live was 'I Ran', but even then it was Version 2 which was more accessible than the desolate and haunting version on Magic with Ian's original lyrics. 'I cried and I cried until I couldn't cry anymore; then I cried'.  The only other song we've got anywhere near re-doing better than the original is 'Forty Fields' and that's only because it's a straight up, out and out pop song with no complications.

Rerecording the album has made me realise why we've never really done an update sooner. One, we've never really had the technology to do it and two, the songs are really complex.  More than I realised.  You make something and while you're making it, you're inside it and you're chipping away building.  Only when you step back and look at the entire thing you tend to take it on face value and forget about all the interesting background frills that you don't notice unless you're looking for them but without them, the thing sounds kinda empty and wrong.

Pulling at the threads has opened my eyes to what makes a concept album work.  Especially one where you can identify the concept in each song.  It's in the moving bass lines which never resort to background accompaniment.  It's in the synth reeds over 'Another place to hide' and the minor 7ths and 13ths of the church organ intro to Magic.  It's in the growling polysynth underneath Darkside and the electric bass of I Ran. Signatures. Hooks. Lyrics with depth. 'Same star, different sky.' The 'boom' in boom. Squeezing everything I could out of the horribly limited PSS-790.

This was used to write: Fear, Fear 2, Impressions, Reflection, Citadel, The Message, Intermezzo, Citadel 2 & Vicious Sky
Pulling at the threads of something perfect, seems wrong and it still might prove to be wrong but stepping back inside that cathedral you built, inspecting the craftsmanship and admiring the hand carved statues you don't see from the outside, is like getting back in touch with an old friend and talking for hours.

Re-imagined so far :

1. Magic (Prelude) - Nuttall
2. One more sunrise - Hunter/Nuttall
3. When the rains come down - Hunter/Nuttall
4. Another place to hide - Nuttall
5. Boom! - Nuttall
6. Magic - Nuttall
7. Forty Fields - Nuttall
8. The pleasure behind death - Nuttall

Still to do :

9. New Fear - Nuttall
10. Goodnight - Nuttall
11. Face to Face (Version 1) - Nuttall
12. Face to Face (Version 2) - Nuttall
13. Save me - Hunter/Nuttall
14. I Ran - Forbes/Nuttall
15. Maybe - Nuttall
16. Darkside - Nuttall