Songs Are Also Stories
I went to see Richard Thompson with my daughter last night at The Lowry Theatre in Salford. I have always wanted to see him do a full acoustic gig, but somehow over the decades I have managed to miss the opportunity. His support band told a story about a bad gig they had in Chicago, where their own support band were just awful. In the bar after the gig, one of that band’s members complemented their set but added that ‘it was music you have to listen to’. Oh dear.
It seems that these days music lovers are after the hook line, beat or riff, and that the substance of music is being passed by. If you decided to read a Wordsworth poem you wouldn’t stop after “I wandered lonely as a cloud” would you? You would read the whole poem to get an essence of its meaning and perhaps a story that lies behind it. And I don’t think you can claim to be a fan of Wordsworth unless you have read some of his works in their entirety. Sorry Bill. Rather picking on you there. I could have gone for Keats or Milton, but you’re from around here so I feel a bit more connected.
You see people in the audience at gigs mouthing the wrong words to songs because actually they have only ever known the chorus, or they might know the opening lines. There was this famous incident where that prick John Redwood during his spell as Secretary of State for Wales was caught mouthing excruciatingly badly to the Welsh National Anthem, when he clearly didn’t know any of the words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzBq0n8dxFQ So if you don’t know it don’t sing or say it! It just makes you look bloody stupid!
So as I push myself over the half way mark in recording The Breeding Ground Of Vile double album for next year, part of me thinks “what’s the point?” Most of my songs are stories, and where they are not they carry a political or environmental theme. If you don’t hear them through, you will never have the slightest clue what they are about. This is an album of protest songs covering a whole range of subjects from the global refugee crisis, through to the madness of war and conflict, people trafficking, unacceptable levels of poverty in “the world’s sixth largest economy”, democracy and power, threats to our civil liberties and others. There is a lot to protest about, a lot to discuss and understand.
I try to have weekly Saturday or Sunday morning listening sessions where I listen to songs that have kindly been sent to me by other artistes. I don’t always like them, but I do always listen through and where they request feedback I give it, sometimes possibly too honestly but always respectfully. I have learned over these last three years how all absorbing it is to create and record your own songs, and it follows that I appreciate that effort in others. We all have different tastes, and both variety and difference should be celebrated in this fucking mad world because that is what makes us special.
I may be a little more warped than many musicians. I actually like looking at my Bandcamp statistics summary! “Oh God you shouldn’t do that…” I hear many of you say with a simultaneous cringe. However I find it interesting, and not only because it supports the main point of this article. You can see at a glance how many listeners get farther than 10% or more through a song, how many dump it out of sight after the first riff or line, and how many give the songs a serious listen. It’s actually gold dust to a song writer, and throws out some real surprises. It gives an indication of which songs have the best hooks, and which have the best stories.
I would honestly like a similar system to be adopted by YouTube so I can see how many of my viewers have gone beyond the “Ugh he’s old” shock stage. Back to Richard Thompson. He is 68 years old. That’s nine years older than me. His set last night was packed with songs that combined his electrifying and mesmerising acoustic guitar style and intelligent lyrics that were at times sensitive and sad, at times piercing and full of venom, and at other times just plain funny. Music should inspire you to read beyond the headlines, listen beyond the first hook and watch beyond the opening credits. Life should be like that too. Or it has not meaning.