Friday, 12 December 2014

How To Write a Song Part 2 - The Chorus

I have little idea of music theory. I am not an amazing guitarist or piano player, yet I have been able to write songs that I'm proud of and that have produced effusive responses from people who have never met me and don't owe me any loyalty in praising my creations.

I know that you can go to music college and learn the theory that will make you effective at playing and writing, but I also believe that there is an element of personal passion and the wild nature of beginners and amateurs that stands tall and makes good songs. So:

Most songs consist of a vocal melody that is sung (unless it's a rap), with a rhythmic and chord-based backing. A lot of people write songs by playing around with chord riffs or patterns and then singing over the top of it. Often the result is a vocal melody line that just follows the changes of the chords and is therefore either simple perfection, or more likely, rather dull. However, if you're a young band just starting out, or a group of accomplished players over the age of 40, this method of writing songs will be quite adequate because it is tremendous fun in that moment and your friends will love it. Check out my previous blog for how it works if you're 17:   



Some songs don't have a chorus; they're just a straight or crooked line to the end and then they stop. Such songs can be great, as the T-Rex classic 'Ride a White Swan' (by Marc Bolan) shows. I would contend that this is just one long chorus and a guitar solo, but I'm sure many wouldn't agree.

Here's another song that is just a single section repeated. Is it a verse without a chorus or a chorus without a verse? Who cares?  'Ain't No Sunshine' (by Bill Withers)

However, the pop convention is to have a chorus, and I do like a good chorus. The verse builds towards the chorus and the chorus packs the power of the song musically and lyrically.


The simplest chorus repeats the same vocal melody and backing chords. Strip away the fast pace, heavy instrumentation and outrageous costumes and 'Let me entertain you' (by Guy Chambers and Robbie Williams) demonstrates this. The title is the chorus, and the chorus is merely the title repeated 2 or more times with an unchanging backing. I can't say I like this, but it is damned easy and if your message is straightforward, it's an effective way to draw attention to your song - and maybe the other parts of the song allow this simplicity to hang well.

Let Me Entertain You - Chorus 0:38


At this point I need to explain that after the age of about 23, I have mainly written songs with 'scratch lyrics'. This means that, at the composing stage, the meaning of the lyrics has less importance and I don't think about them until later. Paul McCartney of The Beatles famously had the musical and syllabic phrase 'scrambled eggs' that eventually became the song 'Yesterday'.

Yesterday = scrambled eggs

The advantage with this approach is that it produces much better vocal melodies which makes for a better song, but also you sometimes find that your subconscious works on the lyrics. As the musical sound of the song starts to fire synapses in the brain, sometimes words just appear, although usually they can come along later when you are relaxed and not thinking too hard about it.


What often happens is that one melodic line comes to you - often a series of 6 - 10 notes that have a charm or a nagging insistence that tells you it's a good sequence. I have often come up with such a 'hook' whilst out on a solo bicycle ride; the turning of the pedals creates a rhythmic pulse and inevitably I start to whistle until I come up with something.


When the phrase seems good, the temptation is to repeat it 2 or 4 times and that makes your chorus. It worked for Robbie Williams and it worked even better for Joy Division, with the same melodic line serving as title, instrumental melody hook and chorus:

Love Will Tear Us Apart - Chorus 0:47


Once your song writing starts to refine a little, the next step is to write a chorus that does not just consist of one repeated catchy line. Most bands use a bit of repetition and then grow from it by changing the phrase slightly.

For example, in this song, Teenage Dirtbag, (by Brendon B Brown), the chorus consists of the same vocal melodic phrase repeated 3 times with different lyrics and then on the fourth line resolves to go into the next verse.

Teenage Dirtbag - Chorus 0:45


To take this idea further, instead of simply repeating the same phrase in the same way, you can often get a good effect by singing the same vocal melody line but changing the chords beneath it; obviously descending or ascending chords affect the mood of the piece. In 'The A Team' (by Ed Sheeran), the chorus which is sung is largely a 2-note doorbell tune, but the changing chords underneath it create a mood that goes downwards with the progression.

The A Team - Chorus 0:33


A trick that the poppiest of pop songs use is to start the song with the chorus; or even a double chorus. It sounds good on the radio; even better riding the Waltzer, and its instant radio-friendliness means that it appeals to those who 'like' music as well as those who 'love' music.

It's My Party - Chorus 0:00


If you are interested in the theory of why certain chord progressions sound good, you should take a look at the Seechord website :    Joe Samuel from Brighton, UK has worked out a way to map out the chord sequences in songs to investigate how and why they work. 

There are banks of professionally trained experienced songwriters who use the musical intervals and instrumentation that is in vogue to supply the big record companies. They write all the time, and that is probably the way to write a good song. I have a lot of respect for the various teams that have produced popular songs, be it Carole King  in The Hit Factory, or even Stock Aitken & Waterman. Below is a link to an interesting article about how it works nowadays writing material for the likes of Rihanna. A  big deal is made of the songwriting role of 'Top Liners' - the women (usually) who produce the hooks, choruses and vocal melodies to go on top of the male (usually) musicians' backing.

If you write constantly, the difficult part is recognising which of the many songs you write is the good one, because amongst scores of mediocre songs or ideas, there may be just one. Often I would put song ideas in a drawer for a month and then see which would ripen and stay alive after that time.  With a lot of editing work, joining different sections together to make a more interesting structure, you can produce something good and then fly in some wonderful lyrics that fit the musical mood.


I believe it does exist. It has happened to me and I have heard other songwriters describe it in the same way. Very occasionally, you will sit down to write a song and a song will deliver itself very neatly to you in one dollop; just like a baby into the world. When this is happening, time loses its meaning. It may appear to have happened instantly, but in reality it may have taken hours. Weirdly, songwriters often have a 'pregnancy' feeling for weeks in which you anticipate that there's a song in there but it isn't ready to come out. Sometimes the songwriting magic works as if you are in a showroom; there are amazing songs already written which whizz about ready to be plucked off the shelf and made yours.

But when that does happen, you then  start to worry that you have simply copied an existing song that you have remembered subconsciously. Even now, I hear an old song and think it sounds like one of my old songs and so I have to check when each was written to find out if I have accidentally copied. Once I heard the Green Day song, 'Wake me up when September ends' (by Billy Joe Armstrong) and thought I had copied my song 'Fay' from it. Really it's only the chord sequence, which anybody could have come up with, but I was reassured to find out that my song was written 12 years before the Green Day song.

When September Ends - Chorus 0:45


One of my all time favourite songs is Fountain of Sorrow (by Jackson Browne). It has an admirable and complex verse, which allows the song to hold back before giving you the chorus. It's almost 3 minutes of a double verse before you get the chorus. Even then it's a sparse doomy chorus  with an unconventional chord sequence, but then it grows triumphant and uplifting just within the space of the 8 or so lines. It's absolutely masterful songwriting.  It's  not an obvious hit, but, despite the snide aside about the girl in question and the end of tour lack of crispness, I so admire Browne's great craftsmanship and longevity.

Fountain of Sorrow - Chorus 2:50

In the third blog on songwriting, I hope to write more about composing lyrics. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Community Arts and How PO! began

I love Community Arts.  It used to be a kind of yogurt-weaving joke; the idea that rough kids from inner city estates would do a bit of circus skills, parachute co-operation games and muck about with old lorry tyres and somehow get civilised. I still think it works. I still think that it's better than doing nothing.

There are half-dead men in their 40s, who grew up in affluent suburbs and never experienced Community Arts. If you grow up with financial stability and success as a default, it must seem weird that anyone would ever want to do those things -  how can making a giant elephant out of old pallets be useful for young people who should be training for jobs?

I guess there's always been bad parenting; there are selfish ones and immature ones and ones that just aren't around enough. But when I was younger, Community Arts filled that gap. There were dens and adventure playgrounds and youth centres, and arts workers who went out on the street to find the kids who might want to learn the bass guitar. This wasn't strict like school, but it was caring, like a home should be and it earnestly conveyed the idea that through arts activities you could become someone better.

Unleash children’s joy, fantasy, and creativity–then they are free, social, and curious children.” – Palle Nielsen


I don't really know what happens in inner cities now; some would have us believe that street gangs pop up to meet those emotional needs and provide activities for young people. I know that there are still many great youth projects, but Community Arts has lost status in our education and social system, and we really need to shout out and protect it.

Carolyn Drury's Community Theatre - still doing it 30 years later
My first encounter with anything like this was a drama group, in Newark, run by Carolyn Drury. I think she was influenced by 1970s  American improvisation group The Player's Workshop. Although I was doing all right at school, I was rather passive and didn't really understand a lot of what was going on around me.

 Drama brought me alive; I could be anyone I wanted to be; I could see the perspective of another person by talking with their tongue. Carolyn's passion for drama was obvious; she showed the teenagers in the group that life is fun and people are free, but that you need to do something worthwhile with that freedom.

In the summer of 1981, I got a holiday job in Camden with Inter-Action. The founder, Ed Berman had set up so many inspiring projects and I was employed on the first ever children's computer camp.

Nowadays, computer camps are often residential affairs for affluent nerdy-types, but then computers were only just evolving as an educational tool. The idea was that kids from the estates would come for free each day and be taught BBC BASIC programming by 19-year old tutors like me. It was a fun job; the children were really motivated and had ideas about what they wanted to do with this amazing new technology. Often they'd tell you about their lives; nothing dreadful, just about mums out at work cleaning and nobody to look after them over the summer.

The BBC B Computer as used at Computer Camp 

On page 14 of the 1988 report on the Inter-Action website, you can see that 200 young people a week used computers once the project became full-time; a project funded by the Department of Education and Science. 

After being in Leicester for a while, writing songs and rehearsing with The Soviets, I joined a course at Fosse Neighbourhood Centre Studios about sound recording. It was run by Multiplex, led by Teri Wyncoll.  I loved the activities and learning about sound engineering, and The Soviets recorded their first cassette release there. We met a few of the key people involved in bands in Leicester at the time and realised that there was a lot of support from the City Council for youth music. This included employment opportunities for musicians to work with younger kids, as well as more professional level training and workshops to develop your band.

Whilst Community Arts implies a collectivism and flexible response to the interests and needs of the community, I don't think it can be successful without clear leadership; it takes an individual or small group who are relentless in their push towards their goal. I know of many true collectives that have fallen apart in petty arguments, or wasted years on internal matters. Meanwhile, the mavericks, the inspired control freaks and the straight-talking action women and men get things done. Teri Wyncoll was such a person. She got things done in the Leicester music scene; courses, gigs, workshops and The Abbey Park festival - a miniature Glastonbury that kept growing and growing until the City Council decided that maybe it should be commercially funded and not come out of the Council Tax.

The Community Arts van takes PO! to play at a festival in Worcester with Hawkwind!

Looking back, Teri's Multiplex was vibrant and full of possibilities. When The Soviets fell apart, it made forming and launching a new band extremely easy as there were gigs, recording facilities and even grants for instruments on offer to young people. However, this doesn't mean to say that Teri was generally admired; in fact her power and influence engendered a huge amount of resentment from many musicians. The thinking was that she had a clique of friends, and 'ordinary decent bands' didn't stand a chance of sharing in the perceived millions of pounds on offer. At the heart of it was that Teri wasn't interested in covers bands, but in promoting original talent that might have a chance in the wider music business. This is why she encouraged us to train kids to play and form bands, but it's also why some 'ordinary decent bands' didn't really get picked to play the high profile gigs.

PO! playing at the Abbey Park Festival 1987

I always liked Teri's warm Geordie manner, her flat full of interesting objects and her determined pro-female outlook. PO! would not have lasted more than a couple of months had it not been for Multiplex and the Leicester music scene at the time.  However, Teri's interests were rooted in a desire for freedom and commercial success rather than dutifully following Council expectations for correct procedures and accountability. By 2002, the scene and funding possibilities had changed so much that Teri moved on to other projects, leaving a trail of unused community recording studios with outdated equipment across the city. After more than half a lifetime of banging on about the music business, Teri and her long-term partner Dave seem to be now pursuing a more peaceful world of  canal narrow boats. However, PO! must be eternally grateful to her for the opportunities and support that we had in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

In the meantime, another organisation, Soft Touch, has grown to become the main Community Arts organisation in Leicester, funded largely by the Arts Council, but also gaining status as a result of increased schools' music funding . Soft Touch's growth over many years has been controlled, professional and understated; their website shows the admirable work that they do, but it's also full of the policies, evaluations and risk assessments needed for a community organisation to succeed in today's climate. 

It's great that more young people are receiving a short burst of music tuition in schools, and that there are still projects that engage disaffected youth with the arts. However, we need so much more vision, funding and belief in Community Arts. So many people from other nations admire British edgy creative artists; the fashion, film and music industries could generate income to match our defence and chemical industries, if only we had the talent. If only we nurtured the talent....... 

Recent campaign in Leicester against huge City Council cuts to play scheme funding

Monday, 27 October 2014

Politics, The Musicians' Union and Me

I didn't grow up in an overtly political family. As a young child, Mike Yarwood was my route into politics; through his impressions, I knew many politicians of the time. I did think that Women's Lib had their own party, which seemed a good idea, but then I found out that Lib meant Liberals.

When I was 11, I asked my mum which way she would vote. I wasn't surprised when she told me she was a Liberal, like her friend, Councillor Kate Neil, in Clevedon. I was shocked, when she said my dad would vote Labour. Until then, the media had given me the idea that Labour were the party of smelly factories and nasty aggressive men. My clean, mild-mannered schoolteacher dad did not fit that image at all, but I think that got me interested in finding out what the parties stood for.

 Me, Snow Brian Clough, Mum, Front Brother Peter

Subsequently, my dad often claimed to have 'given up' on politics. He used to say something like 'I gave up on religion in 1959,  gave up on football in 1969 and gave up on politics in 1979'. My dad also told me never to be cynical.

After we had been living in Newark for a few years, a fantastic teacher at our school, Miss Catherine Spencer, encouraged pupils to enter public speaking competitions, and I found I was quite good at it. So, in 1977,  I was in the Yorkshire Television Public Speaking Competition. My speech was about 'death' but I didn't win; 16-year old William Hague did.

The programme for the final won by William Hague

My marksheet for the talk on 'Death'

Around 1978, when I was friends with Clare Weatherall of The Devices, I became 'radicalised' as a small-town lefty. This involved going on the train to Nottingham and spending a lot of time in alternative bookshop Mushroom Books. We bought and read pamphlets and got into trouble at school for trying to set up a branch of the National Union of School Students. Clare made me feel ashamed for not being working class enough, as my parents had a mortgage and did not live in a farm labourer's tied cottage. It seems ridiculous now, but that's how it was. 

My favourite political pamphlet from Mushroom Books
As a result, when I went to Sheffield Poly, it was as an anti-Thatcher student, with some interest in the anarchist way of things. I marched on the Reclaim the Streets in Leeds and for various other causes, as well as being the founder editor of the student newspaper - the Sheffield City Press. In an attempt to be a professional-style journalist, I  toned down my way-out thinking and became a mild lefty-liberal for a while.  I always used to say that I would join the Labour Party when I got old.

The Nico obsession at Sheffield Poly

An edition of the Student Newspaper I edited

And the lavish annual budget

After moving to Leicester University, and forming The Soviets. there was more of the 'Support the Miners' kind of activity; I was on the student union executive and was quite shocked to encounter Tory toffs and Hellfire types - I'd led such a sheltered existence until then and hadn't thought that many young people would be Conservatives. I did enjoy the commons-style bickering in meetings, and continued to give speeches if any of them would listen.

Once I had formed PO! as a band of serious intent, I decided to join the Musicians' Union, because that was now my trade and I believed in Trades Unions. Their monthly meetings were listed in the local council news sheet, so I decided to go along to a meeting. It was listed as being at the International Hotel, Leicester. I imagined a hotel conference room with rows of crimson leather armchairs full of Miles Davis types, smoking officials sitting at a table at the front, and lots of 'procedure'.

The International Hotel
Instead the MU meeting was held in one of the hotel bedrooms. I remember, as I went up to the 9th floor in the lift, wondering whether it was maybe a bit dodgy and I shouldn't be involved. Mind you, I think the three guys at the meeting were certainly shocked when I turned up. There was little attempt at a welcome, as I squeezed in to sit on a stool, and they carried on the meeting which mostly consisted of  'Do you remember when old John Duncan played his harmonica at the Liberal Club?' type conversations. During that first meeting, they broke into song on three occasions, and then, after they got rid of me, the branch secretary gave each committee member £3 for attending.

Through sheer stubbornness, enjoyment of the old guys / young punk girl dynamic, and a commitment to Trades Unionism, I stuck with the MU and attended every meeting until they got used to me. It always used to start, 'Good evening gentlemen ..... and Ruth'. Gradually, the meetings became more purposeful. We even stopped meeting in a hotel bedroom and moved to the Belgrave Liberal Club. This was a much bigger room, but there were still usually four of us. The club seemed to be an oasis of old white blokes in the middle of one of the biggest Hindu communities in the UK.

Left Bank in a proletarian cap
Around that time, the MU nationally was trying to get more members from the rock and pop field. There was a national rock and pop officer, Horace Trubridge (now Assistant General Secretary). He had been a saxophonist in a band called 'Darts' and did a good job of trying to get the MU to move with the times. Somehow our work in Leicester, putting on showcases and events within the rock and pop genre was noticed and I became involved with the East Midlands branch in Birmingham, and the national Rock and Pop Sub-Committee in London. I found this all a terrific wheeze; I must have been awfully earnest in trying to explain myself to the majority of people who did not really understand the indie pub circuit, DIY recording, let alone sampling and mixing.

Assistant General Secretary on Saxaphone
The pinnacle of my time with the MU was attending national conference as an East Midlands delegate. I got to address a hall full of classical flautists and jazz trumpeters about a number of things that I now forget - I think one was the 'two in a bar rule' about performing licenses, but I know I used my public speaking skills to the max. After the proceedings each day, there would be entertainment - usually a jazz big band - and everyone would drink heavily. After that, the delegates would retire to the college conference accommodation and act like students on Freshers week.

The orchestra players were the heaviest drinkers. One guy showed off a mini travelling drinks cabinet that he took on tour with him that held two bottles of whisky and some glasses. Out of a couple of hundred people the only women were me, about 8 orchestral players, and a few elderly wives who were there for the food. And there was a lot of classy food.

The experiences in the Musicians' Union seemed unlike any politics I could recognise; it was more like a battle with the old guard and How We Do Things. 'Keep Music Live' was the old 1970s MU slogan that was somehow overtaken by an ever-flowing tide of disco, karaoke, sampling, DJ mixing, downloading and the Internet. Ironically, the greater availability of digital recorded music has not killed off local bands where I live; there seem to be more open mic acoustic nights and live venues than before, and certainly there are many more impressive female musicians getting up on stage.

I don't hear or see anything of the Musician's Union these days; maybe they need better PR.  After finishing performing and recording with PO!, I stopped being part of the MU. I miss the old guys and was pleased to find out that one of them is still playing local rock n roll gigs at the age of 77.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Songs by Ruth Miller

Looks like it could be the Royal Mail, Leicester?
Today I am in the mood for lists, so here it is:

A list of 80 songs written by Ruth Miller

  1. A Lovely Letter
  2. A New Grandma
  3. A Page a Day
  4. Albert Stole My Heart
  5. Appleseed Alley
  6. Better
  7. Bigger Wall
  8. Bus Shelter 
  9. Confidence
  10. Danny's Girl
  11. Early Hours of Summertime
  12. Elephant Chains
  13. Empty Vessels
  14. Engineering
  15. Ever Been Had
  16. Failed Inventor
  17. Farmyard
  18. Fay
  19. First Foot
  20. George Orwell's on the Trail
  21. Ghost of the Green Grass
  22. Glamour
  23. Glass King
  24. Good Behaviour
  25. Good Boy Jacob
  26. Haunt You
  27. Higher Than Your Smile
  28. I took my Head on a Date
  29. I Won't Stay
  30. In a Mermaid Tail
  31. in My Dream
  32. In the Rain
  33. Ipswich
  34. Jacqueline's House
  35. Jennifer Television
  36. Kitchen Sink Drama
    Northampton Labour Club
  37. Last Bus Home
  38. Leopard
  39. Lips That Are Not Mine
  40. Loneliness
  41. Look for the Holes
  42. Lying on my Side
  43. Milksop
  44. My Head's on Fire
  45. No Flowers
  46. Northern Wonder
  47. One Last Thrill
  48. Plastic Charity Girl
  49. Poor Old John
  50. Pop Stars Wives
  51. Ruby Dream
  52. Ruthless
  53. Safe
  54. Sallyann
  55. She Lies in State
  56. Shed
  57. Sixteen Boxes
  58. Speak Again
  59. Squinting at the Sun
  60. Summer got Angry
  61. Summer Pudding
  62. Sunday Never Comes Around
  63. The Artist and the Model
  64. The Boys Who Went to Good Schools
  65. The Mad Girl
  66. Things That Might
  67. Tina
  68. Tomboy and Cowgirl
  69. Torturers
  70. Trains Go By
  71. Treasure
  72. Two Friends
  73. Walking in my World
  74. What Makes You Cruel?
  75. When
  76. White Cloud
  77. Why I'm Not at School Today
  78. Your Brother
  79. Your Shout
  80. You're the Judge

There were quite a few others registered with PRS/MCPS that I don't remember, so I haven't included them here. That's a lot of songs. But also.....
My notebook from 1986, when I wrote Appleseed Alley.

A list of joke songs written by Ruth Miller for the cult cable TV series Chez Lester

Embedded image permalink

  1. Born to be a Star
  2. Bouncing Bikinis
  3. Don't Prick Your Finger on the Holly
  4. The Slate Dance

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Too old for indie-pop? Is all this nostalgia A Good Thing?

I resent being too early for stuff, and it seems to have happened all the way along. I was born too early for skateboards, and I would have been a fantastic skate girl... or BMX stunt rider... or any of that. I ran a super wee record label in the 1980s and 1990s, using a computer only for typing and printing out my newsletters and tape inlays on a dot matrix printer. I bought those massive sheets of stamps from the post office and even had a PO Box, where I would go to get an elastic-band stodge of letters most days. 

It was truly fun, but how great it must be to make music nowadays with a World Wide Web! Where you can tweet to fans worldwide, and facebook-invite them to secret gigs. That would have been good back in my day. But, like a 19 year old girl trying to learn skateboard for the first time, would it be an embarrassing spectacle to do it all again on YouTube or at some festival, when you are comfortably middle-aged?

The first album 1989 - Little Stones as yet not re-released in digital format

I quite like writing a blog. It's helping me to sort things out in my mind; gradually I'm building a jigsaw puzzle of my life in music - a life in music which I thought ended last century.

If I'd been a bit more successful, I'd be a has-been, but, with a rather insignificant streak of success that runs to a few aging pop-kids in Spain, Japan and the USA, I'm not even a has-been.

For at least ten years, I made no reference to the music I had been involved with. I didn't play the CDs, I never pulled out a guitar to drunkenly strum out 'Sunday Never Comes Around', I kept myself to myself and forgot about the life in music.

But something has changed in the last couple of years. I think it started when somebody told me that there was a lot of stuff on the Internet about my band PO! So, of course, you google yourself and it all starts, doesn't it?  There are Wikipedia articles and strange YouTube videos put together by fans, and people saying back in 2005 that I have disappeared. No. Not disappeared, just tried a bit of ordinary life. It was all right.

That is, it was all right for a bit.

I guess it must be like experiencing some exciting gay encounters in your youth, but deciding to go straight in order to have a family and please your family because you think it will go away and that you can control it. And I've seen people do that for a good few years. Half a lifetime, even.

But you can't forget about it for ever. The Person inside starts knocking loudly and calling "Hello?" and you start to have ideas and urges. I began to watch live performances again, with a mixture of thrill and dread. But now I'm paralysed, not knowing what to do. Is it all just stupid nostalgia and vanity, or do I need to go back to music? Should I try to write and perform songs looking like some middle-aged mumsy? Songs about tennis elbow and parents evenings? I don't think so. I could write the same songs about the same subjects as I always did, because not much has really been achieved on the 'wielding of power and the situations that result from it' front, has it?

 I do still have a massive prejudice that pop music is for young people and that it's greedy to hang on in there once you can actually afford instruments and you know too many of life's secrets. To persuade me, many friends have come up with the names of 'veteran' performers who are eternally young and very respected, but I just don't know.....

Or... and this does seem more attractive... I could forget my real position as wage slave, single parent and coward, and just promote What Has Been.  I could work out how to get my old music officially online and see if anyone today would like it. Is that crass nostalgia? Cashing in on the 7"s in my attic? The songs are good, if you like that sort of thing... but how many people like that sort of thing now? I did work hard on the songs and could say a lot about the life and meaning of each one. I reckon if enough people express an interest here, I could be coaxed further.

I am rather intrigued by the number of people in Romania reading this blog. PO! did have fans all over the world, but I had not thought there were any in Romania; so, say hi please, people. Shall I carry on doodling with the old music in this way, or shall I look for a promotion at work and spend some time getting the shower and the car radio fixed?

Saturday, 3 May 2014

How to Write a Song Part One (1969 - 1984)

Sorry serendipitous finders - this is not really a manual for how anyone can write a song; I thought the title 'How to Write a Song' might Google well. Instead this is a biography of my songwriting development, bearing in mind I had little formal music training. However, it's always worth considering how other people's songs come about and trying some different techniques.

Me and little brother in Sunday best, ready for a trip in the Renault 4 to Avebury

Age 7

I used to make up songs whilst in the car. We lived in Wiltshire, England and my parents thought it good practice to take the children out in the Renault 4 every weekend; usually to a white horse or a hill fort.  I can't remember whether my parents had any input into the songs or not - on reflection, maybe they were based on army or girl guide tunes - but once each had evolved, the whole family would join in. With no car radio, CD player etc,  I suppose we made our own entertainment, because it truly was the old days (and fancy me being alive then!).

My favourite composition went like this:

Reader's Digest AA Book of the Road - 1967 Vintage Road MapIt's the biggest man-made mound in Europe
It's the biggest man-made mound in Europe,
It's the biggest man-made mound
That ever can be found
It's the biggest man-made mound in Europe.

It's the biggest stack of standing stones in Europe,
It's the biggest stack of standing stones in Europe,
It's the biggest stack around
That ever can be found
It's the biggest stack of standing stones in Europe.

The two verses were sung whilst driving past Silbury Hill  and Avebury   respectively. It had an oompah kind of a tune, and I had done my research on the back seat, reading the 1969 AA Book of the Road, which I loved.

White Horse
Avebury, Wiltshire, UK


Songwriting tip 1

Sit in the back of a car driving through the countryside and make up a song. No instruments, bar the 4-stroke internal combustion engine, but that will create some kind of pulse. Think trumpets playing your melody, and get the driver to sing back some of the words as an echo (an echo).

Age 13

I REALLY liked the song Angie Baby sung by Helen Reddy (Written by Alan O'Day)   This version has a stallion bass mix.

Although this did not help me write any songs back then, it helped me identify what I liked in a good song - namely:
* an ordinary setting
* a narrative
* an air of mystery to the ending
* themes of madness and female importance

Songwriting tip 2

Find a song that really burns and work out what the important elements are. Then review your own work and see whether it comes anywhere near.

Age 17

My grounding was not in cool musicians like Bowie, T-Rex and Dylan, but in chart hits; disco, novelty songs, Bay City Rollers. Most of them were dreadful. I was aware of heavy rock and those progressive bands where the men had long hair and sang falsetto, but had written them off as boring boys' stuff. Then punk came along. Not the first wave of American New York Dolls; nor the second wave of Malcolm McLaren's London, but the regional explosion that came with The Buzzcocks and The Swell Maps, and the girls in bands like The Raincoats and Delta Five.
Suddenly there was a reason to write songs. Not for the good of the English countryside, but for the sheer excitement of being 17 and being a powerful girl in a corrupted world. I don't think I hated anything or anyone; I had none of the punk tantrum in me, but I did have energy for sarcasm and two friends that believed. And that is all you need.

I wrote a song with The Devices called 'College Boys' in which I imagined what it would be like at university, where girls were cool and boys were pathetic idiots. In the song, (narrative, of course) I get picked up by a lad who boasts to his friends about his sexual prowess but is unable to maintain his hot rod in the presence of a ball busting princess like me. Well, I was 17.

Songwriter tip 3

Be 17. Get someone to play a bassline. Be sarcastic and joyful at the same time. Just be in a band and invite everyone to hear you. It will be great!

Age 23

The desire to write a song that had a clear political message mellowed into my wanting to tell the story of ordinary people's lives and situations brought about by politics and particularly power relationships. With lots of time and a depressive aura, I would sit and strum my guitar in sequences of chords that were satisfying. This usually included a B minor. I also discovered the sound of a capo on the second fret, which brought my preferred chordage into vocal range. Although I should have experimented more with alternative tunings, I tended to find that the result was too folksy and dreary. Instead I stuck to the post-punk power pop with a few B minors thrown in to show I was serious and down-trodden.

Lyrically, I went through a period of being deliberately obscure. I only half-knew myself what I was going on about, but there was an attempt to intrigue the listener and probably to play the intellectual.

I had a bass-playing friend who would come round to write songs with me. This involved sitting on the floor. I had a book where I had previously written song ideas - sometimes full verses and chorus - other times just groups of words or a concept. He would inevitably say, "I've got this bass run, and I would fit some of my ideas to it vocally, whilst playing the related chords. In this way, we'd work out a basic idea, which I would then work on later before playing it through with the drummer.

Songwriter tip 4

If you get ideas for words, write them down in a book. When you look at them weeks later, they may prove to be terrible, but at least you have them. They might form the basis of a classic song, or, twenty eight years later, you could show them to the world in a blog. Also, on a guitar, never stray too far from the B minor.

To be continued.... including the switch from writing the lyrics first to vocal melody first!