Rock music is a young person’s game. With a few exceptions – scene lynchpins with modest but faithful followings; him or her from That Band, now solo; utterly deluded Oasis-a-likes still waiting for Alan McGee to sign them, because what the world really needs now is Fat Oasis – if you haven’t carved out a musical career by the time you exit your twenties and early thirties then you either get out of music altogether, become a covers band or go corporate, playing for businessmen and brides.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that. “Real” musicians like to mock wedding bands and corporate gigs, but the best of them are masters of music, people who’ve managed to turn what they love doing into a career. That’s something to celebrate, surely.)
There are lots of reasons for the exit. The big one is that young people will put up with a lot of shite. They’ll take a day off work to get their gear into the venue and then sit doing nothing for four hours. They’ll jump in a van and drive 300 miles to play in front of three people. They’ll put up with arseholes and bullshitters and fantasists. And they’ll genuinely believe that playing a battle of the bands on a wet tuesday night will make them the next Radiohead. You get fed up with that shit long before you reach middle age.
There are other reasons too. You start to feel ridiculous sharing stages when you’re as old as the other bands’ fathers. You worry that you’re as bad as the utterly deluded Oasis-a-likes. You have a demanding job, maybe a family, and if you have spare money it goes on the house rather than on three days of studio time. Your spine doesn’t like carrying Marshall stacks up fire escapes any more. You’re not going to be patronised by pricks. And music just isn’t the all-consuming passion it is when you’re seventeen.
So you stop.
I think that’s a shame, because you don’t need to do all the young-people things to enjoy making music. Thanks to technology, you can have all the good bits without any of the bad – and you might just make better music as a result.
Write, rehearse, perform, repeat
Looking back on the 26-odd-years I’ve been involved with music, a lot of it was fairly typical of younger musicians: you’d bash out something half-decent, write a lyric, rehearse it to a reasonably acceptable standard and then play it through a PA louder than war. It sounded okay, but that didn’t mean it was any good.
I’ve mentioned this before, I’m sure, but one of my earlier – and at the time, better – late teenage efforts went like this:
I hate this town
I hate this town
I hate this town
I hate this town
I think we can agree that the world doesn’t really need that kind of thing. Or this:
I could point my car at the city
Let it drive me there
Keep the windows down
Let the rain wash this town
Out of my hair
I wouldn’t know where I was going
Until I got there
Sounds BOLLOCKS, more like.
As a young man the lyrics I wrote fell into three categories:
Please have sex with me.
I think bad things are bad. Please have sex with me.
I am really fucking deep. Please have sex with me.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with that – “please have sex with me” is the theme of some of the best pop music ever made – but for many young songwriters it’s the only real experience they’re actually singing about (And for many of them the experience isn’t of having sex. It’s of wanting sex.) For the generation that came after mine there was a second topic, their parents’ divorces and how it like totally messed them up and stuff.
The result? Lots of songs about wanting to have sex, or about how bad things are really bad, often couched in language that you’ll look back on ten years later and go “Jesus! I was such a tit!” If like me you grew up in the stadium rock era, there was also a definite tendency to go for big-sounding stuff that doesn’t actually mean anything. For example, in one of mine:
So sad today
You never could act
Your eyes give the game away
The same tomorrow
You’re talking up a storm
But you’re fooling no-one
Sometimes you don’t need wings to fly away
I’ll be waiting here with open arms
That, as you’ve no doubt noticed, doesn’t make any fucking sense and doesn’t fucking rhyme either. But that’s okay, because if you do it in a SUPER YEARNING VOICE over BIG CHIMING GUITARS it works. U2 made a career out of it, and I’m re-recording that one with bigger guitars because I still like it, even though the lyrics are bollocks. These days I find that kind of thing funny.
I realise that this isn’t necessarily a reflection on all young songwriters. Maybe I was, and still am, shite. But if I was, I fooled a lot of people: at no point have other musicians or reviewers said about that song, “hang on! That doesn’t make any fucking sense, or even rhyme!” I remember letting my then-bandmates see it, and they thought it was amazing.
Older, not wiser
As you go on, you probably get better. You try harder, you get more experience (so you can actually write about real things instead of made-up things or things you’ve read in books), you listen to more music, and the stuff you come up with gets more interesting. You’ve probably learned some lessons too, so for example you don’t affect a whiskey growl that sounds patently ridiculous just because your bandmates think you need to sound more rocky. And if you’re lucky, you hook up with musicians that are better than you, people who can sprinkle magic dust on your songs.
What you probably don’t do is give the songs the time and attention they need.
I certainly didn’t. For many years there was a treadmill: you’d write a song, take it to rehearsal, get it into something approaching a finished shape and then you’d play it live. Once you’d done that it was more or less carved into stone: after the gig you’d have more ideas, so your attention would turn to them. With hindsight, that means a lot of songs were stopped at the “has potential” stage: they weren’t finished, but I thought they were.
The other problem with the gig treadmill is that you end up painting from a very limited palette. I think technology has changed that for current musicians, but for me there was no point in trying anything that wasn’t guitar/bass/drums because we wouldn’t be able to play it live.
That focus on sticking to what we could actually play was particularly limiting for me, because I’m not a very accomplished musician – and thanks to RSI and later, hand surgery, I’m even less accomplished; for example, I can’t hold a plectrum for a whole gig.
I can bash away on a guitar reasonably well and even knock out a few things on a drum kit, but keyboards and other instruments are a mystery to me. I’ve tried, but I can’t get my head around them. Singing the praises of Girls Aloud, Robyn, Sugababes, Pet Shop Boys et al, something I’ve done for years, was never an ironic pose – I went to see Girls Aloud again last night, and they were superb – but that music didn’t inform the music I was making because I couldn’t bloody play it. As endless indie bands have proved with their annoying “let us show you that a pop song is actually good!” covers, some of the best pop songs have a certain something you can’t replicate on a guitar.
The third problem for me was that I didn’t have the ability to engineer recordings or the budget to get it done properly, so any studio time was a rushed “we have two days! Let’s record 700 songs!” experience. That can work for some bands – a tight live band recreating the live experience can easily do a really good set in a day – but equally it can mean making recordings that aren’t as good as they can be.
No matter how talented the musicians you’re working with, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really talented people, if your songs aren’t finished and the recordings are rushed then you’re not going to produce something you’re really proud of.
I climbed off that particular treadmill in 2004 and haven’t released anything or played a gig since.
And now we’re back! Back! BACK!
This is the new shit
Since 2007 I’ve been messing around on various Macs, putting ideas into Logic Pro and generally faffing around. I’ve produced a lot of unlistenable nonsense but since my brother David got involved last year it’s started to turn into something more interesting – and while there are guitars, basses and drums involved, the guitars aren’t the focus any more.
Thanks to technology, I’m no longer limited to what I can play (or what instruments I can afford), or what I can do live, or how much studio time I can afford, or rushing to get something finished so it can be performed live. Some of the songs we’re working on have been kicking around since 2007. Others are even older. One of them, You Don’t Have To Be Alone, has gone from an overlong and fairly dirgey bit of guitar music to short, sharp, sparkly electronic pop, which suits it much better. Most of the songs are completely new and owe as much to Pet Shop Boys and Girls Aloud as they do to U2, REM and Radiohead – and none of the lyrics are about hoping to have sex or pretending to be deep in the hope that people will want to have sex with me.
It’s quite possible that when we finally let people hear what we’ve been up to – and it’ll be a while yet, because while we’ve got a shortlist of around a dozen near-finished songs there’s still a lot more to do to them – they’ll think it’s all shite and that the lyrics don’t make any fucking sense, but that’s fine: I’m too old to go back to the live circuit, overcoming crippling stage fright to serenade three drunks and a murderer for gig after soul-destroying gig.
And anyway, we can’t play any of it live.