Broadcasting a joyful noise

This the astonishing Ndlovu Youth Choir performing the MOR hit Africa on America’s Got Talent. As someone who doesn’t watch TV, it had passed me by – so when I heard it in a Radio 4 programme this morning, it hit me like a truck full of sunshine and flowers. I like the song anyway, but the Choir elevate it into something utterly joyous and beautiful by bringing traditional African call and response to the main riff and chorus.

I heard the song on Radio 4’s Soul Music, which devoted an entire episode to Africa – not just the version above but versions by acoustic performers and versions played in a 24-hour charity marathon. It’s a wonderful episode, a little ray of light in a very dreich day.

Dropping the props

Last night I performed at a small open mic night, doing something I’ve never done before: I sang and played to a small audience without amplification. There was a PA there, but I didn’t use it.

It wasn’t planned: the battery in my guitar was flat so its pickups weren’t sending any signal to the PA system. But given the choice between trying to get a single microphone to pick up my voice and my guitar (something that never works particularly well)  or just doing three songs completely unamplified, I chose the latter, scarier option and stood in the middle of the room as I played three really, really good songs really, really well.

There’s something particularly frightening about doing that. On a stage, there are props you can hide behind. The stage may be raised slightly to elevate you above the audience. There’s a physical distance between the performer and the listeners. On stage there’s a mic stand, and more than anything there’s volume. If people aren’t interested in what you’re doing, if they talk instead of greeting you with the reverential silence you want,  you can just turn it up and drown them out. That’s as true in a tiny basement as it is in a big venue.

But if you step out from behind the mic, if you climb off the raised stage, you can’t rely on those things any more. Your voice and your guitar can’t drown out chat. There’s no reverb to flatter your voice. You’re not elevated or separated from the people in the room. It feels very much like those dreams where you’re standing up in front of an audience and you’re not wearing any pants.

It’s an absolute blast.

To play songs you know are good and sing them not just technically well but with all your heart and soul is always a blast, but it’s particularly so when you can see people connecting with what you’re doing.

Connection is what drives me to make music. I write songs I hope will matter to people the way other people’s songs matter to me. Those songs have helped me through some really tough times: they can be the soundtrack to your greatest moments and your best friend during the worst, and sometimes music is the only voice telling you that you’re not alone. Writing songs is one way I can fulfil the motto: be the person you needed when you were younger.

I tend to be very self-deprecating about the things I do, so when I post here about being the world’s greatest living songwriter or describing myself as “Brian Wilson with tits” I’m clearly having a laugh and sending myself up. But I’ve been writing songs for a very long time, and you don’t do that without having a certain amount of belief in your own abilities. I am a good and sometimes brilliant songwriter, and I think over the years my self-deprecation and my “sorry to bother you, here’s a song, I hope you like it, I hope I’m not annoying you” has prevented some very good songs from reaching the audience they deserve.

In the year to come, I think I’m going to be considerably more annoying.

A song about the lost and the lonely

All good things must end, and that includes me blogging about our Christmas EP. I hope you’ve found it interesting; I like reading other people’s explanations of how they come up with stuff because we’re all so different in how we work, how we approach things and how we end up with a finished product.

This is the final track from Didn’t Kiss You This Christmas, and it’s called A Christmas Prayer.

As I’ve written previously, I like to set myself challenges and our Christmas songs are examples of that. With this one, I wanted to write something that nodded towards religion but wasn’t religious (I’m not a person of faith), a prayer that was secular and crucially, not shite.

That’s harder than it sounds. Just ask Cliff Richard, who got bored halfway through writing The Millennium Prayer,  chucked The Lord’s Prayer in there and successfully created a song so awful that it killed Santa.

So I decided to try two things in the song: to genuinely wish people well – because Christmas can be brilliant – and to sing about the other side of it too.

The run-up to Christmas can be oppressive if you aren’t happy, partnered, a proud parent or the child of proud parents, every advert apparently showing a nuclear, cisgender, heterosexual  family laughing in expensive knitwear, every supermarket tannoy playing It’ll Be Lonely This Christmas. I wanted to reflect that too.

I hope you have a good one, I hope your Christmas is fun
I hope you’re with your family and there’s something for you under the tree
And I hope you thank your lucky stars

I’m not trying to be Moaning-Faced Mandy here, spoiling everybody’s Christmas fun by pointing out that not everybody is having a good time out there. I’m channelling Kurt Vonnegut, who quoted a family member that’d say “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is” to make himself mindful of happy occasions. There’s a lot of sadness in the world, which is why we should celebrate and take joy from the good times when we can.

But I think we should also recognise our privilege, and try to do our bit to leave the world in slightly better shape than we left it. I worry that we live in increasingly hateful times, times when it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that – Vonnegut again – we are all here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.

Say a prayer for the lost and lonely
Pray for the battered and the bruised
Raise your glasses and remember
The ones who didn’t make it through

I’m not going to go into specifics here but many people I care about have had to deal with loss this year, as I’m sure you may have had to do too. I think part of the Christmas season involves thinking on that, remembering those we’ve lost and recognising when the circumstances that contributed to those losses are within our collective power to change. Many of us know too well how thin the line between waving and drowning can be, and how little support there can be for people who find themselves struggling to stay afloat.

I find this kind of thing difficult to articulate. Empathy’s a hard thing to do in a lyric. Take Band Aid for example: while it’s clear what they were getting at with the line “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”, it does sound rather like gloating rather than empathy. Not a great look at any time, but particularly bad when you’re singing about dying children.

I know, I know, it’s not like me to go off on an opinionated tangent. Back to the song. The final part of the lyric is my secular equivalent of a prayer:

I don’t believe in a god up there
but i offer up a Christmas prayer
fill every aching heart with love
fill every hateful heart with love
fill every broken heart with love
fill every empty heart with love

The song fades out over the same line repeated in multiple melodies:

fill our hearts with love

It’s hard to write this kind of thing without getting stuck in a trite “love is all you need” trap, but it strikes me that the common denominator in so much pain and sadness and hate is love: the lack of it or the love of the wrong things.

I’ve mentioned Kurt Vonnegut twice already so I’ll finish this with another quote that sums up 99% of my lyrics these days.

There is love enough in this world for everybody, if people will just look.

A song about missing someone at Christmas

Today’s Christmas EP song  started in two very different places: the title came from an in-joke, and the lyrics came from remembering a conversation in a Partick nail bar.

Christmas in Calton was originally the name of a playlist I made to amuse a Glasgow pal. The title was a riff on Christmas In Hollis, the (brilliant!) Run DMC track from the late eighties, with New York’s Hollis replaced with Glasgow’s Calton. The playlist was a collection of the least Christmassy Christmas songs imaginable. But it was a trap! It also contained U2’s cover of Baby Please Come Home, Cocteau Twins’ shimmering Frosty The Snowman and of course, Mariah. Because I love joyful Christmas songs.

When I wrote Didn’t Kiss You This Christmas, which I wrote about yesterday, I decided I also wanted to write something smaller and more intimate but still with a Christmas theme. I’d had a mental image for a while of a youngish woman of colour sitting in a draughty East End church, praying.

The song stayed frustratingly out of focus, something almost but not quite visible in the corner of my mind’s eye, and it stayed there until I remembered a conversation I’d had months previously with a really lovely woman in a Partick beauty salon. She was from the Middle East and had had a high-powered job there; I don’t remember what it was – a lawyer, maybe? – but she was not able to work in the same career here. Hence doing nails in a Partick nail bar. Her husband was similarly high-powered, some kind of doctor, and he was still over there. She missed him terribly and prayed he’d come to join her soon. She was very worried about his safety.

I had the first line of my song.

I miss my beautiful boy

There’s a thing I really love about songwriting when something frustratingly fuzzy comes rushing into sharp focus. That’s what happened here. The words came out in a rush because the picture in my head was so clear: a tired woman giving money she can’t really spare in the church where she prays for her “beautiful boy” to be with her.

I miss my beautiful boy
the smell of your skin and the smile in your voice
every Sunday I pray
I give as much as I can when they pass the plate

I can see them both, the woman and the man she’s missing: he’s a big guy with the kind of smile that lights up the world, a man who’s quick to laugh and whose hugs feel like bear hugs.

Oh how you’d laugh at the cold and you’d hold me and you’d never let go

I’ll happily admit that I cried the first couple of times I tried to sing that line. I really like these people.

Enter the second character in the song: Calton.

This is a hard place but a kind place

Calton is the bit of Glasgow where the Barras market and Barrowland venue are. Like lots of bits of Glasgow it has a long, proud history but has also suffered from severe deprivation. In the mid-2000s, The Guardian reported that the average life expectancy in Calton was just under 54. The Scottish average at the time was 78.

That figure is thankfully out of date and was an estimate to begin with, but the life expectancy for Calton and neighbouring Bridgeton (the stats lump the two areas together) does trail the national average. That’s partly because Calton was home to various hostels for people with drug, alcohol and/or mental health problems and partly because it’s a relatively poor area.

One of the big, positive changes in Calton is its demographic. It’s much younger than it used to be, it has more people there, and it’s more culturally diverse. Between 2001 and 2011 the proportion of residents from minority ethnic groups increased from 3% to 12%.

Chances are, the woman in my song was one of them.

So here’s what I’ve got. I can imagine the woman in the church, the flat she lives in, the organisations that helped her get started when she first arrived, the people she encounters during her days, the many kindnesses she experiences because despite its mean city reputation, Glasgow is a kind place.

All I need now is a punchy chorus with simple rhymes and without too many words in it, the sort of thing a football crowd might chant in a stadium.

The kindness of strangers is not enough to warm another Christmas without you, my love


Okay, so it’s not exactly short. But when you hear it, it works (it’s something another of my favourite bands, Manic Street Preachers, do: on paper you think “they can’t possibly sing that for a chorus”, but they do, and it works, mostly). And because the song wasn’t melancholic enough, it adds a crucial bit of information: this isn’t her first Christmas without him. Depending on the time of day, I have different explanations for that.

I see you in the shapes when the lights go on
I wish you were here, my dear
Spending Christmas in Calton

The lights are Christmas lights, of course.

So that’s the second of our three Christmas songs. Next up: thinking about death!

A song about a perfect Christmas moment

I love Christmas songs.

Not cheesy ones or po-faced ones like Cliff or dirges like Lennon’s yuletide atrocity. I love the joyous ones, whether it’s Noddy Holder’s roar of “It’s CHRISTMAAAAAAAS!”, Mariah’s infectious glitter or U2’s wonderful cover of Darlene Love’s transcendent Baby Please Come Home, which I genuinely believe is one of the greatest songs ever written.

So I decided to have a go at writing my own.

Didn’t Kiss You This Christmas is the result, and I think it’s brilliant.

It’s about unrequited love, as most of my songs are. It has woah-woahs in it, because Christmas songs need something you can bellow along to. There are sleigh bells, because of course there are. And there’s a lyric I’m ridiculously proud of:

We skipped between raindrops as we danced down the street
Revellers long gone, it was just you and me
We made stupid plans and we laughed till we cried
You were so beautiful
A sparkle under lights

It’s a kind of festive Perfect Day, a snapshot of an absolutely perfect, beautiful, joyous moment that I had, and wrote about, during a period of intense sadness. The fact it’s a moment is important: there’s (spoiler alert!) no happy ending here, no rom-com perfect kiss at the end of it. The girl doesn’t get the girl.

Like Perfect Day, the character is singing about a moment that’s gone, a moment when, as laughing boy Lou put it:

you made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else, someone good.

And I think that’s why it works: there’s a melancholy there.

All my favourite Christmas songs have some melancholy to them. Going back to Darlene Love:

The snow’s coming down
I’m watching it fall
lots of people around
baby, please come home

I’m getting shivers just typing that. There’s a whole world in those four simple lines. It’s beautiful, and beautifully sad.

The sadness is important. I think a good Christmas anthem needs some sadness. Not too much, or you’ve got Jonah Lewie’s Stop The Cavalry in all its parping awfulness. But the right amount of sadness is what gives it the yearning, the emotional punch. Otherwise it’s just someone with antlers on their head who’s had too much to drink jingling their bells.

My, admittedly much lesser, equivalent to Darlene Love’s lyric:

I didn’t kiss you this Christmas
but I sure wanted to
the only gift that I wanted
was to spend time with you

There’s a wee musical trick underneath that to make the final “with you” even sadder.

I really love this line too.

I don’t believe in angels, and you’re too wicked to be
in any heavenly choir but by God, you saved me

I don’t blow my own trumpet very often but trust me, I was jumping about the flat tooting like a demon when I did that one.

I hope it works for you like it does for me: the intention is to give you the image of someone wonderfully devilish (and it’s a callback to the lyric to another one of our songs, Voodoo, which was the opening track of our debut EP. I like it when bands/artists create a kind of self-contained world, with songs referencing things or people – real or imagined – that live in their other songs).

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m really proud of what we’ve done with this song. And I’m just as proud of the other songs on the EP. More about them in the next few days.

A song about being frightened

This is the fourth song from our Bring The Good Times Back EP that I’m blogging about, and it’s called Battlecry. It’s one of the first songs I wrote with the band, and it began life with Kenny’s brilliantly propulsive bass line.

Although it’s a serious song I had an old Bill Hicks routine in my head when I was writing the lyrics. It’s the one where he compared US foreign policy to Jack Palance in the famous western Shane. In the film, Palance throws a gun at an unarmed shepherd’s feet.

“Pick up the gun,” he says.

“I don’t wanna pick it up, mister,” the shepherd says. “You’ll shoot me.”

“Pick up the gun.”

“Mister, I don’t want no trouble, huh. I just came down town here to get some hard rock candy for my kids, some gingham for my wife. I don’t even know what gingham is, but she goes through about 10 rolls a week of that stuff. I ain’t looking for no trouble, mister.”

“Pick. Up. The. Gun.”

The shepherd moves towards the gun and Jack Palance shoots him.

“You all saw him. He had a gun.”

It’s a good example of how the powerful can manipulate the powerless into apparently justifying whatever the powerful want to do to them. You create a bogeyman and taunt him until he snaps, at which point you can say: look how angry and unreasonable and not like us he is! You all saw him! He had a gun!

This kind of demonisation is as old as time, and historian Michael S Roth has written an interesting op-ed about two of its more recent examples: the “welfare queen” and the “woke student”.

Every age seems to need a bogeyman, some negative image against which good people measure themselves. When I entered college in the mid-1970s, the term “welfare queen” was being popularized by Ronald Reagan as he campaigned for president and was starting to be taken up by the mass media. It would soon go on to upstage the outworn “commie” and well-worn “dirty hippie” as objects of vitriol in the American political imagination. Self-described regular, decent Americans had in “welfare queen” a new image against which to define themselves.

…the trope of the “welfare queen” was nicely constructed to seep into a white American psyche already anxious in the 1970s and 1980s about race, single mothers and an urban culture that challenged more than a few mainstream myths.

…The images of the welfare queen and of the woke student are convenient because they provide excuses to not engage with difference, placing certain types of people beyond the pale. These scapegoats are meant to inspire solidarity in a group by providing an object for its hostility (or derision)

In some parts of the world this is being used in very frightening ways. Including here.

Across the world, the far right and religious extremists are demonising immigrants, LGBT+ people and their allies, often with very violent consequences. Supposedly respectable media outlets in supposedly respectable western democracies print articles that wouldn’t be out of place in a Britain First newsletter. In the UK, the Conservative party has been running polls to see if it can weaponise trans rights against Labour by painting us as predators and is reportedly planning a “blitz” of anti-immigration, foreigners-are-coming-for-what-you-have rhetoric to try and terrify English voters. And the slightest sign of anger from the people being targeted relentlessly by politicians, pundits and thugs will be used as evidence to justify dismissing and demonising the entire group.

Battlecry is about that.

It’s about being forced to fight when you don’t want to fight, to be backed into a corner and to be forced to defend yourself, to be forced into activism when you just want to be left alone. I wrote it in solidarity with the LGBT+ marchers attacked this year at Pride festivals, people for whom simply walking down the street meant encountering physical violence, but it’s really for anybody who’s marginalised: so many of us “just wanted a quiet life” but have not been allowed to do so by people who have so much more power than we do.

A song about 1979 and 2019

Time for another song. This is 1979, from our Bring The Good Times Back EP.

If you think it sounds like late-seventies post-punk, that’s entirely deliberate: what we’ve tried to do musically is echo what I’ve done lyrically, which is to connect 1979 and 2019. The song is about political parties promising to make Britain great again while throwing the most marginalised people under the bus and I wanted it to sound like the angry post-punk of my childhood, political pop you can dance to in a big black coat.

They said, hey you! It’s gonna be okay!
Just don’t be poor, don’t be sick, don’t be brown, don’t be trans or gay
Because we’re going to bring the good times back
I’m all right Jack, wave your union flag

The song’s written from the perspective of someone in Scotland or the North of England, and the disconnect between what we see on the largely London-based media and in our own communities. The Union flag-wavers of the song didn’t know about the policy of managed decline for the UK’s industrial heartlands; today’s equivalent believe that our remaining industrial base is worth sacrificing for blue passports.

I chose 1979 because I think that’s when the social contract was ripped up, when we went from “we’re all in this together” to “I’m all right, Jack”. Ever since we’ve seen politics based on division, on scaremongering, on telling the majority that minorities are coming for what you’ve got.

A song about Grenfell

My band, Stadium*, is releasing two more EPs this month: one political, one festive. The various download links should go live in a couple of days.

I’m very, very proud of these records. I think they include some of the best songs we’ve ever written, and some of the best lyrics I’ve ever scrawled, so I’m going to post about them over the next wee while.

I want to start with one of the simpler songs, 72.

This is from our overtly political EP, Bring The Good Times Back. I wrote it in anger and sadness a few months after the Grenfell Tower disaster, which killed 72 people; the story that emerged is one of residents’ fears being ignored for more than a decade – in one of many lows, the council threatened one blogger with legal action for suggesting that the tower was a fire risk – and of lives sacrificed to cost-cutting and the removal of so-called “red tape”.

Grenfell was the result of multiple political decisions. Choosing flammable cladding because it was £2 cheaper per square metre. Choosing not to spend money on sprinkler systems. Choosing to cut fire stations and firefighting staff. Choosing to ignore the fact that the building did not comply with building regulations. Choosing to ignore twelve years of warnings from residents.

I wrote the song before the official inquiry began, singing that “soon you’ll conclude no-one’s to blame / no-one’s ever to blame”. I think I was too optimistic. The inquiry’s early findings have been deliberately leaked and spun to try and pin blame on the fire service, and Tory MPs have suggested that the people who died did so because they weren’t clever enough. Even at my most cynical I never expected anyone to try and blame the dead.

I write songs like this when I can’t find any other outlet for my anger and sadness about terrible tragedies. I’m under no illusions that the people I’m writing about will ever hear it, let alone be haunted by it like I think they should be. But I think that if you have a voice it’s important to speak out, no matter how small your audience may be. Grenfell wasn’t a natural disaster, a tragedy nobody could have predicted, a one-off event from which no lessons can ever be learnt.

The survivors and bereaved families of the Grenfell Tower fire have a website, Grenfell United, where you can find out more and help support their battle for justice.

Love and you will be loved

It’s world kindness day today, which is a great excuse to post one of my favourite Kurt Vonnegut quotes:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I wrote a song about it several years ago (the piano was played by my brother, who’s now in Stadium* with me). The vocal’s a bit ropey but I still love the song.

“Oh, the sickening greed”

Former Smiths singer and current racist Morrissey appears to have reached a new low: the man whose latest look was wonderfully described on Twitter as “a member of the EDL who’s come to creosote your fence” has found a new way to fleece his long-suffering fans.

I was a fan of The Smiths back in the day; they were a very important band for me, and for many other misfits. It’s been a shame to see his career since that band ended acrimoniously: I can’t think of many artists who’ve shat on their own legacy with such enthusiasm for so long.

The latest example comes from his current tour, where Moz has been doing something that’s really unusual for him: he’s been turning up to the gigs. And when he does, you can buy mementoes from the merch stall such as signed vinyl LPs for a whopping $300.

You might think “wow. $300 is a ridiculous amount of money for a Morrissey album, even a signed one.”

They’re not Morrissey albums.

You might think “Okay. It’s a ridiculous amount of money for a Smiths album.”

They aren’t Smiths albums either.

They’re Lou Reed’s Transformer, Patti Smith’s Horses, Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. Morrissey isn’t connected to any of them. He just likes them.

To be fair, they’re all great albums. And they’re just as great, arguably even greater, when they haven’t been signed by a racist and cost about £20 on vinyl from your local record shop.

I’m not sure who’s more deluded. The person who thinks their signature on someone else’s album makes it 2,000% more valuable, or the super-fans who will presumably buy some of them.