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Media Music

Bright SPARKs

I’ve become a little bit obsessed by the marketing for Positive Grid’s SPARK, a very clever guitar amplifier. In recent weeks I’ve been seeing a lot of videos like the one pictured below, in which really amazing women guitarists test the amp.

I’m not used to seeing women in marketing for musical stuff, which tends to be a boy’s club; musical marketing has often been appalling, with a particular low in the 1980s when Tokai’s “Tokai is coming” campaign placed full-page magazine ads showing a naked woman apparently masturbating with an electric guitar. We’re generally better than that now, but there’s a long legacy of sexism in the industry. Guitar.com has some other examples:

I volunteer and podcast for Scottish Women Inventing Music, an organisation dedicated to achieving gender equality across the music business, so I’m very interested in this stuff. The SPARK ads got me wondering: is this a deliberate strategy to boost the visibility of women musicians, thereby positioning Positive Grid as a forward-thinking firm, or is it just precision targeting on social media?

I’m not just wondering idly. Half of guitar buyers are women, and I recently spoke to guitar legends Fender about their marketing: this year will feature more signature models from women guitarists than ever before, and the marketing for the online Fender Play service has a good mix of people showing the variety of folks who play guitar.

Is Positive Grid doing the same? What are the boys seeing?

It turns out that the answer is boys.

I’m being shown women playing guitars but my male musician friends are seeing men in their ads. And that makes me wonder some more: is that because the firm has done testing and discovered that men won’t click on the link if the amp is being tested by a woman?

I fear that the answer is yes, because the frequency of the advertising indicates there’s a lot of money being spent on this campaign. You don’t make and target different ads for different genders if it doesn’t have a demonstrable effect on your sales.

I’m not picking on Positive Grid here. Seeing women in musical instrument marketing is still so rare that what they’re doing does feel like progress. As Guitar.com put it:

the guitar industry, and the music industry at large doesn’t accurately reflect the wealth of female talent out there. The fact that people have noticed this at last means that, hopefully at least, we’re finally starting to see some progress…

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Music

Rough boys

The new ZZ Top documentary, That Little Ol’ Band From Texas, is a little Netflix gem.

It traces the history of the band from their earliest musical adventures until the release of their smash hit Eliminator  in 1983, which coincided with the launch of MTV. I’d have liked it to continue – the band didn’t stop making music in the eighties, and songs like 2012’s Gotsta Get Paid (which plays over the end, and which I’ve included below) continued to showcase the songwriting chops, gravelly vocals and glorious guitar sounds that I love so much – but it’s understandable from a narrative point of view.

The band come across as thoroughly likeable and a little bit bemused by it all; if there are skeletons rattling anywhere they aren’t rattling anywhere on screen. And the live performances filmed specially for the documentary are absolutely wonderful. It’s a shame about the 80s videos though; they made the band superstars but… let’s just say they were made in less enlightened times.

Here’s a marginally less sexist take on the same idea featuring the same band.

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Music

All together now: Nazi punks f*** off

Glasgow’s Classic Grand venue will host a festival including neo-Nazi bands later this year. The organiser, who’s either a Nazi or incredibly stupid, told the National that there was no difference between fascists and anti-fascists and that he’s “disgusted by what they represent”. Apparently he’s not so disgusted that he wasn’t willing to book them or take a cut of the profits.

There are lots of bad opinions and stances in music, many of them performative: back in the 1970s, punks wore swastikas not because they were Nazis but because they knew it would provoke people. But these Nazis are actual Nazis advocating genocide and violence against women in a scene devoted to National Socialism.

A venue that’s willing to host them doesn’t deserve your custom – not just on the night, but on any night.

Update: the venue has pulled the show and said it will not provide a platform for hatred.

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Hell in a handcart Music

We can’t have nice musical things any more

Just when you think things are as miserable as they can get, a new piece of idiocy turns up. Now, in our post-Brexit wonderland, it seems that the only live bands and classical musicians that’ll be able to tour the UK from the EU as of 2021 are the ones who are able to pay £244 for each member’s visa and demonstrate that they each have at least £1,000 in savings. That’s a lot of money for an orchestra to hand over, and it’s a lot of money to expect struggling musicians to have in the bank.

According to the Incorporated Society of Musicians, “this is taking a shotgun and shooting ourselves in the foot” – not least because the EU may then impose similar tariffs and rules on UK musicians touring the EU.

We’ve already seen this in operation for non-EU musicians, with significant consequences for world music festivals such as Womad. Apparently the department of media, culture and sport fought against it but were overruled by the Home Office.

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Music

HAVR: Zodiak live at The Bungalow

My excellent and incredibly talented friend Becca Starr invited my band to play her new night at The Bungalow in Paisley last night, and she also made this video of our performance. It’s a currently unreleased song called Zodiak, and I’m trying very hard not to laugh as my microphone stand gets shorter and shorter as the song progresses.

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Music

When public parks are closed to the public

TRNSMT at Glasgow Green

My Twitter feed is full of concert announcements today. Edinburgh’s hosting shows in August by the likes of The 1975 and Tom Jones. Glasgow Green has concerts including the TRNSMT festival, Guns N Roses and Green Day. Kelvingrove bandstand has Belinda Carlisle, KT Tunstall, Richard Hawley and even Rick Astley.

As much as I love live music I can’t help noticing that these are all taking place not in concert venues but in public spaces: Princes Street Gardens, Glasgow Green, Kelvingrove. The latter is the least disruptive because it’s in a dedicated bandstand section, but the others involve putting fences around huge parts of our public spaces so people paying £177 for a VIP ticket can see Guns’N’Roses.

It does seem that for the very biggest shows, public parks are being used rather than stadiums – and while that’s good news for gig-goers because stadium acoustics are always awful, it’s bad news for the people who can’t access huge parts of our parks for most of the summer (and in the case of Edinburgh, for most of the festive period too). Parks are a crucial part of our cities, especially in the better weather.

I’m not suggesting we stop doing the shows. I’ve been to some really great gigs in Kelvingrove, and I’ve seen a few decent acts on Glasgow Green. But I really don’t recall seeing so many gigs booked so close together for so much of the summer in so many of our public spaces.

It feels as if our councils are taking the places that belong to all of us and putting up No Entry signs for anyone who isn’t affluent.

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Music

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.

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Music

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.

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Music

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.

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Music

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

Oops.

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!