Chapter 1a: Songs I’d written
People have never asked me 'John, where do you get the ideas for your songs?' but I'll tell you anyway. After some early attempts, I never really wanted to write songs about love, or 'lerve' as they call it in Crawley. To write good songs, you needed a cause like revolution or peace or, it seemed, both. Alternatively hang ups (hangs up if you're pedantic) or a very deprived childhood can help. I didn't have any of those. I was always a well-balanced individual, with a chip on each shoulder. My experience of difficulties with relationships etc had been the usual growing up experience of most kids, who often seek to lighten the load through group activities. I was no good at sport and had asthma and felt alienated at times, but not drawn to other isolated individuals. I tried to write funny songs about these times. When it came to gathering songs for recording, I wanted a post-punk feel, something between punk and folk; I called it 'Poke'.
Richard Digance had been a frequent visitor to Folk At The Chequers in Horley. We socialised for a while, played together a few times on each other's gigs and subsequently recorded a couple of demos. When I played the Palace of Folk at the Royal Oak, New Malden, Richard brought his manager, Jazz Summers, and his then record producer, Tony Atkins to hear my blues version of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer which I'd first done as a laugh with the Bill Barnacle Quartet in Dover.
Richard gave me some words, including a poem he'd written called "Confessions of a lemming". He invited me to put a tune tune to it and I played it in the "live" set as The lemming song. Now with some changes, it became The bitter lemming saga. Could there be a bigger loser than a lemming? He gave me a story which I made into a song set to the traditional tune of "The Nightingale" (reminded me of the pub of that name in Ash) and played for a while as The pub song. For recording, I gave it a different tune, changed it from a waltz to a Bo Diddley rhythm and re-named it Bar wars. Richard also gave me some lyrics to I hate you, for me to put a tune to. These highlighted how much easier it is to list the things you don't like about someone, rather than what you like.
In Hay fever blues I tried to look at why we are always waiting for life to begin. Life is here and now, for all that it doesn't quite meet our aspirations, and is passing us by. Jaded, written shortly after I discovered White Shield, shows the perils of waiting too long for life to start.
When we recorded, I was able to invite Mick Fox from the Dover days to play harmonica on Bar Wars and Hay fever blues; it was good to play with him again.
I changed the waltz-time Palais ("B" side of Rudolph…) to a Status Quo-like Incident at Hammersmith Palais. It had been inspired by The Castle at Richmond in the days when girls rarely went into pubs without males (how quaint) and dances were the places for social contact. It seemed that etiquette required males always to head for the bar on arrival. Some stayed too long, trying to pluck up courage to ask a girl to dance, only to be galvanised eventually into action by the announcement of a slow dance. Having steeled themselves to walk across the room to where a girl was sitting, only to be refused (and not always politely), it seemed impossible to ask her neighbour and it was mortifying to make the long journey back to the bar.
The sensuous man was written as a reaction to a silly book with a similar title and to the writing in "top shelf" magazines which, because it's only "soft" porn, invites people to take it more seriously and think there is something seriously missing from their lives. Well, it fooled me for a while. Years later, after being joined in a song at a gig by the author Sharon Kendrick, I was astonished to find that the publishers of romantic fiction, Mills and Boon, had taken this route. I’m sure that I'm not the only one that such writing fooled and caused dissatisfaction with life. When we recorded the song, it was for me the highlight of the session. I played it through at ragtime tempo. Alan Jones suggested we did it at double tempo. We did one take and Cliff Hall said he wanted to do a piano overdub at half tempo, straight away. We held our breath in the control room. The whole thing took a total of only twenty minutes to record. We all laughed and felt quite fired up at the result.
A saucy French love song had been strange to perform over the years. Audiences didn't always get the joke. I was never comfortable with the notion of comedy which mocked the willingness of an audience to laugh; it seemed to me that the bits of Monty Python which I'd seen fell into that category. So, with Tony Atkins we recorded this first as A whiter shade of pale parody in French. At the later recording sessions we changed the vocals to parody Je t'aime and added Linda Taylor’s vocals and strings.
With His greatest hit I'd had in mind a production like Bruce Springsteen's Born to run or Eddie and the Hot Rods Why don't you ask them? with that tacet in the music while the vocals rise up the scale. All I had originally was the line 'And if you want to know...’. The song that emerged was what Springsteen might have written for Van Morrison to sing about Neil Sedaka, if he'd thought about it or been asked.
They gave me the EMI catalogue and asked me to take other old songs and "mess them up" (in the strictest sense of the term) like Rudolph ... I chose Now is the hour to combine with My way. Backing too many club singers; thinking beer was macho - they're my excuses. The ending was 'inspired' by the version they released not long after poor old Elvis died. The video showed him sitting and reading the lyrics and it seemed uncertain that he would be unable to hit the final note.
We recorded ten tracks in two days and Ricky Hitchcock told Tony and I that we had ten singles there. We also recorded, with Chris Rea on a small flamenco guitar, The Original Flamenco/Hokey Cokey, but it didn't work. The first part of this had been written with flatmate Chris Holmes. If you understand Spanish, you'll appreciate the beauty of the lyric.
There was an alternative "album" (more like work) from the same studio with Tony Atkins again in March 1978, which was made in response to the demands of Pye to add strings to some tracks and to re-record some tracks to give a different "feel". I made a tape of Flamenco and gave it to Graham Ratcliff, a potter and flamenco guitarist, to learn. We re-recorded it successfully with him.
Pye wanted His greatest hit redone in the way Jed Kearse had heard us running through it at half tempo when he visited the first sessions. I'd thought that the result had sounded too laid back and old-fashioned for those frantic post-punk times. I still thought that after we re-did it. We also did a Dixieland version of The sensuous man which I didn't like that much.
In considering the instruction to mess up existing songs, I tried to do what vocal heroes might have done. John Lennon might have had to do a different version of Twist and shout. Similarly, I took a song on which I'd often accompanied pub and club singers, Side by side and tried to record it as another vocal hero, Little Richard, might have done it. He covered some naff tunes, perhaps because he had the same A&R problems as me.
The muse left me for a while after this lot.Copyright © John Scott Cree 2001, 2015
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