I’ve written nearly 500 songs. The lyrics for the first 400 or so are typed up and bound in a book. The original lyrics and chords are contain in dozens on hardback notebooks, usually written in multicoloured ink, dating back to 1985. All my hundreds of cassette tapes and recordings have been remastered onto 96 CDs, all with nice covers.
All my music on CDs
I haven’t written too many songs of late. And there’s a backlog of unfinished songs from the past few years, some good ones, crying out to be recorded. But recording seems to take so much time these days. It’s hard to get my old band mates together. I often don’t get my guitar out of its case between shows that often. What’s going on? Obviously I’ve got a young family now. But has my creativity run out of steam? Am I just too ‘busy’? Or are there other, missing ingredients that I once had, that are now lost?
I’m not boasting that I’ve written 500 brilliant songs. Some of them are an embarrassment, like this one, See You at the Top.
Some, which I derided at the time, have a certain quality now, years later. What is interesting to note is that because I wrote them down and gave them a ‘number’, they are all different. I didn’t re-write the same song over and over and I didn’t re-write someone else’s song; each of them are unique.
Have a listen to The Land of Dreams. It had the best lyrics I’d ever written and yet we preferred it without any at all, so here it is as an instrumental. That’s just me and Jase just after we both turned 21.
I have a particular fondness for the ones that were composed with others, where John or Jase contributed a line or a chord or where Twan and I would sit down and craft a hit tune for our forthcoming CD or record something really weird to send in to Nightshift (Oxford’s music magazine) to see what they would make of it.
Try this for weirdness. We randomly arranged fridge magnet words and used them as the lyrics as an etherial stream of consciousness. It got a good review: Ghost Writing.
Here’s a more serious example, The World Turns All Around. It was written when I was 20. Here’s the original solo version.
And here’s the band versionwhich was our second biggest seller. I was 26. Our biggest seller, incidentally, was this song.
Going back even earlier, I would write a new batch of songs and record them as my new album just to impress Jase, just to beat what he could do. Then he’d do the same and I’d be amazed at what he’d come up with so I’d go back and wrote a new album of songs with even deeper themes, cleverer lyrics, catchy or haunting tunes and so we’d go on, out-doing each other. My favourite from this era is Pipedream. Here’s the original solo version from 1991 and a live version with Twan on mandolin in 2002.
What did we write our songs about? Probably what every teenage boy starts writing songs about: girls. Usually particular girls. In my case most of the early songs were about the same girl (she never knew). Can you write a dozen, very different songs all about the same girl? Of course you can, because she wasn’t a real person, or rather she was based on a real person but became something else: a muse.
Here’s one of those songs: Dreamcatcher
Here’s another, with the lyrics I’m most proud of as the songs began to get more sophisticated and eclectic, describing abstract feelings, emotions and consciousness. This is Never Forever.
At college almost every one of my friends was a musician, and most were songwriters too. It was like being in a stable of artists like how I imagined London to be in the 1960s with all the bands hanging out together with Mick and Keith from the Stones popping into the Beatles’ Revolver recording sessions and John and Paul returning the favour on the Stones’ We Love You recording. There was a sense of belonging.
Inspired by Syd Barrett, George and I spent two days immersed in what we thought was the founder member of Pink Floyd’s mindset, to attempt to write and record a batch of songs just like his. We did it, and the results are still impressive today. We were both 17. A year later John, Mark and I (then called The Jinx) wrote and recorded this Pink Floyd style song, Soul Survivor. The inspiration for which was the cover of a Brian Aldiss science fiction novel (You’ll see why when you see the cover for Last Orders).
Of course, between the ages of 17 and 22 is the time in your life when you have the most time on your hands. No wonder it was my most prolific era. I had no responsibilities except for failing my A levels (because they came second after the music). Plus we all got by without the pressure of having to earn much money.
Back in 1980, John Lennon felt as though he’d left the buzz, the wild times and the charts behind. He’d been writing the odd song here and there but since 1975 he’d been concentrating on his family and bringing up his son Sean. He felt that the magic had left him somehow and that his creativity had nothing to hang onto. There seemed to be nothing to fan the flames. By all accounts, he was generally happy, after all, he wanted for nothing at that point.
It was during a sailing trip around Bermuda when he re-discovered his mojo. A storm came up and the crew where unwell and unable to sail the ship. It could have been certain disaster but for the 39 year old Beatle who, with rain lashing at his body, sailed back to safety. He felt ‘alive’ again. The next day the songs came thick and fast. The first ones to be finished went out on what was to be his last album, Double Fantasy, in October 1980 just after his 40th birthday. He continued to write and record right up until the night of the 8th of December when a gunman cut short his creativity and silenced the voice of a generation.
If we analysis all this we have a few ingredients that are needed to be a prolific songwriter, and in fact, to be prolifically creative at anything. Here is what I think, from my experience, is needed:
• The fun of collaboration
• A muse
• Heathy competition
• A sense of community
• A particular goal
• A lust for life
But there’s one more element needed that I’ve failed to mention properly. One of the most dehabilitating thoughts and feelings when it comes to your own creativity is a lack of confidence in your abilities. This can often be worded as ‘people don’t think I’m any good’, or ‘who’s interested in my stuff?’
I find that a real block to writing a song today. Who’s interested in my stuff? I mean really. I’m not 17 anymore. I haven’t had massive chart success. There are millions of songwriters out there. I’ve got no fanbase. Who gives a fig? What’s the point?
What’s happening here is that there is a need for an audience for our creativity. We want approval, recognition or at least acknowledgment that we have done something. After all, art isn’t art until its put in a frame and hung on the wall. It’s not art when it’s in a drawer or in the attic.
The irony is that at this point when I think I don’t have an audience, more people have viewed my band’s song Whatever Turns You On which has had 527 views on YouTube, than ever saw all of our gigs put together. My song about the psychic octopus has had 3574 views.
In a way we’re like a post-modern Velvet Underground. That ‘famous’ band featuring Lou Reed only ever played in their home town to small audiences. By the time the world had caught on they’d all but split up.
The other odd irony is that when I was at my most prolific and when we were in the band, pushing our own boundaries of song composition and performance, ‘who’ did we think we were doing it for? It certainly wasn’t to just impress the twenty or so people who may have turned up to one of those gigs. It wasn’t even to impress potential record promoters, managers and talent scouts as we knew they were not likely to be there.
In our heads, we were at Shea Stadium. We were on the Ed Sullivan Show. We were on the Apple rooftop. In our minds eye we were doing a spot on Wogan or Parkinson, on TFI Friday, on Ready Steady Go!, on the Tube, The Old Grey Whistle Test and of course on Top of the Pops. We imagined our own audience and wrote and performed for them. By doing that we were constantly trying to beat our personal best for our ideal audience.
So if you don’t feel you have the audience, or the right audience for your creative project, or have a block or that feeling of being uninspired, whether its songwriting or a book you have in mind, or something else entirely, look to see how many of the ingredients listed above you have.
Think of the ideal audience for your work and play to them. You never know, they may just turn up…
Here’s one more song to end with. Play this on Saturday Morning…
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