The Imaginary Audience and the Ingredients for Creativity

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.

Dreamweaver - The World Turns All Around CDHere’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
• Time
• 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

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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How to write songs (or create just about anything)

John Lennon and Paul McCartneyThere’s an important difference between most classically trained musicians and self-taught musicians that gives us an interesting clue into our creativity. It’s to do with the difference between prescriptive practice and trial and error…

Few self-taught musicians play classical music, they tend to play more popular styles. The reason for that is that classical playing is difficult and requires dedication and discipline that, in most cases, needs tuition to get right. Pop music on the other hand has few rules and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what they are.

Most songwriters and music composers are of the self-taught pop music kind. In fact, being a self taught pop musician almost always leads to composition, whereas much fewer classical players write their own music. (Just about every fledgling rock guitarist has written a batch of songs within 6 months of learning to play. The average member of any orchestra, no matter how accomplished, may never put pen to paper).

The reason is that the two types of playing, or rather the journey that arrives at the types of playing, use different kinds of learning and result in different types of creative expression.

With the classical musician, the task is to master the instrument in the proper way, to learn the language of music to be able to read it and perform it with accuracy and then hopefully, with personality.

With a pop musician, the task is to knock out your favourite tunes to entertain yourself and others as quickly as possible.

With the classical musician, the task of learning heads towards perfection through practice. Mistakes are corrected and eventually eradicated.

With the pop musician, mistakes arrive quickly due to ignorance or lack of technical ability on how the favourite song should be played. But instead of correcting, some of these errors are kept in to give a deliberately imperfect performance of the song. Getting ‘the gist’ of it gives a much quicker result.

With the classical musician, the task of playing does not naturally lead to original composition whereas with the pop musician, original composition is the natural destination. When the pop musician strikes the wrong chord, or sings the wrong note or lyric and that mistake sounds ‘interesting’ they have, due to that mistake, become a songwriter.

The thing that first impressed Paul McCartney when he first met John Lennon when John was playing with his band The Quarrymen at the school fete on 6th July 1957, was that John clearly didn’t know all the words to the rock and roll songs they were performing and because of that he made new ones up that sounded roughly right. He was already a proto-songwriter.

The driving force for many pop musicians isn’t that different from classical musicians: they both start off wanting to perform a particular piece with perfection.

With Paul McCartney, he wanted to sound like his heroes such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. His early inadequacies meant that he could get close, but not all the way. Those performances that were close, but slightly different then easily became modified into new songs in their own right. They sounded similar to the inspiration but had a different personality. This inability of Lennon and McCartney to write songs exactly like their heroes is what gave us that amazing Beatle sound and those brilliant new songs.

As the sixties progressed and McCartney became such an amazingly proficient musician, he could replicate his favourite songs exactly and easily so had to draw upon new sources and methods to create new songs. You can hear the transition in 1965/66 with the songs like Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby. The reason he could move on to write in a different way was because of the way he had learnt to play, by trial and error. The resulting connections in his neural pathways gave rise to a whole new direction for his composition.

With a pop musician, most new compositions arise from the happy coincidence of unusual chord progressions, melody or rhythm combinations. This is because the way they learnt to engage with music was in a way that allowed errors, and, allowed those errors to be incorporated and developed.

In business we need to think more like the pop musician rather than the classical musician. Our aim is not to aim for a prefect rendition as an end in itself, but to aim for perfection as a method that throws up interesting diversions that could very well lead to a fantastic innovation.

Creativity and the Beatles

This is adapted from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.

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The Ghost of Yesterday

John Lennon and Pal McCartney by Ayd InstoneAs in all myth, the concept of the creative muse, a supernatural goddess who inspires creative endeavour, contains some truth. Those who have found their creative flow often refer to something coming to them from somewhere else. John Lennon once said that he felt as though he hadn’t actually written his best songs, they had instead been transmitted to him. His ‘aerial’ had picked up the signal and he had written them down.

Many songwriters have described how their songs were ‘transmitted’ to them and all they had to do was write them down. Sometimes they had to leap out of bed to catch the tune that played in their head before it was lost. This has happened to me quite a few times.

I awoke in the night with a fully formed song, with music, lyrics and title complete. I jumped out of bed and played and sang it on the guitar, otherise it would have been lost.

So where did it come from?

A 56 year old man from London claimed recently to have written 350 songs that he was suddenly urged to write by channelling, so he said, the spirit of John Lennon*. The creative process is so weird that it’s easy for many to invoke the supernatural. Mike Powell claimed that Lennon’s ghost visited him after he visited the graves of his deceased parents in 1992. I imagine his experience is less likely to be spectral and more likely to be bicameral.

Perhaps emotions and ideas he was unaware of were being presented to his conscious mind from his subconscious in a way that was so out of character for him and augmented his reality in such a way that it felt as though it must be external. There are many cases of previously un-artistic people suddenly picking up a paintbrush or a guitar and being not only proficient but highly talented. The triggers for these transformations are numerous, but are often unusual stress, or sudden release of stress or even physical trauma.

Paul McCartney said this about the creation of Yesterday, (which became the most recorded song ever). In early 1965 he woke with a melody in his head. It was so powerful that he was sure it must be an old jazz tune. He played it to a few people, but no-one knew it. At that time he didn’t have the words, and as it was breakfast time he improvises words of “Scrambled eggs… oh how I love your legs…” just so he could play through the tune.

He later worked out the real lyrics and the song was released on the No.1 Help! LP in the UK and as a No.1 single in the US. (At the time the Beatles felt the song too sentimental to release as a single in the UK). They even poked fun at it and at Paul when it was first performed.

There’s an interesting appendix to the story of Yesterday. It’s well known that Paul McCartney nearly always wrote about other people in his songs. This allowed him to create masterpieces like Eleanor Rigby and Hey Jude, but unchecked and without Lennon’s realism he was also capable of producing banal and meaningless songs like 1985s Only Love Remains. John Lennon on the other hand, always wrote about his own feelings. This allowed him to give us real emotion in songs like Help!, In My Life, God or Jealous Guy. But unchecked by McCartney’s commercial eye he could easily produce self-indulgent ramblings like Two Virgins, songs with Yoko’s name in and the hurtful How Do You Sleep?

But it’s not that clear cut. It wasn’t until 1995 that Paul realised, while compiling the Beatles Anthology that his 1965 song, Yesterday, apparently on the surface, about the loss of a lover was actually about the very real loss of his own mother a few years earlier from cancer. It was written with his own, secret emotion, all along.

Have a listen to the song again with this context in mind and you’ll hear a pain coming directly from Paul’s unconscious, back there in 1965, at the height of the Beatles glory and fun. A pain that he wasn’t consciously aware of when he wrote it.

Perhaps creativity is a ghost after all, a spectre of energy, emotion and hidden memory that at certain times, perhaps when we least expect it, will come to haunt us.

*Make you own mind up on Mike Powell here.

Creativity and the BeatlesSee the Beatles first ever performance of Yesterday. It’s eerie as the fans emotions change from mania screaming to sobbing as they tune into the song.

This is an extract from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.

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Copyright violation: bad news for comedy parody?

The Newport video I mentioned in my previous blog reached around 2.5 million hits on YouTube before being removed by EMI for copyright violation. because the song was clearly based on an EMI recording, even thought it was a whole new recording with parody lyrics, the law states that permission from the writers must be sought. It wasn’t.

These seems obvious and fair – but it could mean the end to parody using music if it’s able to be fully enforced. Many songwriters who are ripe for being parodies are serious ‘artists’ who may not be likely to want to have their song parodied, even if it doesn’t poke fun directly at them (as in the case of Newport).

I’ve had a parody version of Sinead O’Conner’s hit ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ removed from YouTube for the same reason. The recording was from a single performance in a comedy club 2002. You’re not likely to be able to see it ever again.

Millions of people enjoyed the Newport parody. But we should really never have had the chance to see it. I don’t know if the people involved in it made any money from it directly, it’s unlikely since their version was not for sale anywhere. So if they didn’t profit financially or take sales away from the Jay Z original, was it wrong to do the parody? It certainly has raised the profile of the original to an audience it may not have ordinarily reached as people wanted to see and hear it for the comparison.

So is it right that copyright enforcement should ban comedians and humorists from creating parody versions of other people’s material – provided they don’t offer their version directly for sale?

Is it right and proper that a parody song, piggy-backing on someone else’s creativity should not be allowed?

Does the use of copyright enforcement in this way reduce creativity as we won’t be able to create such parody songs, or does it enhance it as we will have to be cleverer at writing new songs to poke fun at other songs? (Neil Innes’ ‘The Rutles’ flew very close to the wind in creating a new batch of Beatle parody songs that sound like but were not direct copies of Beatle songs).

I would love someone to create a parody of one of my serious songs if it raise my profile or helped me sell more copies of my version. Are some people and some companies just being killjoys and taking themselves far too seriously? Or should any form of copyright, however well intentioned or funny the parody of it may be, be protected at all costs to maintain the integrity of original work and secure the income for its creators?

What do you think?

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Crossing a bridge into the past

I spoke in Durham recently at an Academy of Chief Executives event. It was quite an emotional experience in a way. I grew up in Durham, leaving there to come down south when I was thirteen. I never knew Durham as a teenager or adult so perhaps the romance of childhood clings to the place, especially as I’ve only been back a couple of times in between and then only really passing through. Now I was ‘working’ there – being paid to deliver my creativity workshop.

The place feels like home, and perhaps not just because of my own history, but of the history of the place; the quietness and calmness. Rarely do you get such lush green around a river in the centre of a city as you do in Durham. It has nearly two thousand years of very well documented history and stands grounded as a remote spiritual and intellectual island dominated by the Cathedral, surrounded by higgledy-piggledy old buildings, most defined now as World Heritage. Apart from the art deco cinema where I saw all three Star Wars films being boarded up, along with Woolworths, little seemed to have changed since the 1970s. Little seemed to have changed since the 1870s.

Durham is a tiny city (the UK’s smallest) and you can walk the length and breadth of the centre in a few minutes. In a way it’s a metaphor for me of childhood. A time that seems so very long when it’s all you have. Those formative years loom so large in making us who we are and yet it’s only 12 years. We have a working memory of only around 7 of those years, just 7 magical Christmases (if we were lucky). Many of us spend the rest of out lives trying to re-enter the Eden of those 7 years – or sometimes sadly to try to escape it.

So there I was, effectively walking through the past, my past, or so it felt. I believe it’s good to re-connect to that earlier self of ours. To remember what it was like to be you in that creative, hopeful, imaginative prime. But at the same time to realise that you can’t go back to stay, that things have changed and moved on. But joining up your past in important. It made you what you are and your memory of events and emotions form the resources that you draw upon to generate your creativity today.

What would you say to that child if you met them on that bridge? What would they think of you now?

When I was 19 I wrote and recorded a song about this feeling. You can listen to it here. Flowers and Bridges

Flowers and Bridges
by Ayd Instone ©1990

Hello, again my friend, where have you been?
It seems so long ago since we met in a dream

I was only waiting for the sunset to arrive
And then I’m home amongst the hills and sky
And earth beneath my feet and I’m home
Was only waiting for the sunset in you eyes
Then I’m home amongst the flowers and bridges
Where we used to meet.

You’ve changed, I had envisaged that.
But you’ve still got that smile
It’s nearly morning, so I can’t stay long
See you again in a little while

I was only waiting on the platform for a train
With a ticket that will take me there
And bring me back again
I was only waiting with the flowers in my hand
Upon the bridge across the worlds
And into another land.

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Don’t turn your back on your hits!

I was delighted to find out that media expert Alan Stevens broadcasted one of my songs in his radio show this week. I knew it was a possibility as he’d announced that he’d feature an artist every week and had a batch of my songs. But which one would he choose? He chose ‘Suzy in the Sun’ from my band’s first EP. Perhaps it was because the song just feels lovely and ‘sunny’ with the sixties style arrangement, backing harmonies and 12-string Rickenbacker. It’s not the best song we ever did. It’s got possibly the simplest lyric. But it was by far the biggest selling.

John Lennon said he didn’t want to be playing ‘She Loves You’ when he was 30. Supergrass were heard to moan about their biggest hit ‘Alright’ and dropped it from their set. Oasis stopped playing ‘Wonderwall’. Actors often moan about becoming famous for playing a certain role. Leonard Nimoy’s autobiography was entitled, ‘I Am Not Spock.’ There always seems to be something that we become best known for, our ‘hit’.

I think it’s safe to say that without exception, we never choose our ‘hits’. I have hundred of songs that have cleverer lyrics, more impressive solos or more original grooves. But I didn’t choose my hits, my audiences did.

We set up and proliferate our brands, products and services in business – but that is only ever half the story. The other half is provided by our audience/customers. A brand is a two-way creation What they see may not be quite what we intended them to see – but if they like it, and buy it – who are we to tell them they’re wrong.

If you get a good reputation for something, or people start explaining to others who you are using different language than you’d use for yourself, listen to what they have to say. They may have spotted the hit making potential that you might just have otherwise overlooked.

Leonard Nimoy published a followup to his autobiography. It was called ‘I Am Spock’.

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