Thursday, 20 December 2012


With the advent of ‘Auto-tune’, and other similar tuning and timing devices, it is now possible for almost anyone to call themselves ‘a singer’. Most people will sing out of tune a bit, and after all, the human voice should not be expected to behave like a machine. But for today’s artist however, this inadequacy is a fundamental and career threatening ‘Archilles’ heel’.
Some people will sing consistently flat and some consistently sharp, (I have had a long career wincing at the latter) but this is easy to correct. Recently though I came across a ‘singer’ who has developed his own particular sub-species of sharp and flat with a bit of in-tune thrown in, that proves particularly difficult to deal with. And so, with a hard-drive full of this young man’s mediocre warble, I make my way down to my garden pod/studio to begin several hours of pain and torture.
“Work your magic” I recall him saying as we parted company, just days before in London Fields, but even David Blaine would think twice about taking this on.
As my computer comes to life and I stare at the sunny field outside my window I wonder if my memory hasn’t served me well and maybe my afternoon’s work will actually turn out to be quite easy. Maybe he wasn’t that bad? Being classically trained, I know I’m particularly anal about tuning.
My fears are confirmed. Three words in to the chorus, and I’m in trouble.
For example, the word ‘alone’ (which for some reason features a lot in my songs) has, as you know, two syllables. The first syllable is sung flat as a pancake, but this would be easy to deal with if it weren’t for the second syllable being sung out of time and with a charming mixture of sharp and in-tune. The waveform that is shamed into representing this atonally performed word will need to be painstakingly and graphically corrected. Life saving microsurgery, for the partially tone-deaf.
One word, half an hour gone, my life is shit.
The ‘artist’ in question is a very handsome boy. Indeed he has already had some success as an actor and also, fortuitously thrown into the bargain, has a famous ‘rock n roll’ parent. Despite the tuning issues, he also has an impressively distinctive voice, reason enough I think to plough on down the road to intonation hell and see if I can pull something out of the bag, even if he is clearly unaware of the man hours it takes to work my magic.

Coincidences can be cruel. It is a particularly cruel coincidence that, at 5 pm this afternoon, I’m booked in for a root canal treatment at my local dentist. It’s my first procedure of this kind and I make a poor job of hiding my fear as the chair lowers me robotically into position. We all know that when a dentist fumbles with something behind you, just out of sight, it is, odds on, more than likely to be a ruddy great syringe with a nasty looking needle on the end of it. With clammy hands and a shaky voice I urge the lady to ‘load me up’. If I’d been offered a general I’d have taken it on the spot.
This tooth has been hypersensitive for some time and after several fillings and a lot of pain it is deemed necessary to take out the nerve, thus ending all discomfort for me. Simple. Not that simple actually. In an adult molar there are three nerve cavities. Each one must be drilled out and then each nerve, once found, also yanked out. Next, a foul tasting substance will be applied to the bottom of the cavities, which should kill off anything that might remain. The tooth is then temporary filled and after a week or so I will be expected to return to have it all dug out again so the empty root cavities can be filled with cement thus avoiding the tooth to unexpectedly fall out. A needle through the eye sounds just great right now.
Surprisingly though, when the drilling begins I feel nothing painful at all. I wistfully muse that root canal is, can you believe it, actually preferable to tuning the said boy's vocal. Until that is, out of the blue, the drill wraps its good self round the deepest part of my nerve and I levitate my contorted body several inches out of the chair, all accompanied by high pitched whimpering. Mr Blaine would be impressed.
And so I leave cap in hand, with my low pain threshold and temporary filling, blissfully unaware of the dribble I’m leaving behind.
My dentist has advised me to buy Paracetamol and Ibuprofen in large quantities for when the ‘local’ wears off. I take double the recommended dose and head back to the studio.


Thursday, 13 December 2012


In 1987 we would spend more time in RAK Recording Studios, a converted Victorian schoolhouse and church hall in St. John’s Wood. In those days there were three recording rooms. One had a ‘state of the art’ SSL desk, which we had previously used to good effect. This time though, we would be in the other main room, which had a ‘vintage’ Neve desk and had a somewhat more dated feel. I can only assume this was our producers choice, as the SSL, with ‘flying faders’, automated as if by magic, was a relatively new and highly prized piece of kit. All the songs we were to record, save for the odd cover, were written by our singer. He certainly had a talent for this and although at times a more democratic approach would have been of welcome benefit, his driving force and strong overall rudder, it has to be said, kept us on an ever-ascending trajectory.
American singers have always had an easy relationship with the songwriter. Back in the 80’s their music culture was much more uncluttered than ours. The singer sang, and the writer delivered the tune. The big stars saw the importance of a strong song and were only too happy to perform it and stay away from the writing credit. With big sales figures and healthy radio play, there was food for all. A good example of this is the Supreme’s ‘stand out’ front woman and by this time, hugely successful solo artist, Diana Ross.
She had a new album in the making by the name of ‘Red Hot Rhythm And Blues’ and her eyes were on one of our very own singer’s compositions. With the absence of email and the fact that the song in question was still on the ‘2 inch’ multi track at RAK, she would have to physically show up at the studio to hear our version of the song, to assess if it was indeed suitable for her. Surely not? Diana Ross must have better things to do.
She didn’t; and it was arranged that at 2.30 PM that day she would be paying us a visit.
All the studios at RAK have windows, which is in fact quite unusual and indeed very refreshing to be able to see London go past, minding it’s own business, as opposed to some of the underground bunkers we had previously recorded in, offering no natural light whatsoever. I had parked myself next to a window at the back of the control room so as I could keep a watchful eye out for the big arrival. I wasn’t convinced she would actually show up and was more than a little nervous at the prospect of meeting her. But sure enough, at the allotted time, and not a minute later, while our engineer hastily lined up the song on the ‘vintage’ Neve desk, a large black Jaguar slowly rolled up in front of my chosen window. The driver, suited and with cap, dived out from the car to assist with the opening of her door. And there she was, dressed in what looked like a classic ‘Chanel’ black suit and manicured to within an inch of her life. This was a woman, who took the art of being a woman, very seriously. To an extent, we were all in awe of her. She was and still is a legend in the world of American black music, and so it seemed ridiculous to me that she was about to enter our scruffy studio control room.
By now, the studio had filled with extra people, not just the six of us and a producer and engineer; no, several other people had found reasons to join us. Who could blame them? As the door opened the first thing I notice was the amount of long black shiny hair she had, and how her eyes sparkled as she took in the gaping crowd. Our producer, also American, greeted her with the ease and assurance of a man who had much celebrity experience under the belt, and I fully expected her to kiss our singer, which she did, on the cheek. But, quite unexpectedly, she then worked her way round the room, giving every single person who had gathered, a peck on the cheek.
“How lovely to meet you” she said, numerous times, as she completed the line up. She was so gracious, and needlessly generous in the midst of strangers, she would surely never see again. The tune was then played, which seemed to entertain her, and then as quickly as she arrived, Miss Ross (allegedly this is how she insisted on being addressed, by her band) had left the building. Once folded back into the Jaguar by the suit and cap, she was gone.
The song in question was recorded and included on her next album, a delightfully simple transaction I thought, between singer and songwriter.

It would be a while before I would have the courage to write my own songs and even longer before other artists would want to sing them, but in time I would discover that I had ideas of my own, that needed little more than some self-confidence to bring them to life.
It has always seemed strange to me that the artist is so hugely celebrated in our country, and the very person who writes the material, almost ignored. Celebrity is king and with shows like the ‘Brits’ and the ‘Mobo’s’, successful performers are showered with high profile accolade. It is indeed rare to find any song in the top 40 that hasn’t been written by two or more writers, and commonplace for the singer not to be included in the writing credits.
There is though, one ceremony that celebrates the writer. It is not televised and we have always been led to believe that any major exposure would tarnish its honourable status and reputation. I wonder, however, if this might be more to do with our lack of interest in who pens the song.
In 1997 my manager called me to say I had been nominated for an ‘Ivor Novello’ Award. Named after the Welsh composer and singer, this trophy is without doubt the ‘Holy Grail’ for any aspiring songwriter. Held at Grosvenor House on Park Lane this yearly event aims to celebrate British songwriters and the success’s they have had in the current year. Our category was ‘Best Dance Music’ and the other two nominees were Dario and 187 Lockdown. Oblivious to the odds of winning, although I realise now that my manager’s insistence I attended, was something of clue, I was instead captivated by the vast ballroom the event was held in. There must have been hundreds of tables all set out with silver service. How the kitchens would cope serving at least a thousand people all at the same time concerned me greatly. But they did. A three-course meal and unlimited booze made me feel like a winner, and we hadn’t got down to the real business yet. With minutes to go before the results I just had enough time to go for a much-needed leak. Not one to survey the competition when daggers are drawn, it was nevertheless a surreal moment for me, as I stood there, with Feargal Sharkey on one side and Rolf Harris on the other. A star-studded room, it certainly was. Elton John and Bernie Taupin were nominated for their tribute to Princess Diana (although I don’t remember seeing Bernie and secretly suspect he doesn’t actually exist) and the great ‘Radiohead’ were nominated twice for Paranoid Android and Karma Police, amongst many other luminaries of the time.
And then it came to our category. I had been telling friends, and the handful of journalists that cared, that “just to be nominated” was enough, but it was a lie. I knew that to win would propel me forward in my career, and could potentially make a huge difference to my life. All of a sudden, there was a lot at stake. Full of food and wine and a heartbeat in danger of breaking out of my ribs, I was, at some point in the proceedings, (and in a fug of adrenalin-fuelled fear) made aware that my table was standing, indeed the whole room was standing and our tune could clearly be heard coming out of the PA. Did I hear my name come from the lips of Paul Gambaccini? We had won.
I say we, because this tune was a co-write. My writing partner and uber-talented musician and programmer was sitting with his Publisher at another table, far away from me. As we independently made our way to the stage to receive our prizes, only the closest to us would know that we were in no way on speaking terms. Looking back our differences should have been resolved. If there had been therapy sessions available for two dysfunctional ego-heads, then we should have attended, but there was no such thing, and we parted company, never to work together again; very regrettable.

I would reflect on this that very same evening, on the beautiful Greek Island of Crete. The ‘Ivors’ are always held in the afternoon, followed by a ‘free for all’ in the nearby ‘Audley’ pub. My wife and I attended for a drink or two before making for Gatwick Airport, where we would fly out for a pre-arranged holiday.
The ‘Ivor Novello’ Award itself, is cast out of bronze and is extremely heavy. I certainly wasn’t going to leave it anywhere and so decided to take it with me to the airport. A sign of the times, that once x-rayed, this potentially lethal weapon, was permitted to fly with me. Post 9-11, I would have surely lost it forever, discarded along with the nail scissors and tweezers.

Friday, 7 December 2012


X Factor and all who sail in her, surely by now should be the scourge of the ‘music industry’ nation. Yes, in the early days I would sit and watch it with my kids, protesting loudly that it was in fact for research purposes, and not at all for pleasure. Now though, and indeed for some time, the dirty bloom of that form of entertainment has rubbed off, and even though I am aware, somewhere near the back of my mind, that there is a Liverpudlian lad that would make quality cruise-ship material, this year I have stopped watching. We all know that great music will never come from this kind of show, but it is the selection process that baffles me (and angers me), the choosing of not just the promising but also the hopeless and deluded, all in the name of ‘entertainment’, something for the great British public to laugh at. Since when, was making music, something to laugh at?
Since X Factor.
We have banned ‘bear bating’, ‘fox hunting’ and ‘dog fighting’ but it seems some human beings are still ‘fair game’ for ritual humiliation on national TV. The judging panel, of course, must be aware of this and yet still manage to look bemused as the talentless are wheeled on to impale themselves on the barbs of jumped up celebrity. The final straw for me this year came as one of the judges (someone who is generally thought of as an elder statesman of the pop world, and indeed is referred to as ‘The Captain’ by one very blond Radio One DJ) thought nothing of smirking and imitating the movements of a boy, who certainly (in my opinion) had some special needs, whilst he earnestly tried to perform the said judge’s biggest hit.
It would seem that the aspirational needs of the panel, far outweigh the need for any compassion that might normally be afforded for such an individual. Such a cynical move I thought, to even invite this boy to compete, knowing he would be laughed out of town.
Unbelievably, this tired format that was always a big bag of wrong, limps on for another year. The damage it does though is substantial. There is big and quick money to be made here, not just in the huge fees paid to the judges, but also in the initial downloads and colossal airplay revenue and not forgetting the advertising (that we are all grateful for, in between segments of the show) The real issue though, is how the record industry as a whole has lost confidence in itself. Artists are now dispensed with, sometimes before even releasing anything. Long-term investment in talent and unique creativity has been downgraded, and in its place, commercial hype for the quick return is in pole position. It’s the music though that suffers the most. An average song now last for days rather than years. Pop is eating itself with unparalleled hunger.

My Dad used to frequently quote Sir Thomas Beecham, who once said,
“It’s got to have a damn good tune”
This came about though because Dad found it hard to appreciate the beauty of anything composed post 1890 and as it became apparent that my interest in pop music wasn’t going to go away, it was his opinion that this saying had particular relevance. And in a way it did. A great tune will live on.
Last night, during a particularly galling episode of ‘Made In Chelsea’ my daughter brought to my attention, during the commercial break, that the advert we were gazing and glazing at was the Ministry of Sound’s ‘Essential Anthems 90’s’ and it happened to feature a tune I had had a hand in, indeed it was playing, right there in our living room. Grateful, that at least part of the turkey this Christmas was now paid for (these compilations do not make a man rich) it struck me that this particular tune was now at least 15 years old and was still, in a bizarre way, as relevant as it was back in 1997. I will always remember how it came about. Written, recorded and pretty much finished in a cellar under my Derbyshire home, this song in a sense had humble beginnings. I had bought a new studio toy called an ‘Akai 1000’. It was a ‘sampler’ and so logically I now needed to look around for things to sample. Being lazy and at this time very much into the classical piece ‘Adagio for Strings’ by Samuel Barber (a dark and haunting outing for string orchestra made famous more recently by its feature in the film ‘Platoon’) I had the CD, it was in front of me. Was it trying to tell me something? I saw no reason to look any further and ‘sampled’ the opening chord. It was a complex chord (I could name, it but we would all fall asleep) and showed it to my writing and production partner. He recognised it as something special and once recreated (to avoid the suing of arse) he spun it back into the sampler and manipulated it into an opening riff that was ‘to die for’. This then triggered a melody from me, and soon afterwards, some words, simple ones for a message everybody could relate to, the saying goodbye to a loved one, something most of us will have had to suffer, at one time or another. Then followed the beats, supplied by my partner and looking at my watch I noticed all but an hour and a half had elapsed. But by this time, as if the song had a life of it’s own and had forced itself to be written, we knew, as we grinned to each other in a smoke filled Victorian cellar, that we had created something special. The next day our singer joined us and we were able to record her voice, which had a suitably dark and distinctive timbre and complimented the song perfectly.
All writers and producers know that this moment has to be savoured, it may never come again, it is an elusive thing that nobody knows how to harness.
All this happened at the very start of this particular project. From memory it was the third song we had written and normally we would have gone on writing for much longer before trying to chase a deal. But, with management in place and a mutual buzz around this tune, we decided to start the, usually longwinded and humbling process of finding a record deal. It didn’t take long, and soon enough we had a number of major labels all bidding to sign us up, pretty much on the strength of one song.
Interesting I think that when first released it only made it to number 41. Today we would surely be dropped, unceremoniously dumped into the ether, never to be heard of again. But no, our record company believed and after a short break they tried again. This time though things were different and as the radio stations around the country began to add us to their playlists, expectations began to rise. Some people may not be aware that there is such a thing as a ‘midweek chart’. This gives a pretty good idea of where you’re going to end up come Sunday morning when the final chart becomes available. It told us we were number 5.
Sunday morning came and thrilled just to be even in the top 40 we could now celebrate in earnest. Crammed into a white transit van and south bound for a gig that night, spirits ran high and the cramped conditions and smell of petrol were of little concern. We stopped halfway for fuel and as I perused which flavour of crisps to buy, my mobile phone began to buzz (an early Ericsson, shaped like a brick) It was our manager. My heart began to beat heavily. I answered.
“You’re the nations number one”
It can still be done this way, and there are many examples of acts that have recorded at home and showed the world, through the eyes of ‘YouTube’, what they have been up to. Surely now, it has never been easier to let people know. As technology becomes ever more accessible and affordable, we can all be creative without having to know the right people or consider soiling our hands with a talent show. We all now have a voice. It is a free, if not congested and difficult, market.

A few years ago a young male singer came to me to co-write a song. He told me in the car, as I drove him from the station to my home, that he had been approached by a senior TV executive and asked if he ‘fancied winning X Factor’. I cannot prove how much truth there was in his story, but even if there was some, it goes a long way to illustrate how much trouble we’re in.
Let’s hope there is enough rage against this machine at Christmas time to scupper the inevitable.