A Northern Soul

I blame the appalling BBC Radio One DJ Tony Blackburn, or as John Peel called him, Timmy Bannockburn.  In 1978 he released a ‘northern soul’ record under the name of Lenny Gamble called ‘I’ll Do Anything’ written by the great Gamble and Huff.  The record was bad.  To the core.  From that moment on I dismissed the whole ‘Northern Soul’ genre as some sort of misguided concoction brewed by northern Brits who were hell bent on covering cheap versions of rare soul songs.  I was a Deep Purple, Mahavishnu, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Yes, PFM, Camel, Zappa kinda guy so I had no time for that crap.

So when a friend from Southampton told me he was coming up to a Northern Soul Night at The Ritz Ballroom in Brighouse and would I like to join him my initial reaction was, ‘Are you on drugs?’  Mick brought me some CDs and he went through all the classics, ‘What More Do You Want’ by Gene Toones, ‘What Shall I Do’ by Frankie and the Classics, Garnet Mimms’ ‘Looking For You ‘, ‘That´s What I Want To Know’ by James Carr and so many more.  This stuff was gold!  Great playing, interesting modal grooves, strings, Fender Rhodes, Steve Cropper guitar motifs, stunning over-compressed drums… excellent!

The phrase ‘Northern Soul’ did not exist until around 1970 when Blues and Soul hack Dave Goddin went North from London to try the all-nighter scene and coined the phrase Northern Soul.  He was referring to the type of soul played up North (of Watford) which was usually more up tempo than than the tunes played in the South. The music played was obscure soul (not the soul we Brits heard on mainstream radio) from 1964 onwards and the movement was popular until about 1982.  DJs, collectors and dealers from the UK started to visit the States and scour record shops for the records that had the ‘Northern sound’.  These obscure and rare records were played by Northern DJs, starting a frenzy of teenagers wanting to own the sounds they had heard and danced to on Saturday nights. House music virtually killed the Northern Soul sound off completely.  In the late 1990s a few dedicated hardliners were bringing the sounds back and a cult underground movement was reborn.

So off we went and pulled up at 8:30pm at an intriguing 1930s facade and a long queue.  I was quite taken aback by how popular it was and remember,  this was Brighouse which, and I’m being kind, is the arse-end of a decaying Industrial Revolution West Yorkshire where people have no jobs and no money.  In front of us were four Geordies who regularly travel the 90 miles and were dressed in the de rigueur Ben Sherman and Fred Perry shirts, huge boogaloo Oxford Bags trousers and brogue shoes.  In fact many people travel all over the country to special Northern soul nights.. there’s even a Mediterranean cruise!

Ritz Ballroom

The Ritz opened as a cinema in 1937, closed in 1961 and after a disastrous Bingo attempt it became The Stardust Casino and Theatre Club.  The Casino bit closed in 1970 but the club continued as a live event venue and morphed into Sammy’s Disco.  The building was bought in 1979 by the late Mr Joe Narey, who fitted the beautiful Canadian maple sprung dance floor and opened The Ritz as a Ballroom in 1981.  Since then, with a change of owner too, the venue has continued to thrive with Motown, Country, Ballroom Dance, Tribute Nights and many more specialist evenings and today there are more and more people wanting to see these shows.

Once inside, we queued for a beer.  Queued!!  There were several tables at the back selling vinyl from the 60s and 70s and the DJ on the stage was already spinning some tunes.  The sound system was good and had to be; the music was all vinyl from over 40 years ago and some copies were well worn!

By 8:40pm the serious dancers were already on that beautiful floor; the nearer stage front, the better the dancers.. so I was assured… although some folk were at their usual tables and you could tell they had been coming to The Ritz for years.  Virtually all the dancers were men.  I was used to nightclubs where men stood around the periphery of the dancefloor eyeing up girls half their age and putting up with obnoxious hard house garage mashups before getting drunk and crawling onto the dancefloor to throw some shapes in the vain hope of making contact, usually with hand signals as conversation is completely out of the question due the volume.  Hmmmm.. I didn’t mean to sound as if I know a great deal about that.  I have been told.

Anyway it was just glorious to see blokes, mostly over the age of 55 dancing their hearts out and singing along to all the songs wearing their favourite clothes from a treasured era.  And they dance well!  Cartwheels, splits and back flips are still performed but with much more due care and attention these days.  The the majority of men were in good shape too; what a great way to keep fit.

The vibe was everyone is there to have a maximum good time.  As the music is all uptempo there is no respite all night and bottles of water are carried to the floor.  It is said that in the 1970s uppers, speed and water were first seen at Northern Soul venues such as Wigan Pier and Blackpool Mecca way before the 1980s Rave E scene.

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I have since returned to The Ritz as I wanted to show some of my friends how wonderful the venue is and the positive energy the night embodies.  Unfortunately few youngsters seem interested in the scene and many of its original fans are now into their  50s and some in their late 60s.  I now have a very small collection of Northern Soul standards and enjoy the eclectic mix of styles within the genre.

Here’s some footage from the evening..

https://youtu.be/VHHvWe7PEc8

I’ll no doubt go again and even check out some of the Motown, Atlantic and Stax nights!

Rules of Engagement. 

“Don’t”… it’s not my most favourite word.

It can be used to warn; ‘Don’t step out into traffic’ but one can better teach through awareness and not fear.  ‘Don’t is especially used on children but it can create uncertainty and clumsiness; “Don’t go near the precious ornaments, don’t ride your bike too fast, don’t do this, don’t do that..”.

The word ‘Don’t’ to me has always signified control, power games and a presumed authority; it is used to cast doubt on a person’s awareness, common sense or ability.  People who trust you have no need to use it – they trust in your judgement, they never try to control you and are at ease with your persona and decision making. Here’s some examples of control;

Don’t talk to my dog like that

Don’t walk her in the park in that hat

Don’t put your finger in my face when pointing out a fact

Don’t keep me here waiting so long

Don’t talk about a film or a book or a song

Never ever move my tray away

Or leave the table early with your dirty plate

Don’t drive too fast or slow in my car

Don’t leave the fridge door open ajar

Never dance next to me in the street

Please don’t ever get in my way

Don’t wear that shirt, it doesn’t fit

And please don’t be so sensitive

Don’t expect me to save you a seat

Don’t write to me ever again

Rules of Engagement (Don’t)

Not As Easy As…

So I thought, ‘Yes, why not’ .. sing a cover of a great John Martyn song written in 1973 about his friend singer/songwriter Nick Drake who died a year later from an overdose of prescribed anti-depressants.  Martin had noticed Drake was withdrawn and barely eating… almost living on air.

I’d seen many of Martyn’s live versions on Youtube.. (Oh how I wish I’d had this facility when I was growing up!)… and Martyn basically made the song arrangement up each night depending on how drunk or coked up he was.  I found his special tuning for this song on a recording where he had broken a string and had to re-tune his guitar.

What I did realise during my recording was Martyn’s fantastic vocal range; deep rolling bass notes that climbed to high falsettos.  He was famous for his ‘slurring’ delivery where all the words and pronunciation became entangled but his delivery is unique to him and I wanted to sing my version not a pastiche Martyn vocal.

Well here is the result!  I’m not completely thrilled by this attempt but I posted it on YouTube anyway because you can never fail if you never try..

https://youtu.be/RZsRxu5Hsl0

“How do you write a song?”

A Southern Belle asked me to write a little about the creative processes in writing a song.. so here goes.

Warning… there is no such thing as ‘a little’ in writing about songwriting!!

Firstly; there are no rules.  Definitely.  None.

Lyric writing borrows much from poetry using many of the same devices such as metaphor, simile, imagery and symbols to enhance the meaning of a song.  Repetition techniques are also used to create rhythm such as assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) alliteration (repetition of a first consonant), anapests and dactyls (types of stress on syllables) as well as couplets (rhymed lines that are together and may or may not stand alone) and internal and line-end rhymes.  Onomatopoeia (words that imitate sounds) and hyperbole (exaggeration) can be heard in many pop songs too.

it’s fair to say that the more techniques and devices a songwriter knows, what’s in his locker/bag of tricks/toolbox, the bigger the ‘palette’ to create the painting.  That’s not to say that a very simple song can’t work, they do.  Remember. there are no rules.

Everyone is an individual and has different tastes when it comes to art; songwriters are no different.  Through the medium of sound songwriters choose to express their inner-self and external observations about the human condition via a melody set to music; tune and tempo!

I’m usually asked, “What comes first, the music or the lyric?”

For me it’s a bit of both but mostly I write to a chord progression that either I have constructed or co-constructed with someone else or I am given a piece of music to write the melody and words.  This is known as the ‘topline’ meaning I compose the words and melody but in some cases it can be that virtually all the words are done and I’m just checking content and grammar or adding maybe a second verse or even a middle 8 (a bridge part of a song).  Writing in a team is a whole different kettle of fish.  Writing for a particular artist is political kettles and fishes and won’t be mentioned here.

If I’m writing the whole song then I may start with strumming a guitar and exploring chord shapes, inversions of chords (where the chords are played) and I start to build up a pattern of chords.  These chords will effect how I write the topline.  If there are many chords then I might juxtapose a simple lyric and melody over the top so that it doesn’t sound too busy.  Alternatively I would write a ‘busy’ lyric and melody to emphasize the meaning. (No rules!)  The opposite works too; simple chords but complicated topline.

I sometimes write to a beat in my head, a particular tempo or sometimes the words just appear first; a line here and whole chorus there.  The first person you write for should be yourself.  First and foremost I’m always seeking to entertain me.  If anyone else likes the song then that’s bonus and a reward; a sated ego.  A famous English radio DJ, John Peel, once said, “For every person who writes a song there is at least one person who will connect with that song.” so Peel would play everything and anything on his show.

As with a novel, the main idea  of the song is paramount.  With a book you have maybe fifteen pages to draw the reader in by introducing characters and plot.  With a song you get two lines!  Those first two lines set the whole tone of the song and they either pique someone’s interest or they mentally switch off.

Songwriters ‘listen’ continuously almost on autopilot.  I’m listening to myself (how do I feel about this? How does this effect me?) and I listen to the world around me via TV, radio, conversation, printed words.  Much like a computer, input equals output, so if I only watched soaps on TV then all of my songs would be about soaps.  I tend to read and discuss history, religion, current events, sociology and psychology so many of my songs are related to these issues.

Somewhere out there is a line, an idea, a concept that I want to portray.  Sometimes I can write a song and have no idea what it is about until a few years later.  Based on my own life experiences (or another’s) there is always a story to tell.  Using emotive language a writer is trying to connect to another person so that they say, “I understand this, I have felt this too”.

A writer writes what he knows.

This applies to the music too; to understand different musical genres, rhythms and form can help a writer to get the best out of a lyric and melody.  Knowledge of a craft enhances the writer so what you leave out can be as important as what you put in.  It’s in the discerning choices that can determine whether a piece of art ‘works’.

The task of marrying the tonal sounds of the words to the soundscape of the music, one influencing the other, is a way many writers prefer to work and to me this is the challenge.  To place angry words over a soft ballad is not (usually) going to work.  It can when it’s done for emphasis.  Again, no rules.

Okay enough of the technical stuff,  let’s have a look at a song.

My brother David wrote a lovely song full of imagery and beautifully composed called ‘Elizabeth’ and can be heard here..

http://youtu.be/4_GHWE72BOY

David asked a friend to record a piano part but when David got the song back the part had been re-interpreted to a slower and ‘softer’ sound.  Although the part couldn’t be used on the original song David loved the new interpretation but was stuck for a lyrical idea so he gave the music to me.  A short part of the slower version is here..

https://soundcloud.com/paul-psychemac/babysteps-exerpt-for-demo-david-mckendrick-composition

The tempo of ‘Elizabeth’ has a ‘going forward’ movement which inspired David to write his lyrics using his life experiences and a love of Bruce Springsteen and Aaron Copland!  As the original song was about a journey, I too thought that I would use a journey as my theme but I wanted to convey the stripping down of a journey into its component parts as if the process could only be managed in tiny sections.

I used the title ‘Babysteps’ as a concept because one takes furtive tiny baby steps to accomplish a difficult task.  It could also mean taking steps back to your ‘baby’….a traditional rock and roll name for a boyfriend/girlfriend.  I like a lyric that has originality and layers; an obvious overt meaning, further subtle underlying meanings and then an opposite meaning… (‘If the writer is saying this does he believe in the meaning or is he using the song as a vehicle to question the ideas thus making me question the concept too?’)

As this song has a beautiful chord progression I didn’t want the words or melody to get in the way so the verse lines are spaced apart.  Later in the song (once the listener has heard all the chord progressions) I filled out the words to give a sense of quickening within the journey… or a quickening of the thoughts about the journey.

Depending on how the song is sung, the vowel sounds at the end of the lines should sound the same in the verse couplets, some of these are called half-rhymes.  Overall the words are soft, meaning that there are no ‘hard’ sounding Ks etc.  I have used internal rhymes too such as in the second verse.  ‘down the avenue/main street’ and ‘join the queue/a ticket’.  The sounds of the words can be just important as the meaning but if you can make sense of those sounds then I would always consider that to be a successful lyric.

For me, a verse says ‘this is what I’m saying’ and a chorus says..‘and this is what I mean’.  The chorus uses an ‘opposites’ technique,  so ‘take me back’ and ‘way ahead’ contrast and contradict inferring opposing thoughts by the characters involved. The connecting ‘You’ and ‘I’ are used to reinforce the uncertainty between the people involved using an ‘opposite’ technique too. The question at the end of the chorus infers ambiguity.  (I have also broken a rule here.. I have rhymed ‘you’ with ’you’ which is generally a no-no but the rhyme is actually a half-rhyme ‘to you’ and ‘do you’!!)

The last line of the chorus, ‘Do you?’ is then used as a device to flow into the middle 8 section so the question ‘Do you?’ becomes ‘Do you… want me to make that journey..’ Using the word ‘journey’ also completes the concept of the song. I’m literally spelling it out.

The last verse changes the nature of the original idea by using body parts, the arms, heart and head, within the journey as well as reintroducing the bed mentioned in the first line into the very last line (which to some might be interpreted as a sexual reference) …. Using the bed at the start and finish of the song could mean the person is once more thinking about the journey and starting at the beginning again; a cyclic event showing possible apprehension about a way forward.

I tend not to use gender in my songs so that a male or female would be comfortable when interpreting the song.  I am always seeking to be original and I’m pleased that I haven’t heard a lyric using this concept before.

There are schools of thought that suggest it is not necessary to know the writer behind the song.  To some, what motivates a writer; his background, his ethics, beliefs and morals, have influence on the things he creates but to others a piece of art is a stand-alone statement to be judged, ignored or appreciated very much like a person.

In some cases the mystery of a piece can be diffused if analyzed too deeply.  In breaking this song down into the sum of its parts and highlighting some of the techniques used I may have taken away someone else’s interpretation of the song so I can see why songwriters prefer not to disclose too much!

So below is the full lyric.  It could change and develop as songs do, much like people.  There are no rules.

Baby Steps  ©2015  P & D McKendrick

From the bed

To the floor

And out along,

Out along the corridor

Step by step

Down the stairs

And from there

Into the hall

Baby steps, that will take me back to you ‘Cause I know, I know the way ahead…But do you?

From the door to the gate

Down The Avenue then up Main Street

Catch the train at Platform Eight

Join the queue and buy a ticket

Baby steps. that will take me back to you

Cos I know, I know the way ahead….But do you?…

… want me to make that journey?

The one that takes me to your door

Once, you seemed so certain

But I’m not sure, anymore..

From my head to your heart

From my bed into your arms

Baby steps that will take me back to you

Cos I know, I know the way ahead…..But do you?

And here it is!

Babysteps