This 78rpm single is the only playable copy in the World known to date.
This 78rpm single is the only playable copy in the World known to date.
I grew up around music, and people who could really play. I never excelled at any individual instrument but after I got my first guitar I did plug-in a microphone and record myself singing and playing almost straight away. I guess in an effort to make these recordings more interesting to my imagined listenership I wrote some words. At some point I must have realised that I might need to theme the ‘song’ or somehow tell a story, or make it about something, people might get bored if I didn’t. I think this is pretty much how I’ve continued with song-writing; the rest is just adding a shine or emoting more effectively in my opinion. The core to writing a decent song is storytelling, but using the extra power of music to support the words you want to deliver. You can get all fancy about it, use the music to express a subtext, play with the form in some self-conscious way, but in the end it’s about packaging up and sending off as much connection and emotion with the song as you can.
During the process of writing connecting one’s heart and soul to the words, the music and to the playing of your song are for me all essential elements of successful song-writing. I feel that this is the key to creating something with longevity, a song which will speak both privately and in a wider sense to your listeners. I always hope that the resultant song, even though it is only words on a piece of paper will have a hint of the spirit and magic of your emotional connection with it, somehow captured in the moment of your writing of it, if you keep live that spirit of emotional engagement present when creating it. Basically I believe this is what separates a good song from a bad one.
There are lots of ways to get to the point of having created a finished song and some work better than others, I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way; there is only your own way to get to that point. A few ways work better for me than others, I’ll list them here.
1. Starting with the title! – Probably the worst way to begin the process and normally the precursor to a world of pain, struggle and multiple re-writes. However there are times when you just can’t ignore the idea or concept expressed by an imagined title popping into your head. Sometimes the title alone can summarise the concept of the song, and so makes a decent point at which to kick off the process. A good trick is to let this happen, but keep yourself open to letting the concept drift, or to throwing the title out of the mix at some point. I guess the trick here is not to hold on too tightly to your original concept as prescribed by that wonderful title idea you came up with. This is a sort of upside down way to do things, personally, more normally I would write the song and go looking within it for a catchy one liner that echoes the song’s concept, but was arrived at by way of creating the body of the song. I have heard it told that titles are very important to publishers and to anyone touting your tunes, frankly I think you should call it what you want, after all as the writer, you’ve probably got considerably more creative nouse than someone who sits behind a desk.
2. Rolling with a riff – This approach works well for me as I love to just sit and noodle on my song-writing instrument of choice, the guitar. I’m always on the search for a new set of chords that work nicely together, or create a vibe. Sometimes this atmosphere gives rise to some thoughts and words, a theme and the start of a song. Get it down; keep a scrap of paper, your writing book/pad or a portable recorder with you when you play in case you need to get some ideas down when you hit a creative patch. Often I find this method of playing the guitar and just opening up to saying or singing words a wonderful way to get things flowing, you just never know from one second to the next if you are going to spark the next million seller, or just mumble incoherently for the next half an hour, until you give up and go off do something useful. It’s probably not the sort of advice to give, but I find that a glass or two of red wine in particular just lets me take the edge of self-conscious efforts to verbalise my thoughts. Of course it can lead you up the garden path too, so in moderation and carefully if you want to utilise any stimulants to your writing.
Generally, once I’ve got some of these ideas down, I leave it, pursuing the finished article at this point can cause problems I think. In your enthusiasm to complete your work it’s easy to distort the ideas you’ve got down in that moment of clarity and creation. This sort of energy is worth holding on to and it’s all too easy to iron then out, edit them away as you try to impose ‘the song’ on the nascent ideas you have now committed to paper or tape. So go back to it later, it’s like reviewing a song you’ve recorded, last night after 9 hours of trying to perfect the Bongo take you thought it was utter rubbish. Then the following evening you spark up the mixing desk and play the rough mix, and it sounds great. Song writing is a bit like this too, so going back to review your work at a later date can give you the editorial distance to see things clearly and work towards the finished product. If you like I find it very difficult to see your work from distance and judge it accordingly; this is a worthwhile ‘trick’ to employ.
3. Write about what you know – This is really simple, no one wants to hear a song written by an eighteen year old about the travails of a long-term relationship breaking up. But they would listen to an eighteen year old telling them about divorce from the perspective of a teen whose parents have split. Authenticity is important. Not to say that I’m not guilty of going against my advice in the pursuit of some goal I feel is worth it, it’s all about balance and you’ll be the one that knows where that balance is struck, listen to your heart, and trust your instincts. For example I’ve written a song about Black Rhythm and Blues performers from 40s and 50s New Orleans, I’m not Black, I’ve never been to New Orleans and the closest I’ll get to a direct experience of this is listening to old 78 records of the original artistes, but the story I want to tell is about how their music and culture was taken and used by later White artistes and the parallels with White abuse of Black people. I decided that this was something I could tell from my perspective, I’m not speaking for anyone, and my general knowledge of the subject is good. It’s personal, writing is, trust your position and know in your heart that you can trust your judgement.
Write about what you feel – As distinct from the above, writing about something you have an emotional engagement with is important too. Of course if you are going to write professionally day in and day out you may want to ask yourself to write about any old thing, the latest thing or someone else’s perceived ‘thing’. But hell, let’s be honest, what of real worth are you going to create doing this? It won’t mean anything to you, it won’t engage you, and why did you start doing this in the first place? Wasn’t it to express yourself and to give your version of events, your view of the world? Isn’t it a bit of immortality that you are seeking with this something that you may leave behind you when you’re gone? Well what’s the point in spending your hard-earned time and energy on anything but something that is meaningful to you?
4. If something isn’t right, you’re right, it’s wrong – Basically don’t let your standards slip, if you aren’t happy with an element of what you are doing, then you’re right, it’s not right and your song isn’t finished yet. There is a point though where a balance is struck and you will adjudge it to be ‘good enough’. If you get to this point you might just have a finished song on your hands. You might also get to a point where you keep on polishing but the sheen you’ve created isn’t getting any brighter, the song isn’t improving, in fact it might be getting worse. Careful, you’re probably overworking the tune.
5. Sometimes fresh is better than perfect – It’s easy to think that everything you write has to be a heavily worked example of song-smithing, the truth is sometimes awkwardness, less than perfect alliteration, poorly chosen rhymes or previously well-trodden themes can all be easily ignored or forgotten in the face of a raw rendition of something emotional played out on paper when you’re writing. Sometimes it just so happens that you’ve got something urgent and real on paper, on your guitar and in your heart and working on it will destroy that reality, urgency and soul. Learn how to recognise this, integrate it into your work and to trust your instincts. You may want to take this energy and refine it somewhat; this I think works very well if done carefully and sensitively. Let it go, let it flow, get it down and then refine it, trim it, compress it. But be careful, again, not to overwork it. It’s a fine balance.
6. Try different mixes – Play around with what you have, move lines, keep trying new ideas, particularly in the early stages of piecing something together. Just like recording, you can with writing a song keep more than one take, write the song out on another sheet of paper and then go and destroy what you’ve written elsewhere, you can keep going and going until it all just slots into place.
As an aside to this, I find often that my first verse is weaker than subsequent verses. I think this is probably because when you write this first verse it’s the one that establishes your idea for the song as you begin the creative process, it is this verse that is the point where you originally negotiate the idea. Because of this it can be less well-formed or complete than the rest of the subsequent verses. It’s a cheap trick, but you could try moving this verse further down the line. Sometimes it’s not worth keeping at all, so chuck it out and try again, but if you like it, but just not enough for your strong opening verse, as I say, move it on down the line and replace it with a later verse. Only if this works of course, in many cases this won’t work within the structure of your song.
7. Sing as you write – You won’t thank yourself for making it impossible to breathe when later performing your masterpiece, and if you are lucky enough to find someone who feels like creating their own rendition of your hit song, don’t make it impossible to sing. A good way to create a song that is comfortable to sing is to sing while you create it. This way you won’t create any passages that lack the natural resting places a singer needs to find their breath. This way you will naturally integrate resting places, and doing this may also inform the way the song is written, the structure of it and therefore, sometimes, the very essence of the song.
8. Write stuff down – Keep a pad, write anything down, if it’s a line, an idea, a title, a rhyme, a concept, whatever, loads of these ideas will never come to anything, but, and this is born of experience, years later you may be looking for that one idea or line to complete your song and fall across the answer you’re desperately looking for in your notes.
9. Play with your friends – Play with other people’s songs, look for tricks of the trade, ways they get round problems, themes, ideas. Every song that needs to be written, probably has been, in the end the only thing that will help your song to stand head and shoulders above everything else out there is YOU. Your way of doing and seeing things. On the way to finding out how to do this, it’s not bad idea to copy others, play with their ideas, nick them, purloin them, steal them. Don’t feel bad about being a copyist, it’s part of the learning process, and lots of fun. Most people’s songs are copies of other people’s songs, it’s really really hard to come up with something truly fresh and new.
I’m part of a Facebook group called ‘The Record Den’ where like-minded sad O.C.D. suffering record collectors and enthusiasts of a superior popular musical past share their likes; in this case mainly Rhythm and Blues from the 40s and 50s, Soul from the 60s and Progressive Rock Lps from the 70s (yes there’s always at least one truly sad Chemistry Teacher who clings to his Yes and Rush Lps with a sweaty desperation and requires public validation for his self-imposed disability).
A short while ago and whilst suffering from a lack of reading material I asked for suggestions for my next book and bedtime indulgence. I focussed my fellow collectors on what I felt I required. A book that would illuminate the popular 40s and 50s world of Rhythm and Blues music. And ‘Blue Monday’ was suggested to me, in amongst a few others as befitting my requirements. My fellow record junkies were flowing in their praise of Rick Coleman’s book.
I was shocked to discover that it is the ONLY biography of a man who was essential to the world of Rhythm and Blues and centrally important and present in the operating theatre at the birth of Rock n’ Roll. ‘It’s a boy, and he’s got a D.A. and a white T-Shirt on, with 20 soft pack Marlboro already tucked into the short sleeve, Mr. Domino, you must be very proud…’
The book rather wonderfully features as a first step a map of New Orleans, detailing the various districts and locating for all to see important and key features of the city’s music-scape and Fats Domino’s present and historic placement in that geography. Before even beginning to read I found myself wandering the streets, and linking the locations of his various family homes with photographs in the book, shortly thereafter going on Google Earth to street view the various locations as they appear now. Sadly one or two destroyed entirely by Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans City Governments fraudulent re-claiming of unattended and un-mended land left behind by people too poor to return to it in the stringent allotted time-frame. As you can see, I was fully engaged with this book within seconds of opening it. No mean feat, as I generally don’t get past the first half chapter of books that are poorly conceived or poorly written or both, as is more normally the case.
Rick Coleman takes the reader through Fat’s history, his childhood, his background, placing it strongly and forcefully within the context of New Orleans as a city formed from the sweat and blood of the African diaspora, Catholicism and the indivisible early French settlement of Louisiana. I found the section that revolved around Congo Square, an area established as a location of Black African cultural expression from the city’s earliest days, incredibly interesting and engaging.
Rick Coleman uses the location as a cypher for the changing role and social mobility of a multi-layered Black city culture that shifts and moves with changes in the religion of the region and the political upheaval of Civil War America and ingress of Protestantism. All the time keeping the reader in touch with the music soil of the place, that same substrate that gave rise to a crop of musicians, singers, writers and producers, that included Fats Domino.
The book touches on Fat’s links with other musicians of the era, his long and fruitful if sometime difficult relationship with Dave Bartholomew his writing partner, arranger and frequent band leader. We hear about other movers and shakers of the City at the time; Smiley Lewis and Professor Longhair feature amongst fellow New Orleans musicians and the shifting line up of Fats Domino’s own touring band and the individuals mini stories are well told. We learn about his rise to fame, his signing to and early career with Imperial Records, and movement onwards to other labels, the never-ending tour schedule and the tragic loss of band members to the musicians seeming drug of choice at the time, Heroin and the tragedy of car wrecks reaped through too many miles on the road.
In short the book is well-formed and paced, tells the tales well, fills one in on just who Fats Domino was, what and where gave birth to him and in turn Rock n’ Roll. It’s a real lesson and a Rockin’ Good read. Heartily recommended. If I have one minor criticism it is that the last decades of an artist no longer truly central are skimmed over and compressed in a way that leaves the finish of the book underperforming like a damp firework. A pity as the rest of the book is an explosion of images, information, sights, smells and a vivid retelling of one of the greatest and least lauded artists of the Rhythm and Blues and Rock N’ Roll era.
Let’s all get this straight from the start, I bought this book, I was not invited to give my opinion on it, but in the true tradition of peevishness, pugnacity and of irascibility I shall.. so nah!
I shall speak in perpetuum of the interminably un-ending indulgence of this writer’s fondant fancy froufrou, this lady’s lace work of metaphor and of the hyperbole of hype. The replacement of anything corporeal with the mere sweaty glaze of insignificancy.
There is something bothersome about the way in which this stripling (yes I’m downwardly ageist) seeks to engage with the very real world of the record collector. Seeking as she does to share in its glories and it’s potholed routes to discovery. Yawningly. In the terminating pages making reference to the fashionistas disposition for the veracity of the ancient and actual, as opposed to the fraudulent and counterfeit age of the binary digit, she I believe exposes herself for what, perhaps she is, a being lost in the porridge of ‘Bang on Trend’.
There is nothing to this book, it is smoke and mirrors, vapour lifts off it like the fog on page 192. There is no substance, no grit, no spunk (to coin a truly American use of nomenclature). It’s all chit-chat between occasional highlights of actuality, of record rooms and real people. The distance the writer takes to travel between these moments of joy are as tedious to me as no doubt the miles she assures us she travelled in pursuit of the substance of this padded pillow of a book were, to her.
As you get into the real thing, real collecting and you just are, simply, a real record collector, you see lots of odd shit. People think you’re cool, people aspire to be like you, you see middle-aged guys wearing T-Shirts with Record Deck representations on, but who don’t own an actual player, and who have placed their platters in the attic. In short you learn how to recognise others that really truly and honestly share your interest. Amanda Petrusich claims on a number of occasions within the book that she is thrilled by the acquisition of an item or two, and of missing out on some Charlie Patton tunes on Paramount and other … stuff. I’m sorry, I know it’s churlish, I know it’s bad of me, un-generous and I feel like a schmuck saying it, but I don’t buy it, it doesn’t ring true. She’s a dabbler, and a dabbler can’t have the kind of insight into record collecting that it requires to write something a record collector should read about record collecting.
It’s notable that all the endorsements on the rear of the dust jacket are by other writers, not one is visible from a collector of tunes.
Not really. She writes well, it’s just that this was in essence a short article for a magazine of momentary dabblers, not a book for people who want a serious insight. It doesn’t give that, it just scrapes a bit of dust off the surface of the record (metaphor alert) and plays the first bar, before removing it from the turntable; instead of cleaning it thoroughly, playing it, inverting and then re-equalizing the RIAA curve to something akin to the original mastering, playing it through filters to remove as much top end hiss and low-end background as possible, reading on its history, digitizing it and finally cataloguing it by matrices.
It feels like a quick fix, a soundbite, and thusly a product of the present generation. No wonder they struggle to comprehend the depth of the ‘groove’. I can’t help but see with sadness the writer’s work as representative of this present generations’ struggle towards a clear vision of the ‘real’ and of the past as obscured by the ongoing Tsunami of phone Aps, social networking, online content and data management.
It was great reading about Bussard et al though.
Dear all just anote for the WWW, as many seem to be searching to find info on Bigmikeydread Reggae Radio.
I have ceased to produce the show, it’s been a gradual and natural ‘death’ and though at it’s peak the show was being downloaded 30,000 times every month and was one of the most popular Reggae podcasts world-wide, beloved by it’s audience I decided that the day had come, when it had run out of juice..
I’m going to be concentrating on creating my own songs, writing as I’ve done very little of this over the last 6-7 years. I’ve got 6 -7 songs down already.. having fun making music and not just playing and listening to it.