The Proper Stranger. My future brother-in-law got a 4-track cassette recorder, so we started meeting up on Wednesday evenings and recording songs that I’d written. The more we recorded, the more I wrote. It was me and my then best-friend at first, but after a while he gave up on it, probably feeling he was contributing nothing. He was the first one to even write a song, which started me off. Once you realise you can do it yourself: oh. But then he didn’t write any more at all, and I was coming up with a new one (or more) every week. It turned out that, on tape, we sounded very similar anyway.
There’s a drum machine, Curly (Mark Ridout) on backing vocals and guitar, and Pete Austin on on bass. I think I’m just singing on this one. We didn’t have access to Curly very often. We put his amp in the bath for the rhythm part.
Is It Any Wonder? My first song, which was recorded for the 1984 cassette release Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, and then for our 1985 EP, Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare. This was recorded onto an 8-track, then pressed onto 500 vinyl 45 rpms. We had to speed up the tempo so we could fit all the songs we wanted on. Thinking back, my major influence at the time was probably Jonathan Richman. The idea was a kind of cool detached, pastiche/homage to old rock ’n’ roll, singing with a smile on my face. That cool detachment is the central characteristic. No real emotion, except that which might be evoked by the lyrics, if you cared. I hated the drum machine sound, and when we played live we had a real drummer (Olivier, who was half French), but we didn’t have the facilities to record a real drum kit. That’s Curly on lead guitar and Pete on bass again.
Sway. About five years after we started the recording project, I ended up with a lot of Pete’s equipment in my back bedroom. By this time it was an 8-track reel-to-reel and a mixing desk. I wrote this one about a girl I was seeing, Sarah, and recorded it just on acoustic guitar in that back room. A few years later, when I was experimenting with computer recording for work purposes (which is how I ended up getting back into it), I got hold of an Adrenalinn, a kind of drum machine, with guitar delay effects. You plugged your guitar in, and it created textures and rhythms based on the drum pattern. So I played “Sway” through it, and then my work friend Simon played some whale sounds on his guitar.
Latest News. I’d started teaching Media Studies, and I wrote this song, which wasn’t based on anything real, just all the different media I was thinking about. It takes you through from news and the BBC and the internet through radio and magazine articles, and then a film. And I recorded it with a selection of the instruments I’d begun to accumulate, and Roy played some guitar on it. His is the laid back rhythm in the left channel. At the time I had a Variax, which had the banjo sound on it, and I had an Ovation mandolin which was pretty cool.
You Don’t Belong. When I was in my early 20s, songs were like diary entries. I would take real emotional stuff that was happening and turn it into simple little songs that didn’t sound like anything much (emotional detachment being my watchword). When I went back to writing songs in my 30s and 40s, I had to dig down deep into memories. This was written about my ex-best friend, and his habit of creating legends about his life, the kind of bullshit I eventually tired of. I saw him from my car once, filling up his motorbike at a petrol station on the A5. It was about 15 years after he’d bored my tits off with his fantasies about emigrating to Australia. And there he was in Northampton, with his characteristic sloped shoulders and his motorbike. Went home and wrote this. Some of the recordings are so vivid I can remember recording every instrument.
The Conversation. In the 80s, I wrote a short story, and then I turned it into a kind of epic poem, which I turned into a song. I used to perform it at poetry readings. It was long and full of detail, quite funny. And then about 15 years later, the original long forgotten, I wrote a 3-minute version of it, what I could remember of it. I still like the guitar on this, and the flow of the lyrics. And every time he repeats. “the one I’d always loved” the meaning changes, until you know he’s singing about how he always picks on unavailable women. Story of my life.
And Then You Fall. This and “You Don’t Belong” were my first experiments with piano sounds. I’d got some kind of amazing plug-in software piano that sounded great. So I started programming one chord at a time into the software and then building on them. I’m also pleased with this because what sounds like some kind of mandolin solo is actually a guitar solo recorded at half-speed and then played back at normal speed. Pete plays bass on this. And then there’s an actual mandolin on there somewhere. I’d edit this to make it shorter if I did it again.
Outside My Window. In my teens, I was kind of in love with my then best-friend’s girlfriend, Linda. I was eaten up with jealousy, which I would never admit to myself of course. I was horrible to her and ended up deliberately cutting her out of my life, hoping all the time that she would say something and we could have it out. But before I did that, we were very close. When I left home and lived in Kent for a while, she wrote to me at least once a week. And she came down to stay one weekend, and we spent a couple of precious days together without him around. I wrote this song about that weekend, and the rest of it. I piled too many instruments into the mix, but it kind of fits because of all the emotions I piled into that relationship. I would get snippets of news about her from him, when I could casually ask without making it seem obvious that I really wanted to know. But he lost touch with her himself in the end, so I lost that lifeline. I regret this almost as much as not being able to whistle with my fingers.
Saturday Night. This has a lazy tempo, but I like it, especially the line, “All those eight o’clock girls, trying to straighten their curls…” Another song aimed at my introverted younger self, for whom Saturday nights in the Saracen’s Head in Dunstable were a form of torture. Fake it for fuck’s sake.
Walking Shoes. I was just playing with song arrangements on this, copying that of a record I liked. This is another “digging deep” one, written about a girl I liked when we worked together in Bejam in Dunstable. She really did used to frighten old men, Juliet. This is a phase when I was capable of some decent guitar because I’d been playing so much.
Everything. You can tell all the ones recorded about the same time: had my Orange guitar amp, and was just recording the sound straight from it. Play with some chords, make up some words. Whoever this was about? Lost in the mists.
Without You. I think I aimed this at my younger self, and the stupid games I used to play when trying to get women interested (qv “Outside My Window”, above). One of the last times I recorded with the mandolin, which I was too rubbish to play properly.
Yours Faithfully. One of the last things I ever did was February Album Writing Month (FAWM), in 2009, maybe? You write 14 songs in 28 days. Easy! Except I never did much justice to the recordings, focusing too much on working quickly. Also, most of my good software wasn’t working anymore, so I had a much more limited set of sounds. But this one I liked, because of the bits about, “There is no ex in loneliness, etc.” It’s about being dumped by text, which people were doing by then, it says here. I used pitch-changing software to add the backing vocal.
Tell Me a Movie. This is another one kind of based on a short story I wrote. This was a FAWM song. Again, I didn’t do the recording justice, and the vocal is not the best. I’m embarrassed by it really, but I still like the idea behind the song. Always thought there were too many verses but couldn’t bear to cut one.
Little Red Riding Hood. As best I can remember, this was the last one I wrote and recorded. Just messing around with different sounds by this stage. One of a series written about my younger, hopeless self. Sold the amp after this, and the electric guitar, which about two years later the kids were really annoyed about.