Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Toothpick Bridge Liner Notes, Part One - The Boy's Not Right

So I’m sitting in London, in a restaurant, with Tom Robinson, having dinner.

Outside, that girl from Shameless, who used to be in Dinnerladies, is having coffee with friends.

At the table next to us, Graham Linehan, comedy writer extraordinaire, is dining alone, deep in thought. Well, I’m assuming he’s deep in thought. He could be planning a bank heist for all I know. I’m just trying to keep my voice down, as for some reason my Canadian accent mutates into an impression of Ardal O’Hanlon’s Father Dougal when a drink has been taken.

We’re here because I have been invited, following the release of King Martha, to discuss with Mr. Robinson what he thinks is right and is wrong with our career to date, and where he thinks we should go.

We had struck up an email correspondence, when I had sent him our bisexual cowboy song “Fag Break” thinking he might appreciate the love story at its centre. He is very kind, encouraging and forthright – at one point, I was fairly convinced that he’d have me standing on the table shouting “I WILL BE NUMBER ONE!” or, perhaps, “Captain, My Captain!”

I end up only slightly annoyed that he doesn’t appear to be flirting with me at all. I mean, I put on my best shirt and everything.

In essence, our conversation ended with me going away – HOMEWORK! - To consider an ist single that would put across what we do in a classic single type of way.

Seems a simple enough assignment, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, my brain doesn’t necessarily work in straight lines. And it is, thankfully, utterly impossible for me to write in a prescribed manner. Factor the other three into the writing process and something that comes in as a jazz ballad invariably exits the room as a rockabilly shuffle and vice versa. It keeps life interesting.

However, what stuck from the initial conversation was that I wanted to discipline myself to tell my stories with brevity, without losing anything that I wanted to say.
This is a recurring bugbear with me. Now I love experimental music, and I like to play with form when a song demands it. But goddamn it, I LIKE form.

The traditional shape of song shouldn’t restrict you, it should push to invest it with what you have that no else does, YOU. Make them songs that resonate for you and the audience. And I really believe in the idea of learning the rules before you start breaking them. Nought wrong with craft, in other words.

Anyway, the band and I set to writing a single and before we knew it we had many, many songs. And we also had, in my mind at least - the shape of an album. I’m old-fashioned here too. I like ALBUMS. Songs that belong together: That can stand alone, but are improved by the company of their fellows.

This concept changed as we went along – at one point, even with the same songs, we thought this would be our punk album – but a thread of lost childhood, lost innocence, and generally lost-ness started to creep into the material. I mean, there’s literally hundreds of other things going on, but lyrically there was definitely a sense of me finally dealing with some shit, albeit not, hopefully, in a hand-wringing way.

Best still, when you work in a group, all those other influences and personal takes on the songs to hand add layers to the enterprise. I think if, without prior conferral, you asked the four of us what the songs were about, you’d probably get four very different answers, and yet all pointing in the same direction.
The opening track – and this is WHY it’s the opening track, (other than the big fuck-off harmony with which the band kicks in) – is – to me – foreshadows all that follows.

Having suffered all my life from bipolar disorder, I am simultaneously fascinated and frightened by it in others. When – often in combination with other factors – it either temporarily or permanently derails a life, you feel both empathy and a desire to look away, lest you follow suit.

And so, The Boy’s Not Right is ABOUT Adam Ant. It was his story that kicked off the lyric, and I’m a huge admirer. “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” is pretty much my goddamn mantra.

But The Boy’s Not Right is also about me. And a lot of other people, I should imagine. There’s just something about the phrase which sums up how people treat people who suffer from any kind of mental health problems. Crazy! Mental! Not Right in the Head!

Trouble is, when you perform for a living, not only are your mood swings, manic episodes and generally laterally thinking considered par for the course, but you start to accept them as part of what makes you different. And sometimes you start to believe that being the “crazy” guy is all that you have.

I’ve liked how Stephen Fry has recently referred to it as “having a little bit extra”. Some days, that’s how it feels. Other days, well… I try not to think about those other days.

When you think about it, this is a pretty serious song, with serious intent. You might imagine it to be a downbeat dirge. Something a sensitive singer-songwriter might intone before chugging an alco-pop and overdosing on children’s aspirin. But we like to be sneaky – which I know confuses the hell out of the lazier type of music “writer” who want things to be ONE THING, DAMN IT! (And God forbid you play more than one style. That confuses them so much that they ignore it and pick one out of the air at random. : ) ) So, instead Boy is all drums, bass, Hammond, jangly stuff, and the introduction of a brilliant new instrument known as the guitoon.

(It’s half-guitar, half-bassoon and does not actually exist outside the studio, or in fact, outside Brett Richardson's and Jay Burnett’s heads).

But then it’s up to you to judge the song. I can only tell you how it came to be, and why.

I’ll leave the rest up to you.


The Boy’s Not Right – from Toothpick Bridge by ist

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