I shouldn’t be so astonished that a pub full of people can write and perform 10 songs in under two hours – because I know, having been part of the process before, that it can be done.
But even so, I was impressed by the speed with which a creative product can be assembled, given a bunch of willing musicians and would-be musicians, and an hour-and-a-half deadline.
This was the latest monthly session on Sunday of the London Songwriters www.meetup.com/LondonSongwriters/, whose mission is to throw groups of random people together, give them a theme and a deadline, access to some musical instruments, and see what transpires.
My “band” consisted of me, Tony the Modern Folk Poet (my pal from the local music club, the one who keeps writing songs about me being fat), a science lecturer called Keiran and a professional singer called Shola.
To begin with, as the organiser, Murray, gave us the theme (“beginnings”) it was just me and the Modern Folk Poet and I sensed trouble ahead. Collaborations aren’t for everyone; you have to enjoy and value others’ input, and if you’re not used to working in a team that input can become a distraction, or even a nuisance. All of the Poet’s vast catalogue of clever songs and ditties have been produced on his own and he has firm ideas about the writing process. His idea of collaboration is for him to write the lyrics, in a quiet room in his own time, perfect them, devise a basic melody then have a proper composer do the musical arrangement.
Explaining this, he self-deprecatingly likens his thoughts to shards of crystal, which would lose their sharpness and brilliance through exposure to less bright pieces of glass.
So I’d suspected the “chucking ideas around with strangers in a noisy pub with a time constraint” style of song-writing wouldn’t suit the Poet, and he certainly didn’t take to it like a duck to water. We’d got no further in 10 minutes than establishing that we wanted pathos rather than comedy in our song, and the clock was ticking. Then Keiran joined us and things started to move. Keiran told us about how he’d been talking to a homeless man in the street, and we thought that the theme of “beginnings” could relate to someone who’s become homeless and who ponders how his problems all began. It could be a broken relationship, a lost job, a drug habit…
The Poet wasn’t enjoying all this bandying of ideas – he muttered something about the sharpest knife in the drawer being blunted by rubbing about with the others – and disappeared to have a pee and a fag. Meanwhile, Keiran and I managed to scribble down a storyline that might work. (Bloke gets involved in cocaine, loses home, wife etc, looks back, regrets.) The rhyme scheme started out as a rather unusual ABC, ABC but it was a struggle to make the lyrics fit around this.
Our band’s fourth and final member arrived then. Shola is a professional singer and obviously used to this kind of thing. She suggested rewriting the over-complex rhyme scheme as a simple ABCB scheme. Most importantly, she suggested the catchy “hook” that would become the song’s main defining feature. We all agreed that the song would appear to be the narrator talking about a romantic partner, but that the last verse would be a denouement, showing that he or she was really talking about a drug habit.
Murray and the Poet both reappeared at this stage, the former to remind us that we had only 15 minutes left so should think about devising a melody; and the latter to suggest improvements to the metre and rhythm (the Poet’s always telling me I have no sense of rhythm). We scribbled down a final version and gathered round the keyboard (the Poet with his mandolin) to try and get a tune going on.
Somehow it happened and you can hear the result here
Despite the subject matter, it turned out to be quite a jolly, catchy number. Things fell apart somewhat towards the end when I was unable to read my own handwriting and sang the wrong words. But on the whole it went off reasonably well, given the fact that it had been such a rush-job, that Keiran admitted he could only play keyboard in one key – C – that you can’t hear the mandolin and that I sound like a pub karaoke singer.
Later on, during the open mic part of the afternoon, the Poet performed one of his comic songs, The Maid’s Day Off. It got a huge laugh and loads of good feedback in the anonymous critique session. You can hear it here.