I’m writing a few short pieces to explain the background to the songs on our forthcoming ‘Greatest Bits’ and as a kind of catharsis. The first considers the opening song:
- At the end of the day
In July 1998 I packed my belongings into a holdall, grabbed my guitar and left the UK. I was living in prime commuter country in a low-ceilinged bedsit lushly carpeted with the previous occupant’s hair. My beloved ‘power-pop’ band The High Ones was beginning to dissolve amid the usual drummer bollocks and financial rancour that snaps at young band’s heels. For the previous four years I’d been having a postal relationship with my Flemish girl Els and it was time to save on the stamps. I decided to move to Antwerp and live with Els in her rent-free, airy, high-ceilinged, relatively hairless, one-bedroom apartment. Situated in a bustling, bohemian type quarter of the City, this was time for a new chapter. Work? Language? Band? Pah. Let’s go. The beer’s marvellous.
I was 27 and looking back, this was one of those huge life-decisions that at the time just seemed right. I’d told the band some months previously and Jim the bassist (who definitely DID NOT play a Stormtrooper in The Empire Strikes Back) took it badly. He still believed we had a chance to make it, whatever that meant. However, I was set on leaving, tired of the stoned, shit drummers. We had a beery farewell evening together and parted on good terms. He never spoke to me again. I often think of the box of High Ones CDs in his garage.
Skip a year. The High Ones Mk II ‘the short and fucking intense years’ had been and gone. That’s for the next chapter and another song (Come Back!). Els got a call from her cousin who worked for Warner Bros Belgium. She’d (the cousin) heard that I was a singer-songwriter and would I be interested in helping one of their artists? Their artist (let’s call him Tim) was struggling with writing in English and they needed a native speaker to check his lyrics. They offered me money, paid by the hour so I said yes. Yes please. Oh yes. Nothing was signed. Shit (hindsight again).
I nervously called Tim and we arranged to meet at his place. He lived in the opulent South of Antwerp where the houses are as towering as the rents. Tim’s cherry-red open-top vintage Chevrolet was parked outside. This was an up and coming singer-songwriter who obviously didn’t need the money. I did. He already had a small entourage as we sat in his kitchen listening to his demos, shooting the breeze. My nerves were subsiding. I liked Tim, he was ambitious, friendly, obviously talented musically but pretty hopeless at lyrics. It’s a curious aspect of Flemish bands/songwriters in that 99% of them write and sing in English, their second or third language. No one finds this strange. Books, plays, films, theatre – all in Flemish and damn right. Songs? Fuck it. Nobody’s gonna listen that hard are they? Shortly before this Tim episode I attended a seminar for Belgian musos on ‘how to make it in the music industry’. It was a talk by some big-Belgian-cheese who’d once met a bloke who knew Morrissey, or something. The seminar began by the industry fellow writing in large letters on his flip-chart the words ‘GA WEG!’. ‘Go away’ in other words. Leave this Country, there’s nothing here for you. We all laughed nervously though our thin smiles betrayed the innate realization that he was right. Of course he was. This was Belgium, the size of a London suburb. What music industry? They can’t wait to fuck off to the land of milk and cocaine. Who gives a shit what they sing? I’d gone the other fucking way. The rest of the talk was a blur.
Tim was seen by Warners as the next big thing. For a time he was. Maybe he still is? I took home a cassette of his songs and a plastic envelope of his lyrics. He asked me to work on one or two and we’d take it from there. A professional songwriter was also involved though Tim wasn’t happy with his work. Now was my time to shine. I worked on the lyrics for one song that caught my ear. It was a lush, epic sounding number hampered by nonsensical words. I heard it as a Bond type number, full of threat and Roger Moore. I say ‘worked on’ but I simply started from scratch and put my own lyrics to the music. Tim loved it. He didn’t mind the fact that I’d erased his lyrics, he just loved the song as it stood. I was duly taken on to work on the rest of the album. Tim asked me to re-write almost all of the songs in one way or another. We saw a lot of each other over the next weeks. I was taken to Warners’ Studio, met the producer, and ate pizza together. Tim showed me his Studio (every home should have one). It was bigger than our apartment. His studio contained THE original mixing desk as used by Queen for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – a claim I subsequently heard in several other Belgian studios. Jesus, how many did they use and are they all now in Belgium? We went for long drives in his Chevy, hair wafting in the Flemish breeze. Tim listened to my songs and was very encouraging. He even hooked me up with some local musicians, GOOD musicians and we formed a band. That’s for another song and another story…
Els and I went on holiday. I took a cassette of the songs and worked on the lyrics at the airport. I had a deadline. I duly logged all the hours I spent working on the songs. I was loving it. This was the world I wanted to be in. Creative people in big cars with John Lennon box sets on their shelves. Tim was happy with the results and assured me I’d get a co-credit on the finished album. I can’t remember how long I spent on the songs but I worked hard. I wanted to do a good job and the thought of a credit on a major album spurred me on. Then I got the call. It was Rik from Warners. Rik, it turned out, was Tim’s boss. He’s spoken to Rik and there was no way on Earth I’d get a credit. Tim should never have offered. As my heart was plummeting into my shoes I constantly heard Rik Mayall in The Young Ones berating his name: ‘Rick –Prick!’. What a prick. I was close to tears by his aggressive fuck you tone. I had nowhere to go. No contract, just words. Well Warners fuck words for brunch so I was out. Rik treat me like shit but that was his job I suppose ‘take what I’m offering or I put the phone down now and you get nothing!’ They offered me payment of half of what I was owed and a copy of the album with a ‘thanks for your input’ card. Tim stopped answering his phone and I never heard from him again. He did alright. I’ve never listened to the album but I heard a lot of the songs on the radio that year. None of my words were used (I immediately sent them Special Delivery to myself after the phone was put down, just to be safe). The corrections I made to Tim’s garbled English were used but who cares? Nobody listens that hard. One song on the album went out unchanged with Tim singing the English pronunciation wrong. ‘Carelessly dating’ is a terrible title for a song anyway, it sounds like going for dinner without tying your shoelaces. When sung as ‘cerralessly dating’ it becomes vapid nonsense. It was a big hit.
I’m a sensitive guy and this episode knocked me back a few sessions. My foot in the door of the big labels and they eat it up and shit on my shoes. So I became bitter. Well, more so. Writing songs about how I felt or what I’d experienced always helped. Tim’s subsequent stonewalling hit me particularly hard and the realization that it was all bullshit. People are bad fucks it seems. I was learning that a lot. Around this time I read in an article about ‘good English usage’ (maybe it was research) that the phrase ‘at the end of the day’ was considered redundant and a good English user would say ‘ultimately’. Well I liked this ‘redundant’ phrase and started to hang onto it my thoughts and feelings about what had happened. The big idea being ‘why don’t people do what they say?’ I mean, come on, it’s not hard is it? Well the words flowed out, bitter and twisted just how I like them. The melody wasn’t bad either. The song was done. And it was good. A few years later I’d formed yet another band (yes, that’s another song) and we won a local battle of the bands. We fucking trounced the bumpkin competition (one of the judges: ‘there is no competition, they all have no songs, you are so good!!’). The prize was two days in a recording studio and all the turnips we could eat. We recorded this song first (one of two) and it came out sounding damn fine. The producer had a great way of first playing back a mix on the big rich pro-speakers and then though a very cheap crappy boom-box (just like mine). I remember Els (the pianist) had trouble playing it so we recorded her part in short sections with me singing what she should play. It took a long time but it worked. It sounds seamless on the recording. After two days I took home a CDR with two finished songs. Then I forgot about the CD for , ooh, ten years? Meanwhile, Soundcloud arrived and I dug out the song, stuck it out there and shared it to Tom Robinson’s Freshnet group. It was subsequently chosen as a featured song and got a glowing write-up on his website, airplay on BBC6 and all that – a proud moment. Where are you now Tim? (In a big fuck-off mansion sleeping on large piles of cash probably).
The BB6 review:
A lovely piano-led ballad. Gentle, effective and by far the best Anglo-Flemish duo of the week – also included in my personal Top 5. I don’t normally go for piano-led slow burners like this but it felt real, it felt heartfelt and it felt good. I really like the way the song builds: they put me in mind of Ron Sexsmith who is rather brilliant. This is indie folk music from the heart and I say “give it a go.”
‘What will it take, your heart on a plate?’
Order the album here: http://bit.ly/VcQueM
The song recently featured on Ralph’s Life charity CD for Mental Health Awareness - an apt and worthy cause.
For a his blog on our final release check out http://fruitbatwalton.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/the-low-countries-prize-every-time.html