n a recent BBC Radio 3 programme, The Essay, the writer Mark Illis explored the process of forgetting his Teenage Years. He discussed how we sometimes revisit our teenage selves after possibly reading our diaries or gazing at teenage sketches found in an attic. Reading an entry of his diary; a message from his 16 year old self to his 50 year old self, he feels that it tells him nothing at all. All the emotion of what he wrote is lost. It is all “painted over in a foggy grey wash”. I found myself connecting with this as I too had looked over, quite extensively, all my lyrics and notes made by my teenage self to make my album some thirty years after it was first conceived. What was the message from my 18 year old self to my 49 year old self trying to convey?
While cold stark words can be, as Illis discusses, emotionless, songs can be a true illustration to the emotions that this 49 year old can recall when he explored the workings of his younger self. The music and lyrics provided me with a snapshot of exactly how I was feeling over some very significant life changing events. A musical photograph of all that was going on. Driving a long bus journey from Germany back to Middlesbrough in April 1987 with just the words German Nights in my head, I can recall the entire song being written right in front of my eyes. The magic and mystery of the beautiful German town of Sankt Goar captured in its moonlit cobbled streets in the Major 7th chords of the song.
I can vividly recall writing an short story in my English A Level at St. Mary’s 6th Form College based heavily on a film I had just watched: Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. My short story, told in the first person narrative, was of a Private Detective from Chicago instigating a murder to the setting of the city in the 1920’s. The story concluded in being merely the daydreams of a young boy reading a pulp fiction comic book. Was this the spark of inspiration on what became this thirty year musical journey? The irony is, what I have eventually created is now that day-dreaming result of my younger self. The imaginary detective based in 1920’s Chicago is simply the daydreams of couple of teenage boys reading a pulp fiction book. But I haven’t forgotten what he was thinking or how he was feeling. The same chair I sat on whilst writing those songs in my bedroom between 16 and 18 years old is the same I sit on now writing this blog. I can recall Ian’s bedroom where we also wrote many of the songs as clearly as my own in Kensington Avenue. The Beatles Posters on his wall, my Beach Boys lyrics on mine. It could have all been just yesterday. I don’t think that we every truly forget any of our experiences and some might say that our ability to draw them back is simply down to recall strengths. I can personally testify that the prompts of a song, a recording from 30 years ago on an old scratchy tape or a sketch to go with it really can remove the ‘foggy grey wash’ and truly help recall the emotion and thoughts of a deep thinking teenager from the late 80’s. I shall combine these thoughts in a commentary of the songs on the album throughout this blog in the weeks to come.
Murder In The Rain
This song first came to me when Ian loaned me his vinyl copy of The Beatles Abbey Road Album. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) ends with a fantastic arpeggio sequence that picked up my interest. Fuelled with an idea gained from my regular rides to Middlesbrough on the 263 Bus, (I used to notice an impressive painting of a Wide Rimmed Fedora wearing gangster on the side of a building on Linthorpe Road) I came up with the idea of the character Mac Sweeney. I used an amalgamation of my own family name and my Paternal Grandmother’s maiden name to come up with the character. The whole thing fell into place from there. The story was the investigation into the murder of an innocent man walking home to his family from work. A case of mistaken identity by a mob hitman with low intelligence. I chose the name Albert McGennis for the victim after some other close family friends from my family hometown of Mullaghbawn in Northern Ireland.
The first verse places the narrator of the song at the point of the impending danger:
“Looking through my window on this wet Chicago Night
I can’t believe the things I see
Guns are booming
Innocent people fall
That deadman could be me.”
I have always been incensed by the British legal system (or any come to think about it). Judges and Juries can be blinded to the the real evidence by clever barristers and solicitors who are doing their very best to get their defendants released. How many famous gangsters worked under a veil of Police and Law protection rackets and boosted criminal empires without charge. Al Capone himself was only eventually locked away on a charge of Tax Evasion with his more serious crimes never facing the justice they deserved.
“Sitting in the courtroom watching criminals beat the law
The judge to blind to know
That once they’re out there in our world they’ll kill a little more
They’re enjoying this little show”
At the time of writing the song I was very interested in the situation that had escalated in my families homeland of Northern Ireland. The song became a comparison of the violence in Chicago to that of what was going on in the late 80’s in my beloved country. An abhorrent stance on violence and the killing of innocent people was the message of the last verse and I have switched the comparison to that of the Middle East and Syria now that peace has finally returned to Northern Ireland.
Violence should never be the answer to anything. The conflicts in the war torn parts of the planet always have such a huge cost of innocent lives. We hear on the news that a hundred civilian lives have been lost and it sounds so trivial. If that was broken down to a more realistic image of old people and children then the detail would be far more shocking. I touched again on this theme in The Sleeping City with:
“The big hard men
The ones that paint all our streets with blood
Are their consciences carved of wood.
Do they think of those that cry?
When they make a human die?
And the city, the city silently sleeps.”
You can get a free copy of The Sleeping City by clicking here.
The song hasn’t altered much in the two ‘book end’ recordings of the last 30 years. It was the first recording we ever attempted in a professional studio. Recorded in The Mill at the Waterfront in Stockton, it was simply a performance of how we played it live. Ste Thirkell played bass guitar. The solo was realised on my trumpet but I have replaced that on the new recording with a guitar.
We evolved it over the years on various 4 track recordings and, eventually, a more produced version at Dimmer Blackwell’s Teesbeat Studios in 1990.
The new and final version is my favourite though as it has Ian featuring on the vocal. Simon added a more refreshing bass line and the thing really came together.
So, returning to my original conversation of this blog. The message my younger 19 year old self intended to provide my older self has been received loud and clear. It has been slightly enhanced and updated. Using the technology of today to finally realise this song I have framed it in the best possible way and given it as a gift to my younger self who is alive and kicking within my 49 year old frame. After all, we never really do grow up do we?