Book Review – Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters by Daniel Rachel

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Daniel Rachel has won half the battle before you even open his book ‘Isle of Noises: Conversations With Great British Songwriters’. The reason for this is the line-up of legendary artists which this fantastic work boasts:

Ray Davies, Robin Gibb, Jimmy Page, Bryan Ferry, Joan Armatrading, Chaz Jankel, John Lydon, Mick Jones, Paul Weller, Sting, Andy Partridge, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, Madness, Annie Lennox, Billy Bragg, Johnny Marr, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, Lee Mavers, Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker, Lily Allen and Laura Marling. Unbelievable.

People may scream “but where is Bowie?”, Paul McCartney, “what about Elton John?” or Morrissey. But what becomes evident from the introduction is just how much effort it took for Rachel to secure this sterling set of big hitters, and that he had to pester, annoy and cajole to do just that. He admits that the book is by no means definitive, but even the professional cynic would have to concede to the quality of his contents page.

Rachel states that he is filling a gap in the market with this book. A void existed for a work specifically about songwriting processes carried out by British artists, and he has put a huge amount of effort into changing that fact. Rachel undoubtedly has a fantastic, incredibly broad and deep knowledge of both music itself and music theory, which he lives and breathes. However, it is not just his knowledge and hugely accomplished research which makes this book so excellent, but his skilful, responsive interview technique which allows the conversations to flow. The accolades from the participating artists themselves, presented on the back cover, reflect their sheer respect for, and interest in, the project.

Fascinating anecdotes are communicated throughout the interviews, such as Ray Davies’ younger brother Dave experimenting by skewering a knitting needle into his 8 amp guitar speaker, creating a cacophonous distortion effect ahead of its time, which defined the early Kinks sound. Facts also jump out such as Robin Gibb writing songs from the age of 8, and a staggering 2500 artists having covered the songs of the Bee Gees.

The book explores the differences between individual songwriters, partnerships such as Marr/Morrissey, and collective group songwriting, which in the case of Madness was 7 artists. Different preferences, orders, processes and styles of writing are communicated by this array of musicians, who put different emphases on the importance of melody, lyrics, the music, and the arrangement of songs from their personal point of view.

The nitty gritty of shared writing credits is also explored, which includes Blockhead Chaz Jankel ruing the fact that Norman Watt-Roy didn’t receive a credit for his superb bassline on ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’. Rachel’s interview style undoubtedly puts the writers at ease, allowing them not only to open up about regrets such as that of Jankel, but to provide fantastic outpourings of humour; John Lydon recalls an occasion where he was jailed for ‘attacking two policemen’s fists with my face’! The interviews reach beyond the grave also; in the case of Jankel and Mick Jones of The Clash, the reader gets to hear about their songwriting partnerships with the now late Ian Dury and Joe Strummer respectively, illuminated by their former writing partners who are still with us. Yet some artists were actually reluctant, including some of those who participated in spite of this, to analyse their personal songwriting processes in too much detail; they feared that deconstructing the component parts of their art might take away some of the magic which they believed to be aided by something of an ignorance of exactly what they were doing, and potentially destroying musical creation for themselves.

4.5/5 – This is a sublime book, which has been thoroughly researched by a very skilful and talented interviewer. The only issue can be a double-edged sword, in that reading the accounts of 23 different artists/groups can be a little tiresome, yet the fact that the book contains such a fantastic set of artists leads you into the trap of turning the page anyway, and ravenously consuming the next chapter regardless. Perhaps somebody with more self control could gradually work their way through the book over a longer period of time than ‘as fast as is humanly possible’, get even more out of it, and rate the book 5/5. What shines through, beyond an insight into how songs are constructed by absolute legends of modern British music, is the personalities of those who Rachel interviews, which adds another great string to an already polished bow; you get an insight into both their craft and their character, and it is worth every penny.

Marcus Raymond