Mick Jones, Ray Davies and Laura Marling were amongst the twenty-seven of the UK’s greatest living songwriters who spoke to Daniel Rachel about their work for his new book Isle of Noises. Here’s some of our favourite bits from the book, and a Spotify playlist of the best music to listen to whilst you read the it…
To experience Isle of Noises, we recommend you listen to our Spotify playlist as you read…
Do you remember writing the intro to ‘Sunny Afternoon’?
I do. I’d bought a little white upright piano second hand. I hadn’t written for a time. I’d been quite ill. It’s a chromatic . . . writing scales practically on the piano. I was living in a very Sixties-decorated house. It had orange walls and green furniture. My one-year-old daughter was crawling around on the floor and I wrote the opening riff. I remember it vividly. I was even wearing a polo-neck sweater. All the times when I’ve had big success it’s been at a time when I’m either ill or miserable or we’re stuck. When ‘You Really Got Me’ got to number one we were stuck on a train that broke down on the way back from Torquay. The press were waiting to meet us. We all got flu, freezing cold in this carriage. It was a joy to have a hit with ‘Sunny Afternoon’. England won the World Cup and we knocked ‘Paperback Writer’ off the number-one spot. It’s not one of their greatest singles but I’m a big admirer of The Beatles, an amazing band. It was quite significant.
Do you need solitude or have a preferred time of day to write?
Well, yes, generally at night I find it easier when phones aren’t ringing so much. There’s more time to be creative. It’s the only time I’m on my own, really; during the day most of the time I’m working in music I’m with a lot of people: the engineer, the producer, musicians. That’s what I enjoy the most. The writing process is in two parts: one is composing the melodies, which I quite enjoy doing. Normally I then take the musical ideas to the studio and work them up and see where to take it. I don’t normally work on lyrics until later on, and that I must do on my own. I wish I knew a good lyric writer, actually: I probably would have used one before now. I find it difficult to find the right words to match the mood of the music. It takes a long time. Sometimes things happen immediately; most of the time you reject ideas constantly until you find the right one and then you think, ‘Ah right . . . yeah.’ It’s a great feeling when you suddenly feel you’ve got the right words for a piece of music and it all melds together.
Is your empathy for people connected to being separated from your parents at an early age? Has that provided a backbone to your writing?
It probably has; everything we’ve gone through makes us the person we are. When I got to England people say, ‘What did you love? Was it arriving in this wonderful country?’ No, the big deal was meeting my parents. I didn’t know what England was. It had no significance for me, but coming to my parents had all the significance. So when we met, the tears and the whole thing, that was a real, real joy. I know I missed my parents terribly when I wasn’t with them. I don’t think about it but I wouldn’t be surprised if that played a big part in shaping who I am, for sure. As a youngster, not having your parents for a while is not nice. It’s not something I dwell on. I was always a loner person anyway; I’m no different now than when I was a youngster. I’m used to spending time on my own. That’s where ‘Me Myself I’ comes from.
How complete were your and Joe’s ideas before you took them to the band?
Sometimes I had a little tape recorder . . . for instance, ‘Complete Control’ was pretty much all done. ‘London Calling’ we had the thing about the lyrics, but also in the music it was a bit more chunky before and I made it smooth, somehow. It was the same chords but the way I did it,I made it so it was a matter of …all you had to do was change a little finger for the verses. I didn’t have to do anything, it was already there. They were mostly complete, I think. Complete in terms of the idea, anyway. It wasn’t like we had to come back . . . sometimes there’d be another bit that usually vanished: the other bit, ‘What’s that bit doing there?’ There’s a few examples of that that haven’t come out yet. I don’t expect they ever will. It was hacking: ‘How we gonna . . . we’ve got to fit this bit in there?’ I saw it as tailoring. Joe saw it too like that. Later on we got a little bit more experimental. We stretched out a little bit and then obviously we had to cut it down. It was like the two ideas of ‘Casbah’: Bernie (Rhodes) said, ‘Why does everything have to be a raga?’ You know, a really long . . . and at the same time, while our manager was saying we need to shorten everything, the ayatollah was saying, ‘I don’t like rock ’n’ roll.’ Topper went into the studio; it was amazing. He put the three things down: the piano, the bass and the drums. I did the chorus tune, Shareef don’t like it, then Joe did the lyrics, but Topper was the main guy.
Is the creative process therapeutic? There is a lot of darkness in your work, referred to either directly, obliquely, or through character. Do you recognize that?
Yeah, definitely, and that’s why I say I’m equally grateful for it and fearful of it. That’s obviously one side of my personality that seems to write songs – not that I have a split personality, as a liner note – that place that I’m in whenever I write songs, which does tend to be a similar kind of therapeutic and quite a dark place. My fear of it is that I would ever try and pursue that darkness; the exorcism is such a relief and then you kind of get to a place where you’re sort of unhappy. That’s a bit worrying! That’s why I can’t sit down and write a song whenever I want to and that’s why I try and live life simply and normally as possible. I don’t indulge in the thrills around songwriting and being creative, or I try not to. It is so tempting. The older I get the more aware I am of that.
Isle of Noises features interviews with Ray Davies, Bryan Ferry, Robin Gibb, Jimmy Page, Joan Armatrading, Chaz Jankel, John Lydon, Mick Jones, Paul Weller, Sting,Andy Partridge, Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook, Madness, Annie Lennox, Billy Bragg,Johnny Marr, Neil Tennant & Chris Lowe, Lee Mavers, Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker, Lily Allen, and Laura Marling.
You can buy Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/1eDrYcj), or online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/1eDrSRH)