Fascinating insights into the songwriting methods of some of the biggest names in British pop history in one book!!!
With its title taken from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Daniel Rachel’s book is further proof that there is something about the British Isles, its history, climate, and set of national characteristics that’s conducive to producing globally popular songs and music. The book is made up of a series of interviews with a diverse list of musical heavyweights. From kitchen sink observers such as Ray Davies, Damon Albarn, Madness, Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook, through journeymen craftsmen such as Robin Gibb, Sting, Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher, and mystic channellers such as The Las’ Lee Mavers, serial collaborator Johnny Marr, and Andy Partridge of XTC.
Though the time span is large, covering the mid ’60s art-pop explosion, through punk, post-punk and Brit-pop, right up to the modern day via interviews with neo-folk artist Laura Marling and modern life chronicler Lili Allen, there are some remarkable common threads: the importance of the music hall on the British songwriting psyche; as well as the ability to absorb other cultures and influences, be it blues and R&B (Jimmy Page), European torch song (Bryan Ferry, The Pet Shop Boys), or Latino funk and jazz (Chaz Jankel).
A recurring question which Rachel posts to each of his interviewees is why there are seemingly fewer successful female songwriters in Britain. One can only assume Kate Bush and Cathy Dennis declined the opportunity to be interviewed, though women are well represented here by interviews with Annie Lennox and Joan Armatrading, along with the afore-mentioned Laura Marling and Lili Allen.
Each of the twenty five chapters is prefaced with pertinent biographical detail, and then leads into the interview which is augmented with original handwritten lyric sheets and the occasional rare photograph. Rachel’s questioning is sharp and well informed. With an obvious interest in his subject matter, Rachel has the added advantage of being the enthusiastic amateur, and despite the questioning being about songwriting methods he manages to draw out fascinating minutiae from most if not all of his interviewees. Along the way we learn that Billy Bragg wrote Levi Stubbs’ Tears only as a result of escaping an over talkative Andy Kershaw on a cross-channel ferry. Or that John Lydon’s lyrics were provocative mainly to wind up Sex Pistols bass player Glen Matlock.
The book is lent a touching poignancy by the early chapter featuring Robin Gibb. It follows the opening chapter with Ray Davies. Straight off the bat you have two of the most successful songwriters ever, British or otherwise. It’s a great start. Like anyone who’s secure in their talent, Gibb comes across as extremely warm and likeable, as well as very giving with insights into his writing methods. The tone is set and one’s appetite is whetted for the rest of the book.
It’s a fascinating read that any musician or songwriter would find both helpful and thought-provoking, as would anyone with an interest in pop culture. After reading the interviews I guarantee you will listen to these artists with fresh ears, renewed interest and fresh appreciation. A remarkable achievement.
Written by: Duncan Fletcher on 10/09/2013.