This is the ninth of my ongoing series of blog posts on the Making Of my new album as Granfalloon, Calendar - Volume 1. To read the first in the series go here.
Track 9 - MR SIMM’S OLDE SWEET SHOPPE (RIGHTS RESERVED)
(Someone who sells something: using observational technique)
“The only kind of writing is rewriting.”
- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
I wrote a lot about the conception of this song in the week that I wrote it so I’m going to let “2014 me” carry the exposition for the moment…
NOTES FROM 2014 ME
This was not the song we had intended to bring you this week.
So difficult did I find sourcing a suitable subject that this week's song was very nearly about hot dogs. That's right. Hot dogs.
The initial inspiration for the topic of 'Someone who sells something' came from the song 'Soldier's Things' by Tom Waits. Listening to him crooning "Everything's a dollar in this box..." in his own gruff way made me want to write my own version of the song set in my own home of Manchester.
My choice was also an effort to stretch my observational writing as so far this '52' project has been very imagination based. I wanted to practise a different skill. Exercise a different side of my writing.
In my mind the song would be about some quaint street vendor... An old lady who sells buttons or some larger than life retired sailor who sells toys weaved from wicker.
Surprisingly I did not trip over either of those during my week spent yo-yo-ing as usual between Manchester and Preston. So I cast around for information, I asked friends, I posted Sudden Questions on the Internet looking for leads. Nothing seemed suitable. It all seemed too tacky. Or modern. Or normal.
Around this time it was bluntly pointed out to me that I "don't live in a f***ing Dickens novel..." and that my chances of finding anything like what I wanted were precisely zero especially with Wednesday's deadline fast approaching. A new approach was needed.
If I wanted to stay on the street vendor path, I would have to settle for someone food based... The Jacket Potato Man in Preston was one possibility and I love those jumbo hot dogs for a quid on Market Street in Manchester so much that yes, I very nearly wrote a song about hot dogs whilst wandering around the centre in desperation.
And then I stumbled onto St. Anne's Square.
Where past the fountain, behind the statue to the memory of the following, beneath the soldier bayonet aloft I spied Mr Simm's Olde Sweet Shoppe's brown and gold shop front.
"Purveyor of finest confectionery" it proudly boasted. I rambled round the shop surreptitiously taking notes and blurred photographs much to the suspicion of the staff. With growing excitement I scribbled down the names of all the tongue-twistingly, nostalgia-inducing sweets and chocolates and mints and fudges they stocked.
Happy I had enough information to sit and write the song, I ventured onto the Mr Simm's website in the hope of finding some history about Mr Simm and his family, when the shop was founded and if there were any interesting stories surrounding it.
I don't want to reveal any more here and it will diminish the impact of the first listen to the song so all I can say is listen to the song.
Next week's topic was chosen by the mystery partner in this challenge and is 'A tree'. We're not making this any easier for ourselves are we?
So it goes...
BACK TO 2022 ME
That seems pretty comprehensive. I can remember that on Wednesday morning when I stumbled onto St. Anne’s Square, I was stumbling because I had spent the night drinking moonshine with my housemate (she of the “you don’t live in a f***ing Dickens novel” fame). This seems like a good point for you to listen to the song if you haven’t already…
I remember that I was listening to a lot of Jake Thackray in early 2014, which definitely had an impact on the writing of this song.
I discovered Thackray’s music one New Year’s Eve (2009?). There was a documentary about him on the television and although the sound wasn’t on in the room, the subtitles were, and the words… captivated me. On 2nd January 2010, based entirely on his lyrics, without hearing one note of music, I went to Action Records in Preston and purchased The Very Best Of Jake Thackray. ‘The Lodger’ in particular was a standout track to me… really one of the finest examples of storytelling lyricism in the English language. Not just funny, but angry, bitter, ironic, and wry, all at once. I was definitely attempting to imbue a fraction of Jake’s influence into ‘Mr Simm’s…’. This probably accounts for the 3/4 time signature as well. More on time signatures later though…
As with ‘Bee on a String’, ‘Simm’s’ was popular with fans in 2014 to the point that it was in my live set. However, the 2014 ‘Simm’s’ was a VERY different prospect musically to what ended up on Calendar Volume 1. The original version was,as I mentioned above, in 3/4 time giving it a much pacier feel. It also contained two passing chords in the Verse.
It’s very much in keeping with the Tom Waits/Jake Thackray style to have more chords rather than fewer and to write in 3/4 or 6/8 BUT it’s also in keeping with musical theatre…
It may surprise you to learn, I don’t like most musical theatre.
This does surprise people. I suppose because there’s such a fine line between the music that does excite me and most musical theatre but there are differences. Certainly, both have a strong storytelling deference but I find that MT tends to eschew nuance, using music and its accompanying words for overt exposition instead. More often than not, this makes it lyrically unsatisfying to me. I prefer subtlety, things unsaid and hinted at. I’m the same with most mediums. As a constant over-analyser and over-interpreter, when something is beating me round the head with its obviousness, I’ll find it incredibly draining. It's a bit like someone talking to you and then ending every sentence with the sound “DU-UH!”
I bring this up to, in some way, introduce the weird journey I’ve taken with musical styles over the years. Audiences, reviewers and casual observers have historically struggled to place what I do within their musical landscape. The folks that “get it” straight away, tend to really get it. But I’ve found it can be an easy misalignment to make if one doesn’t have the context of Jacques Brel, David Bowie, Bjork, Josephine Baker, Louis Prima & Keely Smith, Waits, Thackray, et al. and certainly there are those that did work within MT that I do admire (Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein are both fine examples of subtlety and nuance masters within the medium).
Right now I’m more comfortable with my inner weirdo than I ever have been but between 2014 and right now, I haven’t always been. I was keen to change the style of this song to avoid some of the misinterpretation I’ve mentioned.
I started by switching the song to 4/4, which gave it more of a 60’s Bacharach feel, and removing the passing chords of Em and G. Simplifying my musical themes and allowing the band more room to play was key here. Andy Lyth played with the syncopation of his hi-hats and added plenty of percussion to avoid the song being too texturally similar all the way through. It was also Andy who suggested the extra bar on the “dreamy” Verse 4 (“There’s rhubarb & custard/And Coldsfoot* Rock…”). Playing this song live in the rehearsal room helped a lot with the arrangement, allowing all of the band to bounce ideas to each other. That dreamy bar, in turn, gave Daz Woodcock (bass) the idea to add that splendidly discordant organ gliss up and out of that section into the Chorus.
Cleg (guitar) gave the song a torso for its body with his staccato country-style picking pattern in the Verses which gave way to the larger chords and licks of the Choruses. And I got to have a lot of fun recording reverse guitar parts in the dreamy sections, which is one of my favourite things to do.
Damn, that was a long one eh? I’m finding these blogs are getting longer as the weeks go on and I’m enjoying the space to give context for the songs on this album. Something that is impossible on social media. I’m a big advocate for more words, not fewer so thanks for reading this far (if you did) and if you’re enjoying the lengthier scribblings, I’m very glad.
‘The Lodger’ by Jake Thackray
‘Soldier’s Things’ by Tom Waits
*Just looked that up for spelling… it’s Coltsfoot Rock apparently.