postscript: songs of edinburgh 2010

So there’s always a soundtrack.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the songs that I’ll remember from this year’s festival have all come from the shows I was in (or in the same room as). There are a few songs that are highlight moments of the 80’s Movie Flashback, a few that I often used as warmup music for the Showcase, three from Doctor Brown’s show (because I will always remember standing in a hot dark cupboard with Rik and Fraser every night listening to Enya and the laughs from Doctor Brown’s audience).

There’s also a few songs that I just kept hearing everywhere and that stuck with me: ‘The Cave’ in particular. Partly because it’s a wonderful song. And partly because I spent so much time in caves.

Anyway, here’s the songs – if you want to hear them, I also made a Spotify Playlist! It is right here

  • The Power of Love by Huey Lewis and The News
  • The Cave by Mumford and Sons
  • My Sharona by The Knack
  • In My Secret Life by Leonard Cohen
  • Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins
  • Everybody Wants To Rule The World by Tears For Fears
  • Only Time by Enya
  • Pata Pata by Miriam Makeba
  • Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield
  • Sexy Bitch by David Guetta feat. Akon
  • Banana Boat Song (Day-O) by Harry Belafonte
  • Cruel To Be Kind by Spacehog

I’d also like to include the song that Rachel closes her stand-up set with. But if it has a title, it’s probably unpublishable. and it’s not on Spotify (yet). But if you know it…well, then you know it.



I’m lucky, of course, in the sense that the only real problem I have is that I’m trying to record an album of songs but I can’t seem to finish it.

(Well, only one real problem if you were to disregard the little matter of my bank balance. And, I suppose, the fact that I am currently homeless. And the whole thing of having an addiction to stand-up comedy that tends to pose a major challenge to all my relationships with other people. And…I’ll come in again…)

I’m lucky in the sense that the problem which presents itself most clearly to me is that I am trying to record an album of songs which I can’t seem to finish.

They aren’t funny songs or anything (not like Tom McDonnell’s smashing ‘Dr. Jones’ song that’s been circulating the internet); they’re just songs I’ve written. Which I suppose brings me out of the closet as – whisper it – a secret wannabe pop singer. But most of you probably knew that anyway; what stand-up comedian isn’t, deep down, either a failed pop star or a failed actor?

But it’s been four years since I finished the last album I did, and it’s about bloody time I finished another one. It’s frustrating because it feels so close to being done, but it just isn’t quite there.

It’s all because of perfectionism and fear, of course; I’ve spent so long on the bloody thing that I think it HAS to be brilliant, or at least as good as it could possibly be. The trouble is, I’ve spent so long on it that I’ve got new songs I’ve written queueing up to be recorded; but I can’t start on recording them because I have to finish this album first. I’ve possibly even developed a kind of Stockholm-syndromey affection for this fear; I almost don’t want to finish it because of the freedom it would force on me if I do get it finished.

But I really need to finish it and get it ‘out there’ by Edinburgh; beyond that and it will be too late.

So with that in mind, I brought my laptop and guitar with me today to Banbury where I met my Dad – and Jenny, my sister – on the narrowboat. There isn’t much to do on the boat, and we’ll be spending the next few days chugging quietly down rivers and canals through remote bits of Oxfordshire. Perfect conditions, I thought, for me to finish off this album.

Now I’ve arrived, I’ve realised that it’s not so perfect after all. There are lock gates to open every ten minutes; there is a constant chugging of a big diesel engine and the quacking of ducks; and I’ve forgotten to bring any plectrums…

how babybird saved my life (yet again)

This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Albert Camus, and I’ve been marking it by contemplating suicide.

Not really, you know, contemplating doing it. Just thinking about it as a thing (I don’t think I’d ever do it – that would be retarded! If only because it’s such a cliche. Also because it’s contagious and I tend to hang around with people who, for the good of humankind, I wouldn’t want catching it.)

But when you read the opening sentences of Camus’ The Myth of Sysiphus…

“There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.”

…it’s pretty tough to argue with. Of course, you could point out that in order to make that judgment, we ought to know more about the kind of judgment it is, and so a proper understanding of the relationship between experience and our judging faculties are necessary before we can make it. But that doesn’t take anything away from the overriding importance of the problem. At bottom, ‘to be or not to be’ is still the question, and it’s one that, however annoying we might find existentialism, we can’t get out of answering.

So I’ve been thinking about what topping myself would be like, and how it would get me out of the overwhelming exhaustion that comes from waking up every day and thinking, (in Mike O’Donovan’s words), “Oh God, I’m alive again…“, and having to go through the ridiculous charade of pretending to like people you don’t like and not to love the people you do love, and not getting to spend your time doing whatever you like because you have to spend it waiting for buses and queueing and wishing you had an umbrella when it starts raining, and knowing that you’re going to have to do the same thing again but with worse and worse health, interminably until you die anyway

But I assume everyone gets this. (Right?)

I mentioned that I was thinking this to one of the other acts (I won’t say who) at the Comedy Cafe on Wednesday night. He said, “God, that’s an awful thing to be thinking. But, if you DO do it…can I have your jokes?”

Which I suppose is both a compliment, and a perfect example of the stand-up mindset.

Anyway, so this is what I’ve been thinking – the question of the value of being – and as is the way with these things, once you start thinking about something it starts popping up everywhere. In the news; in casual banter with the man cutting your hair; in other people’s blogs; a sociologist friend mentions he’s about to start teaching Durkheim’s On Suicide; a book I’m reading about Hemingway randomly falls open at a page near the end… Suddenly the idea pops up all over the place. And, I’ll be honest, it was starting to trouble me just a little bit.

Then the new Babybird album came out.

I once wrote about Babybird in my now-defunct Myspace blog, and a few people were surprised at how it was I could have so much love for the guy who wrote ‘You’re Gorgeous’.

But the new album, Ex-Maniac, is just remarkable. The third and fourth songs in particular. It might be hard to understand for a casual listener, but you don’t really know what relief feels like unless you’re in this cold, numb kind of place, weighing up the value of being, while at the same time wondering if this album you’ve bought is going to be any good, and then you hear Stephen Jones’ most calming, reassuring voice open a song with the words, “Step one, don’t kill yourself / Step two, don’t do yourself in…”

It’s called ‘Failed Suicide Club’, and it’s beautiful and it’s funny and it is enough to make you put the knife/rope/gun/toaster down.

But then the next song – ‘Unloveable’ – comes on, and it’s is the best they’ve done in a long, long time. It’s got a little bit of ‘Creep’ and a little bit of ‘With Or Without You’ (except with Johnny Depp being The Edge – Babybird are his favourite group and they let him play on it) and probably a little hint of ‘Run’ by Snow Patrol and ‘sha-la-la’s that remind me of the theme from ‘Local Hero’ by Mark Knopfler.

But it is entirely a Babybird song. Partly because nobody can sing ‘sha-la-la’ as meaningfully as Stephen Jones – he bellows it out like it really counts for something, because he knows that in pop music, it does. But also because nobody else could write a closing section that goes

“Love so sweet, it suffocates us like a sickly candy gag
And we’re floating down the sewerpipe like kittens in a bag
And the mirror screams to both of us that we are not alone
And the metaphors explode, and suddenly we’re home…

You can’t love me – I’m unloveable – but baby, you could try…

And I want to be able to explain why hearing Stephen Jones’ voice singing this makes me want to cry with happiness and despair and hope all at the same time, but I can’t. I can say that I suspect it’s the same mix of feelings that compels us to imagine Sisyphus happy. But that isn’t the point: the point is that it makes me feel something – and that is enough to pull me out of whatever swamp of thought that Camus might have put me in.

And so I listened to the rest of the album, and every single song (‘Bastard’ and ‘On The Backseat Of Your Car’ in particular) is witty and heartfelt and it’s what pop music is supposed to be like when it’s made by people who mean it.

So I got on facebook and I found out that I had friends who were also secret Babybird fans that I wasn’t aware of, and I got tickets to go and see them at the Scala in a few weeks.

And so it doesn’t matter whether my thinking about suicide was a practical or an academic matter. I know Camus had a go at Kafka for the ‘glimmer of hope’ in his writing, but he was wrong. Because hope IS the answer to Camus’ absurdity problem. The reason people don’t – or shouldn’t – do themselves in, is that you never know when there’s going to be something that turns up to look forward to.

For me, I’m just looking forward to putting Ex-Maniac on. Again. And that is enough for now.

ubermanoeuvre: proof that ayn rand was retarded

Last night I went to see the debut album launch of Loz’s band Ubermanoeuvre.

They are a remarkable group in lots of ways. They are hard to classify in terms of normal musical genres (imagine a very political rap-metal group but with lots of mad synth noises/occasional bursts of bluesy piano, and a complete disregard for traditional song structures). They also have a knack for gimmicks – no uber show is really complete without the waving of glowsticks and drinking of chodka, a dangerous cocktail of cherryade and vodka designed to get you drunk and e-number-hyperactive at the same time. Which is almost exactly the right condition to be listening to the music in.

But the thing that strikes me most about them is the complete lack of egoism in the group. Loz drew my attention to this himself in Edinburgh last summer, when he was comparing his experience of being in Ubermanoeuvre to the experience of putting together a comedy show. But he’s right – Ubermanoeuvre are a perfect example of a band who all work for each other, and each get something greater for themselves out of it as a result. Music quite frequently needs this kind of enlightened egoism (as opposed to the raw, destructive egoism that seeks to take power or credit for oneself at the expense of others); it’s a collaborative demonstration of what can be achieved when everyone crushes, or at least keeps a check on, their own ego for the sake of a bigger piece of art.

But for most people this is a huge struggle. It always was for me when I was in bands as a teenager; I always had to be in control or I’d get very frustrated. The last real band I was in, I quit because – and remember, I was very young so don’t judge me for this – I wasn’t the main singer so I wanted to write all the songs instead. There’s still a part of me that still thinks I wasn’t wrong, that my songs were brilliant and if they’d let me tell them all exactly what to do then we’d have been rock gods and not ended up trawling the Northampton pub circuit doing Oasis covers. But I hadn’t been a founder member of the band, even if I had been I’d have had no right to tell them what to do, and I had to quit. Stand-up suits me better – I might be better at writing songs than jokes but at least I have complete control over the jokes.

Anyway. Ubermanoeuvre have something I don’t have, which is the seemingly effortless ability to work together without a struggle for attention or power, and it means that they have become an incredibly tight group who all contribute to the sound of the thing. I thought the same thing the other day listening to Radiohead – a group I have no doubt have their own conflicts of egos – but in the songs, they are all so focussed on the overall product that no one instrument dominates the songs. Even Thom Yorke’s voice is…well, let’s say that if Sinatra tried to make his voice sound like a trumpet, Yorke’s voice frequently sounds more like a string section, floating above the music and adding an extra dimension to the feel of it rather than dictating its direction.

Which is not to say that egoism doesn’t work in music – of course it does, and I’m sure you can come up with your own examples – but it must be, to an extent, disciplined in order to work collaboratively with others. Even Bob Dylan prefers playing with a band. This isn’t an argument for communism, of course, or to claim that it is good that individuals be subsumed by the whole – but it is an argument that much of the great things we produce as humans require the right balance of ambition and collaboration.

My point is, Ubermanoeuvre – whatever egoistic personality issues they may have between them, and I know nothing about that – give the impression on stage that they love what they are doing so much that they find it incredibly easy to find that balance by simply letting the music smash the principium individuationis. And that is very impressive.


As a postscript to this, I should add that something else unusual happened at the gig, which is that someone opened a conversation with “Hello. You don’t know me but I like your blog.” Which was a little unnerving, but she was very lovely and seemed like exactly the kind of person that I hoped would be reading it. Hooray!

Again, that hasn’t really helped me with my own egoism, though…

musical meaning revisited

So I did really quite well at ‘Beat The Frog’ last night. I did, at least, pretty convincingly do the time with good laughs throughout and one quite big applause break; and when the time ran out at the end I felt like I was just getting going.

(Perhaps if I had just got going a bit before that, I would even have won the night – as it is I came second behind a young fellow whose name was, I think, Peter Brush, and who seemed something of an oddball but a very funny oddball. For the purposes of concluding yesterday‘s discussion, yes his act was deeply functional with some very well-crafted pullback-and-reveals, and the Manchester audience loved him. As well they should have).

But anyway, what I wanted to write about was not that I did well, but that the music of the show was so well chosen. It’s an odd thing to notice, but I couldn’t help but feel it really set the mood of the night. Seeing as how it’s a gong show, and I was so nervous before the show started, it seemed a little distasteful at the time that they played Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’, but looking back it seems perfectly appropriate.

They played ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ as acts came onstage; if they stayed funny for five minutes they played the ‘Frog Chorus’, and if they didn’t they had to leave the stage to the sound of Beck’s ‘Loser’. It was all so carefully thought about that I couldn’t help admiring it. Timmy Manners (who, for the record, also ‘beat the frog’) suggested it would be quite a funny idea to go out and say something like, “This is a lose-lose situation for me – I really want to do well, but I also have an irrational fear of Paul McCartney.”

It’s peculiar, though, how certain songs fit situations perfectly, and how they attach themselves to thoughts of people and places. Naturally I’ve been listening to The Smiths all the way around Manchester, and now I’ll always associate the Frog Chorus not with Rupert Bear but with last night’s gig.

But it doesn’t always make quite such perfect sense. For example: out of boredom with Manchester (again, see yesterday’s blog), I ended up getting a train over to York today to say hello to my friend Mariel, and she was talking about how these associations can be reset with new hearings of a song. She’s right to an extent, and I guess essentially she was just repeating what the awesome Lawrence Kramer says in his smashing book about the perpetual re-readings and re-applications of music with imagetext.

But there are some associations that seem to wedge themselves into the consciousness and stay there, and then keep reappearing in the most uncanny way. For example, I didn’t mention this to Mariel at the time, but I always associate the irritatingly catchy Black Eyed Peas song ‘I Gotta Feeling’ with her (I mainly didn’t mention it because I have no idea whether she’ll approve of this, or even if she likes the song or not; but I don’t think she reads this blog so I’ll probably get away with saying it here). Anyway, it always seems to pop up shortly before or after I speak to her. I’ve written this off as being an entirely ridiculous coincidence and just a reflection of the silly amount that it was played in public places last year. Its popularity has waned now, of course, and I hardly ever hear it at all; but I’m still consistently reminded of Mariel when I do.

Anyway, then we chatted about this and that and about half-an-hour ago I said goodbye and got on the train back to Manchester. Within about a minute of sitting down on the train, the phone of the kid on the seat behind me went off. Then it went off again. And again.

The ringtone was – obviously – that Black Eyed Peas song.


the music of stand-up

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how closely related stand-up is to music.

I know I’m not the first person to think this, but recently I’ve seen some really good comedians performing routines where it’s essentially the rhythm, structure and tone of voice they are using that gets the laugh, rather than the content of the material. It’s why they say (whoever ‘they’ are) that great comedians can make the phone book funny.

I’ve even seen some really great stand-ups reference that fact at the same time as they’re doing it, in a way that makes the whole text of the act fold in on itself in a surprising way. (And of course, it’s the surprise – both in the form and the content of the joke – that gets the really big laugh).

Anyway, while browsing philosophy blogs I saw this study, which is interesting…

“are you a dylan fan?”

I was asked a week or two ago if I knew the song ‘Love Minus Zero’. And then, as a follow up question, if I was ‘a Bob Dylan fan’.

I guess the girl who asked me wasn’t to know. How could she?

And yet, she knew three or four other things about me – how could she not have deduced what Bob Dylan would have to mean to someone like me?

It’s actually the time of year that I start listening to a silly amount of Bob – always around Autumn – and I start actively looking out for conversations where all the little anachronisms about my Dylanism creep out. Like, that I think “Love and Theft” is his best album (you read that right); that I can’t help but find The Times They Are A’Changin kind of annoying, but think that Street Legal is actually pretty good…

I remember first listening to Dylan records when I was about 17 or 18 – it felt like there was a Dylan-shaped gap in my knowledge of pop history, and so I started borrowing CDs from my stepfather’s pretty comprehensive collection of Dylan albums.

Within days, I’d learned all the lyrics to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and was announcing to anyone in my English Literature class that would listen that if you just wrote down the lyrics from Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited then it would be the greatest poetry anthology of the 20th century.

And more than that – I started playing and singing the songs. I think (coincidentally) that the first one I really wanted to sing was ‘Love Minus Zero’. It just felt like the perfect song.

But by singing the songs I soon found that the gap in my pop-history knowledge had been filled with some kind of goldmine, a resource so fluid, so broad and so deep, that singing Dylan’s songs could fill other gaps in my life, too. So many other songs I went through fitted my mood perfectly, healed any wounds and strengthened me like some miracle tonic – ‘…Rolling Stone’, ‘I Want You’, ‘Tombstone Blues’… And then, of course, the Live 1966 ‘Royal Albert Hall’ recording came out and I, as a lovesick fresher at Liverpool, just realising that Dylan had invented punk too, sang ‘I Don’t Believe You’ so often and so hard in my little room in Halls that I must have annoyed the hell out of the rest of my flat… It’s embarrassing to think of now – but not regrettable (it did, at least, get me the girl I was after…)

I don’t remember a time since then when there haven’t been a few specific songs that I have on repeat in my head; they last a few weeks and then get replaced by others. Right now, ‘Love Minus Zero’, which had sat just below the surface of my consciousness for a year or two, has made a comeback; also ‘Visions of Johanna’ and the bootleg recording of ‘I’m Not There’ which they dug out for the film soundtrack.

And then there are a handful of songs I’ve never been able to sing; the songs that are too heavy with life and death for a young man like me to even attempt – I don’t feel worthy. ‘Not Dark Yet’. ‘Mississippi’. Those songs. I can’t sing them. Not yet.

But I know they’re there. And they’ll be there when I need them.

So, am I a Dylan fan? Yeah. Yeah, I guess I am.