Vanity Mirror: The Impossible Song
A track I have been working on for (almost) five years, I muse on the proclivities of musical ambition; as well as what has driven me to push forwards- in spite of everything.
OVER the past few weeks I have been extolling excitedly, the virtues and ambitions...
of many of my music friends. Just yesterday I was grinning proudly as Fran Galea (Chess) unveiled her E.P. (Tuxedo) as a pre-release. She has been excitedly preparing for its full release (in January), and has been in the midst of recording a music video for its lead-off single, Vanity. She is one of a few young artists I know, each of whom have their own ambitions and agendas for the coming year. She (Chess) is a stunning talent whom has worked tirelessly to fulfil her ambitions- the forthcoming E.P. will lay testament to her three-fold talents. In addition to Chess, solo artists such as Second Hand Poet, Lydia Baylis and Elena Ramona have been making their marks; whilst bands Universal Thee, Crystal Seagulls and Issimo have been striking hard. It has been playing on my mind, this thought: how will 2014 shape up for them? The stunning girls and handsome boys, each with their own sounds and songbooks have a lot of drive and courage: it is not happenstance that they are earmarked for great things in the coming years. I have seen their embryonic rise; each step and frustration being documented throughout social media- and have been proud of their determination. The tapestries of determination that are woven by the young elite are equally inspiring as well as unsettling. Most of the musicians I know are in their 20s- those in their 30s are leaping and bounding at the rate of knots. I often query my own mind and thoughts, looking for reasons why I have not made similar movements- not even an infant totter. I have been toying with the idea of something simple: maybe a simple- but ambitious- cover version. How about a simple ballad or punk anthem? Hmmm. There are two main reasons why these answers do not provide answers. On the one hand, I have no band. I will go on to (try to) rectify that in the closing remarks, yet I have always gravitated toward being a band leader: part of a four or five-piece crew of blazing ideals. The life of a solo artist has never appealed as much, because I do not believe I could ever create music that focused and concentrated. Big sounds and big ideas have always been at the forefront of my hippocampus: that idea of putting something out that is truly mesmeric. That leads me to my second thesis: the nature of ambition. I have postulated in a previous post (http://musicmusingsandsuch.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/new-music-the-death-of-grand-ambition/) as to whether we will ever witness another 'multi-part epic' such as Bohemian Rhapsody or Stairway to Heaven- or even Paranoid Android. Bohemian and Stairway were completed in the '70s- even comparably-diminutive anthems such as Hotel California were from that period. The last truly great epic was Radiohead's Paranoid Android. This track was the epicentre of their 1997 album OK Computer, and stunned the world back then. In the 16 years that have followed the Oxford chaps mission statement, there have never been any- genuinely- true attempts to replicate and appropriate that track's majesty. Before I get to the matter at hand, my point is this: why have musicians- new or established- hesitated when it comes to penning songs as large and complex as Bohemian Rhapsody? It has confused me greatly, and I can only assume it is down to two reasons. I feel that people are scared in a sense; concerned that they will fall hopelessly short- or less be guilty of sticking to closely to the shadows of the aforementioned megaliths. The other reason, I feel, why an updated version of Bohemian Rhapsody has not been attempted is that musical tastes have shifted. The '90s was the last decade that truly offered up diversity, transmogrification and originality. It has been harder to carve a niche in the ensuing 20 years, simply because most styles and genres of music have been thoroughly exhausted. The current trend errs towards simplicity and single layers- songs can be shape shifting, yet tend to have a sense of domestication about them. This brings me to my first point...
The Current Predicament.
It is 2013 and- in terms of the mainstream artists- it has been a so-so year. I have been stunned by the continued genius from the likes of The National and Queens of the Stone Age; barrelled over by the wrecking balls of James Blake and Arctic Monkeys- yet there has been little else to recommend. New music has been wetting my appetites, yet I feel that there should have been better- and more- on offer. My favourite songs of this year have predominantly been straight-laced- yet adventurous- rock (and stoner rock) parables. Ballads and Canadian rock has also featured in my top 5, but I have been tirelessly searching for something...bigger. I understand that the music industry is a fickle and absent-minded maiden: beckoning at will, and spitting out on a whim. A lot of bands and solo artists tend to favour concentrated music, through fear of alienating existing fans and scaring potential customers. Consistency and originality are tantamount to success and renewed profitability, so a lot of time it is not wise to stray too far from safety. I think a lot of my discourse- as of late- has been aimed towards scepticism. I have been dubious when it comes to a positive outlook: whether a band or artist could ever achieve the giddy heights of the all-time greatest songs. I have been befuddled as much as anything but the lack of free spirit dreaming from the current crop. It is no coincidence that many critics, fans and music-lovers feel that Bohemian Rhapsody and Stairway to Heaven are two of the best songs of all time. It is nothing to do with the time in which they were created; the albums they were a part of; or any peripheral influence. The reason is simple: they are songs which drag you in and blow your mind. I feel it should be mandatory for every band or solo artist to try and aim that high. If you do not, then how much is really left in the memory- decades on from now? I realise that writing something as complicated and far-reaching as the classics requires a lot of effort- as well as a hell of a lot of money. It is perhaps the time needed to write these songs that is putting most people off- whom fear that it is not a productive use of their time. It is anger, as well as a desperate hole to fill, that has lead me to put pen to paper- not only to craft my own attempt (at a classic), but to write here.
I guess my musical output can be compared to epistemic ambivalence. No one can really be sure if anything has been written or recorded- or whether a whole load of white smoke has been blown. Mimetic epidemiology has created expectation; personal restraint and mystery has caused some inner anxieties. I can report that a solid foundation has been laid, and many words have been written. To date I have written about 12 completed tracks, ranging from rock tracks, through to soul and metal. I have been pleased with the ideas I have concocted: they have excited me and even the titles themselves have lit my senses. I have an album title, a band name; photo ideas are fully formed and most of the red tape and paperwork is ready to be processed. As confident as I am that my hard work will reap rewards, my mind and attention has been sucked by a gravitational force: one that keeps me up and fills many a dream. I have always been determined that my very first musical impression will be a multi-part epic: something that is vast and compelling- which may not seem like a good idea. I am fully conscience that the song would cost tens of thousands (of pounds) to complete; weeks and months will need to be earmarked, and stress levels could well push breaking point. But these obstacles have never really seemed like deal-breakers. I can get the money some how, whether I have to raise it through Kickstarter, or through selling my organs. I hope to find three of four ambitious boys (or girls) to complete the band line-up; I feel that I will never bore of wanting to make the song a reality. It began about five years ago when the idea came to me. Originally I entitled the song Infamy As Child, and it started out life as a six verse love song. There were choruses as well as hotspots; rising verses and swooning middles- I have been working on it ever since. I have removed the choruses and kept quite a few of the lines from that song. The title has changed by the end goal has not: to have a genuine stab at trying to equal the greats. At this present stage it appears that most of the lyrics have been written; most of the music has been conceptualised, and the structure set in place. When it comes to lyrics and ideas I am a little bit of a 'perfectionist'- never truly satisfied until every line is as a good as I can get it. The theme of the track has been something that appeals to me most.
In terms of the song itself, it is essentially a love song. Unlike most love songs, there is a bit more of a twist in the tale. Each verse charts the projection of a relationship. We begins with impassioned and tender outpourings- documenting the first flourishes of a romance. As the verses progress, the passion grows, to the point that doubts and cracks appear. Towards the middle of the song, resentments set in, and arguments begin- with lines being exchanged between the two warring parties. The song tells the story from the perspectives of both parties: each of the lovers has a chance to contribute and voice their side of things. Once the song reaches its central point, the tension reaches fever pitch. Explosions, fights, doubts and bile is exchanged. Both of our subjects spiral and descend into bleakness. The male protagonist hallucinates and dreams: bold and scary images sit alongside honest proclamations. The heroine considers an affair; caught in a vortex of anxiety and sadness, her mind awash with recriminations and questions. As the song's central ideal is unveiled, there is a turnaround. Fortunes change and once again the relationship starts to get back on track. Almost as though reversing time, events start to repeat and we work backwards to the starting point. By the end of the song the love is very much alive, as a delirious and augmented smile is procured. In spite of a redemptive ending, there are still ambiguity and prescient questions posed. Cliff-hangers and twists are left in the air, and the listener is left in two minds as to whether things actually worked out for the best. As a companion and counterpoint to the storyline of the song, there are existential mysteries and conundrums put forth. As well as being unsure as to whether the two lovers reconciled, the nature of reality is questioned. It will not be obvious whether the song was a dream, or a hallucination. In addition, it is not clear whether the song charts two different relationships, or whether events transpired as documented. Inspired by my favourite all-time film Memento, the song follow's the film's idiosyncrasies and originalities. I was keen to write a song that was not a straight love song, nor an impersonal epic. I adore Bohemian Rhapsody because it is impossible to equal or replicate. It is so individual a personality, that if you were attempt to make a song as good, you would end up plagiarising it. Its lyrics are the blood and butter: damned if I know what they mean or what they were inspired by. Similarly, Stairway to Heaven seems almost mythical in its oddity: again it is not certain what the song is truly about or influenced by. Paranoid Android- the final of the Holy Trinity of epics- has its roots set towards the personal. That track was inspired by Thom Yorke's experiences of some unsavoury characters. Cocaine-snorting cretins, Chanel-owning bimbos and "complete and utter fucking chaos" inspired the track: with our hero truly disgusted by some of the things he saw. I guess it is anger and release that kick-started that track. I was keen to write something that was perhaps more universal, yet perhaps not quite as individualised. Love songs account for perhaps 85-90% of all of the music ever written, yet I have never heard of one that aspires to be a track like Stairway to Heaven. I guess Layla is the closest attempt, and is another track that is considered amongst the all-time greatest songs. Getting away from the origins of these songs, yet sharing D.N.A. and common blood was of equal importance.
If anyone is reading, or if anyone has made it this far, there may be one clear-cut derision: it seems quite pretentious! It is true that the song thinks a lot of itself, and that the concept is a little overly-ambitious, yet that is the point: there are few people out there that are trying to do anything similar. I love a great song that says its piece simply with the maximum of focus. Yet the market seems to be swamped by those type of tracks: this is especially true of new artists. Whether it is financial restraint, fear or simple avoidance, the truth is this: the music world needs more songs like this. Truly great and legendary bands contain a song like this in their cannon, from The Beatles through to The Beach Boys. It is all well having an identity and a sense of logic, yet it is that one moment where you throw the rule books out that things get interesting. The most interesting people have a sense of oddness about them; the greatest love stories are fractious and bipolar; the finest albums and films complex and filled with nuance. In that similar sense, the best songs have ambition and a hungry desire. I have been in awe of a great deal of new artists, yet feel that it may be decades- if at all- that a gigantic track comes along that confuses and scares the crap out of people. It has been many years since the feint genetics of Vanity Mirror were put to paper. I worked on the song today, and I will work on it tomorrow- as well as right up until the point I am in the studio. It is because the song is so large and compartmentalised that I have been so besotted by it. I can hear every segment in my head, and know what it will sound like when it is completed. I realise that I will have to go to drastic lengths to raise the finance for it. I realise and accept that a certain sense of nervousness and stage fright has compounded previous attempts to record music. Personal depressions and anxieties have stifled my output throughout my 20s, and my focus has been somewhat diffuse as-of-late. In spit of everything present, past- as well as future- the one shining light keeps cracking through the clouds: The Impossible Song. It is going to take many additional musicians and many weeks to create. It is not a song that can be completed in a few days or will leave its participants satisfied and relaxed. This song of a bitch is a constipated monster that will test the patience and loyalties of all whom dare to take it on. Stress and insomnia will be the mother lodes of tolerance, and the aftershocks will be long-lasting. It seems like a far-fetched dream to me, yet something that I will not quit on. I understand that when it is completed that many will hate it; many will be confused by it, yet the abiding fact is this: if it is completed as I hear it in my head, it will make the past 30 years of poor fortune that much more acceptable. The idea of music is to fulfil and enrich. For the musician, there is always an ambition to be better than anyone else; to reach as high as possible. I have spent too long dreaming and speculating, and want to enter the scene with a bang- I feel that this song will be the best way to do it.
I will go into more depth with regards to the sound and structure of the song, yet have composed quite a few of the lyrics. I know what each verse will relate to, and have most of the 'rough ideas' formed. Below are a few of the lyrics of the song- giving a sense of the diversity and mixed emotions the song will contain:
My final words were the very same as my first
Silver nights in satin's regard, oh how I long for you
My mother tonguie came undone to sing a farewll midnight kiss
In the disatnce between the Jasmine Chrous and the edge of the abyss
As the Angel of Battersea she'd heard every line in the book
But the cover to the rules of love is never judged upon its looks.
You asked me which came first: the chicken or the egg?
Yet I've been running scared long before I was ever bred
With your fingers teasing shivers I didn't have a choice
I was born with the burden of a platinum voice
Love and faith are double-blind, their truths diving rods
When bad point to vengeful man, when good a loving God.
Intention out of pure context should be word enough
Not all the cards I hold to my chest can call the Devil's bluff
The cat swallows the poison, the dog runs to the bell.
It's all really just a front/To leave the past behind.
And knowing that you're never alone
Is the lonliest thing of all
The Woman and the Dictionary's a classic play on words
We saw it blind the minor fifths, to silence its major thirds
But it doesn't take a cardiologists to know abandoned ships will rust
Better to fail at acting the punch-line, to succeed at acting the joke
Love songs only say it best if the best is good enough
Not all the cards that I hold to my chest will call the Devil's bluff
I was sent a Christmas card from the city morgue
Talking of new year's plans and enquiring about my health
I'm the murderer in the romantic comedy
The mime artist in the film of the great war
The extra in the lavish musical
The hangman in the epic story of the lord
You can laugh at my condition
If you think it makes you tall
Although my scream is never heard
My silence says it all
The third-rate joke; second-chand smoke; first-class bitch
I've blown them all to scratch an itch
Well you like chasing ghosts
Because they won't come back to haunt you
I'm saying goodbye to a God that never believed in me
Because beauty shows no mercy for beauty
Infamy's Child has found
When the fearless shall be crowned
Wilderness, broken water and silk are on your side
And I can't bear to get over you
The kiss upon your hair lyring naked on the floor
Love is not for heroes but for those who win the war
Awake in the arms of the man of my dreams
Because tonight we have too much in common
The sun and moon switched place
The night I saw your face
We'll pray together to think for ourselves
Hold me like your brothers-in-arms so that we relate
Lost in your eyes because I can't go on this way
To sink the cedar witnesses and trip the tongue of fate
Eulogised the truth that lies in disguise and rhyme
I'm learning to be older in the balance of all time
When you're a man who looks like me
It's not such a gift to see... what you do to me
I bit your lip, cut your thigh to see doves fly the flood of your rags
Felt conquered flat by black language and frozen tall by the rip in your flag
You want the kind of love your mother used to love
A common muse for the chosen few
Alone in a room with life, death and you
And each of them are only thinking of themselves
We both know the love that we make
Will never be equal to the love that we take
Clouds hold only memories from all who've ever been
The woman of my dreams wakes in her sleep.
There are another dozen or so lines that I have with. Some lascivious and sexually-charged; some tender and romantic; others cutting and witty- and there are some which are anger-filled and harsh. The idea is to have the song be multi-part and diverse, but the lyrics need to be as memorable and wonderful as possible. Inspired by the likes of Turner, Dylan and Cohen as well as a host of other songwriters, I wanted there to be strange scenes, epic romance and psychotropic images: all of which are as finely-crafted as possible.
The Music and Sound.
The music is going to be diverse and ever-changing. The intro. begins as a sledgehammer riff: something akin to Smells Like Teen Spirit, Back In Black or Smoke on the Water.
The intro then stops around the 0:17. This continues for about 8 seconds before restarting.
It then transforms into a sweeping orchestral passage. Similar to Clair Du Lune or The Cinematic Orchestra, it rises and swells, before setting as the first verse is introduced.
During the first verse the mood is romantic, with a mix of The Cinematic Orchestra.
As the next two verses arrive, the sound is a mix of Queens of the Stone Age, Oasis as well as Led Zeppelin.
At the 3:26 mark, a guitar passage begins. Inspired by the likes of Sweet Child O' Mine and Stairway to Heaven, it continues : it rises and mutates, ramping up the tension.
In the middle part of the song, we begin with a spacey and trippy segment. It is inspired by psychedelic music as well as Paranoid Android, and is filled with strange sounds and interlinking motions.
In the second half of the middle section it changes and becomes amplified. I will explain about the vocals, but the music will contain a multitude of genres. Acid jazz, world music, electronic, rock, and pretty much everything else you can imagine.
As that segment ends it becomes harder and more brutal. It is more akin to Soundgarden, Guns N' Roses and Judas Priest. Heavy guitars and pulsating drum work comes into play, and the song- briefly- becomes a grunge and heavy metal affair.
Then comes a drum break. There is a solo which switches between a multi-layered military march as well as a Zeppelin-esque flail.
Then the drums merge with guitar as a fierce and wailing riff begins. Influenced by All Along The Watchtower and Sweet Child O' Mine, the guitar passage from before picks back up, and merges with a psychedelic fury.
A soul verse takes shape next, and this means that parping and ecstatic horns come into light; tied with slinky and sexy piano and guitar duets.
The next verse is Beatle-esque so has a '60s sounds, that is part-Abbey Road, part-Sgt. Pepper's.
There is then a brooding and dark orchestral sway, that has elements of Massive Attack. It is an epic and rising segment that mixes classical styles and leads into the outro...
The outro is aimed at being one of the best parts of the songs. It is an infectious and delirious segment that mixes instruments and styles to create an intoxicating and overwhelming. It is a passage that is brief but repeats itself about six times. It starts up for the seventh time, but suddenly stops dead.
The music entangles within the sound. The sound itself is intended to push every boundary possible. Whereas Bohemian Rhapsody was the most ambitious song of its time: it pushed technology to the limit and has never been done before. Vanity Mirror aims to do likewise, mixing old recording techniques with new; bending sound and fusing sound styles together. This means that it overwhelms and seduces, creating a psychological effect on the listener: both exhausting and exciting. The intention is that by the end one has to take a moment to take it all in: not quite sure of what has come before.
The vocals are intended to match the music, and follow its template.
In the first verse, as it is pin sharp and tender, the vocal style will be falsetto/soprano, trying to match the likes of Eva Cassidy and Kate Bush. It will be a tender and cherub vocal that attempts to do justice to the lyrics.
Towards the harder following verses, the vocal style is part-Freddie Mercury part-Robert Plant. There is backing vocal, by this ties a lower vocal range together, with blends of Roy Orbison and Antony Hegarty.
In the spacey middle section, the primary vocal line is inspired by Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley, with a falsetto and tenor. The secondary line mixes operatic belt as well as Tim Buckley-esque gymnastic. The tertiary layer mixes Bjork-esque ambition, with gravelled tones such as Tom Waits and Howlin' Wolf.
In the middle of the song there is a multi-layered vocal section. Each line introduces a new vocal sound, and there are about 1,000 different vocals. There are two different lines here; the first sung by 500 voices; the second likewise. The intensity and volume builds like a choir- it hits its peak in the middle before dropping one by one.
The harder, metal verse, will have elements of Rob Halford, Axl Rose, Robert Plant and Chris Cornell; layering one another and blending together.
Soulful verse will have layers, with Prince and Michael Jackson elements, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson and Jeff Buckley elements in the mix.
Towards the final elements, different vocal elements from Bjork and Hayden Thorpe sounds mixing with Lennon and McCartney.
The point of the song is to fill a gap, as well as make a point. It is not a show-off piece or a self-indulgent dirge, but to test a band to the limit. There have been no attempts to replicate the ideas of Paranoid Android since 1997, and it is long-overdue that an attempt is made. It may fail spectacularly or it may fall short, but with all the elements (almost) in place, it is almost ready to go.
It is hard to tell what the song will sound like, just from words alone. It is going to take proof before the pudding can be savoured, but I am excited to go. It is hoped that it will be the first thing I record, and will form the swansong to a future E.P. It is also hoped that the song will appeal to potential band members; that like-minded souls will come together to challenge it- spending time and money making it happen and getting it as good as possible. I want to push myself as much as possible as a songwriter and singer, and make each facet of the song as strong as possible. The music itself will be the biggest force, and the overall sound will be king. This will be played by fellow band members, and by mixing so many different segments and genres into one song, it will challenge the listener.
The future consists of making concept a reality. At the moment I am one man with ideas and no others. I want to get together four other musicians to form a band. I need two guitarists, a bass player and a drummer, to form the band (whose name I know and want to unveil). Once that is all in place, the song will be pitched. As I do not write music, all of it is my head, so will need a co-conspirator to help compose the score, as well as the melody. From there, I hope to raise the money for the track so that the song can make its way into the studio. As I say, it is difficult to do justice through a blog post. The full effect will not be known until the song is complete, so I am keen to make everything a reality as soon as possible. Lack of finance and confidence are the biggest drawbacks, so I want to rectify these very shortly. I am unsure how I will find the finances, but will try everything possible. Once I can recruit a band, it will provide a chance to rehearse and try out some simpler songs as well as cover versions but Vanity Mirror is the first song I want to have my name on. If all the parts can come together as hoped, the idea is to try and challenge the big hitters and all-time greats: big ambition I know, but you need to go in as hard as possible to really make your mark.
There are fragments, self-flagellation and self-indulgence as well as over-ambition, but do you know what: that is the idea. The song is designed as a test of what is possible as to be as ambitious and idealistic as possible. For a long time I have watched others make their names, and restricted myself and resigned myself to merely watching. Personal factors as well as limitations have penned me in, but in the midst of all this, has been the song itself. It may seem like an impossible chore and something that can't be done. This piece was not designed as self-promotion or as a pitch, but more to highlight what can become. I am no more talented than anyone else, but have a sense that the most ambitious and epic tracks are a thing of the past. In a crowded and full industry, there is a niche that needs to be fulfilled. Whether the song's title is a self-fulfilling prophecy or an exercise in futility, I am not going to rest trying to make it happen. If it fails, then at least I tried. If there are roadblocks: I shall try and overcome them. Normalising and restraint is important and something you need to as a musician. By for one song- one fleeting moment- there needs to be a sense of reckless abandon and bold statements. After all:
Who wants to be normal?