A Couple of Drinking Songs – How it happened…

Over the last few months, I have produced a collection of songs based loosely on the surreal events occurring on a night out in Glasgow. The collection, entitled “A Couple of Drinking Songs”, was written by me over the course of 3 weeks, then recorded and produced between the studios at University Campus Ayr and my own home studio in Glasgow. The tracks produced as part of this project would act as demos for a full length album to be released later in the year. What follows is a critical account of the writing and production process, from the initial stimulus to the finished product.

The task was set to us in September to produce a number of pieces of music based around a central stimulus. Though it was recommended that the stimulus come from a piece of art, such as a film or another piece of music, I instead chose to use the Centre for the Contemporary Arts (CCA), where the class was based, as my main influence. It was my opinion that the position of the CCA, nestled amongst the bustling night life of Sauchiehall Street, presented a stark contrast between itself and it’s neighbours. This gave me the idea of writing from the point of view of an observer during a night out, documenting the surreal events as they unfold, but not entirely involved in them.

Instead of writing in a strictly linear pattern, I decided instead to focus on a chain of fairly unique events occurring over a set period of time (say, 9pm till 10am the next morning, for example). This was an approach to storytelling which I borrowed from the film maker Richard Linklater, who has made several of his films using the same method, using a string of seemingly unrelated events and encounters to drive an exploration of deeper ideas and philosophies. The most notable example of this would be his film Slacker, in which he explores the motivation behind “Generation X”, and their shunning of traditional capitalist notions of society in favour of devoting themselves to a more idealistic, bohemian lifestyle.

At the same time, I wanted to include elements of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth, being the idea that, throughout all literature and myth, their exists the notion of the archetypal hero. Campbell suggested that all literary heroes go through a pattern of events throughout their “journey”, beginning with a generic call to action, and ending in the achievement of an “ultimate boon” of some form. It was my intention in the beginning to use this as a way of holding together the loosely associated events occurring during the narrative, and to allow the narrative to reach a natural conclusion.

During the original lyrical development, I decided on several events within a larger narrative to highlight, with the gaps in the story being filled in the full release. The points I decided to focus on were:

  • Call To Action/Beginning of The Night
  • Euphoric Stage – Peak of The Night
  • After/House Party – Beginning of the descent/come down
  • Morning After – Hangover and Epiphany, receiving the “Ultimate Boon”

I chose these particular events in the narrative because they provided, for me, some of the strongest lyrical content. This was mostly because I was drawing inspiration from my own experiences, and these particular parts hold some of my more interesting memories. To assist in nailing down a timeline for the events, I wrote a short piece of prose (See Portfolio), depicting most of the ideas I wanted to explore in the narrative. This also served to nail down the development of the album’s overall atmosphere, and how it progressively changes throughout the narrative. With this overall progression of ideas in place, I began to develop the individual lyrics for each song, in tandem with the overall arrangement and feel of each song.

The following paragraphs are a short analysis of the lyrics of each song. The lyrics are attached to each song on the Bandcamp page.

The opening track, “My Own Personal Monument Club”, describes the initial gathering of a group of friends at the beginning of a night out. The opening line reflects a sense of nostalgia around the gathering, suggesting that the group adhere to a long, shared history. This is contrasted in the following lines, which suggest that the “scene” that the group belong to has changed dramatically, but that they remain loyal to a sense of their “good old days”. The chorus suggests that, though many of the styles and fashions are different, that the general social order has remained the same throughout, with the fashionable leaders of the scene still holding court with a number of “part time” members (“the priests” being the former, “the weekend superstars” the latter). The second verse develops this idea further. The middle eight section reinforces the nostalgic feel of the song, suggesting that the group have begun reminiscing and sharing stories of their past conquests. The outro of the song creates the idea that, though this group have gone on to have their own individual experiences (specifically as touring musicians, as is my experience), that they can always find security in the company of their friends (“we will never be lonely”). The title of the song is two references wrapped into one, partly referencing the “Monument Club”, a select group of drinking buddies, mostly made up of members and friends of Guided By Voices (a band who greatly influenced the overall sound of the album), and to “My Own Personal Idaho”, a film which was constantly being recommended to me during the writing process.

“Drinking With Strangers” explores the inevitable meeting of new people outside of the observer’s original group of friends. The first lines of the song suggest that the observer could easily have had an enjoyable experience of the evening had they stayed solely amongst his own friends, but finds the stories and experiences of other patrons to be too alluring to pass up. The chorus begins to suggest that this is a regular happening, that the observer is instantly drawn to new people, especially those with lofty aspirations (“I’m always drinking with strangers/and they’re always shooting for stars”), and is entirely willing to invite them into his own revelry. The second verse goes on to suggest the idea that most of the patrons are embroiled in the same activities as the observer’s own group, and suggesting that this shared social activity creates some form of metaphysical bond between them all. In the original lyrics, the song ended with a variation on the chorus, but this was eventually removed to allow the possibility of a reprise version of the song in the expanded version (the lyrical variation is marked with italics in the portfolio).

“Something Sweet & Easy” jumps ahead in the story a little, showing that our observer and his friends have moved to a nightclub of some form as the night has gone on. At this point, he strikes up a conversation with a seemingly attractive member of the opposite sex for a seemingly vague reason. The first verse begins to set the scene, showing that the original group is still present and engaged in what seems to be a weekly ritual (“all the same songs we heard last week” suggests they’ve been there at least once). It then goes on to explore the first meeting with this new, unnamed character, at first suggesting that their initial intentions are fairly innocent, reinforced by the line “I made a new friend last night, she seems to like me very much”. The second verse begins to develop this relationship, quickly taking on a more suggestive attitude. The chorus, however, gives the impression that the observer is attracted to the character in more than a physical sense, that her personality and ideas are equally appealing to him, much like his initial attraction to people outside his group in “Drinking With Strangers”. This song also acts as a transition between scenes, from the nightclub to the house party, at which the observer discovers that his romantic notions were misplaced, as his “new friend” walks in with her boyfriend. The final chorus, however, is still hopeful, almost longing, still suggesting that some romantic link could still exist between the two of them, by reiterating the first chorus.

The final song, “Smells Like Sunday”, jumps ahead again, and describes our observer’s waking moments the following morning, as well as his subsequent journey home. The first verse describes his morning ritual: waking up dazed, longing for the healing qualities of coffee and pain killers, before embarking on his “walk of shame”, while more upstanding members of society judge him as he walks. The chorus goes on to explore his inevitable regret over the night before, believing that he should have acted more responsibly in order not to get in this state. The following lines set the atmosphere of the time: the smell of Sunday morning breakfast and the ominous possibility of oncoming rain. The second verse analyses the observer’s overall physical appearance: the liquor stains and unexplainable wounds incurred the night before, and a distinct memory of a time when he had intended to stop indulging to this degree. The middle eight section allows the observer a moment’s self pity, before snatching him out of his melancholy with the realisation that, though he may feel terrible now, his experiences are worth going through the same routine every time.

Musically, the style of the album is meant to partially resemble the music one would hear at each point of the evening, while carrying enough of my own alternative rock sound to keep the album sounding fairly personal. “Monument Club” was arranged to ebb and flow very much like a punk song, reflecting the energy and enthusiasm of the group at the beginning of the night, with the obvious attempt at an anthemic refrain at the end. “Drinking With Strangers” is meant to sound more like a traditional folk song, likened with other more traditional drinking songs. “Sweet & Easy” was meant have more of a dancing beat to it, to reflect the style of music played in the club and possibly at the house party. “Smells Like Sunday”, originally intended to be an acoustic song, was given a dirty, overdriven guitar accompaniment in other to better imitate the observer’s fairly groggy attitude. A fairly standard three-piece guitar band sound is generally used throughout the album, with extra instrumentation, such as acoustic guitars and piano, added infrequently to vary the overall timbre. A sparse amount of backing vocals were used throughout, purely to add a sense of space in the overall mix, but without taking much attention from the main vocal.

At the beginning of this project, I felt that this developmental style we were prescribed could be a difficult approach to songwriting, as it wasn’t the style I was used to writing in. However, after deciding on the general progression of the album, the narrative structure of the project allowed me to easily plot the development of each song, both lyrically and in each song’s production. My current intention is to develop these themes further to produce the full expanded version of the album as part of my 4th year Creative Project, with plans to release the full album some time this year.

This piece was written as part of an assessment for the New Music Project module from the BA (Hons) Commercial Music at University of the West of Scotland. The album itself can be downloaded from http://jimmyrichards.bandcamp.com/album/a-couple-of-drinking-songs-a-sampler-of-misdeeds-to-come

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