Writing/Song/Writing: ‘Half a Double Act’

I wanted to share the song ‘Half a Double Act’ with you. I didn’t write it, but I’m as proud of it as anything I have written. My eldest brother Jon wrote it; I just played drums and sang backing vocals.

Keeping it varied

Writing a novel is, for me, refusing to collaborate on a slow-turnaround project while failing to see friends or exercise. It is, in short, more or less what I’ve always wanted to do with my life.

But sometimes all I want to do is collaborate on quick-turnaround projects while seeing friends and exercising.

Exercising twice, actually: physically and mentally – deciding what and where to play to affect the dynamics of a song, listening to the rest of the band to stay tight, trying out different stuff on the hoof. It all feeds into staying creatively sharp.

And I always use the time when I get back from rehearsals, ears ringing and mind alive, to write; it’s frequently the best time. It’s usually past one in the morning when my longhand notes start to flatline as I fall asleep over them.

My first novel (‘The A to Z of You and Me’) sprang from a song I wrote. And I’ll tell you this for nothing: If I find the opportunity to write a novel called ‘Half a Double Act’ with its opening line being the same as my brother Jon’s opening line, then I definitely will. Here it is:

‘Well I was always the straight-man in our double act, but I didn’t mind that.’

Isn’t it lovely? I’d read that novel.

Jon wrote the song about a friend of his, Simon, who had died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of thirty-three while on holiday. If you want to be all novelish about it, it’s a song that springs from loss, and it deals with grief and gratitude. But look at that line: it’s not mawkish, it’s not over-sentimental.

Jon sees it this way: ‘dead friends… we will all have them, but his colouring of my life merited him this tune. I owed him that then, and I owe him now.’ And the song, when looked at in that context, is truthful and beautiful, with a genuine emotional depth.

Writing: playing with ideas

It was during a trip to band rehearsal that Jon explained how Simon would always turn up late to whatever get-together and effortlessly steal the crowd (invariably upstaging Jon in the process). The man had charisma.

Jon said: ‘He was like Eric Morecambe, and I was—’

‘Norman Pace,’ I said.

I said it to make him laugh (which he did, mercifully) but Jon remembered it and wedged it into this song when he came to write the lyrics. So I did inadvertently contribute to one of the lines, and I’m very proud of this.

A lot of the lyrics are, says Jon, ‘paraglided in from films Simon and I used to discuss – The Big Lebowski…’. (Hence ‘I’m touting film scripts’ – a melancholy image in itself).

There is a shallow-buried groaner in there, which comes from a band-rehearsal rumination about how churchgoers seem predisposed towards loving puns. Jon made sure to hook one in to his train of thought:

‘I’ll be the Good Samaritan, it’s so sad you see, you’re not around’.

Checking back, I don’t think the Sadducees appear in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but details, details. (He was the straight man of the double act, remember.)

Editing: reduce, reduce, reduce

Song-writing is the absolute essence of editing. This song is actually the mashing together of four or five different songs Jon had been working on: ‘I fought hard to make it a three-chord song… also I curbed my enthusiasm for bass dynamics’.

The opening guitar riff (the one that sounds a bit Asian to my ears) was one I’d heard him noodling around with at home, and urged him to write a song around. As it turns out, he used it as the key to all those ideas that he’d quietly been working on.

Songs and novels are much simpler than they seem. It’s not about cramming the ideas in; reduce, reduce, reduce the elements to the most essential ones, and let them expand naturally to their fullest shape.

Also: don’t grieve the loss of an idea. The good ones come back.

Recording: the good bit

We recorded it live (with a couple of overdubs later) at Premier Studios in Corby. This was the second take. Jon plays bass —he’s an excellent bassist— and he also sings the lead.

I can hear a real vulnerability about his vocal, which suits the song perfectly. Also, if you know your Dinosaur Jr, can you hear the faintest hint of a J Mascis delivery? Slightly miaowy.

It’s my middle brother Pete on rhythm guitar, and he takes on Jon’s riff, which kicks in just after the start. My friend Ian plays lead guitar, and he also laces some acoustic through the latter stages. I’ve played in bands with Ian since 1998, and I reckon his contribution from the 1:50 mark in this song is probably my favourite. The efficient solo from 2:46 is exactly perfect.

The end (from ‘I was always half a double act’) builds modestly but beautifully. The details and dynamics are improvised (although the chords are very simple), which means it speeds up a bit. Technically that’s my fault (as the drummer), but I’m not apologising; it feels right.

It’s been 10 years this summer since Jon’s pal Simon died, and what can anyone conclude from that? Not much.

We did do this, though.

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