Isle of Noises

Daniel Rachel's Conversations with Great British Songwriters

Thursday 12th November 2015

Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters, a Guardian and NME Book of the Year, chronicles a golden age of British songwriting spanning fifty years from the Kinks to Laura Marling. Noel Gallagher said it is ‘without doubt the finest book I’ve ever read about songwriters and the songs they write.’ 

Daniel Rachel, author of Isle Of Noises, has made a Spotify Playlist for Fred Perry Subculture, made up of artists interviewed about their songwriting, for the book. Listen to the songs below, along with some short excerpts from Daniel's conversations with the writer of each song.

1. The La’s - ‘I Can’t Sleep’
Lee Mavers believes music is communicated to him and he is a facilitator to what exists already. It as a view that is held by many of the songwriters I talked to for Isle of Noises. ‘You’ve got these things going through your life, your head, your heart’ Lee affirms, ‘these rhythms, these phrases and snatches that you hear recur until they stamp themselves in you and you find yourself doing stuff without realising it. Then you look it afterwards and go, “Wow!”’

2. The Smiths - ‘Shakespeare’s Sister'
Johnny Marr would always write the music for the Smiths first and then drop a tape through Morrissey’s letterbox for him to add words and a vocal melody. ‘He’d digest it,’ says Johnny ‘and then call me back a couple of hours later saying, “ It’s a single,” or “It’s a triumph,” or “It’s so great I even switched Coronation Street off.”

3. The Kinks - ‘All Of My Friends Were There’
And just when I wanted no one to be there /All of my friends were there / Not just my friends / But there best friends too. When the Kinks started Ray Davies didn’t have a tape recorder to capture song ideas. ‘Generally speaking,’ he says, ‘the good ideas stay in the head.’ Like a theatre classicist, Ray believes in the three act structure and ‘learnt that a lot of the rules that actors use can be applied to songwriting – character, conflict and resolution.’

4. Bee Gees - ‘Marley Purt Drive’
The Bee Gees would write the melody first and then write the words to that melody. Robin Gibb states ‘Let the melody dictate the lyric and the statement. ‘Marley Purt Drive’ was recorded in the Stax Studio in Memphis. ‘It’s like a folk song but it’s got some of that Southern feel to it, as well,’ Robin explains, adding, ‘a prime influence at the time was the Band’s album Music For the Big Pink.'

5. Led Zeppelin - ‘Thank You’
‘Thank You’ was Robert Plant’s first major contribution to the lyricism of Led Zeppelin. He romanticised 'if the mountains crumble to the sea there would still be you and me.' Like Johnny Marr, Jimmy Page always wrote and arranged the music for his band before words and vocal melody was added. It’s fascinating with both artists’ music to imagine the songs before they were defined by their songwriting partners and given narrative with a title and lyrics.

6. Laura Marling - ‘Once’
Laura writes with a left-handed fountain pen which was given to her as a gift. ‘I thought it was so brilliant, she says, ‘so elegant.’ She has hundreds of notebooks half filled with songwriting ideas. ‘The best advice I’ve had,’ she adds, ‘was always buy a cheap notebook so you don’t feel the pressure to fill it with glorious things.’

7. Gorillaz - ‘On Melancholy Hill’
‘That’s as sad as it gets’ confesses Damon Albarn, ‘There’s no life left…a tree made of plastic.' Yet despite, the great charm of ‘On Melancholy Hill’ Damon was annoyed by its recording for the album Plastic Beach. ‘I don’t think I quite got it right. When I sing it just me on a guitar it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written, but I slightly overcooked it on the record.’

8. Oasis - ‘Little By Little’
Noel Gallagher wrote the chorus of Little By Little’ and then for a long-time struggled to write a verse to complete the song. Inspiration came from a Buddhist saying he read in a book which read true perfection has to be imperfect. Noel attributes his ability to write anthems to two sources: his Irish decent; and going to a lot of football matches from an early age and hearing Manchester City fans singing la la la lala la ci-ty to the tune of the Beatles ‘Hey Jude.’

9. John Lydon - ‘Sun’
John Lydon agrees with Robin Gibb that he can hear melody in ambient sounds, ‘I’m dead with him on that one. I’ll find in harmonic distortions a melody. I can pick a tune out of a traffic jam, all the different horns.’ ‘Sun’ appeared on John’s only solo album Psycho's Path which he informs was ‘put together with “this’ll never work" mentality'; before admitting on some tracks, ‘the drums are actually cardboard boxes.’

10. Paul Weller - ‘It’s Written In The Stars’
‘People always ask me how I write: no idea, it’s just something that’s in me. It seems the most difficult, insurmountable thing to do until you’re doing it and then it seems so natural, just like walking or breathing.’ Ideas buzz in Paul’s head for days, sometimes weeks. He doesn’t have a device at home to record on to. ‘I’m forever writing bits down on a scrap of paper,’ Paul declares, ‘and keeping them in my pocket or in a bag until I feel I’m ready to work on it.’

11. Jarvis Cocker – ‘Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time’
Taking a riff from a Dion’s song ‘Only You Know’ that he recorded with Phil Spector, Jarvis was running the water ready to bath his son when the melody came in to his head. It was a time in his life when Jarvis was thinking he should do something else other than being a songwriter so the song was initially given to Nancy Sinatra. ‘I thought maybe this is a way of doing it because that means I don’t have to do it.' But once Jarvis heard Nancy’ s version he realized his error. Alex Turner, of the Artic Monkeys, latterly said he would like the song to be played at his funeral.

12. Billy Bragg - ‘M For Me’’
Billy misspelled family when he was typing something on his laptop. ‘I dropped the ‘M’ and it said faily,’ he explains, ‘so I took the ‘Y’ off and it became fail.' Having realised there was a metaphor to be found Billy then started looking for other mis-spellings. His favourite was let’s pull the Y off of your and put it on the fire and make them our problems baby.

13. XTC - ‘Chalkhills And Children’
Andy Partridge has synaesthesia meaning the transfer of the meaning of a word from one kind of sensory experience to another. It has enabled him to translate many of his musical ideas with images. Andy says of ‘Chalkhills And Children,’ ‘It was a very pagan-sounding, drony thing which suggested floating and flying above green hills.’ Andy then continued to describe the scenery coming from the sound and asked himself, ‘Why would I be floating above green hills…and before you know it you have a lyric.’

14. Madness - ‘The Return Of The Los Palmas Seven’
‘The Return Of The Los Palmas Seven’ was written as an instrumental by drummer Daniel Woodgate and bass player Mark Bedford to fit Mike Barson’s piano melody and the solitary lyric waiter! Madness have seven songwriters but it is Barson who is at the musical heart of the north London septet. ‘Usually I play it on the piano,’ says Mike discussing vocal lines, ‘and then sing it after, chip out a melody.’ ‘The Return Of The Los Palmas Seven’ was Madness’ seventh consecutive hit and peaked at number seven in February 1981.

All extracts are taken from Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters and are subject to copyright.

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