Tuesday 22 November 2022

How a tragedy spawned a great album

 Tomorrow night, my band, The False Dots will be performing all of the songs on our new album A finger in the sun at the Dublin Castle in Camden Town. What most of our fans and friends will not realise is that the album is the product of a really desperate tragedy. In January 2021, our drummer Graham's son took his own life. This was in the height of lockdown and to make matters worse, Graham was isolating due to covid at the time. The band has been together in various forms since 1979 and since September 2012 had been together as a four piece, with Fil Ross on bass and author Allen Ashley on vocals. Covid had caused us to stop rehearsing and recording. When we learned of Graham's tragedy, myself and Fil decided to start rehearsing, to try and cheer him up. I had a couple of pieces of music I needed professionally for my other work, and it made sense to try a couple of ideas as we worked on these. Allen was not in a position to join us. 

When we started I was really worried for Graham. Losinga child is every parents worst nightmare. After the first rehearsal, Graham said that it was great to have to focus on his drumming.  Initially, we were simply playing a few old numbers that I could just about manage a vocal track on. There were also a couple of tracks that I'd presented to Allen, but he hadn't really liked. One of the songs we were doing was one I'd just written with Allen. My initial concept for the track was to try and get Lee Thompson of Madness to do a version. We re-arranged it slightly for my vocals and did a rough recording. To my surprise, it didn't sound too bad. I've always written songs for other singers, as I didn't feel I could do justice to the songs. When I played it to my son, he said "You should sing it, you do it quite well". It got me thinking. What if I took singing seriously and tried to impose my own style on the song?

One of the constraints of writing for other singers is that they have to like the material and get inside it. Writing for myself, there were no constraints. I could express myself and not be shy. I started to think long and hard about what I wanted to say in the songs. I got to thinking about the limits to my vocal talents, what I could make work and how I could entertain people. My thoughts went back to a chance meeting with Ian Dury back in 1978 in Camden Town. I was having a cup of tea in a cafe and he walked in. I was only 15 and very overawed. I was with a friend and we were planning to get a band together. So I plucked up the courage and sheepishly said "Mr Dury, we are getting a band together, do you have any advice?". I had hoped he'd say "I'll be your manager and get you a record deal?" or something like that. This was how the conversation actually went.

ID "Have you got any instruments?"

Me "No"

ID "Well get youself a guitar son. Have you got any gigs lined up?"

Me "No"

ID "Well when you get a guitar, go and do a few gigs"

Me "Any other advice"

ID "Yeah, look at me, I'd get nowhere without attitude, never forget that you are there to entertain people"

And with that he made it quite clear that our audience with the Pope was over.

I'd almost forgotten this, but now I was the frontman, I decided that I should try and channel a bit of Ian Dury. Where to start? I thought "You know what, I'll write a song about that. If he was good enough to give us the advice, we should at least acknowledge it".

So that was the blueprint. Anyone who has ever witnessed a False Dots rehearsal will know that the environment is pretty hilarious between songs. When we work out passages etc, we are dead serious, but in the gaps, it is pure comedy. Myself, Graham and Fil are all outgoing and opinionated. As Grahame was pretty down, we felt we had to lift him back up. Much of what Graham says in reheasals is reminscences of events over the years. I started collecting these and blending them with my own, to put together the new collection of songs. I played a couple of the numbers to Boz Boorer, Morriseys former musical director and star of The Polecats. Boz suggested we adjourn to his studio in Monchique in Portugal to record some of the numbers. We did this in October 2021 and the results were amazing, in my opinion. We recorded six songs in four days and Boz added all manner of great sounds, keyboards, brass, even horse sounds. 

The challenge was to get a full set of material strong enough to make a set and an album. By June this year, we'd reached that point and did a low key gig at the Mill Hill Music Festival as a warm up for Alan Warner of The Foundations. It was the first time I'd ever sung all of the songs and acted a frontman.  I was terrified. After the show, a friend came up and said "That song, The Burnt Oak Boogie is brilliant". I was shocked, but it got me thinking. What about a video? The song is a rather Duryesque take on Burnt Oak. 

In September, we were asked, at short notice, to do a fill in gig at The Dublin Castle. Someone had dropped out and they needed a band. We stepped in. To try and drum up some interest, we rush released the Burnt Oak Boogie video. To my amazement, it now has nearly 3,500 views. Furthermore, despite only four days notice, the gig was busy and we got asked back. I've done hundreds of gigs over the year and the band has had many line ups, but what we are doing now seems to be something different and in many ways (for me at least) more entertaining. As for Graham, he has played the best drums of his life on the recordings. 

 I thought I'd just do say a couple of words about the songs on the album, which you can listen to here.

 I thought I'd say a few words about the story of each of these, as every song has a back story.

1. Bubble Car. My brother had a Messerschmidt Bubble car in the 1960's. I was a kid and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I found a picture of it, with his mates, pictured in Manchester. I joked that it would make a great album cover. He said that I should write a song, so I did. Now he wants a cut of the Royalties! It is also inspired by my former bandmate and co-founder of The Dots, Pete Conway, who'd use the chat up line "Why don't you join our band as singer" with just about every girl we met when we were putting the band together.

2. Intermission in the ship. This was a song that I wrote when Allen was singing. For whatever reason, he hated it, I loved it. It was inspired by the outrageous headlines that used to appear on Evening Standard sales boards. When KAL007 was shot down by the USSR, the headline said "WWIII has started today". I bought a copy as there were no mobile phones back then to browse. I went to the Ship in Wardour Street, to have a beer and wait for the nukes to land. I'm still waiting. I ended up having a great night talking to some of the characters that inhabited the pub at the time. What was a quick pint, became an all night session.

3. Sunday in the 70's. A collage of mine and Graham's memories from growning up in the 1970's in North London. The Sunday Roast, rellies coming round, seafood from the whelk stall. I love this song "Your mate come's round coz he fancies your sister, tell him you'll chin him if you find out he's kissed her".

4. Channelling Ian Dury. Mentioned above, a homage to the great man. I hope that wherever he is he likes it.

5. The Greatest British Fail. A song about how British Rail was crap, but they've managed to make it even worse. It seems amazing now that Jimmy Savile was their front man and yet we somehow prefer it to what we've got now.

6. Don't be scared of a finger up your bum. I was so pleased to be able to sing this. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011 and it's my way of saying, come on guys, get yourself checked. If you catch this early, it is treatable.

7. The Burnt Oak Boogie. A personal song for me. My Grandma lived at 56 Milling Road after moving from Kentish Town in 1941. Fr Smythe married my mum at The Annunciation. My mum loved the market. I used to nip down the Betta Cafe when I was bunking off school for a cup of tea. The band had a residency at The Bald Faced Stag in 1983/84. What's not to love.

8. Buy me a bottle of Jack. Unlike the rest of the album, a rather dark song. Written in a down moment, as I contemplated my future with prostate cancer and my mortality. This was the first new song we started playing after Allen left. I love the bluesy vibe of it. It also convinced me that my vocals weren't as bad as I thought.

9. Long shot didn't die. The last 'new song' we performed with Allen. I'd sort of wrote it with Lee Thompson in mind. We both love ska music. Allen adapted the lyrics and made some great changes. I love singing it. It is a fun song, with a serious underlying message. I wrote it as a tale on the Pioneer's song "Long shot kick da bucket" with a North London spin.

10. Shake your bones. My brother built a stereo for my Dad in 1968. It was bigger than most Dread's sound systems and was awesome. It was where I got my love of music. He'd open the windows and drive the neighbours nuts with it, but if I did it I'd get into big trouble. I must have worn my sisters copy of Sticky Fingers out on that system. 

11. Whacky Races. When we were kids, we played in the streets, had go karts made from pram wheels, went down man holes on bikes. Doesn't happen anymore. I feel sorry for todays kids.

12 Dublins Finest Castle. I wrote this after our gig at the Dublin Castle in September. I used to work in Camden, so it is a bit of a love song and a celebration of London's grassroots music scene.  

I hope you enjoy our music. It was spawned by a tragedy, but I hope something positive has come out of it. Next year we will be doing a gig for a suitable charity involved in the area of young people committing suicide.

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