Tuesday 10 October 2023

Songwriting special - What inspired me to write the songs of The False Dots new album

Inspiration is a funny thing. I've often wondered what inspired great artists to write their most amazing songs. I once heard Paul McCartney say that he'd heard a blackbird whistle the melody of Yesterday. Some of my favourite songs, such as White man in Hammersmith Palais by the Clash have interesting back stories. Others, such as Golden Years by David Bowie are completely incomprenhsible.

I've written songs all of my life. I hope they have improved. Most of the time, I have collaborated with others. Between 2012 and 2020, I worked with top London poet and author Allen Ashley. When I worked with Allen, I deliberately didn't finish songs, leaving space for his input. When Allen left the band and I started to sing as well as play guitar, I realised why he'd made so many changes. Although Fil Ross (bass) and Graham Ramsey (drums) collaborate on the music, I solely now write the lyrics. As such, I am putting a lot more into them.

We have now nearly finised our new album. We are targetting a launch date of February next year, to celebrate 45 years of The False Dots. We have pre release versions of most songs on Soundcloud.

I thought it might be interesting to share the writing process behind the songs. For the album, I've tried to keep the arrangements as simple as possible, trying to evoked the musical style of the 60's Ska explosion and the 70's punk explosion. 

1. Wacky Races -  I've always wanted to do a 'proper' reggae song. This song is probably the closest a white boy from Mill Hill can get. I don't want to pretend to be anything. I try and sing in my own voice, but Boz Boorer's amazing Dub remix shows how the band gel to make a proper track. My lyrics, like many, are rather Dury-esque. Like many of my new songs, I composed it walking to work, singing it into my iPhone. I was inspired when I saw a picture of an old go kart, made of pram wheels. When I was a kid, everyone wanted one. We'd make them and race up and down Millway. There would always be a big crowd of kids playing. The second verse deals with when my then best mate Pete Conway, who formed the False Dots with me, was at St Vincents. He was bought a new Chopper bike for Xmas. He lived on Engel Park, a really steep road off The Ridgeway and Purley Road. He hurtled down the hill and went down a manhole. He was off school for six weeks. His Dad used to say he was never the same again. The third verse is lamenting the end of such behaviour. How parents keep kids in and they've exchanged broken bones for obesity and diabetes.

2. Bubble Car - This was inspired by a picture my big brother Frank sent me of him and his mates goofing about on his Messherschmidt bubble car in Manchester, when he was at Uni there in 1967. I joked that the picture would make a great album cover. That inspired me to write a song. It's a love song, the central protagonist is a broke musician, who is trying to recruit a singer for his band, with the promise of a trip to Kings Cross in his bubble car. Unless you were a musician in the 60's/70's it would sound bonkers, but these were the type of things we'd do.

3. Oh No Sharon - A harsh song. A soap opera in 2 minutes. Fil Ross suggested we start it with the Eastenders Theme tune. The actual main riff is recycled from another Dots song from 1979 called Bone. It is a coming of age story. A young, innocent alter server hit s fourteen and is seduced by is best mate Sharon, who is more sexually mature, with disasterous consequences for all. Everything in the song is true, although most of it was not my story. The title came when Graham was recounting a conversation with his girlfriend and happened to say "Oh No Sharon" in a silly voice. Sharon also likes Eastenders, so it is sort of dedicated to her, although she is not the Sharon in question (names have been changed). 

4. Men and Motors. My family were in the motor trade, my big brother Laurie still is. My Dad ran a car repair business called Mac Metals (better known as Mac Mentals in Burnt Oak as he employed many of the local 'characters'). When I was growing up, the various guys who worked for him would recount stories of seedy Saturday nights and the shenanigans with their cars. One of them would borrow Dad's Escort van, put a mattress in the back and indulge in naughtiness in the back. My Dad would both indulge this and reprimand him for being being a heathen. I once asked Dad about it. He said that the said character was a good lad and the van was a perk of the job, but he couldn't really condone it. Fil came up with the idea of using Ode to Joy, as most men's pride and joy seems to be their motor. 

5. Intermission in the Ship. When the Marquee was in Wardour St, the Ship was the rock and roll hang out. I used to nip down, buy the Evening Standard, have a pint and observe life there. You'd see all sorts. I worked on Windmill Street, so it was quite near. It was often full of attractive girls and dodgy blokes trying to pull them. It is also about the outrageous billboards the Evening Standard would use to try and flog you the paper. That is the part of lost London culture I miss most.  I presented this to Allen when he was in the band. He said he'd leave the band if he had to sing it, he hated it. He felt it was glorifying alcoholic behaviour and pub culture. Musically its very pop. 

6. Sunday in the 70's. Self explanatory. Back then, shops were shut, pubs shut at two, aunties would come for tea. Being Catholics, we'd have to go to Church. Mum would go home to make dinner and Dad would go for a pint with his mates. Fil came up with the rather wonderful guitar riff.

7. Channelling Ian Dury. Recalling when I met Ian Dury in 1977 aged 15, in the Delancy Cafe in Camden. It took me ten minutes to pluck up the courage to speak to him. What I wanted to say was "Hi Ian, We're getting a band together, any chance of a  support and an introduction to Stiff records". What I actually said was "Erm, er, hello Mr Dury, we are getting a band together, got any advice?" He replied "Can you play, have you got any instruments?". I said "Erm, no." He then said "Get a guitar, play a few gigs, always give it big, now F*** off and leave me alone". We recycled the Sex and Drugs riff. It is one of our fave live numbers.

8. Don't be scared if a finger up the bum. My story of cancer. An invocation to get all men my age(ish) to get a PSA test. I think it's a damn good song. Switches between blues verses and punk choruses.

9. The Burnt Oak Boogie. I wanted to write a homage to Burnt Oak, where my parents married, my grandma lived and to Annie & Joe O'Keefe who were my surrogate grandparents. The third verse is a celebration of the Bald Faced Stag pub, where The False Dots had a residency in 1983/84. 

10. Buy me a bottle of Jack. I wrote this in a bad moment in 2015, when I realised my cancer needed treatment. Faced with the prospect of impotence and incompetence, I toyed with the idea of just letting the cancer take its course, living my life as best I could and then blowing my brains out when it got too much. I said this to Clare, she thought I was joking and told me not to be so stupid. That was really that and I had HIFU. It was a very personal song and only came out of the biscuit tin when Allen left. The guitar rif was my attempt to try and sound like Wilko Johnson, who had pancreatic cancer.

11. Long Shot Didn't Die. The last song I co wrote with Allen. He wrote the last verse and made some tasteful edits elsewhere. The original concept was a song I could record with Lee Thompson of Madness. I didn't think Allen would like it, but he did. He really strengthened the anti gambling message of the song. I originally worte it as a follow up to the Pioneers ska hit "Longshot Kick Da Bucket". The brass arrangement by Boz Boorer leans on Geno by Dexy's. 

12. Sci Fi Girls (Wong Da Da). I had to change the title of this, which was orginally just Wong Da Da. I grew up loving the sci fi series of the 1960's and 1970's. Dr Who with Jo Grant, who was one of my first crushes, was required viewing. Then Gerry Anderson's UFO came along. There was a scene where Lt Ellis on Moonbase, in her purple wig and silver mini skirt did a strip for the cameras. That blew my mind. You just don't get such things on telly anymore. It's all got to be educational and politcally correct. The fan has been strangled out of everything. This is our glam rock track. The guitar riff is based on the Dr Who riff and the  original name comes from my son, when he was small calling Dr Who Wong Da Da as that was what the the riff sounded like.

13. Shake Your Bones. A love song to vinyl. When I was about 14-15, I felt that my record collection was my best friend. It seemed that only my records really talked to me. The song is recalling when my brother got my Dad a super duper stereo system, that many dreads at Carnival would be proud of. 

I'll finish with a big thanks to Fil and Graham. I really don't think that the songs would be anything without their input. The guys really are the best people in the world to be in a band with. Fil is a musical genius and Graham's work on the drums is amazing. He instinctively knows how to pace a song correctly and bring out the anger, pathos, tenderness and energy that lurks in the lyrics. 

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