I was thirteen, maybe fourteen, when I started writing songs. They were purpose-made for the band I was in and none of us really knew how to go about being a group. We began with other people’s songs and found, to our surprise, that when we performed them they bore little resemblance to the originals. Anyone hearing us may have sensed something vaguely familiar but would’ve struggled to identify which song we were attempting to perform. Put it this way – our renditions of other people’s songs were such that vegetarians were advised to steer clear; so grave were our acts of musical butchery. So we started writing our songs of our own.
I took it seriously. In my teenage years, I took everything seriously and songwriting was no exception. Every spare moment, I would scribble lyrics on a notepad. It was common for me to return to class after a ‘study’ period, clutching freshly-minted lyrics to a new masterpiece whilst having learned nothing of the periodic table or science generally. To put this in perspective, I can only say that science has endured to this day but my lyrics have not. It’s for the best.
The great thing about songwriting is that you can – consciously or otherwise – write to the strengths of the players. Even though our cover material had more in common with a car wreck than actual music, our original music actually sounded like…. music. But writing music is one thing. Getting anyone else to care about it is another matter entirely.
I recall, vividly, being asked to play at the school’s end of year dance at the Bittern Town Hall. For the occasion, we rented a public address system so powerful that our music could be heard from Frankston and, possibly, outer space. It was more than Bittern Town Hall required. When time came for our big performance, I strode purposefully onto stage as we began performing our original songs. I put my hand to my forehead to see past the stage lights and saw abandoned floorboards.
Our original music had the effect of repelling the occupants of the dance floor to the nearest wall, to which they then clung as they sought to endure our musical assault on the senses. A night that had been full of dancing and teenage frivolity was instantly transformed into a test of endurance. An audience desperate to hear ‘Holiday’ by Madonna was, instead, subjected to the over-wrought lyrics of my tortured teenage soul. It’s a wonder that the entire school didn’t drop out.
Despite that experience, I continued writing songs. My bandmates were supportive, but they probably hoped if I kept going that I would – eventually – write something half decent. Just as, theoretically speaking, a monkey might type ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ with enough time, my bandmates reasoned that I could – given a few decades – stumble by chance across something nearly as good as ‘Aga Do’ by Black Lace or anything by Kajagoogoo. They waited in vain.
The older I got, the less I was prone to treating the act of songwriting as therapy. Songs could be playful. Funny, even. I discovered great songwriters like Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine and others who were able to include a fair dose of humour in their tunes. Not that they couldn’t be touching or poignant too, more that their songs could be witty and engaging too. It was inspiring.
Things have changed a lot since I first started playing music. You can now make a record in your bedroom and distribute it to the entire world through streaming platforms. Granted, you’ll be paid a pittance but in theory at least, it’s easier to be heard than ever before. These days, you don’t need a monster-sized public address system at the Bittern Town Hall. Just a laptop.
The local folk club had a theme night. The theme in question was ‘heavenly bodies’. There would, of course, be loads of songs about the stars and the moon. It got me thinking – which planet doesn’t have a song? The answer was both obvious and socially awkward. That’s how we came to write a song about ‘Uranus’. The premise of the song was to lament the fact that nobody writes songs about the planet Uranus and that things would be different if it had been given a better name. I’ve never had more fun writing a song in my life.
When the theme night arrived, there were lots of great songs from great songwriters, and lots of planets represented. But not ours. Ours would be the only song about Uranus. At first I was confused by the audience response until someone explained they were clapping. In fact, instead of scrambling for the exit, people were laughing and cheering, particularly when we took songs by well-known artists and replaced the original planet with ‘Uranus’. It was an entirely new experience.
There’s something to be said, I think, for persistence. Or, perhaps, learning from your mistakes. I’m not sure where we go to from here – Bittern Town Hall, probably. But for the time being, ‘The Lonely Planet (No-one Sings About Uranus)’ by ‘A Band of Rain’ sits on streaming platforms for unwitting listeners to stumble across. Maybe it will make them laugh. Which, for a song, is a good thing.