The holy grail was getting a guitar with steel strings. What it looked like, who made it and even what it sounded like were completely secondary because I was fixated on getting a ‘real’ guitar now that I had an opportunity to be in a band.
The aforementioned Gerry McLoughlin from school saw me coming and palmed his 12 string acoustic off on me for the very princely sum of £50. What marked that particular guitar out (apart from it’s 12 strings) was that it had a pickup included. I ignored the fact that I didn’t have an amp and just lusted after a guitar with steel strings and a pickup. I’ve still got the beast and one day I’m going to give it back to Gerry. That’ll teach him.
I have no recollection of where the £50 came from, whether that was from my own meagre funds or through some lapse of my parents but the cash was exchanged for the guitar and I was in business. Back then £50 was a serious investment though and I’d better get some use out of it or there would be a major inquest. There was one big problem though – the 12 strings. I was struggling enough with 6 nylon strings on my existing guitar so the 12 were ditched in favour of just 6 and I carried on like that for years.
Now the boys and the girls in the band were in for a treat. I was in business and nothing was going to stop me now. Except there was. I was still a rubbish guitar player and I still had no real idea how to construct a song and it was essential that at least one of those changed or my time in a band was going to be very short.
I could sing, I could even sing in tune but there were already five voices, another one wasn’t going to be enough to warrant me being in the band. They didn’t appear to be sitting in judgement but I had to add something worthwhile to proceedings or realistically there was no point me being there. So, boys and girls, here’s my first song….
I can’t remember which song was first but I can remember the sheer terror of performing it to the band. As I said, Vaughan had already written some songs but Chris, to my surprise then and confusion still, apparently didn’t write songs. I’ve never understood why he didn’t, he’s seemingly got all the basic attributes to be able to write a song, he can play guitar, he understands chord and key structures and he knew enough words. To be honest I’ve never asked him why not but I don’t remember him ever demoing a song, good, bad or indifferent. I feel sure that he must have done it’s just that I have no recollection of it. If he did compose a song it never, as far as I can remember, made it into a set list.
The upshot of playing the band my song was that no-one was laughing, no-one wanted me to leave immediately and much to my eternal surprise they all set about learning it. These days I record my songs and release them and if anyone likes them that’s great and if someone doesn’t, well there’s another 59,999 released on Spotify each day they can knock themselves out with. Don’t get me wrong I care every much whether people like my songs but it isn’t going to dramatically change my life if they don’t, so I don’t let it get to me like it did when I was a teenager.
Back then having the band learn and play my song was quite simply the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. Other people were fiddling around with my chord changes and trying to get a handle on my melody, to something that had come straight out of my head. People were singing my song. How good it that? Answer, bloody brilliant. And at the same time slightly confusing.
Yes, debuting the song was nerve wracking but the actual process of writing the song wasn’t THAT difficult. I’d come up with a few pleasing (to my ears) chord changes and stuck a lyric over the top of them. It may stump some people but I didn’t find it that difficult to be honest. Sure, I worked on the song, honed it to a certain degree but the process wasn’t rocket science. It was just something I could do.
A year or two before I’d had a pretentious poem I’d written accepted into the Ilkley Literary Week so I felt reasonably confident that I could string some words together. The guitar may still have been relatively new to me and therefore my playing limited but let’s face it most popular music doesn’t require the writer to be the next Beethoven or Bach, three or four chords will do quite nicely, thank you very much.
Indeed, many bands including my first love The Beatles have experimented with songs that contained as few as just one chord. I found out later that a particular favourite of mine, Paperback Writer, has just two chords and knowing that doesn’t stop me loving that song.
The difficulty I faced was twofold. One, coming up with a chord pattern that I felt pleased with. It had to be unique, which wasn’t that difficult as I didn’t know the chords to any other song, but my lack of knowledge of the guitar and no concept whatsoever of musical structure was very limiting. Secondly, I had to remember every song as I had no way of recording them so that I could play them back later. Because I couldn’t write music all I had was the lyrics and the chords jotted down. If I forgot how the song went that was it, it was gone forever.
It may seem ridiculous in these days of hand held recording devices and computer based music programs but back then in the early 1970’s recording was either done on the brand new gadget the cassette tape, a reel to reel tape recorder, or in a recording studio. I simply couldn’t afford a cassette recorder, the same applied to a reel to reel and going into a recording studio was prohibitive on so many levels as to make it impossible.
Much later I found out that Paul McCartney had a similar problem. He and John Lennon didn’t have any way of recording their first songs and had to rely purely on memory to recall them. Paul’s rationale was that if the song wasn’t memorable enough for them to remember it then it was highly likely the song wasn’t good enough for anyone else to remember either. To make sure I remembered each song I wrote I would play it again and again until it was ingrained within me. Only then did I preview it to the band.
One of the benefits of writing songs like this was that I was able to both hone and revise each song through repetition. Also, if I grew bored repeat playing a song I reasoned so would anyone else. If a song grew boring I ditched it long before the band ever heard it.
But, to me, the earth shattering news was that people had heard my song and wanted to learn how to play it themselves. I was now in the band on some kind of merit and it’s no exaggeration to say that it changed my world forever.
From that moment on I felt I was a songwriter. It didn’t matter how good or bad it was I could do something that most people on this planet wouldn’t dare try. I had played the song to other people, people who knew something about songs and they’d liked it enough to want to learn it. Just imagine the toe-curling thrill of that.
Even today to have someone say something positive about one of my songs is thrilling. It gives me a real buzz. I imagine that anyone creative, be it music, writing, art, dance, etc etc must get a thrill having that work praised. So, dear reader, don’t hold back, if you like someone’s creation tell them you like it, it’s such a special thing to hear and I promise you it will make their day.
(Picture: my first real guitar)