What Would Charles Dickens Say? – Writing Songs With Charles Dickens

With downloading we listen to everything in bits. Could you imagine what Charles Dickens would say if you said, ‘Could I just have one chapter?’ You’re creating a short story culture. What happened to narrative?

Tori Amos: Mojo Magazine May 2007

I love that quote from Tori. So wise. So perceptive. So wrong.

The truth is that one of the greatest English novelists did in fact publish full length novels like Hard Times, A Tale Of Two Cities and Great Expectations in weekly instalments. In his own way his creative strategy was a precursor to the digital downloads and the ethos of constantly releasing new ‘content’. In other words, if Dickens was a 21st century musician he’d be releasing his albums a song at a time as digital downloads.

Dickens’ example helps to confirm my belief that great art is often created by people who are not preoccupied with making great art. Think of Bach having to come up with a new piece every Sunday for the church service. Or the Beatles cranking out a new record every three months for Parlophone. Or Motown literally modelled on that shining beacon of creativity, the Detroit car manufacturing industry. Or Dickens (and Conan Doyle, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, not to mention Melville, Eliot, Hardy, Trollope, Thackeray and Beecher Stowe) producing the paper equivalent of a weekly soap opera.

But to say Dickens published in instalments doesn’t give us the full picture. Dickens didn’t just complete a novel and then drip feed it to the public. He wrote them as he went. It’s normal to read a novel not knowing how it’s going to end. It’s more unusual when you realise that the author might not know how it’s going to end either! But it gets better than that. When Dickens published The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist in monthly instalments, for ten months he was writing both at the same time! Three months after finishing The Pickwick Papers he started writing (and publishing) Nicholas Nickleby even though he was still working on Oliver. He only started to get ahead of schedule on Oliver after signing a publishing deal for the finished novel a few months before the serialisation was completed.

Publishing as you go has some benefits.

Deadlines are your friend

I’m a fan of deadlines . Dickens’ writing commitments kept him sharp and made him prolific.

Writing without “time to reconsider, to change [his] mind, to go back, to cancel, to rewrite” sometimes delivering the chapters to the printers at the very last minute, it killed any chance to second guess himself and succumb to the paralysis of analysis.

It was incredibly hard work. He pushed himself even harder than he needed to, working “furiously fast to give himself free time. He lived hard and took hard exercise. His day began with a cold shower, and he walked or rode every day if he could”. He was suspicious of taking too long a break from writing saying “I feel it better and wiser to keep near my oar”.

At the risk of stating the obvious, constantly working is the best way to improve at your craft. And nothing makes you work like a deadline.

In his biography of Paul McCartney Barry Miles writes

The speed of artistic creation varies enormously from artist to artist…but all would agree that the printer’s boy waiting in the hall, a one-man show in six months’ time or a block booking of a recording studio in three weeks’ time exert a powerful influence on the creation of art.

Miles is almost quoting composer Rossini who said

Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or for the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair… I wrote the overture to La Gazza Ladra the day of the opening in the theatre itself, where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stagehands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below to transcribe it. In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out the window bodily….

Audience Feedback

Publishing as he wrote meant Dickens was in constant contact with his audience. The feedback from those reacting to his work allowing him to make adjustments ‘in real time’.

Stories changed shape in the process. The Old Curiosity Shop grew from a collection of short short stories into a full length novel due to financial pressures on the magazine Dickens was editing. Biographer Claire Tomalin says “[By April he was improvising] from week to week a novel he had not even thought about in January.”

In David Copperfield there is an unpleasant character called Miss Mowcher who is a dwarf and beauty specialist. Mrs Seymour Hill, a female dwarf and chiropodist (and neighbour of Dickens) threatened to sue for defamation. To escape a lawsuit Dickens offered to change the plot and transformed Mowcher into a sympathetic character.

Not everything we try will work and sometimes (especially with larger scale works) it might be a good idea not to spend three years working on something before you find out whether it’s any good…

Peer Feedback

Dickens also got feedback from reading chapters aloud to his friends which “lifted his spirits” and gave him intense pleasure “nourishing his belief in himself and helping to carry him through … pain and unhappiness.”

In this he stands in a long tradition of mutually supportive schools, movements and artists collectives from the Inklings and the Bloomsbury Group to Jack Hardy’s Songwriter’s Exchange (the inspiration for First Tuesday).

Wizard Of Oz lyricist Yip Harburg was part of another New York artists group

Starting in the 1920′s, and continuing through the 1930′s] we got together almost every night, often at the Gershwins, where there were two pianos, and we could play everything we had written that week and see how it went over. The others gave you criticism or an idea – there was a real camaraderie. People took fire from each other. It was like the days of Samuel Johnson and Fleet Street. We all wrote for each other and inspired each other. You wanted to come up every week with something worthwhile. We were all interested in what the other fellas were doing. Sometimes you would hear the whole score of a show before it opened. We ate it up, analysed it, as the composer played it over and over at the piano.

There was a kind of healthy competition among us. You would not dare to write a bad rhyme or a cliched tune. We had such great respect for each other’s work, and the integrity of our music and lyrics. The give and take added to the creative impulse. It was an incentive, it opened up new ideas, and made it necessary to keep working.

Sources: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now Barry Miles and Deena Rosenberg: Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration Of George And Ira Gershwin

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New Notts Music Explosion!

There are a whole new bunch of great Notts music coming out in the next few months, some of it from First Tuesday members, former pupils and collaborators.

Following up his excellent Aeon album Scor-Zay-Zee is releasing the Gangsta Wraps (Take The Throne) EP on Sep 30th.

Copper and Lace the debut album from Americana masters The Most Ugly Child is out on 25th Nov. Mountain Schmountain‘s second album Skate Chills is already out (check out the Dewey Decimal video).

Simon Curd (of Mou Schmou) did the artwork for my new EP and Mark Nelson mixed it. Mark’s band Amazing Planes have a single Good Thing out now from their forthcoming album Lost In Translation.

Joe Strange‘s long awaited album A History Of Birds should be out any day now as should the Garlic EP from Sea Monster Eyes

If you catch The Edi Johnston Bit performing live you’ll be able to get your hands on his ukelele-powered comedy hip hop EP Rock Paper Scissors right now. A digital release is coming soon is out now on Bandcamp!

Speaking of hip hop – the crazy/prolific Bru-C has a fantastic track called Marimba which he’s gonna make downloadable when it reaches 10k plays – which surely isn’t going to take long.

And last, but not least, my EP Everything In The World Is Fighting Everything In The Sky will be out Nov 1st. You heard it here first.


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While You Sleep The World Still Turns Without You

During the time you are unconscious planet Earth continues it’s rotational cycle independently of your will or observation. (So get over yourself).
M.C. Escher is my favourite MC.
Download     mp3 demo

Behind The Song

Written for FAWM 2011 as part of a challenge to write using the I-V-vi-IV chord progression, this was my second ever FAWM song. It cycles through all 12 keys (and then some) backwards through the circle of fifths. The progression is D – A/C# – Bm – G, then G – D/F# – Em – C etc.

The I-V-vi-IV and all variations thereof is the most overused chords sequence bar none, indeed shortly after writing this I banned my self from using it and have only used it 2 or 3 times in the last 6 years. But I had the idea to have the patterns overlap, with the last chord of the first progression become the first chord of the next progression. Or to put it another way, the IV chord of the first key becomes the I chord in the new key. Or to put it yet another way, to trick you into thinking you’re hearing a four chord pattern when it’s really a series of three chord pattern as follows

D A/C# Bm
G D/F# Em
C G/B Am
F C/E Dm
Bb F/A Gm
Eb Bb/D Cm
Ab Eb/G Fm
Db Ab/C Bbm
Gb Db/F Ebm
B F#/A# G#m
E B/D# C#m
A E/G# F#m

and back to

D A/C# Bm

For the lyrics I wanted something circular in nature. I started singing “life is like a wheel” but I came up with this and thought it was more meaningful

While You Sleep
The World
Still Turns

(repeat till drowsy)

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New Song: That Takes The Biscuit

We never stop to ask why we fight over crumbs
A musical meme-based morality is the new rock and roll
Download     mp3 demo     Chords (pdf)

This is probably the first song I’ve written that an internet meme set to music, but hey! You can find inspiration anywhere right? It was originally going to form the bridge section of Refugee With An iPhone, but as that song became more serious and personal it seemed to tonally out of place. So, soon after finishing that song, I wrote this tune based on the rising chord progression you find in Here, There And Everywhere, I’m Only Sleeping and Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone. At the end I kept stumbling over the words and adding random soundalikes in there and decided to MAKE IT A ‘THING’.

A banker and a worker and a refugee
All siting down for a cup of tea
A plate of jammy dodgers and custard creams
Occupies the table in between

The banker he starts grabbing bickies with both hands
Filling up his pockets as fast as he can
And when there’s just one biscuit left on the plate
Whispers to the worker “I should warn you mate,

Watch out the refugee is gonna steal your biscuit!
Watch out the refugee is gonna take what’s yours
Watch out the refugee is gonna steal your biscuit!
Somebody should pass a law

They say the economy is buckling under the strain
Too much pressure on the houses, the schools and the drains
The media fuels our anger and it keeps us dumb
So we never stop to ask why we fight over crumbs.
Do immigrants have such expensive diseases
That they brought the NHS to it’s knees? It’s
The politician’s plan but we don’t realise it
You can’t take your country back once they privatise it

Watch out the refugees are gonna steal your biscuits!
Watch out the refugees are gonna take what’s yours
Watch out the refugees are gonna steal your biscuits!
You know that’s what they came here for

Watch out, watch out, watch out, watch out etc

Watch out the refugee is gonna steal your biscuit!
Watch out the refugee is gonna steal your biscuit!
Watch out the refugee is gonna grease your trumpet!
Watch out the BBC is gonna screen your chick flick!
Watch out the novice priest is gonna heal your slipped disc!
Watch out cos Ce Lo Green is gonna need your drumkit!
Watch out the quick brew teabag will congeal your breakfast!
Watch out the SNP is gonna veto brexit!

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New Demo: Finger Puppet Man

He’s already wearing four
No big deal…
Download     mp3 demo     Chords (pdf)

Finger Puppet Man is obviously nothing more than a joke set to music. I wrote it during FAWM 2013 but the melody was naggingly familiar. I asked the FAWM community to help me identify it, and even though the only original lyrics I could remember were “dooby dooby dum dum”, eventually a fellow songwriter’s Dad recognised it as the theme song from the 1958 film Tom Thumb written by Peggy Lee and sung by Russ Tamblyn. So once I was definively rumbled I had to change it. It took 3 years but here it is.

The weird ‘backwards’ sound just before the vocals enter is my sweaty arm unpeeling itself from the front of the guitar twice (the guitar is double tracked). Gross. I know.

This song contains fingerpicking – which I hardly ever do (I hate the way many acoustic guitarists mindlessly fill up all available space with it) and the minor iv chord (Fm in the key of C) – which I mindlessly use ALL the time.

Musically the sweet melody with mumbly, whispery delivery reminds me of Nottingham band We Show Up On Radar (check em out)

Finger puppet man
Trying to choose the best 
puppet that he can
In the finger puppet store
But he’s not sure
So insecure

Finger puppet wife
Husband asks her if she thinks that it’s alright
He’s already wearing four
On his brightly coloured paw
But he puts on one more
And says,

“Does my thumb look big in this?
Does my thumb look big in this?
Does my thumb look big in this?”
And she says “No.
You look fine.
Can we go?”

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