The book wot I am writing and the pop star who lives in my house

One of my favourite anecdotes has Peter Cook asking a party guest what they’re up to.

“I’m writing a book,” says the guest.

“Ah,” says Cook. “Neither am I”.

Which is brilliantly witty, because most people who say they’re writing a book aren’t really. Or if they are, it never gets published, or they never finish it. I know, because I’ve been there, not done that.

Well, now I am writing a book, and this time I have to finish it, because it’s commissioned, and scheduled for publication. Although it might appear as an iTunes app, because that’s where the action is these days. Don’t ask, because, no, I don’t understand either.

The book is a guide to making a living in today’s music industry, which brings me to….

The pop star who lives in my house, for whom it’s been a momentous fortnight.

Not that she realises it.

She’s become a fully signed-up songwriter member of PRS, the agency that collects money for songwriters and music publishers from broadcast and live performance.

And we’ve registered eight songs as her sole work (which they are; just saying), and the registrations have been accepted and confirmed. Those are eight giant steps to being taken seriously as a professional songwriter.

You’d have thought she’d be jumping for joy, but she’s not that impressed.

Seventeen-year-olds, eh?

Anyway, the pop star who lives in my house – we’ll call her Grace, ‘cos that’s her name – is entering a very different music industry to the one I encountered at first hand for 20 years from 1967 on.

For a start, she has to learn to deal with instant reaction in the online world: “Dull”. “Voice lacks originality”. “Looks Forced”.  “First Line Soooo Cliche and Cringey”. These are verbatim YouTube comments about her.

I remember taking my music to A&R men at record companies. I developed a sixth sense for those not paying attention. I’d rather they’d stopped the tape and said, “Rubbish”. But face to face, people are not so keen on confrontation.

In the digital world, they’re on you like lions on a wildebeest.

In the book wot I’m writing, social media looms large and Grace has to learn to deal with that.

You won’t want to believe this, but it’s true. Radio One looks at social media stats when it’s preparing the week’s Playlist. Record companies are unlikely to pay any attention unless you’re a) huge live, or b) have thousands of Facebook ‘Friends’ and followers on Twitter.

At the moment, Grace works alone. The YouTube comments I quote above are about a song she wrote when she was fourteen. Of course it’s cliched, kwaku Mason (whoever you are, with your ridiculously lower cased first name. What have you done lately?).

On his YT channel, kwaku has posted a song by Tiana Major which he says “jams” (that’s ‘jolly good’ to you and me). But Tiana Major has had 2,349 views in two months. Grace’s “dull and cliched” song has had 6,631 views in under two weeks. Which of the two do you think a record company is likely to take more interest in? Tiana has had 100 “likes”. Grace has had 196.

Not that I’m being protective of the pop star who lives in my house. In the world she’s about to inhabit, 6,660 views and 196 likes don’t even count as chicken feed. One video alone for Lorde’s Royals has had 338,905,434 views. In case you think you didn’t read that right, that’s three hundred and thirty nine MILLION views, give or take.

If you look at the lyrics to Lorde’s song, it’s really impressive to think that a 16-year-old wrote it. It’s not incredibly profound but it is interesting.

Thing is, almost as soon as she was signed, Lorde was ‘paired’ with Joel Little, a Grammy-award winning songwriter and producer. So she didn’t, as such, write it – not alone.

Collaboration is the byword today. No-one is going to sign Grace Carter and start releasing her solo efforts. What they will do is get her to collaborate with more experienced writers, who can look at her primitive efforts, and then start helping her to make them more interesting, more sophisticated. The way Guy Chambers did with Robbie Williams.

And when her first single is released, no-one is going to say, “Dull” or “Cliched”, because – although she hasn’t yet found a surefire way to channel it – she has an interesting take on the world, proper angst-filled reasons for the way she feels and a natural way of performing. This is what she was born to.

And her future development will be nurtured and overseen in ways that never existed when I was 30, let alone 17.

People say to me, “Oh, it must be great for her to have you around, with all your experience”. So let me tell you how much help I’ve been. When I first met her, she was full of X Factor shit – “it’s my dream”; it’s all I’ve ever wanted”. That’s what Simon Cowell’s taught today’s thirteen-year-olds.

So I called her bluff. I bought her a (very cheap) guitar. I taught her a bunch of chords. And then I said, “Go and write a song”.

Now unless you’re someone who thinks they can write a song (and Grace didn’t), that’s a really daunting instruction. I told her how to get started. Most of all I said, “Don’t go writing love songs. You’ve never been in love”. Six months later, aged 14, she stood on a stage in front of 500 people and played and sang three of her own songs.

And that’s the kind of thing that sorts out the wheat from the chaff.

I’ve been a bit of a help here and there since then. But the most significant thing I’ve done for her lately is sign her up to PRS and register her songs. In other words, her bloody secretary.

Anyway, see for yourself. Sixteen when she did this; 17 when they put it up on SB.TV.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the pop star who lives in my house.

And, apologies to disappointed readers last week for whom the WordPress audio player wouldn’t bloody work, eh WordPress? Wotcha gonna do about that? Here’s a YouTube link to Misstra Know-It-All.

Messing with Stevie Wonder, being forgetful about ABBA

Is it possible that the second biggest-selling pop act of all time was inspired by a quite well-known Liverpool group?

We can’t be expected to remember everything in life, and certainly this, recounted to me recently by Arrival’s Frank Collins, rings only the faintest of bells.

Frank remembers being told that ABBA were big fans of Arrival. I really don’t remember.

But can it just be coincidence that Arrival’s first album was called Arrival and pictures the group exiting a helicopter…..

….and that six years later, ABBA released their fourth album, also titled Arrival, and pictures the group in a —– helicopter? If you’re reading this, Benny, Björn, Agnetha or Frida, do get in touch and let us know. (Oh come on, don’t be ridiculous!).

All this Arrival talk sent me to Amazon to have a poke around, and I was amazed to find a double CD by Arrival.

Even more amazing was to find a track I had produced which proved to be Arrival’s last single, a track I have avoided listening to it since its release. Shall I tell you why?

Down the pub one night, celebrating the success of something or other at CBS I was cornered by Steve Colyer, mucker-in-chief to David Essex, and a guy I generally avoided.

“So,” he said. “This record you’ve made with Arrival.” He left a silence, which I thought was going to be filled with a simple, “It’s never gonna get played on the radio” (he was head of promotion).

But that wasn’t what he wanted to tell me. It was much worse than that. Looking me straight in the eye, and never wavering, he said: “I tell you something. If I was Arrival I’d be really pissed off at you for putting my name on a piece of shit like that. Call yourself a producer?” At which point, he picked up his pint, stood and left. Job done.

The record never did get played (Steve Colyer would never have promoted a record he personally thought was “a piece of shit”, even though that was what he was paid to do). A few years later, I might have flattened him. But in 1973, I was all ‘peace and love’, so I just sat there stricken with embarrassment.

I never listened to the record again.

Until today. But that’s getting ahead of myself. Let’s roll back a few decades.

By 1973, Stevie Wonder was on a roll that didn’t really end until The Secret Life Of Plants in 1979. Mind you, most artists wouldn’t have minded being on a roll that ended on such a high – Plants may have been a commercial (and critical) failure by Stevie’s standards, but my goodness it was wonderful.

But back in 1973, he released Innervisions which contained Misstra Know-It-All, an only slightly-veiled attack on US President Richard Nixon. I knew at once that this was a song I should record with Kokomo, even though it would have to be released under the Arrival name.

Arrival – as I explained a few posts back – were at the end of their tether.  They had recently been more or less forced to record You’re Going Far, a totally anodyne theme from the movie The Heartbreak Kid. Having seen them live as part of their new band, Kokomo, I hatched an idea to get the whole of Kokomo in the studio to record Misstra Know It All. That, I thought, might make CBS sit up and take notice.

Well, that didn’t work, did it!

Recently, I’ve been in touch by phone with Frank Collins and Tony O’Malley of Arrival/Kokomo. I’ve also been to see them live, at the revived Crawdaddy Club in Richmond. That was a wonderful experience, I can tell you. If you see Kokomo or Tony O’Malley coming to a venue near you anytime soon, grab a ticket. You will dance your socks off.

So, back at Amazon I ordered the Arrival double CD. It arrived today, and guess what? Steve Colyer was wrong. Misstra Know-It-All‘s not shit at all. Someone on YouTube thinks it’s “the best Stevie Wonder cover ever”. 4,774 people have viewed the YT post, and although only 13 have commented, there isn’t one dissenter. They all love it. It’s got 35 ‘likes’, but more importantly, no ‘dislikes’.

Just to make sure I wasn’t kidding myself, I phoned Frank Collins. His recollection is that we all did a pretty decent job, except that Dyan Birch hated doing the growly B-b-b-ber-ber-ber-ber-ber bit (a Stevie Wonder speciality). But since that now seems to have disappeared with an early fade, I think we can all rest easy that we didn’t make a piece of shit.

And while I’m on the subject of all things Arrival and Kokomo, if you’re a fan of The Band, and of roots rock in general, I will point you most enthusiastically at The Grease Band, whose first album was a thing of exceptional beauty. Kokomo’s Alan Spenner and Neil Hubbard were half of The Grease Band.

So here’s the last Arrival single, which also happens to be the first Kokomo recording.

He’s Misstra Know-It-All, Arrival

And here’s The Grease Band playing live in 1971. The great Alan Spenner on bass is the one with the Wolfman chops. Neil Hubbard, still playing with Kokomo, is playing the black Gibson. Henry McCullough – known, among other things, for the beautiful guitar solo on Paul McCartney’s My Love – is lead vocal and guitar. And then there’s Bruce Rowland, surely the funkiest drummer Britain has ever produced. Chris Stainton is on piano here.